Commentary: Amendment not needed

Chagrin Valley Times

June 27, 2019

Geauga County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Grendell has been embroiled in a dispute with the Geauga Auditor’s Office about oversight of court spending.

The issue came to a head last year when Geauga Auditor Charles Walder questioned bills submitted by Judge Grendell’s court. Judge Grendell’s administrator, Kimberly Laurie, says the county auditor delayed or denied the payment of more than 60 bills. She maintains that the court’s spending is legal, transparent and needs no oversight from the county auditor specifically for spending from proceeds of court fines and grants.

Ohio House Rep. William Seitz, R-Cincinnati, entered the picture when he proposed an amendment to House Bill 166 that would remove language from Ohio Revised Code section 319.16 requiring judges to submit evidentiary evidence when presenting bills to an auditor. Evidentiary evidence is defined as receipts, bills, invoices, copies of contracts and other such documents.

Last week, the Ohio Senate Committee removed the amendment by Rep. Seitz, a former colleague of Judge Grendell when he was serving in the House. Now, a letter from the Ohio Judicial Conference states that Judge Grendell worked with state Auditor Keith Faber on additional language to protect the Ohio auditor’s authority to audit state courts. HB 166 Conference Committee could consider this revised amendment.

This situation is getting out of hand and should be worked out on the local level with cool heads prevailing. Our concern with Rep. Seitz’s amendment is that it could remove vital safeguards that protect Ohio taxpayers’ dollars now and for years to come.

Besides the Ohio Judicial Conference, we have not seen any significant statewide support for this proposed amendment.

But we have seen much local opposition.

Geauga Treasurer Christopher Hitchcock stated in a letter to the Ohio Senate Finance Committee that the amendment addresses a problem that does not exist. The change would “turn court orders into blank checks for limitless spending,” he said.

Alan Harold, Stark County auditor and president of the County Auditors’ Association of Ohio, said changing the law would erode the public’s trust.

In an opinion requested by the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost upheld a county auditor’s role to oversee payments from the county treasury.

Not long ago, a former chief technology officer in Geauga was charged with embezzling $1.8 million of public funds. That case has made local officials vigilant about spending oversight on all levels.

Kate Jacob, chief compliance officer in the Geauga auditor’s office, must have had this in mind when she stated, “Our county experienced nine years of embezzlement. We would hope that all Geauga County officials would willingly comply with legal requirements.”

We are confounded why Judge Grendell’s court is pushing this issue so hard.

Just last month, Judge Grendell added the Geauga County Commissioners to the list of government officials that he claims have no authority to oversee court spending other than the money coming from the general fund.

County Administrator Gerald Morgan referred the matter to the prosecutor’s office and stated that until otherwise advised, commissioners will continue to follow practices in place.

Oversight is and should be a fact of life for all arms of government. Changing the state law in this case is not necessary and could be detrimental in the future.

As Mrs. Jacob stated, the county auditor’s office “has a duty under the law to protect the Geauga County treasury. No one is above the law.”

Categories: Commentary

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