A nine-month debate about public records law came to a close Tuesday when Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners member Andrej Lah read aloud a letter that has been the subject of litigation between the park district and a member of the preservation group, Protect Geauga Parks.
The issue stems from the board’s Aug. 8, 2017 meeting, when after a discussion about public comment not being allowed in park district meetings, Mr. Lah, then president of the board, noted that he received a two-page letter about safety in the parks, but that the first page was a request of anonymity.
“She’s afraid of being harassed by the protect group (Protect Geauga Parks). She doesn’t want to be harassed, and she’s in fear of that harassment,” Mr. Lah said at the August meeting. “There’s a group of people that if you have a different opinion (from them) you will be subjected to ridicule. So it is an unfortunate reality and I wonder if that’s why we don’t get a lot of contravening opinions about how the parks are managed or used.”
Protect Geauga Parks member Shelley Chernin asked for the cited letters on Aug. 14 through a public records request. Park district Executive Director John Oros responded three days later that the park was working on the request, but due to a park event, a response would be delayed. Two weeks later, Mr. Oros fulfilled a portion of the request, but withheld the letter, stating it was not a public record.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Lah explained in a written statement read aloud, “At the time (Aug. 8, 2017), I indicated I would not provide the letter to the board for public record purposes, as the writer had concerns about revealing her identity(…)In our effort to respect the request of a resident of Geauga County and in consideration of the author’s sincere concerns that if her name would be known she would be contacted or harassed by those who hold an opposing view, the park district, on advice of legal counsel, declined to provide Ms. Chernin with a copy of the letter.
“This denial of Ms. Chernin’s demand was made in good faith and based on our belief that it did not constitute a public record of this body. Furthermore, a public body has the right under the law to assert such a claim and it was our intent to honor the author’s request.”
Following the denial, Ms. Chernin sued the park district in the Ohio Court of Claims, saying the letter was a public record. On March 26, Jeffrey W. Clark, serving as special master for the court, recommended that Ms. Chernin be given the document and ordered the park district pay her costs associated with the case.
“Although the board could object to this recommendation and pursue further court review, we are not willing to spend additional park resources fighting,” Mr. Lah said Tuesday. “Speaking for myself, I do not agree with the special master’s report, but I have concluded further expense and effort on this matter is not justified. We will provide the two letters in full to Ms. Chernin. I also intend to read them out loud to you now so that you can get a sense of why I hesitated to bring them into the public record in the first place.”
The letters, sent July 2017 by a resident identified only by first name, discussed how Big Creek Park in Chardon is often empty and how she once saw undercover officers near the park who had received a tip about a drug deal occurring in the park. She offered three ideas about recreational additions that could bring more families to the park. This letter did not include any references to Protect Geauga Parks group. The only apparent reference to the group is in her cover letter where she noted, “I chose just to sign my first name, as I am a little concerned about being annoyed by the group that does not want development. I am not interested in being converted.”
After reading the letters, Mr. Lah stated, “I think Theresa has been ill served by the special master in Columbus. I chose last August to hold these letters back and not share them with the board, believing they would then not be considered public record. I was attempting to be sensitive to Theresa’s concerns. She thinks the parks are not utilized enough for active recreation; she knows Protect Geauga Parks thinks the parks are used too much for recreational activities. I hope Theresa’s thoughts and beliefs in this regard are now respected by Shelley Chernin, who is a member of Protect Geauga Parks, and that Theresa will not be bothered or harassed in any way now that she has been identified.”
In an interview following the meeting, Ms. Chernin noted that she had not received the letters prior to the meeting.
“I was really surprised actually because based on what he (Mr. Lah) said at the August meeting, I had thought the letter discussed Protect Geauga Parks specifically and her fear of the group,” Ms. Chernin said. “The first introductory letter seems to be the only mention of Protect Geauga Parks at all and that she said was she didn’t want to be contacted by anyone in the group. The main part of the letter doesn’t mention Protect Geauga Parks. That was really a surprise to me.”
Ms. Chernin explained that she initially requested the letters because she believes in openness and transparency in government and because, “If it was important enough for Mr. Lah to raise it in public meeting, then clearly it was something that at least in his mind, could affect policy decisions that the park district makes,” she said, referring to the policy of not allowing public comment at the meetings.
“I could send a letter to the commissioners but it’s unlikely that my letter would be read at a meeting. I don’t really know. But here’s another member of the public whose getting her opinion, or at least her opinion as understood by Mr. Lah, brought before all other commissioners and the executive director, in a situation where others aren’t allowed to make public comment.”
Following the meeting, the park district’s legal representative David Ondrey told Ms. Chernin that he was returning to his office and would send her the letters. Mr. Lah declined a request for further comment on the matter.
In an email following the receipt of the letters, Ms. Chernin stated, “In essence, Mr. Lah weaponized the letters in question in order to attack Protect Geauga Parks to make a civil group of concerned citizens appear to be a threat to the community.”