The following story originally appeared in the Geauga County Maple Leaf. Our thanks to the Maple Leaf for permission to republish the article here.
Geauga Maple Leaf
October 19, 2017
by John Karlovec
The lawyer for Russell Township has told Geauga County Probate Court Judge Tim Grendell his clients will not meet with him in Chardon to discuss the township park district.
However, they will meet with him in Russell Township at a location with sufficient capacity so that all residents who would like to attend the meeting could do so and speak their mind.
Last month, Grendell mailed a letter to trustees and Fiscal Officer Chuck Walder inviting them to come to his courtroom in Chardon and provide input into the selection of park commissioners on the probate court-appointed Ohio Revised Code Chapter 1545 park district.
“I am aware of your recent complaints about park board appointments, and as previously stated in my last invitation to host a meeting with you, it is my goal to work amicably with you and consider the issues you may have,” Grendell wrote in his Sept. 22 letter.
The Chapter 1545 Russell Township Park District currently has one opening on its three-member board and a second seat is expected to open in December, Grendell told the township officials.
Also last month, Grendell mailed a postcard to all township residents asking if anyone was interested in serving on the probate court-appointed park board. The postcard contained Grendell’s photo, signature and appeal for them to serve on the park board he oversees through appointments.
Township lawyer Todd Raskin, a partner in the Solon office of Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder Co., LPA, responded to Grendell’s invitation earlier this month. He cited several reasons why trustees Jim Mueller, Gary Gabram and Justin Madden, and Walder would not meet with Grendell in Chardon.
“The Geauga County (sic) Park District meets in the probate court and routinely refuses to allow the public to make any comment. Since the meeting is held in the courthouse, we must assume that the conduct of the park district, whose commissioners you appoint, is done with either your explicit or implicit approval,” Raskin told Grendell in an undated letter that was emailed to the Geauga County Maple Leaf on Oct. 8.
“We believe that stifling public comment is a violation of the First Amendment, and my clients, as elected officials of Russell Township, cannot countenance such conduct,” he explained.
Raskin also said the probate court was an inconvenient location for many Russell residents. He said if Grendell wished to meet with the elected township officials, then the meeting should take place in Russell, with proper notice to all township residents “in order to afford them the opportunity to be present and express their opinions in an open forum with minutes recording the positions articulated by all those who speak.”
In addition, Raskin said requiring township residents to be “scrutinized by a court security guard, enter the courtroom through a metal detector, forfeit possession of their cell phones to courtroom security, and subject themselves to the order of the judicial officer, which may stifle their freedom of expression, is consistent with good-governance in our opinion.”
“We believe the constitutional rights of the residents of Russell Township, and indeed all residents of Geauga County, are paramount and must not be subjugated to any effort to stifle or restrict their freedom to express themselves,” Raskin said.
In his Sept. 22 letter, Grendell said his courtroom is the appropriate location for the meeting because the statutory appointment process is a judicial function.
That is not a justification for a meeting at the courthouse, however, Raskin said.
There is precedent for Grendell convening court in a township for the public’s convenience.
In 2014, Grendell presided over an official court session in the Chester Township Park District matter. The hearing, which was held to present a master commissioner’s findings on certain park district issues, initially was convened in his courtroom, but later reconvened in Chester to accommodate the public.
As for complaints regarding Grendell’s park board appointments, Raskin reminded the judge his clients are on record in support of creating a township-controlled ORC Chapter 511 park district.
Russell voters will decide Nov. 7 whether to approve formation of their own park district whose members would be appointment by the township trustees.
“In the event that occurs . . . it is the intention of the township to initiate steps to dissolve the Chapter 1545 township park district,” explained Raskin. “My clients believe that a single park district, managed by park district commissioners appointed by the Russell Township Board of Trustees, will operate openly, efficiently and in the best interests of Russell Township residents.”
Raskin also told Grendell the township officials’ criticism of the Chapter 1545 park district and the judicial activism associated with it goes “far beyond” the court’s appointment or removal of park commissioners.
“The judicial activism has been characterized by Judge Lohn, sitting by assignment in the Chester Township case, as likely violating the separation of executive and judicial powers,” Raskin said. “The judicial interference with the operation of the 1545 (Chester Township) Park District, which was the subject of Judge Lohn’s opinion, is the foundation for the criticism of its operation by the Russell Township elected officials.”
Despite Lohn’s rebuke and a related unanimous decision from the 11th District Court of Appeals finding Grendell exceeded his jurisdiction in the Chester Township case, Raskin said it was apparent Grendell’s “thinking remains unchanged.”
“The best evidence of this is your support for House Bill 218, which seeks to vest in the probate court all of the powers and authority which Judge Lohn and the 11th District Court of Appeals clearly and unequivocally stated do not exist,” Raskin said.
On Oct. 13, the Maple Leaf emailed Kim Laurie, budget/fiscal director for the Geauga County Probate/Juvenile Court, to provide Grendell an opportunity to comment on Raskin’s letter. No comment was provided as of Monday’s deadline.
Also on Oct. 13, Cleveland Heights attorney Mark S. O’Brien filed a Designation of Treasurer form with the Geauga County Board of Elections on behalf of the Committee to Protect Russell Township Parks, a new political action committee, or PAC.
An email to O’Brien seeking comment on the PAC and to request the names of committee members has not been returned.
According to records obtained from the Geauga County Auditor’s Office, Grendell appoints O’Brien to handle matters in his court. Most recently, O’Brien was hired to provide legal services in a probate court case involving the Geauga Park District and the estate of Dorothy and Donald Felkin.