A groundswell of objections has risen in reaction to a proposed amendment to the Ohio Budget Bill that could quell citizens’ comments on public park operations.
State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, introduced the amendment that would give probate court judges who appoint park board members under Chapter 1545 of the Ohio Revised Code the authority to fine a person or party who is interfering with a park district. Interference was not clearly defined in the proposed amendment.
Many see the amendment as a direct violation of citizens’ constitutional rights to free speech and a way to eliminate public participation. Critics are saying it is a “sneaky” way of changing Ohio law to squelch public input and give probate courts more control over park district day-to-day operations.
Tension between Geauga Probate Judge Timothy Grendell and a number of groups has been on the rise regarding park operations in Chester and Russell townships as well as the Geauga County Park District.
“I feel blind-sided by the amendment. I don’t believe it has a place in the budget. It should be a stand-alone bill. We haven’t had a chance to talk about it and it is inappropriate as an amendment,” State Rep. Sarah LaTourette, R-Chester, said Monday.
Ohio Rep. John Boccieri, D-Poland, said the amendment “will quell any dissent. It will allow a probate court judge who doesn’t agree with citizens or who oppose the decisions of a park board to crush any opposition. It is a gross over-reach of judicial authority and it puts judges in a very political posture.”
The budget bill with its amendments will be reviewed by the House Finance Committee and likely go to the floor next week for a vote. If it passes, the bill then moves on to the Ohio Senate, Rep. LaTourette said.
The amendment related to the parks and probate courts will be in the sub-bill, she said. “But it doesn’t mean it will survive in the version we pass on the House floor.
“It’s disappointing to me how this came about. It shouldn’t be tucked into a budget bill,” Rep. LaTourette said of Rep. Seitz’s amendment. The Ohio Senate could also strip it out before the budget bill goes to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who must sign it by June 30 when the fiscal year ends.
“This caught me off guard and this is concerning to me,” Rep. LaTourette said. “I have received many calls from people who have a lot of concerns.”
A spokesman from Rep. Seitz’s office said the representative proposed the amendment to codify and clarify the April 2016 Ohio Supreme Court ruling involving Chester Township and Judge Grendell with the Chester park board. The High Court held that a probate judge does not lack jurisdiction to issue orders to correct activities by park commissioners and township trustees that are contrary to the original order creating the park district.
Kathryn Hanratty, president of Protect Geauga Parks, pointed out that Rep. Seitz was a “close colleague of Tim Grendell” when both men serviced as state representatives in Columbus.
Rep. Seitz’s amendment proposes that a probate court may do any of several actions in regard to a park district created by that court. It could issue an order preventing interference with the court’s order creating the park district. It could enforce the court’s order that created the park district and issue an order compelling compliance with the chapter.
Actions could include investigating all matters involving the park district, including its management through a court hearing or a special master commissioner. It also could impose duties or restrictions on a person or party who interferes with the park district’s original purpose. The judge could tax a person in regards to proceedings as court costs under this proposal.
An American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio representative said the group is ready to file an objection if the amendment passes.
Members of the Protect Geauga Parks have maintained that the Geauga County Park District has been weakened by its commissioners who were appointed by Judge Grendell.
“He keeps changing board members who have no historic knowledge of the parks and they are moving away from the mission of conservation that was set in 1961,” Ms.Hanratty said.
Members of Protect Geauga Parks have stated that park board members selected by Judge Grendell reflect his view of having recreation at parks instead of conserving the land.
“Judge Grendell has changed the direction of the park District,” Russell resident Shelley Chernin said. Ms. Hanratty said a survey conducted for the Geauga Park District in 2015 showed most people in the county want to preserve natural amenities of the parks and were not in favor of active recreation.
In Russell Township, a number of residents have protested Judge Grendell’s involvement in that park district. They also objected when he held a hearing in his courtroom concerning Modroo farmland, which eventually was purchased by the park district after residents supported the measure.
In response to the activities, Russell Township Trustees initiated a second park district in which the probate court judge does not have authority to appoint the commissioners. The issue of formalizing this new park district under another chapter of the Ohio Revised Code will go before voters in November.
While Judge Grendell was unavailable for comment this week, his court liaison Kimberly Laurie stated that the amendment appears to enforce the 2016 Ohio Supreme Court decision and more clearly defines the probate court’s authority to protect park districts from interference.
“In the case upon which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled, the Chester Township Trustees wrongfully terminated funding for the Chester Township park which conflicted with then-Probate Judge Frank Lavrich’s original order creating the Chester Park District that set out what lands were to be managed by the park, how the park was to be funded and by whom,” she said.
“The action by the Chester Township Trustees which terminated funding for the park district rendered the park district underfunded, and thus impeded its ability to operate,” Ms. Laurie said.
“This amendment appears to simply give all probate courts in Ohio a more clear understanding of their authority regarding park districts as defined by the Ohio Supreme Court,” Ms. Laurie wrote.
Rep. Boccieri said that although on the surface it appears the amendment was proposed at the request of GOP leaders, he suspects the idea originated in Geauga County.
“To my knowledge, there are only two counties having deep-rooted controversy with the park districts, Mahoning and Geauga counties,” Rep. Boccieri said. “I know our Mahoning County Probate Court judge spoke out against this proposal and I’m not sure where Geauga’s probate judge stands on this matter, but I would expect him to do the same because quelling public dissent is un-American.
“The term ‘interfering’ is a broad term, Mr. Boccieri said. “I am taking a stance against this issue because the state legislature should not empower judges to quell dissent. I’m really not confident this measure is going to receive the type of input and public scrutiny that is necessary to make an informed decision.”
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said his organization has no interest in whether the legislature acts to increase powers for probate courts. The group’s concern is with the paragraph in the amendment that “imposes duties or restrictions on a person who interferes with the park district’s purpose as provided by this chapter or the court’s order creating the park district.”
The ACLU also is concerned about protecting free speech guaranteed under the First Amendment of the Constitution, he said. The language could have a “chilling effect” on the public, making them afraid to speak for fear of being punished, Mr. Daniels added.
The language in the proposed amendment is vague as to what is meant by “interfere” and may leave room for those promoting it to have plausible denial, saying that is not what they meant,” he said.
Russell Trustee James Mueller called the proposed amendment blatant. “This will make probate court judges little kings of local park board fiefdoms. They will literally be able to run the day-to-day operations of the local park boards.”
The problem will spread across the entire state of Ohio, he said. The state law clearly delineates that the probate judge only has the authority to appoint or unappoint the local park commission, he added.
“This amendment will turn over the day to day decision-making process in a negative way to every probate court judge in Ohio,” Mr. Mueller said.
Russell Trustee Justin Madden said, “The oversight of parks is more an administrative function than a judicial function and people should feel free to question spending, hiring and firing.
“Parkland is purchased through taxpayers’ dollars,” Mr. Madden said. “Taxpayers should have an unfettered right to know what’s being done with their parks and question what is being done with the parks.”
Russell resident Barbara Berkeley said, “I find it extra disappointing the legislature would entertain any kind of measure to penalize residents for speaking out on issues that directly impact their quality of life when they have supported their park with their tax dollars.”
Ms. Chernin said this is an “underhanded way to change the law without public scrutiny, meant to have a chilling effect on anyone who would dare to oppose the judge or his appointed park board.”
As a taxpayer, Ms. Hanratty said, “enforcement of the language may violate citizens’ rights as guaranteed by the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments to the Constitution so it will cost the state money due to a myriad of lawsuits.”
“The judge (Grendell) is painting us as crazy reactionaries. But we haven’t been disruptive. We just ask questions,” Ms. Hanratty said.