Geauga County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Grendell is taking legal action to compel county Auditor Charles Walder to pay $26,000 in outstanding court bills.

After another expenditure dispute between the court and auditor’s office – one of which multiple officials have described as splitting hairs – Judge Grendell said he plans to file a writ of mandamus with the Ohio Supreme Court against Mr. Walder.

During their regular meeting Tuesday, Geauga County commissioners approved a request from Judge Grendell to seek outside legal counsel after receiving a July 2 letter from the judge outlining his qualms with the auditor.

In his letter, Judge Grendell stated that Mr. Walder “is encroaching on the judicial authority to determine the necessity and propriety of court ordered administrative expenses by unilaterally giving himself veto power over the court’s choice of language in court-generated COVID-related communications in” local newspapers and robo calls in March and April.

Judge Grendell explained in an interview last week that the court used a discretionary special project fund, which is supported by court fees, to pay for the local newspaper ads and robocalls, which he said add up to a combined total of about $4,000.

The robocalls contained information for residents regarding court operations during COVID-19 and the print ads on his Good Deeds programming. At the bottom of the print ads and at the end of the robocalls are statements that explicitly state that “no tax dollars were used” for payment of the ads and calls.

It is because of this statement, Judge Grendell said, that Mr. Walder denied payment of vouchers for the ads using county funds.

“That’s a 100-percent true statement,” Judge Grendell said of the no tax dollar statement. “[The discretionary fund] is money that comes into the court through fees – filing fees – that by state law, we have the discretion to spend any way we deem appropriate for court administrative purposes.”

Mr. Walder disagreed. “Regardless of what the message says, my job is to vet according to the law and my interpretation of that law,” Mr. Walder said in an interview. “It is unlawful for me to just pretend like he didn’t make that assertion. He asserted that there was no tax money being used.

“It’s a personal obligation at that point,” he said of Judge Grendell’s expenses. “It’s not a county obligation, so he can make this go away and just pay the bills personally, because he obligated [them] personally.”

Judge Grendell said in his letter to commissioners that Mr. Walder has “substituted his judgment for that of the court,” and that this goes against Ohio Supreme Court rulings “that the determination of judicial administrative expenditures rests solely with the court,” referencing a 1993 Supreme Court ruling, State ex rel Donaldson v. Alfred.

“He’s challenging our rights to what we can say and what the court disseminates. He has no control over what we publish,” Judge Grendell said of Mr. Walder.

“Not only is there no legal authority for Auditor Walder’s improper actions,” Judge Grendell continued in his letter, “his ongoing refusal to pay these court approved legitimate expenses is a direct assault on the court’s inherent authority to determine its funding needs and has exposed the court and Geauga County to collection litigation, unnecessarily wasting our taxpayers’ money in the process, and potentially damaging the county’s credit rating which would lead to even more waste in the future.”

Judge Grendell explained the currently outstanding $26,000 worth of overdue bills dates back as far as 2018.

During the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, Judge Grendell noted that every day, that number grows due to late fees from the outstanding vouchers with threats of litigation from affected vendors.

Mr. Walder said he is not censoring the court. His only issue is that the judge’s disclaimer on the ads and calls is a misrepresentation of the use of public money.

“I’m not objecting to the content of his ad per se. I’m objecting to the phrase that he intentionally added, especially in light of the fact that it was during a campaign, or he was under incredible scrutiny to stop self-promoting with taxpayer’s money,” he said in an interview last week, pointing out that Good Deeds ads that did not contain the tax dollars statements have been paid. “[Judge Grendell] added a line that represents to the taxpayer that he’s not using their money, and that’s not true.”

In correspondence to the court, Mr. Walder wrote that Judge Grendell’s statements to the public in the robocalls and advertisements “are contradicted by his later submitting them for payment using public funds. If paid through the Geauga County Treasury, the statements’ specific language would promote and create a public misrepresentation. If the auditor’s office were to approve these expenditures using public funds we would be complicit in knowingly perpetrating multiple misrepresentations to the public about the expenditures.”

Mr. Walder said any taxpayer reading that statement would assume no public funds were used in the payment of the ads, pointing out that court fees are public funds.

“It’s common sense to me. If you argue no tax dollars are used to pay for an ad, how do you expect the taxpayers to pay for that ad? How do you explain – how do you justify that?” he asked.

Ohio Attorney General Communications Director Bethany McCorkle said separating fees, fines and taxes is like “splitting hairs.” She could not provide confirmation on whether there was a standing legal opinion on behalf of the Attorney General’s Office in regard to whether they are all one in the same.

County Commissioner Timothy Lennon echoed this sentiment.

“We’re splitting hairs by saying we’re not paying for this with tax dollars,” he said in a Monday interview. “The way I look at it, it’s taxpayer’s dollars” as opposed to tax dollars. I think it’s somewhat of a play on words, a little bit, to say that it’s anything other than the taxpayer’s dollars.”

Mr. Lennon added, however, that he hears from both sides and acknowledges that they both make valid points. He said that as commissioners, the board’s role is not to determine the legality of expenditures, but whether they are reasonable.

“That’s the question then. Going out for outside counsel for something like that, is that a reasonable expenditure? Well, you know, it’s going to [remain] to be seen,” he said. “[Judge Grendell] has every right to be afforded legal counsel – outside legal counsel.”

Mr. Lennon said this most recent case of unpaid vouchers is deeper than the matter at hand, adding that he can’t pick a side on the matter.

“One thing I can say to sum it all up, I know that the taxpayers in Geauga County do not appreciate this,” he said. “They’re expecting us to be coming to solutions on our own, figuring this out, you know, and just doing our jobs. We don’t have to sit around the campfire with each other, but you’ve got to at least work with each other and be professional with each other.”

Who’s the mediator?

There’s one thing on which Judge Grendell and Mr. Walder do agree: taking the issue to court is a gross waste of taxpayer money. Both acknowledged, along with Mr. Lennon, that the cost of outstanding expenditures will pale in comparison to stacking attorney’s fees if they cannot find a remedy.

But that’s where the agreement stops as attempts to mediate the unpaid vouchers have been supposedly ineffective.

“This stuff has been going on and on and on,” Judge Grendell said. “[Mr. Walder] comes up with one excuse after another not to pay legitimate court administrative expenses that were court approved and court ordered. And we probably should have filed a mandamus a long time ago, but I was hoping that he would try to grow up and do his job correctly and that we would not have to waste the money on attorneys.”

Judge Grendell said he’s been trying to avoid legal action for the past two years, going through the state auditor and stating that past Ohio Supreme Court mediations were unsuccessful.

“There’s no doubt that that’s a sinful waste of money,” Mr. Walder said of the potential costs of attorney fees.

Mr. Walder said the two were currently in mediation with the Ohio Supreme Court, contradicting Judge Grendell.

“We currently have at our disposal mediation with the Ohio Supreme Court on these issues. And they have all of these issues,” he said, noting that this costs nothing to taxpayers. “We have submitted all these documents to them. They have accepted these documents and all of a sudden the judge wants to file a lawsuit.”

Mr. Lennon confronted Judge Grendell during the Tuesday meeting about mediation through the High Court.

“That’s not true,” Judge Grendell said, explaining that a separate attempt of mediation with the state Auditor Keith Faber two years ago was unsuccessful due to Mr. Walder’s alleged refusal to mediate through such a means.

“We went to a mediation with the Supreme Court [last year] that I requested and spent thousands of dollars of my own personal money for counsel,” the judge said. “That mediation was as unsuccessful as Mr. Faber’s effort to try to get us to mediate in the first place.”

Mr. Walder, however, said he made an April 2019 application through the Supreme Court to mediate and that the judge reached out to the auditor of state after this application was accepted.

“I went back to the Supreme Court and I said, ‘I’m confused. If I’m meeting with you, how do I mediate with the auditor of state?’ And they reached out to the auditor of state and told them to stand down,” Mr. Walder said.

He said this mediation with the Supreme Court is continuing and has resolved “hundreds of invoices” since then.

“It just stands to reason if you’re using mediation and you throw up that I won’t mediate with the auditor of state, well, of course not; I’m still in mediation with the Supreme Court,” he said. “As recently as two weeks ago, we’ve had email exchanges with them.”

Judge Grendell told Mr. Lennon that any mediation currently going on with the county auditor has not included the courts.

“They’re lying if they’re telling you that, because we’re not involved, and none of the vendors are involved,” he said.

Checks and balances

It all comes down to checks and balances, the two entities have stated, but each have their own perspective of the direction of this oversight.

“There’s something called separation of powers,” Judge Grendell said. “There’s a legislative branch, an executive branch and the judicial branch, and nobody made the auditor the overseer of the courts.”

He brought this same statement up at the commissioners’ meeting.

“I like the separation of powers, and it does – it goes both ways, right?” Mr. Lennon said in response.

“In this case, it goes one way,” the judge said. “The court gets to decide what it disseminates and publishes.”

“It’s a check and balance system,” Mr. Walder said. “Nobody can just say, I’m going to force you to pay this money without proper documentation. I’m here to fix a problem. This stuff has been going on for a long time, and we need to have oversight into our spending. It’s part of the system. So, that’s what I’m attempting to do.”

Sam Cottrill started reporting for the Times in February 2019 and covers Auburn, Bainbridge, Bentleyville and Chagrin, Kenston, Solon and West Geauga schools. She graduated from Kent State University in 2018 with a bachelor's degree in journalism.

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