The following article originally appeared on Chagrin Valley Today, the website of the Chagrin Valley Times and Geauga Times Courier. Our thanks to the Times for permission to republish the article here.
Chagrin Valley Times
Wednesday, July 26, 2017
By JOAN DEMIRJIAN
Geauga County Probate Court Judge Timothy Grendell invited Russell trustees to meet with him at the Geauga County Courthouse to talk about the township park district.
Township trustees said they would willingly meet with the judge, but only in a meeting open to the public. They invited Judge Grendell to schedule a meeting to attend a regular township trustee session.
Judge Grendell responded in a second letter that his first communication may have been “misunderstood or misinterpreted” because his initial letter said nothing about a closed-door meeting with township trustees.
No meeting had been set as of early this week.
Russell has a park district that was established in 1984 under section 1545 of the Ohio Revised Code which calls for the county probate judge to appoint commissioners. Recent appointments by Judge Grendell have caused debate in the township.
Now, township trustees are in the process of forming a second park district under section 511 of the Ohio Revised Code in which they would have the authority to appoint commissioners. After a petition was accepted, trustees named commissioners who are drafting a foundation for the district; voters will get the final say via a ballot issue on Nov. 7.
In his first letter, Judge Grendell said the formation of a second township park district will result in an unnecessary additional expense to taxpayers and duplication of services. He noted that pending House Bill 218, pertaining to 1545 park districts and the responsibilities of probate court judges, actually increases township trustees’ authority regarding the park districts.
Judge Grendell’s letter to trustees had a June 19 date but was released to the press before being delivered to Russell trustees.
Trustees responded to Judge Grendell in a letter from their legal counsel, Todd Raskin, who said the township learned of the judge’s invitation to meet with them when contacted by various members of the media who were seeking comment. Mr. Raskin said it was difficult to comment on a document not yet received.
Mr. Raskin asked the judge to direct his staff with regard to written communications to “refrain from releasing the communication to the media until my clients and I have at least had the opportunity to receive it and review it.”
In his correspondence to the judge, Mr. Raskin said the trustees respectfully decline the judge’s initial invitation. “We believe that such a meeting would violate the Open Meetings Act in Ohio,” he said.
The Russell Township Trustees believe in complete transparency, he said, and for that reason will not meet in a closed-door session. Trustees do want to hear what the judge has to say about the park district created 33 years ago, the attorney said.
Trustees invited the judge to schedule an open meeting and requested advanced notice so the session can be publicized to residents. Trustees want to ensure there is time to secure a meeting room to accommodate the public.
Mr. Raskin noted that the trustees do not agree that the formation of a second township park district will result in unnecessary additional expense to taxpayers or a duplication of services.
Once a Chapter 511 township park district is approved by township voters, it is the intention of the township to initiate steps to dissolve the Chapter 1545 township park district, Mr. Raskin noted in his letter to Judge Grendell.
Trustees believe that a single park district managed by park district commissioners appointed by the Russell trustees will operate “openly, efficiently and in the best interest of Russell Township residents,” Mr. Raskin said.
He also noted that House Bill 218, currently being considered by lawmakers in Columbus, does not give township trustees greater authority with respect to Chapter 1545 park district. It would allow the court to investigate any “interference” with the park district, Mr. Raskin said. It violates the doctrine of separation of powers doctrine “which is fundamental to our tripartite system in the United States,” he said.
In a written response, Judge Grendell said he is cognizant and respectful of the trustees’ duty to comply with open meeting laws and his meeting with township trustees would hold “true to the parameters set forth within,” he said.
He also noted that the updated language of House Bill 218 in Columbus will make it easier to dissolve the Chapter 1545 park district.
Judge Grendell included the updated language of the bill with the section that he said grants trustees the ability to petition the court to dissolve the park district.
His invitation to host an “open and transparent meeting with the trustees at the court still stands,” he said. For security reasons the court remains the best location to conduct the meeting, Judge Grendell said adding that his goal is to work amicably with the trustees.
Trustee Justin Madden said Judge Grendell is welcome to come to a Russell Trustees meeting and express his views. If he wants to be heard, the judge could be placed on the agenda and have the floor to talk, Mr. Madden said.
“We are not opposed to a conversation,” Mr. Madden said, but it must be in open session.
Mr. Madden maintained that trustees do not agree that the new 511 park district would duplicate existing park serves or cost taxpayers more money, as the judge has asserted.
At their regular meeting July 19, Russell trustees took formal action to place the issue on the Nov. 7 general election ballot asking voters to decide whether the new 511 park district should be established in the township.
Trustees in April of this year voted to appoint residents Betsy Rader, Erik Gerard and Roy Podojil to serve as commissioners for the new district.