The following article was originally published by the Geauga County Maple Leaf. Our thanks to the Maple Leaf for permission to republish the article here. A subscription to the Maple Leaf will help you stay informed about issues concerning the Geauga Park District and everything that is happening in and around Geuaga County.
MARCH 28, 2017 BY JOHN KARLOVEC
“So, how can that be justification for exercising jurisdiction over another public entity that’s acting completely within its rights?” – Judge Patrick McGrath
Oral arguments were heard March 26 by a visiting three-judge panel in Chester Township’s challenge to the Geauga County Probate Court’s jurisdiction over the township after the Chester Township Park District was created in 1984.
At issue were two orders Judge Tim Grendell issued last year: one requiring the township to pay for master commissioner’s fees related to an investigation into park district operations and a second vacating a 1993 contract between the park district and the township for management of township-owned Parkside Park.
The township’s attorney, Frank Scialdone, argued before judges Patrick McGrath, William Klatt and Sean Gallagher — who all were sitting by assignment on the 11th District Court of Appeals — that the probate court’s jurisdiction over the township ended once its application under Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545 to create the park district was approved.
The 45-minute hearing was held in the Ohio Court of Claims courtroom on the fourth floor of The Thomas J. Moyer Ohio Judicial Center in Columbus.
Klatt, who currently sits on the 10th District Court of Appeals in Columbus, said he could conceive of situations where a probate court could exercise plenary — or implied — authority to address matters impacting the order creating a park district.
However, he asked Scialdone if there was anything in the 1984 order that imposed any ongoing financial, contractual or operational obligation on township trustees with respect to the park district.
“Absolutely not,” said Scialdone.
Klatt suggested the probate court could not then exercise plenary authority to enforce the 1984 order because there was nothing in the order to be enforced.
Scialdone said it was important to understand that when the township’s application to create the park district was approved, it created a new political subdivision, distinct and separate from both the probate court and the township.
He argued Grendell and the park district rely exclusively on non-binding language — or dicta — in a 2016 Ohio Supreme Court decision concluding a probate court has plenary authority to issue orders to enforce the entry creating a park district, including orders that impose duties on those interfering with a park district’s purpose.
“It is not determinative of whether the probate court exceeded its jurisdiction, and it’s not even determinative of whether the probate court has subject matter jurisdiction as a legal matter,” Scialdone said of the language.
“Dicta certainly cannot expand the probate court’s limited jurisdiction,” he added, noting ORC Chapter 1545 is the only statute that gives a probate court authority over park districts.
“But there’s nothing, there’s absolutely nothing in that statute that would remotely suggest some sort of continuing jurisdiction or inherent authority over the (township) after the application has been granted,” he said.
Gallagher, who sits on the 8th District Court of Appeals in Cleveland, noted a probate court has the express power to remove park commissioners and the inherent authority to hire a master commissioner to take evidence, make findings of fact and conclusions of law, and submit them to the court for review.
“The issue here is not with regard to the probate court judge’s authority over the park district, but it’s over the trustees,” Scialdone said, adding the express powers of the probate court under Chapter 1545 are limited to removing and appointing park commissioners, and to dissolving the park district.
Klatt asked whether the township was legally required to adequately fund the park district, as Grendell has suggested.
“The probate court is not the park district,” replied Scialdone. “So, he appoints the commissioners and, if they have an issue with the funding, then that would be the avenue. It wouldn’t be through the probate court judge imposing his authority over a separate, independent political subdivision like the township.”
Klatt noted a park district has its own legal authority to pursue funding, including the levying of taxes and issuance of bonds, “just like any other local governmental entity.”
McGrath, a retired judge who sat on the 10th District, said the park district could manage township-owned park lands simply by agreement, without separate funding.
With respect to the 1993 contract, Scialdone said Grendell did not have the authority to alter the agreement.
“The probate court is not the park district,” he repeated. “Whether the park district wants to enter into contracts, terminate contracts, comply with contracts — a separate issue from whether the probate court has the authority to go in and make alterations that affect a negotiated contract with an independent third party.”
Park district attorney Jim Gillette said Grendell had continuing jurisdiction over the township under the probate court’s plenary powers and Chapter 1545.
Klatt had Gillette reconfirm there was nothing in the 1984 order that created any obligations on the township trustees.
“That being the case, how can plenary power justify what the probate court did here?” he asked.
Gallagher interjected if there were provisions under Chapter 1545 that could affect trustees, why couldn’t the park commissioners enforce them.
“Why couldn’t the commissioners take legal action, if there was a problem with the behavior of the trustees?” he asked.
Gillette referenced an anonymous 2013 report that was sent to trustees and Grendell that was the genesis of the case. In it, serious allegations were levied against the park commissioners and park district, he said.
Gallagher said Grendell had the power to remove the park commissioners.
“So, let’s assume that (report) starts the ball rolling, on that level, but how does a probate judge go in and invalidate a contract from 1993?” he asked.
The judge said Grendell did not appoint the master commissioner to act as a magistrate, as contemplated under the statute, but instead as a “full blown investigator.”
“You can’t be both. You can’t be an investigator and a magistrate,” he told Gillette.
Gillette argued Grendell appointed the master commissioner to investigate the allegations in the anonymous report and, upon reviewing the findings, determined trustees had interfered in the operation of the park district by terminating voluntary funding in 2002.
“But there’s nothing that requires that,” McGrath said. “So, how can that be justification for exercising jurisdiction over another public entity that’s acting completely within its rights?”
Gallagher asked Gillette to explain Grendell’s role in invalidating parts of the 1993 contract when trustees were not parties to the master commissioner’s review.
The only reasons trustees were before the court was because Grendell exerted jurisdiction over them, he added.
“But there’s no trial or anything,” Klatt pointed out. “There’s no proceeding that determines whether the contract’s valid or invalid. He just declares it.”
Klatt reiterated the 1984 order simply created the park district; it did not create any other obligations.
“The order doesn’t require funding and, in light of the statutory structure which allows the district to be created and then fund itself through other mechanisms, I don’t see how anything in the contract can impact the order and, therefore, the whole basis for plenary jurisdiction seems unfounded,” Klatt said.
Gillette reiterated the park district was receiving inside funding from trustees until they stopped in 2002.
“So what,” Klatt said. “Why isn’t it completely within their rights as a separate governmental entity to try and balance their own budget and deal with their own finances, just as the park district has the same rights. If they felt funding was inadequate, nothing prevents them from going to the voters and seeking a levy.”
He added, “So, if there’s no obligation for funding, how can there be plenary jurisdiction exercised here by the probate court when there’s nothing inconsistent with the (1984) order? That’s where I’m stuck.”
Gillette said the probate court has plenary jurisdiction over the park commissioners and their continuation in office.
“Therefore, I think that when issues arise, as that process begins or continues, that may involve the township, township concerns, township interests and, therefore, their participation in the proceedings before the court,” he said.
But Gallagher said that argument could extend to anybody that did business with the park district or anybody that engages in activity that in any way impacts the park district.
“You would say that gives the probate court plenary authority over whoever that is,” Gallagher told Gillette.
In rebuttal, Scialdone emphasized a probate court’s plenary powers only extend to matters properly before it, and a statutory grant of plenary powers cannot enlarge the court’s statutory jurisdiction.
Gallagher asked Scialdone why the Supreme Court created this “firestorm” by including the dicta in its 2016 decision.
“The results of inherent jurisdiction being interpreted like that would be to give the probate court any jurisdiction over any third party that happens to arguably interfere with the park district’s operations,” Scialdone said.
“So, if they wanted to bring a food truck in, let’s say, and you had Food Truck Friday or something, that phrase (dicta) would allow the probate court judge to determine the price of food?” asked Gallagher.
“Arguably, yes,” said Scialdone. “It would be giving the opportunity to bring before the court that food truck company.”
The case will be submitted and a decision announced once it is reached, McGrath said.