HUDSON, Ohio (WJW) – A Hudson city councilwoman has taken legal action after the city council publicly scolded her in what’s called a censure.
Councilwoman Nicole Kowalski filed a lawsuit in Summit County Common Pleas Court. She is fighting city council’s Dec. 6 decision to censure her and is asking a judge to overturn council’s action.
A spokeswoman for the City of Hudson said the city “cannot comment on cases that currently are in litigation.”
“I intend on fighting this censure,” Kowalski said in a written statement emailed to the I-Team. “I will not sit back and accept this wrongful censure knowing it is simply an attempt at making me fall in line, to intimidate me into silence, to prevent me from dissenting when I believe it is my duty to do so. I will not allow this to become the norm.“
The motion to censure was brought forward by Council President Chris Foster and approved by council on Dec. 6.
It states Kowalski was censured for “activity that represents wrongdoing by a public official by not informing council of her intent related to legislative activity, misappropriation of funds for political purposes and for attempting to bind council as a body by trying to bring this prosecutorial item beyond the bounds of her authority as a councilmember. “
The censure deals with legislation Kowalski introduced on changing the city’s campaign finance law.
She also asked the city law director if criminal charges will be filed against a person who allegedly violated Hudson’s campaign finance ordinance. Hudson’s ordinance limits the amount an individual can donate to a council member’s campaign to $100.
Foster declined to talk to us about the matter.
During the Dec. 6 meeting, Foster stated that a resident sent to council a request to look at a possible campaign finance violation in October of last year. The alleged violation was made by a person running against Kowalski.
“Under most circumstances, we would ask our prosecutor if the city was interested in prosecuting this kind of issue, respond to the resident and move on to other issues of business,” Foster said during the meeting. “Ms. Kowalski took a different route.”
Foster said the city prosecutor chose not to file charges and asked an independent prosecutor to review the matter.
The independent prosecutor also declined to prosecute, Foster said. He stated those decisions were made in the early part of 2022.
“In reviewing legal billing, it has come to my attention that on July 19, 2022, Ms. Kowalski was again privately contacting our new legal counsel and raising the constitutionality of prosecution of campaign finance law,” Foster further stated during the Dec. 6 meeting. “She even requested the issues be referred to an outside prosecution for a new opinion. I don’t know what else could have been reviewed since on March 18, 2021, there have already been a legal opinion 6 pages in length written by Todd Hunt on campaign finance ordinances as well as a 4-page further opinion on March 4, 2022 by Todd Hunt as well. That on top of an independent prosecutor’s opinion in February of 2022. How many opinions do you need until somebody agrees with yours or until you understand you are on the wrong side of this issue?”
Foster added that Kowalski was also told in the spring that the statue of limitations had passed, and the case, a minor misdemeanor, could no longer be prosecuted. He further stated thousands of taxpayer dollars were used for legal bills on the issue.
“We are here to help. We are not tasked in using city resources to attack a political adversary,” Foster said.
Kowalski and her attorneys disagree with Foster.
“Hudson City Council exceeded its authority by censuring Councilor Kowalski without any cause to do so during council’s regularly scheduled meeting on December 6, 2022,” said Atty. Hilary DeSaussure, who, along with Atty. Matthew Duncan, is representing Kowalski. “Hudson’s City Charter does not provide a mechanism for censuring city councilmembers. Councilor Kowalski was entitled to notice of the censure and was entitled to present evidence and witnesses on her behalf. Council also violated Ohio’s Open Meetings Act by considering records during a recess outside of public view before voting to censure Councilor Kowalski. Due process and the Open Meetings Act cannot be violated or avoided by a majority vote, and Councilor Kowalski’s recently filed appeal of the censure seeks to ensure that both are respected and protected. On appeal, the evidence will establish that Councilor Kowalski committed no wrongdoing, and that Hudson City Council wrongfully censured her on Dec. 6.”
Kowalski says she believes the censure is in retaliation for being a “dissenting voice on many issues.” She says she doesn’t agree with the city’s campaign finance law, and she tried to legally change it.
“This $100/person cap on donations makes it very difficult for a regular person to raise the money necessary to run a competitive campaign,” Kowalski said. “This seriously limits those who can run to either those who can self-finance or those who have a lot of fundraising savvy or political experience. I see this as a voting rights issue at the local level, and solving antiquated problems like this protects democracy. During my time on council, I brought forward two pieces of legislation to address this issue – one which would have reformed the ordinance, another which would have repealed it altogether. Both times I brought legislation forward, I did so in a lawful manner, with appropriate notice in compliance with our charter and the council rules.”
She added that she believes council violated the principles of fair process by not allowing her time to prepare or present evidence in her defense.
“I believe the solution to everything is sunshine,” Kowalski said. “A quick review of all of the correspondence related to the legislation I brought forward illustrates my intent. All correspondence related to the current enforcement of the ordinance was solely related to the creation of the legislation and to maintaining research that could impact future legislation. It was not politically motivated on my part as has been alleged, and a review of all correspondence makes that very clear. Council has skewed the process in its favor by attempting to waive attorney client privilege “partially” so as to cherry pick certain portions of emails that suit their narrative, while withholding the remainder of those emails and other related emails which would undermine the basis of the censure. As a result, I have been forced to file this action to overturn the censure and to bring to light the conduct of members of Hudson City Council.”
Kowalski says she believes Foster’s “continued targeting” of her is about “settling some personal score.” She noted that during council’s Dec. 28 meeting, where several residents came to speak on her behalf and voice their displeasure against the censure, Foster continued to attack her character.
“It was truly a shocking piece of political theatre,” Kowalski said.
Hudson officials have 28 days to respond to the lawsuit.
The judge will set a hearing date after the city responds.