Geauga Maple Leaf
June 22, 2017
By Gwen Cooper
Officials Skeptical of Judge’s Motives
In the latest saga over control of Russell Township parks, Geauga County Probate Court Judge Tim Grendell has extended an invitation to township trustees to meet with him to discuss Russell’s probate court-appointed park district.
Formed in 1984, the Russell Township Park District was created under Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545, which allows for the creation of a legal entity, separate and apart from the township, whose board members are appointed by — and answerable to — the county probate court judge.
Trustee Gary Gabram, who also served as a township trustee in 1984, was a signatory to the original petition creating the 1545 park district.
Last summer, trustees initiated action to establish a township-controlled park district under ORC Chapter 511, which did not become state law until 10 years after the township’s 1545 park district was formed.
Appointed by township trustees, the ad hoc Russell Township Park Committee, consisting of Erik Gerard, Betsy Rader and Roy Podojil, held its organizational meeting Sept. 12. Podojil, a 16-year member of the Chapter 1545 park district, resigned from that board in Febuary 2016.
“The formation of a second township park district will result in an unnecessary additional expense to township taxpayers and duplication of services,” Grendell said in his June 19 letter, which was emailed to the media before trustees received it.
The judge also expressed confusion about why trustees do not “appear to support the current park district,” especially because Gabram signed the 1984 petition.
Trustee Jim Mueller expressed skepticism about Grendell’s motives.
“If he truly wanted to discuss this, he could just call instead of mailing a letter to us and the media at the same time,” Mueller said. “In the last two and a half years since he became a judge, Grendell expanded his role with all of the parks in the county, which many feel is judicial overreach. His actions to take control over the parks and change their direction against the wishes of the residents speak louder than his words.”
Last August, Grendell agreed to step down from presiding over an investigation into whether township trustees had interfered with the Chapter 1545 park district’s efforts to purchase Modroo Farms. Mueller sought to have the judge removed from the case because Grendell had made negative public comments about him.
The township park board ultimately withdrew its request for a hearing after it reached an agreement to purchase more than 50 acres of the Modroo property.
In his June 19 letter, Grendell said he understands trustees believe he is “overly controlling of the township park district.”
“This, of course, is not true,” he said. “In fact, I continually see to appoint park district board members who are residents of Russell Township and dedicated to serve the Russell Township community.”
However, all of Grendell’s initial appointments to the three-member park board have resigned after serving less than 18 months, Mueller noted.
Linda O’Brien is the most recent to abruptly resign amid questions residents are asking of the park district’s budget and invoices for legal fees.
Charlie Butters resigned in April after serving less than 14 months. He was in charge of the board’s books. Grendell replaced him with Greg Studen, a 30-plus-year Russell resident and former township trustee.
David Genske resigned due to an impending move outside the township. Grendell replaced him with Georg Abakumov, a nine-year township resident and general practice attorney.
A second township official, who asked to remain anonymous, said if Grendell is not controlling, then why did he ask for a meeting rather than his appointed park commissioners.
“Is this another case of him stepping over his appointed park board to gain more control?” the official asked.
Mueller said he sees no purpose in meeting with Grendell.
“He wants us to back away from establishing our own park board, and we want to govern our own parks according to the wishes of our residents,” said Mueller. “I don’t see either side budging.”
In his June 19 letter, Grendell said he wanted to meet to discuss the 1545 park district in an “open, honest and constructive manner.”
He also said he has been working with state Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, to update the language of House Bill 218 — which seeks to expand a probate court’s powers and duties over park districts — to give township trustees the ability to petition the court to dissolve a Chapter 1545 park district in the same way they can now petition to create one.
“Rather than give probate courts additional powers over Chapter 1545, as is erroneously reported by the agenda-driven media and local activists, the current version of this bill would actually increase the power of township trustees regarding township park districts,” Grendell claimed.
An initial version of the proposed legislation was snuck into the state budget bill, but was pulled out when it drew public criticism for provisions that would limit residents’ interaction and democratic process with their park boards.
State Rep. Sarah LaTourette, R-Chester Township, who opposes HB 218, said the version of the bill Grendell included in his letter to trustees is not, in fact, the version that was introduced and currently pending in the House Government Accountability and Oversight Committee.
“Although it is the sponsor’s intent to add this language to his bill, that is not the current version,” LaTourette said.
The current version does not limit its application only to township park districts and does not give trustees the ability to petition the court to dissolve a Chapter 1545 park district.
LaTourette explained for the house committee to amend Seitz’s bill with the proposed language, a third hearing must be scheduled before the committee. No such hearing has been scheduled.
Russell voters will decide whether or not to approve the proposed Chapter 511 township-appointed park board in the November general election.
John Karlovec contributed to this article.