ASHLAND — The Ashland County Land Reutilization Corporation, commonly referred to as the land bank, in March bought a property owned by Denny Bittle, a county commissioner and land bank board member.
The land bank purchased the property at 287 W. Main St. for $46,000, the same amount Bittle paid for it in 2016, according to county real estate records. The vacant house was located at the intersection of Main and Broad streets before it was demolished by Bartley and Bolin Inc. in late May.
Bittle said he recused himself from voting on the land bank’s acquisition and excused himself from discussions leading up to the decision, but that assertion is not verifiable and some are critical of the transaction.
The purchase was not made at a public meeting.
“This was potentially an ethical violation,” said Ashland County Prosecutor Chris Tunnell.
He pointed to a section of the Ohio Revised Code, which states “no public official shall … have an interest in the profits or benefits of a public contract entered into by or for the use of the municipality or governmental agency or instrumentality with which the public official is connected.”
Paul Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said in an email “the law prohibits an official from selling goods or services to the entity they serve unless they can meet a four-part exemption.”
One of those exemptions includes conducting the transaction “at arm’s length.” In other words, public officials must have no part in the deliberations or the decision of a transaction that involves the sale of goods, such as a house.
Bittle said he did that, but the land bank’s board did not have a public meeting for the vote, according to Bill Harvey, the land bank’s director.
An email thread, obtained by Ashland Source, shows a message originating from Harvey’s email address on Feb. 16.
“I’m thinking the land bank does not need to meet this Friday,” Harvey wrote, adding ongoing projects are progressing and that there are no new properties coming their way.
“The only thing I might need direction on would be the purchase of the house at Broad and Main that we’d like to take down so the Corner Park can expand,” he wrote.
“I’m still waiting to hear from the state, but I don’t believe we will be able to use the new demo monies to acquire the house. So, if we want to move forward with that project, we would need to purchase it with funds currently in the land bank treasury (which has sufficient capacity to do so), then we could use the state demo funds to take it down. What are your thoughts? Let me know if anyone disagrees and thinks we really need to meet.”
Harvey sent the email to all of the land bank’s members, including Bittle — who did not respond to the thread. The first person to respond was Ashland Mayor Matt Miller, the board’s president.
“I am okay with not having a meeting on Friday,” Miller wrote. “I also think we should move forward with the purchase of the property on the corner of Broad and Main, and use our funds to do so.
“I think we need to move forward with this purchase ASAP, so it doesn’t hold up the redevelopment project (a.k.a. Center Run Trail Project).”
Board members Jeff Reep, Bill Stepp and Ann Wurster agreed with Miller in the email thread. No other board member responded to the email thread.
The sale of Bittle’s property, under KLM Development Inc., was recorded on March 9, real estate records show.
The purchase was never recorded in minutes from subsequent land bank meetings, something Bart Hamilton, the man behind the Richland County Land Bank, said is problematic.
“Thats a problem,” he said. “You need to have a meeting. You need to vote. You make a motion to acquire the property. I think that’s a problem — you need to have public meetings.”
Harvey said the reason the land bank bought the property is because the entity was able to use grant money to demolish the building in order to make room for the expansion of Corner Park, as part of the overall Center Run Trail Project.
The Center Run Trail Project can be understood by breaking it into two parts, the east and west side.
The west side is being tackled by the county commissioners and involves the county-owned parking lot along Main Street.
The east side comprises Cleveland Avenue, Main and Miller streets at Bicentennial Park next to Dairy Queen. That part of the project is being tackled by the City of Ashland.
The city began planning for the Center Run Trail Project in earnest in 2019. Demolitions of homes on the east side of the project, along Cleveland Avenue, Main and Miller streets, started in 2020.
The project, on the west side, picked up momentum when in November the county commissioners gave the green light to spend $57,628 to install a new sidewalk, curbs, lights and tables for chess and checkers.
In order for Ashland County to proceed with its part of the project, however, Bittle’s house needed to be demolished — because a significant part of the project includes reconfiguring the county’s existing parking lot.
Bittle’s former house was razed May 23 by Bartley & Bolin Inc. for $16,367, according to Miller.
Bartley & Bolin was only one of two bids the land bank expected, the other being from Simonson Construction, Harvey said. Simonson, however, never submitted a bid proposal and the firm did not respond to a request for comment.
The demolition is expected to be covered by a state grant available to Ohio land banks for up to $500,000, dubbed the Building Demolition and Site Revitalization Program. The land bank has applied for those funds to cover several demolitions, but the status of that application is unclear.
It’s also unclear whether the grant will actually cover the demolition cost of 287 West Main St. through a reimbursement, Miller said.
“We didn’t wait (to demolish it) because the county had contractors lined up to complete (Corner Park) … so we couldn’t afford to wait any longer,” he said.
‘We gotta buy this house’
Bittle founded KLM Development Inc. as a holding company for various properties in the 1990s. The company was incorporated in April 1994, according to Ohio business filings.
Two months later, the company purchased two buildings along Claremont Avenue, both for $165,000. One of them is known as BB&C Car Care, which is still in operation today.
The other, located next door to the car repair shop, served as KLM’s office until Ashland University bought it in December 2010 for $725,000 to use it as its “Student Accessibility Center.”
In 2016, two years into Bittle’s first term as county commissioner, a man approached Bittle about 287 West Main St., which according to real estate records, was owned by Florine Varner.
Varner, of Ashland, bought the house for $93,250 in 1996. She died July 2006 at the age of 90. Her obituary states she served as president of Florine I. Varner and Associates, Inc, a court reporting service. She also served on a number of boards for local chapters of organizations, such as Public Employee Retirees Inc.
When she died, her nephew, Gerald Varner, of Delaware, served as trustee of her estate. Bittle said the man told him his aunt wanted the building to belong to Ashland County and offered it up for sale for $46,000.
“It was on the tax card for $90,000. So I said, ‘Barb, we gotta buy this house,’ ” Bittle said, referring to Barb Queer, who served alongside Bittle as a commissioner at the time.
He said he foresaw the county needing the property down the road.
“My commitment to this county was I knew at some point — at some point — that the county is going to need that house, for just this type of project, you know?” he said, referring to the Center Run Trail Project.
Bittle’s idea of buying that house was not received well.
Queer, who served as a commissioner from 2008 to 2017, said county commissioners were in the middle of downsizing county-owned real estate.
“We were in financial straits in 2009 and 2010. We were getting rid of unnecessary real estate,” she said. “I could not think of any use the house would be to the county. We didn’t need to extend the parking lot, we had plenty of parking.
“I just felt it was an unnecessary expense and taking it off the tax rolls? No.”
So Bittle bought it under his business, KLM Development Inc.
“I told the gentleman: ‘If you sell it to me for ($46,000), I will commit to selling it to the county for $46,000 whenever they need it. That was back in 2016,” he said.
Gerald Varner did not respond to a request for comment, but apparently he agreed to the offer. Bittle’s KLM Development Inc. bought the property in October 2016 for $46,000.
Shortly after buying it, Bittle tried convincing county department heads to move into the space. One of them was Tunnell’s prosecutor’s office.
“I got out of my car one day and saw him in the parking lot. He said he bought it and it might make for office space,” Tunnell said of the interaction.
The prosecutor said Bittle lent him the house’s keys so he could walk through it at some point to see for himself.
Tunnell said he and another co-worker walked through the house but said it needed “a lot of work.”
“It had fewer offices than we have currently. You walk in and it’s got one separate private office downstairs and bedrooms upstairs. We had more people than it had doors,” he said.
Under his ownership, Bittle said he put a new roof on it, remodeled the inside and rented it to a business. At one point, he offered the space to the Ashland County Republican Party so the group could set up a headquarters inside during the 2020 presidential election.
“We needed a spot,” Tunnell said, who also serves as the executive committee’s chair. “(Bittle) donated its use to the county party. It was, you know, passing out signs, stickers and propaganda and what-have-you in support of candidates.”
Tunnell said he doesn’t recall any money going to Bittle for the party’s use of the house during that time.
Bittle said he received offers on the building since owning it.
“Two months after I bought it, somebody offered me $90,000 for it. And I was offered like $110,000 a year ago for it.”
Nick, the executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said Bittle likely called the ethics commission at some point to inquire about the sale of the house because on Aug.6, 2019, Bittle received an email from an ethics commission advisory attorney.
The email, written by advisory attorney Karen King, pointed to applicable laws and an informational sheet produced by the ethics commission.
The informational sheet states transactions like Bittle’s are prohibited. The transaction is allowed only if a public official meets four exemptions as outlined by state law.
• The goods or services are necessary goods or services. In other words, the agency can demonstrate that it needs the goods or services the official will provide.
• Either the goods or services are part of a continuing course of dealing or they are unobtainable elsewhere for the same or lower cost.
• The treatment that the official provides to the agency is the same as, or better than, the treatment that the official provides to other customers or clients in similar transactions. In other words, the official must treat the agency the same as, or better than, he or she treats the other customers or clients of that business.
• The transaction is conducted at arm’s length, the agency has full knowledge of the official’s interest in the sale of goods or services, and the official has taken no part in the deliberations or decision with respect to the transaction. The official must first show that he or she did not use the unique access as an agency employee to secure the contract. Then the official must show that he or she has fully informed the agency of the official’s interest in the transaction. Finally, the official must show that he or she was not involved in any discussions, decisions, or votes about the contract.
King also attached an advisory opinion the office issued about a similar situation involving a Florence Township trustee. In that 2017 situation, the trustee owned property that the township needed in order to build a new fire department.
However, instead of selling the property to the township, the trustee offered it as a donation. The donation prompted this question from the person who asked for an advisory opinion: “Can (the trustee) donate the property owned by his company … to the township?”
The answer provided by the ethics commission, at the time, was “Yes, provided that, as you stated, he will not receive any financial benefit for the property or as a result to the donation.”
When asked about his interaction with the Ohio Ethics Commission, Bittle said he couldn’t remember it.
This sale did not result in a profit for Bittle. So why not donate it?
When asked, Bittle laughed and paused before he gave his answer.
“Well, for one thing, it’s a financial hit, obviously — $45,000 is a big thing,” Bittle said, declining to offer additional comment.
Was he in the wrong?
The answer depends on who is asked.
Harvey, the land bank’s director, said the sale was a “nice gesture” on Bittle’s part.
“He bought it with the idea of helping the county out at some point,” Harvey said. “Once interest came up for Corner Park, it was a nice gesture on his part to offer it. We felt it had to have no appearance of a conflict of interest.”
Miller, Ashland’s mayor who also serves as president of the land bank’s board, said the sale — although it put the commissioners in an “awkward position” — was done above board.
“During the entire process, (Bittle) was asked to leave the room during those board meetings,” Miller said. “There isn’t anything ugly about that situation — nothing devious about it.”
Nevertheless, “It doesn’t feel like it’s right,” said Ashland County Treasurer Angie McQuillen.
Ashland County Board of Commissioners President Jim Justice said the whole thing “seemed odd” to him.
“I didn’t know it was legal, but they said it was legal,” Justice said, referencing members of the land bank.