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The Protect Geauga Parks organization is questioning whether the Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners has followed the law when it comes to conducting its meetings and responding to public records requests.
In a June 29 letter to the board, park officials and legal counsel, Fair Shake Environmental Legal Services, a firm hired by the citizens group, lists 27 allegations of legal wrongdoing by the board.
David Ondrey, legal counsel for the park board, responded in a July 12 letter, disputing those claims and saying he would work with the board in areas that “need improvement.”
According to the letter from legal counsel representing the citizens, the board has engaged in practices “to confound and derail public participation and transparent governance of the community-owned and taxpayer-funded resources within Geauga County.”
In addition, the board and park staff have demonstrated a “broad failure to generate documentation necessary to support the healthy operation of a functional government office,” the Fair Shake firm letter states.
Among the charges is that the board has used closed-door, or executive sessions, to discuss compensation for employees, a reorganization of park staff, the hiring of outside counsel and disciplining of park staff.
“A review of video footage and meeting minutes suggests the board has been misusing these exceptions and is instead improperly and illegally using executive sessions to conduct deliberations on matters that are not entitled to executive session protection,” the letter states. “The board has repeatedly failed to be sufficiently specific in describing its rationale for entering into executive session. It has also repeatedly taken final action on a matter without public deliberation following its retreat into executive session for other stated purposes.”
Mr. Ondrey wrote that the claims are “exaggerations” of what the law requires.
“The park board and executive director dispute your client’s claims (that) the board has routinely violated the Open Meetings Act and-or Public Records Act,” Mr. Ondrey wrote. “We believe you have exaggerated the requirements of those acts and are attempting to impose procedures and practices which are not mandated by the relevant statutes.”
Specifically, Mr. Ondrey noted, the board must tell the public what “unfair advantages” someone might gain by hearing discussion on the purchase or sale of property. He said there is no such requirement in the law or case law, stating the board has the legal obligation to state such “unfair advantages.”
He also noted that the board, when entering closed-door sessions on personnel matters, has no obligation to tell the public the “specific job position, specify the employees involved or the specific type of personnel management decision.”
“Your list of claimed deviations over a three-year period would require considerable resources to investigate and refute for every instance listed,” Mr. Ondrey wrote. “The board feels that is an unnecessary exercise at this time.”
He said any infractions that may have occurred have been “de minimus” (minor or trifling) and “purely unintentional.”
Mr. Ondrey added that those who feel that violations occurred, should not have waited an “extensive period of time to make its complaints.”
Mr. Ondrey did appear to concede on one aspect that had not been followed, but will be in the future.
“Going forward, the board will refrain from discussion of pending or imminent litigation unless legal counsel is present,“ he wrote. “I will review with the board any other instances highlighted by your correspondence where I believe as legal counsel the board needs improvement.”
Mr. Ondrey also declined an invitation to discuss the matter further with Protect Geauga Parks members.
Kathy Hanratty, president of Protect Geauga Parks, said the park board’s actions have shown a disregard for transparency.
“The Geauga Parks have endured firings of key personnel, reckless amendments to its by-laws, the extended absence of an executive director, a series of rapidly changing appointments of park commissioners and stonewalling in response to questions from the public about the rationale behind their actions,” she said. “Additionally, in 2014, a team of park commissioners and an acting park director fumbled through their budget presentation to the county budget committee, which resulted in the suspended collection of a levy passed by voters to support the parks.”
She maintains that the violations are real.
“Protect Geauga Parks, a local grassroots watchdog organization, has witnessed persistent questionable practices at monthly meetings of the park board and in responses by park officials to public records requests,” she said. “These repeated questionable practices indicate violations of both the Open Meetings and Public Records provisions under Ohio’s Sunshine Laws.”
Ms. Hanratty pointed to a video the group took following the July 5 meeting of the park board. In the video, members attempt to talk to board members as they exit the park offices. Board members Jackie Dottore and Len Barker decline to be interviewed, but board member William Gertz stops and speaks with them.
The video, at one point, turns to a discussion of the board’s closed-door session at the meeting to discuss the purchase of property that is next to Mr. Gertz’s home. Mr. Gertz tells the group he doesn’t want to see development there and that he abstained from the vote.
Ms. Hanratty said his abstention from a vote indicates that the board decided the matter behind closed doors, although the law states that all decisions must be made in public.
Mr. Ondrey denied that any violation occurred, saying “I don’t think any vote was taken.”
He said the law allows for discussion in closed-door sessions to include a “consensus” of members as to how they feel about the discussion. “It can be vocally indicated without it being a vote,” Mr. Ondrey said.
Ms. Hanratty said of the 53 county operated park districts in Ohio, the Geauga district is the only one that does not allow the public to speak.
Ms. Hanratty also questioned that decisions are made even before a meeting is held, noting that Mr. Gertz notes that board members meet individually with the park Executive Director John Oros prior to the meetings. Because the board offers no discussion on the issues when they are brought out in public, she said, it would indicate that matters are decided beforehand.