Proposal to Expand Probate Court Powers Pulled from Budget Bill

The story below appeared on the website of the Geauga County Maple Leaf on Monday, May 2, 2017. Our thanks to the MapleLeaf for their permission to republish the article here.



Citizens and elected officials from Northeast Ohio unified against all party boundaries to express their opposition to proposed legislation that would have expanded probate court judges’ jurisdiction over park districts.

On Monday, their calls, emails, letters and testimony paid off, as the Ohio House Finance Committee voted to adopt an amendment state Rep. Sarah LaTourette introduced April 28 to remove the proposal altogether from the state budget bill, House Bill 49.

“Last Friday, I submitted an amendment to remove the provision relating to probate courts and park districts from the budget bill. That language was accepted and the probate provision was no longer included in the final bill voted out of the House Finance Committee with bipartisan support on Monday,” LaTourette, R-Chester Township, told the Geauga County Maple Leaf on Tuesday.

The Ohio House will now vote on the budget and send it over to the Ohio Senate for consideration.

“The Ohio Senate will put its stamp on the budget over the next month and, while I don’t believe this amendment will find its way back into the discussion, it is always a possibility,” she explained.

LaTourette also forewarned she expected to see the proposed amendment introduced as a stand-alone bill at some point during the current General Assembly.

“I look forward to the opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on this topic,” she said. “Interestingly, this amendment appears to have initiated a larger conversation among members of the General Assembly regarding park districts and whether or not the probate court should be involved in their administration at all.”

She noted several legislators are looking into the issue further.

“I deeply appreciate the efforts of those persons from all of Geauga County who took the time to call, email or write to our office with respect to the park system,” state Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, told the Geauga County Maple Leaf Monday night. “Their concerns were heard loud and clear, as evidenced by the action of the Ohio House.”

The proposed legislation, which initially was added to the substitute budget bill, would have authorized a probate court to issue an order preventing interference with the court’s order creating a park district. It also would allow the court to impose duties or restrictions on those deemed to have interfered with a park district’s purpose.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, sponsored the proposal and worked with Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell in drafting the language.

Seitz said his proposal merely clarified and codified an April 2016 Ohio Supreme Court decision that held probate courts have implied powers to issue orders involving park districts.

But critics of the proposal complained it had nothing to do with the state budget and everything to do with Seitz coming to the aid of his longtime friend, Grendell, whose exercise of powers over park districts has been rebuked in a case pending in the 11th District Court of Appeals.

Following two days of open testimony last week on the budget bill, Seitz submitted a revised proposal to the House Finance Committee removing some of the most controversial language from his legislation.

However, committee members voted not to accept Seitz’s revised language, opting instead to adopt LaTourette’s amendment, which she jointly submitted with a bi-partisan group of Republican and Democratic legislators.

Seitz’s office vowed last Friday the proposed legislation would be introduced as a stand-alone bill if it were not included in the final budget bill approved in the Ohio House.

On Tuesday, Seitz told the Maple Leaf he has been promised commentary from the probate court judges association on his revised amendment by June 6, “in time to get the bill passed either as a stand-alone bill or in conference committee.”

“Kudos to Sarah LaTourette for stopping this expansion of governmental power,” Geauga County Republican Party Chairman Nancy McArthur said Tuesday. “It’s inappropriate for a sitting judge to be a party to proposed legislation that would further increase his own authority. It’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional and the citizens of Geauga County expect and deserve better from an elected official.”

Munson Township resident Kathleen Webb called the removal of the proposal “a triumph for democracy — and non-partisan democracy no less.”

“The Seitz-Grendell proposal certainly did not belong in the budget bill, and it would be bad law no matter how and where it was introduced,” said Webb, who submitted written testimony urging the removal of the amendment.

She explained Geauga residents and supporters of Protect Geauga Parks, a grassroots group that has been at odds with Grendell over his management of the county park system, clearly saw why Seitz introduced his legislation.

“It’s the attempt by our probate judge to make his illegal and immoral actions legal by sleight-of-hand,” Webb said. “Seitz and Grendell tried to pull a fast one on the people of Ohio, but they were caught in the act.”

She added, “We know better than to think this is over. We’ll be alert to future attempts to push this proposal through again. Actually, each time this proposal comes forward will create an opportunity to engage and enrage more citizens through discussion and education.”

PGP President Kathryn Hanratty, of Chardon Township, said it would be best if Seitz’s “misguided” proposal were left to die, rather than reintroduced as a stand-alone bill.

“If it is reintroduced, I hope that all of the state legislators will recognize it as purely a bad bill that does not deserve to become law,” she said.

Hanratty urged lawmaker to consider changing Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545, which governs park districts, to remove park districts from the jurisdiction of the probate court.

“The past few years have demonstrated how dangerous it can be to have one person, with no checks and balances, able to take over control, when that person happens to be power hungry,” Hanratty said. “It would be ideal to have more than one person charged with the selection of board members, to have some criteria spelled out on the qualifications of park board members and to require a transparent decision-making process from the board.”

Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, who testified in person before the committee last week, commended LaTourette’s effort and commitment.

“I was also impressed with the House Finance Committee members who took the time to listen to the testimony and reach the right decision,” he said. “The right of citizens to criticize government is a bedrock principle of our republic.”

Chester Township Trustee Ken Radtke thanked several legislators, including state Rep. John Boccieri, D-Poland, who were vigilant in identifying this “back-handed” effort to revise legislation as part of the budget bill.

“This change would have granted the probate judge sweeping powers,” Radtke said.

He also thanked LaTourette for her efforts and for affording him an opportunity to provide oral testimony to the House Finance Committee.

He added, “Additionally, I’d like to thank Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz for his testimony, which I believe was crucial in bringing awareness to our legislators of this power grab.”

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