The violation occurred in 2019 before Donnell stepped down from the commission in September of that year. Donnell signed a settlement agreement with the ethics commission in July 2021 acknowledging he violated the law.
Reached by phone, Donnell said he never knowingly would have broken any laws, and every action he took was with full knowledge of other board members and the village solicitor. He said he didn’t know there was an issue until the ethics probe started a year after he left the board.
“It never crossed the line in my mind,” he said. “Obviously by strict interpretation, that ethics violation was there.”
Yellow Springs case
Donnell is a private architect and owner of the firm Axis Architecture, according to the settlement agreement. In February 2019 a matter involving a property owner that hired him went before the planning commission.
Donnell recused himself and joined the public section of the meeting and said he was representing the owners. He proceeded to answer questions presented by other planning commission members, on behalf of the owners. He sat in the audience during deliberation and voting.
“When the planning commission and village solicitor began discussing putting the matter, condition by condition, to vote and the proper procedure in doing so, Donnell can be heard from the audience, advising the planning commission on proper procedures of voting, which resulted in votes favorable to his client,” the settlement says.
Planning commission minutes say Donnell was the architect for former Millworks owners Jessica Yamamoto and Antonio Molina, who planned to turn the business park into a hostel and artist space.
The project fell through and Yamamoto and Molina eventually sold Millworks for $1.5 million in March 2021 to APR Investments, a local real estate firm.
Millworks houses the Yellow Springs Brewery and Tuck-N-Reds micro distillery. It’s located at 305 N. Walnut St. In Yellow Springs.
The ethics commission found Donnell violated the law by representing the property owners before a board he sat on, and not filing a required ethics statement.
The commission noted, as mitigating factors, that the village solicitor was present at the meeting and didn’t advise Donnell or the commission of a potential violation. It further notes that he was cooperative with the investigation and left the board in September 2019.
Donnell said he thought recusing himself was sufficient. He said the strict rules are unfortunate because they keep industry professionals from being able to serve on such boards, especially in small villages where conflicts are unavoidable.
“Had I known that (it was an ethics violation), I wouldn’t have ever volunteered to be on the planning commission,” he said.