Small renovation becomes big potential liability for Deerfield Township, officials say

Deerfield Township trustees meet in July 2022. Pictured on the dais from left to right: Nancy Cowan, assistant fiscal officer; Kristi Elliott, fiscal officer; Tiffany Havens, trustee; Charles “Ed” Dean, trustee; Mark Bann, trustee; and Vaughn Sutcliffe, fire chief. Max Swartout/The Portager

One current and one former Deerfield Township trustee say one of their colleagues violated Ohio’s Sunshine Laws by changing the terms of a building restoration contract without their knowledge, a decision that could become a liability with the state auditor’s office.

Trustee Ed Dean and former Trustee Mark Bann said Trustee Tiffany Havens did not seek approval from the board of trustees before advising Plotnik Construction to install a drywall ceiling in Deerfield’s old town hall instead of the tongue and groove ceiling the contract specified. The contract also called for the contractor to install six high-efficiency light fixtures and two ceiling fans.

Havens defended the decision, saying she acted in the township’s best interest.

Approving drywall was “a reasonable change to stay in budget” and within the Nov. 30 deadline the contract had stipulated, she said. Since contractors’ quotes are only good for so long, time was running out, she added. And, in a Jan. 23 email to The Portager, Havens said the contractor had also painted the building’s interior walls at no charge.

Ohio’s laws on open meetings stipulate that public officials, including township trustees, may only meet and make decisions in public session. Trustees approved the old town hall renovation contract at their Oct. 23 meeting.

Reached by phone on Jan. 24, a man at Plotnik Construction who identified himself only as Paul confirmed that Havens had directed him to install a drywall ceiling. Both he and Havens say she had spoken with Dean about it, but Dean told The Portager that that conversation never happened.

Even if it had, though, the contract could only have been changed during an open meeting, Dean said, adding that he never would have agreed to a drywall ceiling.

Drywall, say Dean and Bann, is not only less expensive than tongue and groove, it’s not appropriate to install in a historical building such as the old town hall. Joe Tokarsky, a historic preservationist and owner of Compass Preservation in Kent, said tongue and groove, not drywall, would be preferred material if the plaster ceiling was not being restored. Any historic preservationist would say to keep it to its original character, he advised.

“Somewhere along the line, [Havens] took it upon herself to make the decision to have it drywalled,” Bann said. “I never approved the switch or change.”

It’s simple, said Bann and Dean. A single trustee cannot take it upon him or herself to change a decision only the board of trustees is authorized to make. That’s a violation of the state’s Sunshine Laws, which require public officials to transact all business in meetings that are open to the public.

Newly seated Trustee Laura Lindberg defended the contractor’s installation of drywall and said what’s done is done. She also asserted that since some of the work was done with NOPEC grant money that the utility aggregator routinely provides to help local communities fund energy infrastructure projects, it had to be used by the end of November or the township would lose it. Dean said that was wrong: The funds had to be contracted for a project by a certain date, not necessarily used.

Dean and Bann also have reservations about the price Plotnik Construction charged for the ceiling drywall. Dean said the contractor had charged the township for three-quarter-inch drywall, but had installed five-eighths-inch sheets.

According to the home improvement and contractor supply store Lowe’s, the thinner five-eighths-inch sheets, for which it charges less than $14, are recommended for public buildings.

“He charged us $40 a sheet for drywall, and it’s available anywhere for less than $20, no matter what size,” Dean said.

The Plotnik Construction representative hung up on The Portager before a reporter could ask a question about drywall thickness and prices. He did not respond to repeated attempts to contact him again.

Lindberg said Plotnik Construction wasn’t price gouging the township and urged her fellow trustees to pay the bill.

“I don’t want to see any contractor not get paid,” she said.

With Dean objecting, Havens and Lindberg on Jan. 22 agreed to pay Plotnik Construction $11,080 for the ceiling, 15 ceiling beams, six lights and two ceiling fans. (The firm’s Sept. 25, 2023, invoice was for $11,800, a figure even Dean dismissed as an error that was corrected to the lesser figure on a Nov. 15, 2023, reissue.)

Potential fiscal liability

Exactly who to pay remains in question. 

Fiscal Officer Kristy Elliott said she asked Plotnik Construction on Jan. 25 for a W-9, which would have the company’s name, address, employer identification number, business type, and tax ID number. Without this information, she said, she cannot pay anyone. 

As of Jan. 30, Elliott said she is still waiting for the information.

Elliott also told The Portager that she has reached out to the state auditor’s office over liability concerns. She questioned whether she could legally issue a check for work that was approved at a public meeting but was not completed as directed during that meeting, and that no price adjustment was made for the drywall ceiling that was installed.

The state auditor referred Elliott to the Portage County Prosecutor’s Office and advised her to note that response in township minutes, she said.

Elliott said on Jan. 30 that she has not heard from the county prosecutor. Without a written response from that office, she said she could end up in hot water.

“I could be liable if I write a check incorrectly, being a fiscal officer,” she said. “A tongue and groove ceiling was approved in a public meeting, and we got a drywall ceiling, so the work that was approved at a public meeting was not completed. A decision made outside of a public meeting is not valid.”

Plotnik Construction’s invoice indicates that it shares a phone number and address with Natalya’s Custom Services of Hartville. An internet search indicates that Paul Lowky is the principal of Plotnik Construction and Natalya Lowky is the principal of Natalya’s Custom Services.

Old town hall repairs

Knowing the building needed foundation work, new lighting and a new ceiling, trustees Bann, Dean and Havens last year approved just shy of $12,000 for Plotnik Construction to do the ceiling work.

Bann said he only agreed to a tongue and groove ceiling because, with a background in construction, he knew that such a ceiling would move with the building when the foundation work could be done.

Dean told The Portager on Jan. 22 that he’d erred to approve ceiling work ahead of foundation work, but said he was tired of hearing Havens go on about how the Deerfield Historical Society, which has its headquarters in the old town hall, needed back into the building it had been ordered to vacate until at least some of the work was complete.

“I was wrong,” he said. “I never should have agreed to that.”

But he did, and on Dec. 11, Dean said he walked into the old town hall to find Plotnik Construction’s team installing a drywall ceiling. The contractor was also attaching 15 boards to the ceiling, staining them to look like beams, Dean said.

Contractor relationships

At the regularly scheduled trustee meeting later that day, Dean asked Havens what happened to the tongue and groove concept. As he listened to her reasoning, he said he knew things weren’t right. Bann did not attend that meeting.

Then he learned that Havens knew the contractor: She’d hired them to work at her own residence, Dean said. In her email to The Portager, Havens denied being friends with the contractor and said she knew from her client-contractor relationship with him that Plotnik Construction is experienced in working with older structures.

She wrote that she’d sought quotes from other companies, but ultimately chose the one she knew. (County Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci said the town hall project did not need to be put out for public bid because the costs fell below the $75,000 threshold.)

Bann and Dean are also concerned that Havens and Lindberg met with Dave Saltzman of Detect Alarm Systems on Jan. 19. The meeting also violates Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, they say. 

Saltzman had installed security cameras at the township’s new town hall and fire station a few years ago. 

During their Jan. 19 conversation with Saltzman, Havens and Lindberg allegedly discussed logistics associated with accessing the camera feed at any time from their personal cell phones. At the regularly scheduled Jan. 22 trustee meeting, some audience members objected, voicing concerns about a certain right to privacy volunteer fire department members might expect.

Havens countered that she would be within her legal rights to access the video feed whenever she wants.

“Security is important, and having a security system that cannot be accessed is not useful,” Havens wrote in her email. “Our part-time employee is the only one who can view footage.”

Havens said she had invited Lindberg to join her at the fire station to learn how the new security system works and had shown her how to get into the township’s current town hall, as well.

Government watchdog Brian Ames, who has filed and won dozens of Sunshine Law violation actions against multiple local entities, said he intends to file two against Deerfield Township: one for the ceiling issue at the old town hall and one for the meeting at the fire station. He said he will file the actions in Portage County Common Pleas Court, and will, as he has done and won before, pursue the matter to the Ohio Supreme Court.

“People got to know what’s going on,” he said.

Ames is running for Portage County Clerk of Courts. He will face incumbent Clerk of Courts Jill Fankhauser in the November general election.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.