The following editorial appeared in the Chagrin Valley Times on December 21, 2016. Our thanks to the CVT for permission to republish it here.
The voices of Geauga County citizens are being muted. For the past five months, taxpayers have been barred from asking questions or openly expressing opinions at the Geauga Park District’s monthly meetings. The three park commissioners -Jackie Dottore, Bill Gertz and Len Barker – eliminated the public comment portion of the meetings in July.
Let’s be clear, the park district runs on public, not private, dollars.
Frustrated residents, many of whom are members of the Protect Geauga Parks group, said they have no clear path to make their concerns known. In frustration, group members in August submitted 18 questions in writing to park district Executive Director John Oros, to no avail. Mr. Oros responded in an email stating that he would not answer the questions or meet with the residents.
The next question is why?
Although state law mandates that the park commissioners conduct business in public, it does not require them to have a public comment period, according to Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell.
Yet Protect Geauga Parks members said they could find no other public park district that had eliminated the open comment portion of their meetings.
Here are some of the questions that park commissioners so far have refused to answer in public:
Maple sugaring in the past was limited to educational programs yet this year it was expanded. Why?
Introduction of Amur fish was unsuccessful in the past, yet it is being considered again. Why?
There is a noticeable drop in grant funds from $362,000 in 2014 to $222,000 in 2016. Why?
The district conducted a survey on usage and needs of the park, yet it has not been made public. Why?
Investment income was $1,500 this year and is projected to increase to $20,000. Why?
Parks were closed to residents for days to allow recreational hunting. Why?
Since submitting the list of questions, residents noted that a revised $7 million budget with at least one $500,000 increase was not even discussed by commissioners before being approved. Why?
There may be logical answers.
The most recent issue raised by residents relates to Observatory Park in Montville Township where the park district is now allowing snowmobiling. The activity, for safety reasons, limits access to people who want to hike on the trails. Residents also are concerned that recent changes in the park’s use could endanger its International Dark Sky designation for public lands that allow citizens to explore nature from “the ground to the galaxy.” Residents point out that the development of Observatory Park was funded entirely by donations of $2.1 million.
Geauga residents have resorted to airing their views on the [ProtectGeaugaParks.us
] website and through local media, but are they reaching the people in charge of the park district? It’s hard to say.
Park commissioners do need to run meetings efficiently, so some rules about public comments such as time limits are understandable. But to change the bylaws to eliminate the voice of residents is unacceptable.
We implore park commissioners to again allow public comments during their meetings.