The following editorial comment appeared in the Chagrin Valley Times today, April 27, 2017. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
The author of one particular amendment to the Ohio Budget Bill initially was a mystery. Some said it was made on behalf of the GOP. Eventually we learned that state Rep. William Seitz, a Republican from the Cincinnati area, sponsored HC1793.
In simple terms, the amendment would allow a probate judge who appoints members of specific park boards to fine, or punish in other ways, ordinary citizens who the judge determines are interfering with park district business.
This amendment is clearly a matter of judicial overreach and a disturbing violation of First Amendment free speech rights.
There are a number of people who join our deep concern about this proposal. The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio stands ready to file an objection on the grounds that this amendment could silence people who fear being punished for voicing their opinion.
This is not what America is about.
So when did park boards become so controversial? Generally board members are volunteers who keep an eye on the books and make sure the parks are operational.
In Geauga County, upheaval between some residents and park board members is becoming all too familiar. We see it with the Geauga County Park District, the Russell Township park and the Chester Township park. One common denominator in all those parks is Geauga Probate Judge Timothy Grendell, who has the legal responsibility of appointing members to these three separate boards. Judges in the past have made appointments and then let board members do their jobs.
But lately we have seen park board members come and go under the current probate judge.
We also have seen the Geauga Park District board change rules eliminating the portion of meetings where residents ask questions or speak their minds.
Which bring us back to HC1793.
Rep. Seitz, who by the way worked closely with Judge Grendell when both men were in the Ohio House of Representatives, defended his proposal saying it clarifies an April 2016 ruling of the Ohio Supreme Court.
That ruling involved Chester Township Trustees, the Chester park board and Judge Grendell. The High Court held that a probate judge does not lack jurisdiction to issue orders attempting to correct activities by park board members and township trustees that may be contrary to the original purpose of the park district.
The Chester situation is complicated and fodder for another day.
Our concern today is the amendment that could allow judicial overreach, impact park boards statewide and violate basic rights. Tucked in a budget bill, it will get virtually no debate.
This amendment is a direct violation of citizens’ rights to free speech under the Constitution and is a way to eliminate open public participation in a governmental body that is supported by tax dollars.
Free speech is paramount to our democratic process; it’s part of the checks and balances that safeguards against abuse of power. We see this amendment as a backhanded way to crush the public’s voice and give probate courts direct control of daily park operations.
People should be free to make comments about spending, operations and policies.
Use your voice to contact your state representatives and urge them to stop this amendment.