The following story appeared on the website of the Geauga County Maple Leaf on Monday, April 24, 2017. Our thanks to the Maple Leaf for permission to republish the article here.
The subject of this story is the proposed amendment to the Ohio Biennial Budget Bill which would give broad and undefined new authority to county probate court judges to directly control management decisions of county and township park districts and place undefined “duties” and “restrictions” on individuals the judge deems to have “interfered” with the purpose or operation of the parks. Protect Geauga Parks strongly opposes this amendment and asks all of our supporters to call their State Representative and demand that the amendment be removed from the budget bill. Also call the office of the chairman of the House Finance Committee, Ryan Smith at 614-466-1366.
APRIL 24, 2017 BY JOHN KARLOVEC
LATOURETTE URGES AMENDMENT LANGUAGE BE REMOVED FROM BUDGET BILL
“When you are talking about creating law that may or may not be of great significance to 87 out of 88 counties, I have real concern.” – John Eklund, R-Munson Township
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Ohio citizens who interfere with a park district risk being fined under a proposed amendment to the state budget bill.
As introduced, the proposal — HC1793 — would authorize, among other things, a probate court to issue an order preventing interference with the court’s order creating a park district. It also would allow a court to impose duties or restrictions on a person or party who interferes with a park district’s purpose.
The amendment’s sponsor, state Rep. William Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said his proposal merely clarifies and codifies an April 2016 Ohio Supreme Court decision.
In State ex rel. Chester Township v. Judge Grendell, the court unanimously held a probate court judge does not “patently and unambiguously” lack jurisdiction to issue orders attempting to correct activities by park district commissioners and township trustees that frustrate the purpose of the original probate court order creating the park district.
However, the Supreme Court declined to address whether the orders Grendell issued — 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 a township-owned park — exceeded his jurisdiction, because that would circumvent the appellate process.
Seitz, an antitrust lawyer who served in the Ohio Statehouse with both Grendell and his wife, 11th District Court of Appeal Judge Diane Grendell, represented 13 Ohio probate court judges who were not parties to the case but filed a “friend of the court” brief urging the justices to deny the township’s request that Grendell be prohibited from issuing the orders.
Three of those judges were already retired from the bench at the time the township filed its complaint.
A fourth, former Mahoning County Probate Court Judge Denny Clunk, retired in December 2016. His successor, Judge Robert Rusu, told WFMJ-TV in Youngstown last week he does not support Seitz’s proposal.
“To do a knee-jerk reaction to something that’s happening in one or two counties that’s going to affect the whole state, I’m not in favor of,” Rusu said.
It is a view state Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson Township, shared.
“When you are talking about creating law that may or may not be of great significance to 87 out of 88 counties, I have real concern,” Eklund told the Geauga County Maple Leaf on April 21.
He said he would prefer proposed legislation go through a proper vetting process in both houses of the General Assembly, where legislators could ask questions and suggests amendments. The outcome would be legislation everyone is comfortable with that would provide a degree of clarity for judges to interpret.
Eklund also said he generally does not support amendments to the state budget bill that have no direct or indirect fiscal impact on the state budget.
State Rep. Sarah LaTourette, R-Chester Township, said Monday she believes Seitz’s proposal will be included in the substitute budget bill the Ohio House is expected to release this week.
“Whether or not you agree with the amendment, I feel very strongly that the budget is not the appropriate place for this conversation,” LaTourette said. “Many in Geauga County obviously have strong feelings on the topic and they, as well as many others around the state, deserve am opportunity to express those opinions during a full vetting of the bill. Such discussion can only take place if we remove this language from the budget and offer it as a stand-alone bill.”
She added, “The Ohio House will be sending a strong budget over to the Ohio Senate early next month and it’s my hope this language will not be a part of it.”
If it is, Eklund assured it would get a thorough review in the Ohio Senate.
Seitz told the Maple Leaf he did not first discuss or introduce his proposal in any house committee or subcommittee prior to its submission. Instead, he submitted it to Finance Committee Chair Ryan Smith, R-Bidwell, on or about April 7 — the last day amendments could be submitted.
Seitz said he did, however, discuss his proposal with Grendell and his office.
“The amendment went through several drafts to improve the due process protections afforded to persons believed to be interfering with the park district,” Seitz said.
On April 21, the Maple Leaf submitted a public records request with the Geauga County Probate Court to obtain all records related to those discussions. Kim Laurie, the court’s budget/fiscal director and county liaison, said last Friday Grendell was out of town and would address the request this week “as timely as possible.”
Critics of Seitz’s proposal call it another gross overreach of power by Grendell.
“If allowed to become part of the final budget bill, it will allow probate court judges even more expanded power over park districts and the ability to penalize and fine
groups that (Grendell) deems ‘interfering’ with the park district,” said Kathryn Hanratty, president of Protect Geauga Parks, a grassroots group that has been at odds with Grendell for several years over management of the county park system.
“In our opinion, this is an underhanded way to change the law without public scrutiny, meant to have a chilling effect on anyone who would dare to express dissent with any decision made by the judge or his appointed board,” Hanratty said. “The fact that this amendment was introduced in secret, with neither the writer nor the representative who introduced it taking ownership for their actions, is unconscionable.”
She added enforcement of the language might violate a citizen’s rights as guaranteed by the first, fourth and fifth amendments to the Constitution, and could result in a myriad of lawsuits.
State Rep. John Boccieri, D-Poland, was the first state legislator to publicly express his opposition to Seitz’s proposal, which he said would create penalties for people speaking out against a park district or park board.
Mahoning County residents have experienced similar troubles and issues with the county’s Mill Creek MetroParks as Geauga County residents have with Geauga Park District, he explained.
“I don’t think expanding the power of a judge over a quasi-governmental board, and also allowing them to quell dissent, is something the legislature needs to be moving,” Boccieri said of Seitz’s proposal. “This is a gross overreach, in my opinion, and it doesn’t serve the community well.”
He added, “It doesn’t serve judges well, to be honest with you, because it puts them in a very political posture that is just something outside their normal bailiwick, if you will.”
Seitz called Boccieri’s criticism “nonsense.”
“The judge already has the power to appoint and remove park commissioners, for any reason or no reason at all. This has been the law in Ohio for a long time,” Seitz said. “Having the judicial power to appoint and remove necessarily places the judge in a ‘political posture,’ but implicitly — and under my amendment, explicitly — includes the power to investigate and remediate mismanagement of the district that the court has created by the commissioners, who actually get more due process protection under the amendment than they have now because they are entitled under the amendment to notice and hearing that is not currently afforded to them.”
And while the proposal does not define what conduct would constitute “interference” with an order creating a park district or how a person could interfere with a park district’s purpose, Seitz said courts would define terms in accordance with their ordinary and customary usage, being mindful of any constitutional restraints.
“There is no way that persons or groups who write letters to the editors or otherwise criticize park districts or commissioners would be subjected to the jurisdiction and authority of the probate judge (under the proposal),” he said.
But Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist of the ACLU of Ohio, told WKSU — Kent State University’s NPR News public radio station — the language is unclear.
If the goal is not to quell dissent, “then that language really needs to be tightened in the statute because right now it’s unclear,” said Daniels.
“It talks about the ability of the probate court to ‘impose duties or restrictions on a person or party who interferes with the park district’s purposes,’” he explained.
Daniels told WKSU he could see the ACLU getting involved if the language remains as is, but said he hoped lawmakers would realize the current wording could quell dissent.