A simmering feud between Geauga County’s Probate and Juvenile Court and the Geauga County Auditor has boiled over into the Ohio Supreme Court.
“Over the past six months, Auditor (Charles) Walder has delayed or denied payment to over 30 of the court’s vendors, totaling over 50 invoices, many of which are still outstanding,” wrote Geauga County Probate and Juvenile Judge Timothy Grendell of the ongoing dispute.
But, Kate Jacob, chief compliance officer with the county auditor’s office, said it is a matter of law. “The court wants a blank check and we don’t want to do that.”
The dispute has led to the filing of a case in the Ohio Supreme Court by attorneys David Welty and Robert Williams and Michael Wagner, who tends a juvenile community service garden. All three are represented by Judge Grendell’s son, James, in seeking payment for their services with the court from the auditor with the filing of a writ of mandamus.
Ms. Jacob said for the auditor’s office to do its job it requires not only a voucher seeking public dollars, but also “evidentiary matter that is sufficient to support a requested expenditure.” The county auditor’s approval is needed to send the matter to the county treasurer for payment.
She explained that in the case of submitted mileage payment requests, it must include where a person went and the purpose of the trip. She said federal law requires that certain types of trips may be considered taxable as income. Without sufficient information that determination cannot be made, she said.
The question of what sufficient evidentiary material is and whether an auditor has the right to refuse payment was recently posed by Geauga County Prosecutor James Flaiz to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office in an attempt to resolve the issue.
It is not a new issue for the local probate and juvenile court. Five years ago, then County Commissioners Blake Rear and Mary Samide questioned a court payment of $6,666.66, saying they wanted to see what work was done for the money. The court refused any information, citing the separation of powers and saying commissioners had no right to question. Mr. Rear, at that time, said he believed he had a duty to protect the taxpayers and that the separation of powers goes both ways. Former Geauga County Auditor Frank Gliha also had a run in in 2014 with the court over a $4,302.50 bill for advertisements placed by the judge in six publications. After being threatened with a contempt order, Mr. Gliha paid the bill.
Ms. Jacob said there were similar threats of contempt leveled in the latest dispute, although some of those fears were alleviated with the answers given by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office.
Judge Grendell said he attempted to work out his differences with the auditor, but has been met with resistance. “Unfortunately, the court’s efforts at an amicable resolution have only been met with stonewalling, threats and political gamesmanship from Auditor Walder, including false allegations about the court and its staff that Walder made to the state auditor, who conducted a review of the allegations, estimating the cost to the state’s taxpayers over $10,000 and who rightfully determined that all of Walder’s allegations were unfounded.”
Ms. Jacob said that review only showed that no fraud had occurred, meaning no one was personally benefitting financially. While nothing illegal was found, she said, the state auditors did find that the court was in non-compliance in the process.
That Ohio Attorney General’s opinion, issued March 27, spelled out its views of separation of powers and the powers held by the auditor’s office.
“Under the constitutional separation of powers principle, the authority of government is distributed among three, co-equal branches of government, to wit: the executive, legislative, and judicial, and no branch may improperly infringe on the prerogatives of any other,” the state attorney general’s office wrote.
Judge Grendell points to one statement in the opinion, that states the auditor “may not exercise the prerogatives of his or her office so as to unreasonably refuse to honor a proper and appropriate request of a court for the issuance of a warrant authorizing the payment of public funds from the county treasury, or refuse to issue a warrant in circumstances that involve an exercise of excessive control which compromises the integrity and independence of the court, or which creates an impediment to the proper discharge of the court’s judicial functions.”
But, the state attorney also quoted Ohio law which outlines the duties of an auditor. It states that an auditor will issue warrants on the county treasury “upon presentation of the proper order or voucher and evidentiary matter for the moneys.” Evidentiary matter includes original invoices, receipts, bills and checks and legible copies of contracts.
“The auditor is empowered to question the validity of the payment even if it is within an available appropriation and a proper order or voucher with evidentiary support has been presented.” And, the state attorney wrote that requirements set out in the law also applies to Ohio courts. “It seems apparent, therefore, section 319.16 of the Ohio Revised Code was enacted with the legislative intention that its requirements be applicable to Ohio courts,” they wrote.
When an auditor deems a request for payment does not meet this standard, he can refuse to process the request, they wrote. Those questioning the auditor’s decision must seek a writ of mandamus, as was done in this case by the three who provided services to the probate and juvenile courts.
The Ohio Attorney General took the matter one further step, writing that giving unquestioned authority to one branch of the government can only lead to “absurd” results.
“In our judgment, overbreadth in the interpretation of the separation of powers principle as applied to judicial prerogatives, when taken to its logical conclusion, would accomplish the absurd and unintended result of eliminating all fiscal controls and limitations on Ohio courts,” they wrote.
But, there may also be a resolution to the issue through state law.
Ohio Rep. William Seitz, from the Cincinnati area, has submitted an amendment into the state budget bill that eliminates the need for evidentiary material. A synopsis of the legislation reads, “the county auditor must issue a warrant for money payable from the county treasury upon presentation of a proper court order attesting to the public purpose for the expenditure without the necessity for evidentiary material.”
Rep. Seitz’s office stated it was in the process of responding to requests for comment regarding the proposed legislation.