Trustees exploring ways to challenge park leasing pact

The following article was originally published 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 Today
  • Updated 

Russell Township Trustees met with the Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz on Oct. 25 in an executive session to discuss options in regards to the Ohio Revised Code 1545 Russell Township Park District’s decision to lease most of its land to the Geauga Park District.

No decisions on possible actions were made public as of early this week.

Trustees have expressed opposition to a decision made by park commissioners Scott Wayt, Donna Weiss Carson and Dennis Suhay on Oct. 22 for the 15-year lease. The county park board approved the agreement as well last week.

Though trustees have no control over the Russell Township Park Board, township Trustee Justin Madden called the lease highly questionable.

Russell Township Park District was created under Ohio Revised Code section 1545 in 1984 with board members appointed by the sitting county probate judge, a seat now held by Timothy Grendell.

“These recent events make it all the more clear why our Russell residents overwhelmingly supported the creation of our 511 park board,” Mr. Madden said of the Russell Township Citizens Park Board created by voters under ORC section 511 last year with board members appointed by trustees.

“It makes it all the more clear why residents should support the 0.25-mill park levy for the 511 park board on Nov. 6.”

Some residents want the 1545 park board to be dissolved and its land taken over by the 511 park board. But officials have said in such a case state law calls for the land to initially be offered to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources if the 1545 district is ever dissolved. If ODNR rejects the land, it could be directed to a local political subdivision such as Russell Township or Geauga County. It is the probate court’s sole decision as to the entity to take ownership, according to state law.

Russell Trustee Jim Mueller said trustees are evaluating the legal ramifications and options they have.

“I believe the 1545 park board is guilty of misfeasance and malfeasance in not giving proper consideration to Russell residents the rights to their own parkland,” Mr. Mueller said. He believes the decision could be appealed legally.

“I’m sick about it,” he said, noting he believes the 1545 park district has enough money to get by on and operate the parklands. “This was a setup. All we have to do is prove it.”

Mr. Wayt, chairman of the 1545 board, said his district will not have enough money to maintain its 422 acres of land now that the Geauga County Budget Commission refused to certify the park district’s 2019 budget due to minor accounting errors. That means even if a proposed 1-mill levy is approved on Nov. 6, the district cannot get revenue for two years.

Mr. Mueller said he believes Judge Grendell influenced the decision to lease the land. “He controls both ends of the equation, with the Geauga Park District and 1545 Park District.”

But Judge Grendell said this week that the leasing agreement “is outside my jurisdiction. I don’t have a vote. Only the three Russell citizens sitting on the park board can make the decision. It was theirs to be made.” The judge invited Mr. Mueller to produce evidence.

“The 1545 park board has its own legal counsel and I don’t have a vote,” Judge Grendell said, adding that he never discussed the lease agreement issue with 1545 board members.

“There are people making up things about the parks, and there is nothing I can do about it,” Judge Grendell said.

The judge did say that the Geauga Park District can now provide the maintenance, botanists to preserve the areas and an additional ranger without cost to Russell. “I would think that is a good thing. The Russell residents will have the benefit of the county park’s extensive services to protect the land at no additional costs,” Judge Grendell added.

Barbara Berkley, who lives near the Modroo parkland under the 1545 board, said she is concerned about the leasing. “Having been involved with the preservation of Russell parklands, I find it deeply upsetting that the land would pass out of Russell’s control.”

Residents who have opposed the leasing of township parks are exploring legal options, said resident Shelley Chernin. “Everyone wants to know what to do.”

Residents question the use of their tax money from the 1545 park being used by the Geauga Park District for managing the Russell parklands, Ms. Chernin said.

“My primary concern is losing control over our township parks,” she said. “And the Geauga Park District does not allow public comment at their meetings. We can’t even go and tell them our concerns.”

She has a particular concern about future development at the Modroo parkland. A trail is acceptable but not more, Ms. Chernin noted. There is a Western Reserve Land Conservancy easement on the property and the easement allows a gazebo or pavilion, horseback riding and ball fields.

The Geauga Park District has quite a bit of money now, she noted. They have done little in the way of land purchases, but have invested in other development in county parks. “The Geauga Park District might be happy in spending money at Modroo and we will have no say,” Ms. Chernin said.

Resident Sharmyn Clark said, “I think we should proceed with legal action. This is the worst, most underhanded move.

“I personally feel like my property has been robbed from me. I’m heartbroken, angry, resentful, and I want vengeance,” she said.

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