Geauga Maple Leaf
by Amy Patterson
June 13, 2019
The Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners has been accused of violating Ohio’s Open Meetings Law by entering into executive session last year to discuss leasing the majority of the real property owned by the probate court-appointed Russell Township Park District.
At its Oct. 23, 2018, meeting, the GPD board approved a contract placing about 376 acres of township park property in the hands of the county park system.
Last week, Susan O. Scheutzow, of Cleveland-based Kohrman, Jackson & Krantz, which represents Protect Geauga Parks, a citizens’ group dedicated to preservation and conservation of the county’s park land, wrote to Todd Hicks, a lawyer representing the GPD board, explaining her client’s position.
“Protect Geauga Parks is requesting that the Geauga Parks Board declare the action leasing the property from Russell Parks invalid, and if it chooses to revisit the issue, that it does so in a meeting that properly complies with Ohio’s Open Meetings Law,” Scheutzow wrote in her June 5 letter.
She added failure to correct this action or continued violation of the open meetings laws — or Sunshine Laws — could lead to a request for court intervention to invalidate the lease and to enjoin the GPD board from future violations.
“Litigation on this matter is not the first choice of Protect Geauga Parks,” she wrote.
At their Oct. 23 meeting, park commissioners claimed their reason for entering into executive session was to discuss the acquisition of real property by leasing, which Scheutzow said is not a permissible reason for an executive session under the Ohio Revised Code.
The general rule is that all meetings of public bodies must be open to the public. If a public body wants to hold a closed session, it must specifically identify one of the seven-area exemptions.
“Leases and purchases are two distinct legal concepts with leases only providing the lessee with the right to use property, while purchase include transferring title and ownership of property to the purchaser,” she wrote. “Had the legislature intended executive session to be extended to other types of acquisition of property it would have so stated.”
Once an injunction has been issued, Scheutzow said, any subsequent violation of the law would provide the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office or the Ohio Attorney General’s Office with the ability to file an action to remove county park commissioners who continue or threaten to continue to violate the law.
Scheutzow reminded Hicks of an earlier complaint about violations to the open meetings laws. In February 2017, she wrote to David Ondrey, who then represented the county park board, with documentation of another violation.
Protect Geauga Parks, she said, is “becoming increasingly frustrated” by what they characterize as a continued flagrant violation of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws, and would prefer the resources of GPD be used to benefit the parks and not for legal defense of the board.
“I hope this will encourage the park district to follow the Sunshine Laws for public meetings,” Barbara Zaas Partington, a trustee of Protect Geauga Parks, wrote in an email.
Monday night the Geauga County Maple Leaf emailed Hicks requesting comment regarding Scheutzow’s allegations that the county park board has violated Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. He had did not replied with any comments as of Tuesday’s deadline.