Recently it was announced that a new Park Board Advisory Committee was to be formed to help guide and administer the Geauga County Parks. Protect Geauga Parks, Inc. believes that this is the role of a properly constituted Park Board with input from involved citizens and not just a small cadre of friends.
On reflection, Protect Geauga Parks has sent to Judge Grendell a letter outlining the repeated failure of his Boards to uphold the public trust he has given them. These failures include not undertaking an exhaustive search for the most qualified Park Director, not providing for a long term or short term vision for the Park, not adhering to the desires of the public as expressed in repeated surveys, not reviewing adequately Park projects and finances and funding pet personal projects of Board members with public monies.
Because of these repeated failures, we have asked the Judge to remove this Board and to appoint people responsible and responsive to the public interest in this beautiful Park system. These people should have business experience, conservation ethics and a willingness to work with all community groups.
Below is the full text of our letter to Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell.
March 14, 2017
The Honorable Judge Timothy J. Grendell
Chardon, Ohio 44024
Re: Commissioners Geauga Park District Board
Dear Judge Grendell:
We are writing to share our concerns about the Board of Commissioners of the Geauga Park District, and to ask that you, as the supervising authority, remove the current commissioners for misfeasance and malfeasance, and appoint new commissioners who have an understanding of finance, an appreciation of the history of the Geauga County Parks, a background in ecology and a commitment to conservation, and who will fulfill their fiduciary duties to the public they serve.
The Board of Commissioners, appointed by you, has been delegated the authority to manage the public lands of Geauga County with the understanding that these public officials will exercise sound discretion over the public monies and lands that they manage on behalf of the people of Geauga County. As so well said in this nation’s Declaration of Independence, our public officials “derive[e] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It is only with the people’s consent that the Board of Commissioners is given power over our resources and assets, and our consent is conditioned upon their fulfillment of their duties of care, loyalty, impartiality, compliance, and accountability, as well as their duties to manage accounts and to preserve the public’s trust in government.
After observing the actions of the Board of Commissioners of the Geauga Parks for many months, we have noted the following instances of misfeasance and malfeasance:
1. Violations of duty to manage accounts. The Commissioners are responsible for the financial stability and accountability of the Geauga Park District. It is their duty to develop the annual budget, to monitor that budget routinely, and to track and revise the budget as necessary. On behalf of the public and the public money that funds the Park District, the Commissioners must ensure the maintenance of accurate financial records. It is their duty to establish an internal accounting system with checks and balances so that a single staff member does not have exclusive control over the Park District’s finances. They must establish procedures that ensure public money is spent in a fiscally responsible manner. In addition, they must engage in informed discussions prior to the approval of transactions. The Commissioners have breached their duty to manage accounts as follows: 2
(a) In December 2016, the Board of Commissioners approved over $11,000,000.00 in budget appropriations without making a single comment or raising a single question during a Board meeting that lasted barely eight minutes.
(b) In December 2016, the Board of Commissioners approved the November 2016 Financial Statement without any comments and without a single question being raised by the Board of Commissioners. One month later, at the January 2017 Board meeting, the Board of Commissioners was presented with a revised November 2016 Financial Statement and told by the Executive Director that the previously approved Statement needed to be revoked and a new Statement approved because of computer errors. A side-by-side comparison of the Statement originally approved and the revised Statement clearly shows the errors. Not one Commissioner read the original Statement closely enough in December to catch the obvious errors. When advised of the errors one month later by the Executive Director, not one Commissioner questioned how the errors occurred, whether the errors affect any budgets, what is being done to prevent such errors in the future, who was responsible for the errors or any other meaningful management input.
(c) In January 2016, The Board of Commissioners approved a By-Laws amendment that granted the Executive Director the Board’s full authority (except as limited by State law) to expend taxpayer money, with no oversight by the Board except for review of spending vouchers after the fact. There are no checks and balances in place to prevent the Executive Director from exercising exclusive control over the Park District’s finances.
(d) Every month, spending vouchers are approved, amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars, without any comments and without a single question being raised by the Board of Commissioners.
(e) In January 2017, spending vouchers were approved without comment or question, but a review of those vouchers, representing expenditures by the Park District for December 2016, indicate some of them were dated for expenditures in 2015. Either the Commissioners did not read the vouchers closely enough to notice, or if any of them noticed, this discrepancy was not seen as important and was not questioned.
(f) The Board has completely failed to plan for the financial future of the Geauga Park District, in either a 5-year or a 10-year plan, and has failed to conduct an audit of the Park District’s finances. 3
2. Violations of duty of care. The Commissioners have a duty to exercise due care in the management of assets and the supervision of the operations of the Park District. Among other things, the duty of care includes the duty to prepare for Board meetings by reading and reviewing reports, minutes and other materials. As discussed in the examples above, the Commissioners are not adequately reading and reviewing materials, in breach of this duty. The duty of care also requires the Commissioners to ask questions and obtain information necessary to make informed decisions. A review of the minutes of Board meetings, or better the audio and video recordings of those meetings, shows that the Commissioners are failing to ask questions and obtain necessary information. The Commissioners also have the duty to review the performance of the Executive Director, something that has never been done to our knowledge, and to oversee the Executive Director to ensure that the mission of the Park District is fulfilled and that the Park District follows sound business standards. The Commissioners must exercise independent judgment and cannot blindly follow the Executive Director’s requests. In addition to the examples of the Commissioners’ breaches of the duty of care set forth above, they have also breached the duty of care as follows:
(a) John Oros was appointed Executive Director of the Geauga Park district without any meaningful search being undertaken to fill the position. Although the position was advertised and applications were received from qualified applicants, not one other person was interviewed for the position of Executive Director before Mr. Oros was hired by the Commissioners. The Board failed in its obligation to use due diligence in the selection of the Executive Director. While the Board consisted of different Commissioners at the time of that breach of fiduciary duty, the current Commissioners continue this breach by failing to review the performance of the Executive Director and by failing to use due diligence in supervising the Executive Director and in overseeing his actions. There has not been any item in the minutes which indicate that there is any ongoing performance evaluation of the Executive Director.
(b) For example, prior to the November 2016 election, Mr. Oros used Park District property to promote a political candidate. After public out-cry it was stated that this would not again happen.. On another occasion, he ignored a longstanding agreement with Middlefield Village. After exposure by the public, the agreement was honored.. He has also given away hunting privileges on public park land to private groups to be used by those groups for their private fund raising purposes. All of this has occurred without any oversight by the Board.
(c) A review of recordings of Board meetings shows that the Commissioners have abdicated their responsibility to exercise independent judgment. Instead, they 4
blindly follow the Executive Director, who presides over Board meetings despite Article III of the By-Laws, which states that the “President shall preside at all meetings of the Park Board.” Rather than presiding, the President allows the Executive Director to run the meetings, including the making of motions for votes. Even during the portion of public meetings denominated “Commissioners’ Time,” the Commissioners say nothing, but rather, they passively allow the Executive Director to take over this portion of the meeting for his own purposes. The President rarely says more than “so moved” in response to the motions wrongly made by the Executive Director. With no discussions and unanimous votes on all motions voted upon during the tenure of the current Commissioners, it is clear that the Board fails to exercise independent judgment.
(d) The Board recently approved the purchase of a property in Hambden Township for $1,100,000 when they had in hand a market evaluation appraisal stating that the property was worth only $800,000. While this is a beautiful property, the Board paid a premium of over 30% above market value, failing to ensure that the Park District follow sound business standards. There was no discussion at any Board meeting as to why the Board determined payment above fair market value was appropriate.
3. Violations of duty of compliance. The Commissioners also have a fiduciary duty to adhere to governing laws, by-laws, and rules and regulations. They have breached the duty of compliance as follows:
(a) The Commissioners have repeatedly violated the Open Meetings Law by improperly and illegally using executive sessions to conduct deliberations on matters that are not entitled to executive session protection. The Board has repeatedly failed to be sufficiently specific in describing its rationale for entering into executive session.
(b) The Commissioners also may be deliberately circumventing the intent of the Open Meetings Law, which requires public officials to take official action and to conduct all deliberations upon official business only in open meetings, subject to certain exceptions set forth in the statute. As is obvious from reviewing recordings of recent Board meetings, the Commissioners fail to ask questions or discuss matters prior to taking any vote. Perhaps they are having discussions with each other outside of public meetings. Perhaps they are discussing issues one-on-one with the Executive Director outside of public meetings. Perhaps they simply don’t know or care what they are voting on. Any of these possibilities is a violation of one or more of the Commissioners’ fiduciary duties of compliance with law, care, 5
accountability, transparency and the duty to preserve the public’s trust in government. If the public cannot determine how decisions are being made, then the intent of the Open Meetings Law has been violated.
(c) The Commissioners have failed to ensure that the Geauga Park District complies with the requirements of the Ohio Public Records Law, and has allowed violations of that Law. The Commissioners and the Park District have failed to create public records necessary to the routine operation of the Park District in an attempt to avoid their duty of transparency. This violation of the heart and spirit of the Ohio Public Records Law prevents the public from monitoring the behavior of public fiduciaries, allowing the arbitrary exercise of official power in complete secrecy.
(d) The Commissioners have blatantly disregarded the Park District’s own rules and regulations, including regulations governing the use of primitive weapons and snowmobiles.
4. Violations of duty of loyalty. The Commissioners serve the public and are obligated to put the public interest before their personal interests. The Commissioners have violated the duty of loyalty as follows:
(a) Commissioner Dottore has asked for “pet” projects to be included in park development for use by her family and friends. These include rock walls, zip lines, ropes courses, and a BMX trail, all of which currently appear to be included in plans for Claridon Woodlands. There has been no public input on Mrs. Dottore’s projects, which are contrary to the public’s desires as clearly expressed in the Park District’s own 2015 survey rejecting such activities. In addition, the Commissioners have not made any attempt to conduct the studies necessary to determine whether there is any need in the community for these facilities, whether similar facilities in the area meet any need that may exist, or what the environmental impact of such facilities would be.
(b) Similarly, when former Commissioner Shumway served on the Board, she requested and received non-slippery running surfaces specifically on Park District trails where she personally ran. Since Commissioner Shumway left the Board, those surfaces have been allowed to deteriorate, presumably because nobody else in the county cared about them. This pattern of allowing commissioners to put their personal interests before the public interest must cease.
(c) Although they serve the public, the Commissioners currently refuse to listen or respond to public questions and concerns. The Park Board is currently the only 6
known park district in the State of Ohio that does not permit public comment at their meetings. On many occasions, they have failed to answer questions posed to them in letters and emails from the public, and they have failed to instruct the Executive Director to answer public inquiries. By permitting numerous Sunshine Law violations to occur, as have been outlined in letters to the Commissioners and the Park District or its attorney, they have made clear their disregard for the laws of the State of Ohio that are designed to insure that the public is fully informed about the business of public entities, as well as their disdain for the public they serve.
Based on the examples above, all of which constitute violations of the Commissioners’ duty to preserve the public’s trust in government, we believe that this Board of Commissioners fails in its fiduciary responsibilities to the citizens of Geauga County, and that you, as the supervising authority, should remove them immediately.
President, Protect Geauga Parks
On behalf of the trustees of Protect Geauga Parks
PO Box 1064
Chardon, OH 44024