The following article appeared on August 31, 2016 on Chagrin Valley Today, the online news site of the Chagrin Valley Times. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
Posted: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 11:45 pm
The silence has been growing at the Geauga Park District and for a few former employees there, that silence is golden.
Since Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell scrapped the entire board in 2013 and brought in three new members, questions have arisen over how the board conducts its business and concerns voiced on the lack of public input into the decision-making process.
At the newly appointed board’s second meeting, they took action that would catch the attention of some community watchdogs. That action was to award a contract to O’Brien Leadership Systems for up to $16,000. Although the motion was made Feb. 11, 2014, the move was made retroactive to Feb. 3.
The late Rob Roy of Burton Township wondered where that contract had come from and what it was for. He searched meeting minutes of the board, but there was no discussion to be found. By digging, Mr. Roy would eventually find that the contract was signed Feb. 4, a week before action was taken. The check was also issued to Linda O’Brien, not O’Brien Leadership Systems. Mrs. O’Brien would later be appointed by Judge Grendell to the Russell Park Board.
Judge Grendell would express regret that there was no transparency, but blamed it on a new inexperienced board. “You have to give a little leeway to the new board,” he would say.
While Judge Grendell conducted a public search for those new board members in 2013, since then he has kept those searches closed while replacing five more members of the board.
But, that same board, in a staff shakeup in 2013, would ensure that those who were dismissed also remained silent. Termination of Employment Severance Agreements for dismissed employees Emilie Gottsegen, Eileen Smith and Paige Orvis included a “non-disparagement” clause. “You agree that you shall not make any statement (oral or in writing) that disparages GPD or any of its current or former directors, officers, attorneys, accountants, agents, trustees, administrators, employees, representatives and assigns,” it reads.
Each of those employees received as severance “one month salary per year of job tenure up to a maximum of six month’s salary.” For Ms. Gottsegen that would mean $32,480, for Ms. Hosier $35,450 and for Ms. Smith $24,343.
This past year, a similar agreement was provided when the park’s Finance Director Michele Pennell was dismissed. She was also given $35,500 in severance pay.
Board Attorney David Ondrey said he did not serve as counsel for the first three agreements, but did for that of Ms. Pennell. He said such non-disparaging clauses are “quite common in our experience” and are necessary because any time an employee is dismissed he or she may harbor “bad feelings.”
But Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz, Geauga County Recorder Sharon Gingerich, Geauga County Auditor Frank Gliha and Geauga County Commissioner Blake Rear each said they have dismissed employees without such generous severances or restrictions on their ability to talk about their situation.
In response, Mr. Ondrey said, “Maybe they need a better employment attorney.”
Mr. Flaiz said there is nothing criminal about the agreements, but added that there may be a question as to whether they are enforceable.
And while employees may be bound by legal agreements, the public can, and has, been shut out by methodical steps by the board.
While those agreements were being kept under wraps, the park board was slowly distancing itself from the public. The park board would not address the results of a survey of the county, which showed residents opposed the new direction the park was taking from passive to active recreation.
The board would also begin a campaign of limiting public participation. Initially, the board limited the public to three minutes each. That would be followed by a 30-minute limit on all speakers from the public. Then, this year, board members asked that anyone wishing to speak to sign up, indicating they wished to address the board. Finally, the board eliminated the public all together.
At the time, Park Commissioner William Gertz said the public had turned their time into a “bully pulpit” and that the comments “served no purpose.” He said those who wished to address the board could write a letter.
Mrs. O’Brien would employ the same elimination of public participation at Russell Park Board meetings after being appointed by Judge Grendell to that post. Russell Township Trustees, however, employed an end-around play, forcing any public body, using public facilities, to allow public comment at their meetings.
For members of Protect Geauga Parks, a grass-roots organization dedicated to upholding the park’s guiding principles of conserve, preserve and protect, many are feeling frustrated.
Troy Township resident Ed Buckles recently followed Mr. Gertz’s advice and submitted a letter, listing numerous questions.
But, he was politely refused any answers. Park district Executive Director John Oros would write, “I respectfully decline answers – or meetings regarding your letter.” He said the district would assist with public records requests.
“I was extremely disappointed in Mr. Oros’ reply,” Mr. Buckles said. “It fits the pattern of the board not being responsive to the public. I find it disappointing and un-American.”
Mr. Buckles said the only person the board listens to is Judge Grendell, himself. “They are taking direction from their master who knows the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law.”
While the group does not have the backing of a Russell Township Trustee board to circumvent eliminating public participation, they are hoping they can find support elsewhere.
The group plans to have a tent at the Great Geauga County Fair and to gather signatures on a petition that will be presented to the state legislature that calls for all public boards to allow the public the right to speak at public meetings.
“We think this is wrong,” Sandy Buckles said. “People spending our tax dollars, people determining how our parks are to be used must answer to someone other than Judge Grendell. So sign our petition supporting our right to free speech, our right to be heard, our right to be answered – just like the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees.”
Note: While the information in the above article is entirely accurate, the revelation of the severance payments made to four former Park employees might be misinterpreted by some readers as exorbitant pay-offs which benefited those individuals without justification. In fact, all of the individuals involved were removed with a purpose—to cripple the private fundraising efforts of the Park District and to remove employees with knowledge and management skills that would overshadow the hand-picked Director and Board members.
All of the individuals are women with decades of employment at the Parks. Is this a co-incidence?
All of them were let go with no notice and no recourse. The severance payments were their only hope of financial stability while they look for new jobs. They all were placed in a situation that was financially tenuous and not of their choosing.
Since their removal, the Parks have missed the skills and experience they once provided.