Parks programs move further from mission to protect land

The following story appeared on Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times and the Geauga Times Courier, on April 5. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.

Posted: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 11:45 pm

The Geauga Park District continues to hold fast to a rule of spending taxpayer money to create new programs that conflict with its own regulations and the park’s most recent survey of county residents. And, they don’t necessarily feel obligated to tell the public about those programs.

Last month, newly appointed park commissioner Andrej Lah, barely two months on the board, proposed a new program at the board meeting that would teach firearm safety to youth. But Mr. Lah refused to talk about the program when contacted by phone. He, instead, referred the issue to park Director John Oros, saying the district wanted to speak with a “consistent” message.

But, Mr. Oros is not talking about it, either.  He did not return a call for comment.

A video recording of last month’s meeting showed that Mr. Lah spoke of spending time with the park rangers, noting they do more than just patrol. He said during his conversations with them, he learned of a gun range at Chickagami Park in Parkman Township that is now not open to the public, but is available for use.

He referred to the anniversary of the Chardon High School shooting, noting that its anniversary was near and that his niece had been there to witness it.

“I think, sometimes, safety is an issue we don’t really address enough of,” Mr. Lah said.

A new program would provide an opportunity for children to connect with rangers and learn gun safety, Mr. Lah said, adding that while it may not prevent an intentional act, it may prevent accidents.

“They (rangers) can make it fun,” he said. “They can shoot at a target or whatever. I’d like to see us use our facility that we’re not using for the public’s benefit.”

Park Commissioner Len Barker said the program should be available to younger children, because fatal accidents often involve that age group.

The latest program offered by the board illustrates a pattern in which board members employ a personal wish list for programs with no input from the public and no desire to talk about it.

From the time that Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell first removed the entire board in 2013, he has appointed members who have acted quickly and decisively to reshape the park in ways that contradict what the latest park survey and those preceding it have indicated the public wants for their parks.

In 2014, newly elected park board members voted after adjourning from a closed door meeting to hire Linda O’Brien for a fee of $16,000 to assess park officials. Although they took the action on Feb. 11, 2014, the contract for the work was made retroactive to Feb. 3 of that year.  The contract was signed Feb. 4, a week before the board gave its approval. No public discussion on the matter was ever held. Mrs. O’Brien would later be appointed by Judge Grendell to the Russell Township Park District Board.

The action was questioned by the Geauga County Auditor’s Office, but eventually approved. At the time, Judge Grendell said it was his decision. “I wanted to get it done before the new board came on so it wouldn’t start with employees with a chip on their shoulder,” he said at that time.

Judge Grendell also asked for leniency for the new board. “You have to give a little leeway to the new board,” he said. “I support people explaining their actions. I agree with transparency.”

But, new boards have become routine with Judge Grendell making nine changes in the past three years for the makeup of the board.

Besides the questionable contract for Mrs. O’Brien, the newly appointed board in 2014 proposed and approved, with one new member approving it within a month of being on the board, a list of 163 possible uses, including logging, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, firearms ranges and trap shooting.

The list would later be rescinded, but former board member Louis Mucci, who was blamed by Judge Grendell for the list when it drew criticism, said it was the judge who pushed the proposal. “He (Judge Grendell) told us how we do it and when we do it,” Mr. Mucci said in December 2014.

While Judge Grendell has insisted he plays a hands-off role in the parks, a series of emails in 2014 revealed he was taking control of the park’s newsletters. In a March 19, 2014 email from Sandy Ward, park communications director, she wrote, “I’ve just learned that our newsletter will now require the approval from the board and the judge.” By April, Judge Grendell had asked for regular space in the newsletter.  “Henceforth, we will reserve the inside cover of the newsletter – beside the strip with our hours, commissioner names, etc. –for the judge to publish whatever he’d like,” Ms. Ward wrote April 29, 2014.

Judge Grendell would also provide the board with his “recommendations” for the board to consider. In December 2014, he would write a letter, “The park district should develop at least one park area for limited snowmobile use, limited to four-cycle snowmobiles.” He also wrote that all-terrain vehicle should be considered, but only after careful consideration.

Snowmobiles are now permitted in Observatory Park, but all-terrain vehicles have not been mentioned.

The latest proposal by Mr. Lah, follows other recommendations by board members such as Jackie Dottore’s proposal to include a rock-climbing wall and zip lines at the district’s newest park.

While their recommendations receive support from the judge based on his own writings and Mr. Mucci’s claim and get immediate approval for implementation, they fall short of honoring the wishes of Geauga County taxpayers in a 2015 survey. The survey, however, has never been brought up by the board since it was conducted in the spring of 2015 as they have seemingly chosen to ignore it.

Triad Research Group, of Westlake, which conducted the survey for $10,500 taxpayer dollars, reported that it received 1,611 responses and had a margin of error of plus or minus negative 2.45 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

That survey showed that when residents were asked to choose three things they believe are most important for the park system to do, the public identified four items that started with “protect” or “preserve” and scored higher than those listed as “provide.” It was true among all demographic groups.

“The four in which more than two-fifths rates as most important for Geauga parks to do were: protect wildlife habitat (67 percent), protect areas of natural beauty (47 percent), protect our watershed and groundwater quality (40 percent) and preserve open space (39 percent),” according to the survey results.

The ideas now being proposed by individual board members found little support with a quarter or less of respondents indicating they want those activities.

Climbing walls, rope courses and obstacles courses found only 27 percent in support among those surveyed. Playgrounds, that were rushed into the various parks shortly after a new board was appointed in 2014, found only 25 percent in support. In one case, the playgrounds were removed from Bass Lake, after they were found to be in violation of an Ohio Environmental Protection agreement of use for the land.

Snowmobiling, now a regular program in the parks, found only 13 percent of support with the public.

Categories: News

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