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 11:45 pm
By JOSEPH KOZIOL JR.
Guess who’s on Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell’s new park advisory committee?
Although Judge Grendell announced in the summer edition of the Geauga Park District’s “Voices of Nature” newsletter that he has a “diverse group” now ready to advise him on park matters, he is refusing to say who those advisers are.
“I am pleased to announce that a diverse group of Geauga County citizen ‘advisors’ have agreed to provide me with input and advice as to our wonderful parks,” he wrote in the newsletter. “If you have some issue or concern about the county parks that you want this volunteer citizens group to examine, please forward your request to the Park Advisory Group at the Court’s address above.”
When asked what citizens have been appointed to the advisory committee, the court responded: “The list of advisory committee members will be released publicly when they have their first meeting, which is anticipated to be very soon.”
When asked again, the court again refused, saying, “Out of respect for the process and to allow the committee to have autonomy from the court, the committee will determine how best to communicate the info and when.”
After a third request, a list of all those who applied was provided, but not those selected.
“Here is a list of everyone who responded to the announcement (Judge Grendell only has personal knowledge of two of them): Jack Smith, Barb Jenkins, Kevin Peterca, Steven Vieira, Joanne Wisesner, Annie Harland, Kirk Stemple, Stan Peikos, Don Hofstetter, Rich Jordan, Jim McAllister, Craig Magas and Joy Black. The committee members were selected from this list.”
The court also addressed what the committee hopes to accomplish.
“The committee was formed simply to address concerns from members of a local activist group about the judge exercising his statutory oversight duties unilaterally, even though that is what the statute provides,” the court wrote. “While members of the group complain, none of them took advantage of the opportunity to participate.”
Russell resident Shelley Chernin, who is a member of Protect Geauga Parks, the group referred to in the court’s response, got a special invitation to join the judge’s advisory group, but said no thanks.
Ms. Chernin said she received a personal invite to join the group while at the court, picking up a public records request. Court constable John Ralph asked her to consider joining the committee, she said.
“I told him that I might consider it if the committee reported to the park commissioners because it is the park commissioners who have the direct authority to make decisions regarding the mission and the management of the park district, not the judge,” Ms. Chernin explained her reason for declining.
She said past court rulings have stated that the county probate judge has limited authority when it comes to county and township parks.
“The judge only has the authority to appoint and remove commissioners, and, as the judge (Grendell) often says, he does not micromanage the parks,” Ms. Chernin said. “I’m sure that he must be far too busy with his duties as judge of the probate and juvenile courts to get involved in the day-to-day operations of the park district, yet the advisory committee reports to him – an official without the authority to affect park district operations except through the appointment and removal of commissioners.”
Ms. Chernin said she believes it is only meant to appear that the judge is listening to the public’s concerns. “I see the current advisory committee as a public relations ploy, a toothless committee that can have no influence over park district decisions, but that will allow the judge to say that he’s listening to public concerns.”
She questioned whether any recommendations the committee makes can be implemented.
“What will happen if the advisory committee says, for example, ‘We would like to see more naturalists added to the park staff rather than spending money on building more parking lots?’ ” she asked. “Absolutely nothing will happen because the judge has no authority to hire staff or to approve project plans. I won’t waste my time on such a powerless committee.”
Ms. Chernin said there is a way for the public to be heard, but this is not the way. Resuming the public’s right to comment or question the park board, a practice that was discontinued two years ago, is a good start, she said.
“If the advisory committee reported to the park commissioners, at least they would be reporting to the people with authority to make decisions regarding the park district,” Ms. Chernin said. “Of course, if the park commissioners had any interest in hearing from the public, they would permit public comment at their meetings. The (park) commissioners have shown that they’re not interested in public input, and while the judge may be interested, he does not have the power to do anything other than listen.”