Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell ordered Russell Township Trustees to appear in his court on Aug. 15 in connection with a citizens’ move to form a new park district in the township.
Trustees Justin Madden, Gary Gabram and Jim Mueller along with Fiscal Officer Chuck Walder last week were summoned to appear before Judge Grendell. They were ordered to bring any information and correspondence regarding the Modroo property.
Purchase of the former Modroo farmland is being considered by the existing Russell Township Park District, whose members are appointed by the judge.
The judge also issued a subpoena to Joe Leslie of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
The upcoming review follows a request from Russell Park District Commissioners Linda O’Brien, Charlie Butters and David Genske, according to a letter from Judge Grendell.
Russell trustees received a petition with signatures of residents who want to form a second park district under Ohio Revised Code section 511 and are following the process outlined under the state law. Signatures were verified last month by the Geauga Board of Elections, and the petition was then sent to a county common pleas judge for review. Next, the state code calls for trustees to appoint three commissioners to formulate the park district structure. After that, the park district proposal would be put on a ballot for residents to consider.
Residents behind the proposed 511 park district have urged the existing Russell Township Park District commissioners to purchase 52 acres of Modroo land estimated to cost $1.4 million with funds from an existing park levy and turn it to parkland.
Russell Park District commissioners have said they are discussing the Modroo purchase and have been conferring with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.
Ms. O’Brien, in a letter to the court on behalf of the park district asked that Judge Grendell conduct a review to determine whether the attempt to create an additional park district interferes with the existing Russell Township Park District.
Ms. O’Brien said park commissioners want the court to determine whether the Russell trustees’ original application to the court and the 1984 judgment entry bar the creation of another park district within the jurisdiction of the current Russell Township Park District.
She questioned in her letter to Judge Grendell, “Whether the Russell trustees are improperly attempting to interfere in the Russell Township Park District’s purchase of the Modroo property by indicating they wish to purchase it with their proposed new park district.”
In addition to scheduling the hearing, the Russell Park Board also requested that the court subpoena any witnesses whose testimony may be necessary to enable the court to reach a conclusion about the issues, according to the letter signed by Ms. O’Brien.
After receiving the subpoena, Mr. Madden said, “Judge Grendell seems to believe we are interfering.”
Mr. Madden noted that Mary Modroo, the owner of the Modroo farmland, is allowed to sell to anyone she wants to. “This is a political battle in the courtroom,” he said. Trustees planned to talk with the township’s legal counsel this week.
“All we are doing is following the letter of the law,” Mr. Gabram said of the process of establishing the second park district under Ohio Revised Code 511. “We are taking one step at a time.”
Mr. Walder said one of the questions is whether a township can have more than one park district. The answer is yes, he said.
A 1991 Ohio Attorney General opinion answers the question, he said. The opinion states, Mr. Walder said, that the probate court has no authority to conduct a hearing or enter an order regarding the creation of an Ohio Revised Code 511 park district, as Russell is doing.
The Ohio Revised Code provides for automatic appointment of a park board of trustees upon certification to the court of common pleas of a valid petition for organization of a park district, as is being done by the township, trustees pointed out.
One of the questions is whether the Geauga County Probate Court has any jurisdiction over a 511 park district. Mr. Walder said the new district is being formed through the Geauga County Common Pleas Court.
“We believe that the probate court’s authority does not extend to the 511 park district,” Mr. Walder said.
Mr. Mueller said the notion that trustees are interfering with the negotiations of the existing park district and its three commissioners with the Modroo property is not true.
“It is very clearly stated in law that we can have two park districts in the township if we wish,” he said. “We can have more than one park district, and they are allowed to coexist side by side.”
The current challenge by park commissioners will require the township to spend money on legal counsel.
Township resident Barbara Berkeley, who has advocated for the purchase of the Modroo farm and has supported the formation of the second park district, sent out communication to other supporters stating that, “Things are becoming contentious.”
Dr. Berkeley said it is important to note that no written agreement of any kind has been signed between the current park board and Mary Modroo. “The sale of Modroo remains a private matter and who Ms. Modroo chooses to sell to is, in my view, up to her alone as long as no contract has been executed,” she said.
There is a power struggle going on between the park board, the probate judge and the trustees together with the citizens of Russell Township, who the park board purportedly serves, Dr. Berkeley said.
There is an argument that has been made that no one knows how many people in Russell actually support the Modroo purchase, she added. While there is no way to gauge the exact sentiments of everyone in the township, “Our small group has tried very hard to give everyone who wishes a chance to express his or her opinion.”
Dr. Berkeley said her group’s online survey received 522 responses with an overwhelming 92 percent in favor of the purchase of Modroo land.
“It is time to stop placing blame, looking for conspiracies and creating obstacles,” Dr. Berkeley said. Continued legal challenges cost everyone money, waste time and seek to cast suspicions and doubts on honest efforts to proceed, she said.
“In my view it is time to sit down together and get this deal done and for our park board to make an honest effort to respond to public concerns, rather than battling the people it is created to serve,” Dr. Berkeley concluded.