I am deeply disappointed that we were unable to pass the Russell Citizens’ Park District levy. The official vote was close in an election with a low turnout (32.59% in Russell) and much confusion about when, where and how to vote. Two out of 5 voting precincts voted in favor of the levy. We are a divided community.
I disagree with Charlie Butters’ conclusion in his letter to the editor that the voters’ message is clear. While I suspect Charlie and I agree that healing the divisions in the community in respect to our parks would be a wonderful thing, I don’t believe that denying divisions exist is the way to get to that shared goal. Instead, I would like share some of my responses to Charlie’s letter in the hope of shining light on our differences in a way that will help the community to understand our perspectives.
Charlie and I have a fundamental difference in our understanding of what parks are and what Ohio park districts can and should do. Our original Russell Township Park District (RTPD) was established in 1984 under Chapter 1545 of the Ohio Revised Code, which is the successor to the original 1919 statute authorizing the establishment of park districts “in order to provide for the preservation of natural resources.” Thus, Ohio historically has intended that its park districts’ primary purpose be the preservation of natural resources. Our state statutes never did and never have required that park districts make land accessible or provide recreation, although those are certainly laudable and permissible things for park districts to do while also, and primarily, preserving natural resources.
Charlie cherry-picks from the RTPD goals to support his belief that parks should only and exclusively engage in providing “usable, accessible spaces for recreation.” In addition to the goals quoted by Charlie in his letter, the original RTPD goals also state that “land will be acquired to preserve natural resources.” For over 30 years, RTPD balanced its goals of preserving natural resources, providing recreation facilities and promoting access. Yes, RTPD bought small, environmentally important parcels of land, especially near the Chagrin River and Griswold Creek, in order to preserve our natural resources. No, these parcels were not purchased in order to provide accessibility or recreation, but other park properties do provide those things. Our park districts in Ohio do not have just one goal. They simultaneously fulfill a number of different public needs for the benefit of all of us.
Charlie and I also disagree about whether the Russell Citizens’ Park District (Citizens’ PD), formed under Chapter 511 of the Ohio Revised Code, is redundant. Our township trustees established the Citizens’ PD in 2017 because RTPD lost our trust by moving away from its historical goals and mission. New commissioners appointed by Judge Timothy Grendell did not want to purchase the Modroo property and entertained the idea of selling property on Dines Road. After we voted to form Citizens’ PD, Judge Grendell and RTPD retaliated by leasing RTPD’s larger parks to the Geauga Park District. RTPD justified the lease with a lie about how much money RTPD had in its general fund. In addition, RTPD has spent enormous sums of money, more $100,000 since 2016, on legal and accounting fees. Despite these expenditures on professional help, RTPD’s budgets have been rejected by the Geauga County Budget Commission 2 years in a row, and they are currently barred from receiving public funds.
While RTPD has lost the trust of many in the community, the most recent rejection of the Citizens’ PD levy has denied the Citizens’ PD the opportunity to gain the trust of the community. This is especially sad because Citizens’ PD is in contract to purchase 64 acres of undeveloped land on Music Street that would have been developed with trails for public use. A grant from the State of Ohio would have paid for 3/4 of the purchase price. Since RTPD cannot receive public funds, I don’t believe that they can take advantage of this grant opportunity. So the park districts are not redundant. One is capable of continuing to protect our rural lifestyle, wildlife, nature and environment into the future, while the other is stuck in a mess of its own making, damaged beyond repair.
I am not a park commissioner, and I don’t know what the Citizens’ PD’s next steps will be. I hope that they will at least consider the possibility of privately raising the $200,000 needed to complete the purchase of the Music Street property. I hear that developers are standing by if the Citizens’ PD’s contract to purchase that property falls through.
Finally, thank you to my hard-working levy campaign committee, our financial supporters, the Citizens’ PD commissioners and everyone who voted for the Russell Citizens’ Park District levy. I hope that all the citizens of Russell Township can find a way to move together into the future in harmony with each other and with the beautiful place where we are privileged to live.