City Council’s Public Service Committee has recommended that council grant itself, as well as other city commissions and boards, the authority to subpoena witnesses.
During the Jan. 26 committee meeting, Ward 1 Councilman and committee Chairman Rob James said law Director Abe Lieberman recommended council consider giving municipal bodies the authority to subpoena witnesses to speak before them or provide them with information. The city recently lost a court appeal of a planning commission decision regarding the orientation of a house on a corner lot because the court found the commission did not provide enough expert testimony to argue its side.
In an interview, Lieberman said these subpoenas would act in the same way as used by courts or even the U.S. Congress. If the council, commission or board needed a witness, but that person was reluctant to cooperate, the subpoena would make them appear. The planning commission and the Zoning Board of Appeals are both quasi-judicial bodies, he said, so it makes sense for those bodies to be able to subpoena witnesses.
Though he didn’t know if it was the norm for municipal legislative bodies to have the powers of subpoena, he said he suspected City Council wouldn’t use it often.
“I doubt very much they would use it very much, if ever,” he said. “It would be there in case they ever needed it.”
The ability to use subpoenas would most likely be used by adjuratory boards, like the planning commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, James said, but it could conceivably apply to other boards and commissions in the city.
The court said if the city wanted to rely on transcripts from the planning commission as evidence, Lieberman told the committee, it must be an accurate transcript. To have witnesses appearing before the commission, he said, the commission would need to subpoena them and their documents. In his preparation of the ordinance for planning commission, he said, James recommended broadening it to include City Council and the other city boards and commissions as well as the Avon Lake Board of Municipal Utilities.
“Council could exercise this to investigate issues in the city,” James said. “Its committees would also have this authority and compel the attendance of witnesses.”
Ward 2 Councilwoman Jennifer Fenderbosch pointed out that at times there are people who speak authoritatively at council meetings and, if the council needed to, it could compel them to provide the documentation and testimony under oath as evidence backing their statements.
“As a recipient of a lot of gray information, I would welcome this change in our ordinance,” Councilman at Large John Shondel said. “If we get to serious investigations, I hope to have very official evidence brought into play rather than just something anecdotal and hearsay. I’m very much in favor of it.”
As council moves forward with this, council President Marty O’Donnell said he thinks council would need to set up guidelines for the most effective use of subpoenas as well as when not to use them. Having these parameters to consult would help make sure the power to subpoena people isn’t abused.
“I don’t think you need to use it very often,” he said. “There needs to be good grounds on why you’re using it so you don’t abuse it.”