The following story appeared on Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times and Geauga Times Courier on June 15, 2017. Our thanks to the Chagrin Valley Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
Posted: Wednesday, June 14, 2017 11:45 pm
By JOAN DEMIRJIAN
Ohio House Bill 218 – a measure that would give probate judges statewide greater powers over operations of park districts created through their courts – is seeing opposition from Geauga political parties and elected officials.
Many have said that the extended powers set out in the bill constitute judicial overreach and an unnecessary expansion of a county probate court judge’s authority over local park districts.
The Geauga County Democratic Party has voiced opposition to the bill while the Geauga Republican Party was expected to take a stand this week.
The bill is before the Ohio House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, and was introduced by Ohio Rep. William Seitz, R-Cincinnati.
His introduction of HB 218 followed the failure of an amendment to the biennium state budget bill concerning park districts established under Ohio Revised Code Section 1545. The amendment was removed by the House.
Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell spoke on behalf of the bill last week in Columbus. Opposition testimony is expected to take place at a date to be set, according to local officials.
“Why does a probate court judge need additional authority?” asked Jim Dickinson, a member of the Geauga Democratic Party and a former Russell Township trustee. “People are always amazed that a probate court judge appoints park commissioners,” he said. “I think township trustees should appoint park commissioners, and at the county level, there should be a direct election.
“I don’t see a need for more (judicial) authority in dealing with parks,” Mr. Dickinson said. “We had such a good relationship with Judge Henry,” he said of the late Geauga Probate Judge Charles “Chip” Henry who appointed commissioners for both the Russell park and Geauga Park District.
Some Geauga County residents have been critical of Judge Grendell’s appointments and involvement with park districts in Geauga, Russell and Chester and thus are watching action on HB 218 closely.
Chardon Mayor Nancy McArthur said she testified against the proposal in May when it was an amendment to the Ohio budget bill. Also speaking against the amendment were Chester Trustee Ken Radtke and Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz.
She noted that Rep. Seitz is good friends with Judge Grendell. “He’s taking this on to fight for this change, and I don’t understand it. “
The Geauga Republican Party was planning to meet Tuesday to discuss and vote on the matter. “I anticipate strong opposition to it,” Mayor McArthur said. “I don’t think there is a need to change the law to accommodate one judge because he needs more power to control.”
She agreed that park commissioners should run for election much like school board seats. In some cases, Mayor McArthur said, they control large budgets.
Mrs. McArthur said the Geauga Park District board “has been quite dysfunctional since he (Judge Grendell) got involved.”
There has been a turnover of commissioners, she said, making it difficult to have consistency on the board. “The judge shouldn’t be micromanaging the park district,” she said. “He (Judge Grendell) is appointing his friends.
“I’m against giving this probate court judge additional powers over the park district and there is no reason to change the law,” Mayor McArthur said.
Rep. Seitz said the existing Ohio Revised Code does not provide explicit authority for probate judges if a dispute arises concerning the park district. He cited the case involving Chester Township and Judge Grendell.
He said more than $100,000 of taxpayers’ money was wasted in attorney’s fees. HB 218 will codify and clarify the Ohio Supreme Court’s ruling involving the Chester Township park district, according to Rep. Seitz.
He said the proposed bill allows the probate judge to appoint a master commissioner to investigate alleged wrong-doings. It does not impose criminal sanctions such as jail time or fines on parties, Rep. Seitz said, as cited by those who oppose the bill. The bill only allows a probate judge to issue an injunction or declaratory judgment as an appropriate remedy, he said.
The bill proposes that a probate court enforce the court’s order that created the park district. A probate court judge could investigate matters involving the park district either through a court hearing or through a special commissioner if a written request is made to the court by a majority of park commissioners.
In his testimony last week before the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee, Judge Grendell noted that under Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545.06, the Ohio Legislature in 1953 made probate judges ultimately responsible for the park districts.
It does not, however, give specific guidance to probate judges as to how to deal with problems such as noncompliance, violations of the court order creating the park district or third-party interference with the park board’s oversight of the park district, he said.
The code requires the approval of the probate judge for the sale of park property by the park board. “What happens if a rogue park district sells land to a third party without probate court approval,” he said.
“The practical effect of HB 218 when coupled with the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision is to provide county probate judges with the necessary framework to ensure that local park districts comply with Ohio law,” Judge Grendell said in his testimony.
The Ohio Probate Judges Law and Policy Committee voted on June 5 to support HB 218.
Judge Grendell said the bill as proposed or amended to address township parks will ensure that judicial and constitutional framework is in place to protect Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545 park districts.
Janet Carson, chairwoman of the Geauga County Democratic Party, said the executive committee last week passed a resolution opposing the bill. It will go to the party’s central committee for consideration.
“Across Ohio there isn’t a problem that necessitates this type of legislation for a fix,” Mrs. Carson said. Situations can come and go and can be worked out amicably through reasonable discussion and cooperation,” she said.
“We don’t want to pass legislation for an issue that comes up locally rather than statewide,” she said. There should be discussions, cooperation and mediation to take care of the issues locally.”
Russell Trustee James Mueller is on the county Democratic party’s legislative service commission and made the motion to oppose the bill. “The bill is clearly a bill to justify all the crazy things he’s (Judge Grendell) been doing to the parks.
“It gives him the power to control county and township park boards,” Mr. Mueller said of HB 218. “He removed two Russell park commissioners, replacing them with individuals with no experience on conservation and preservation of land.
“It gives him additional authority, and if you voice your opposition, he can put you in jail,” Mr. Mueller said.
Hopefully, the Ohio legislature will understand that the bill only applies to Geauga County and will only harm other places, he added.
Russell resident Shelley Chernin noted that state Rep. Sarah LaTourette, R-Chester, and state Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, have voiced opposition to the concepts behind HB 218 when it was an amendment.
Russell Township has taken action to create a park district under Ohio Revised Code Section 511 in which trustees appoint park commissioners. Trustees appointed a board to draft regulations for the new district and voters will have the final say.
Dave and Barb Partington, members of Protect Geauga Parks, have opposed the bill. Mrs. Partington said she will submit a written testimony and request to give verbal testimony before the committee.
“I think it is important to follow through on this issue, from beginning to end,” Mrs. Partington said. “My No. 1 concern is judicial over-reach.
“This is a waste of money,” she said. “It is potentially damaging to residents and elected officials who are concerned with parks in our county.”