The Geauga Park District Board of Commissioners moved their meeting to a new location. This week the board, which in the past has gathered at park district locations such as the West Woods Nature Center in Russell, called their meeting to order in the courtroom of Geauga County Probate Judge Timothy Grendell.
This was a curious choice. Park boards usually don’t meet in courtrooms. Park boards in our experience have convened in public places such as township halls, council chambers, community centers or the like.
On the surface, selecting the judge’s courtroom quite frankly feels threatening and intimidating.
Park district Executive Director John Oros told the Times that some past meetings have been disruptive. “We did this for added safety and security,” he said after the Tuesday meeting.
Mr. Oros cited to the Times a section of the Ohio Revised Code that referred to “disturbing a lawful meeting.” Violators who disrupt the meeting could be guilty of a fourth degree felony under this section of the law. We can only guess why Mr. Oros chose to recite this section of Ohio law. To us, it feels like another intimidation tactic.
Judge Grendell, who did not attend the meeting, said in an email that he agreed to the request made by Mr. Oros. The county courthouse in Chardon is a public building, the judge said, and he has allowed other groups to meet in his courtroom when the docket allows.
Still, there’s no ignoring the recent history of the park board meetings. Residents have voiced strong objections to some of the changes at various parks within the system. One example is the change in policy of Observatory Park where snowmobiling is now permitted for a select group. Residents said they feared the Dark Sky designation of the Montville Township park would be at risk with this new activity.
Clearly the board doesn’t want to hear from residents in an open forum. The voices of citizens were silenced early last year when the board adopted a new practice of eliminating the public comment portion of the meeting.
Yet interested residents attended the meeting in the courtroom after filing through a metal detector and being told to leave their cameras at the door. By the way, state law permits public meetings to be photographed and videotaped.
Residents noted that the board and their attorney met behind closed doors for a half hour before the start of the meeting, and there was little discussion during the 17-minute meeting once it was called to order.
It’s no wonder that one resident said there was a feeling of uncertainty in the room.
Mr. Oros explained that audience behavior at past meetings was “disappointing.” Well, we’re disappointed, too.
We find the lack of a public comment period disappointing, and we find the choice of meeting venue a tactic to silence and intimidate people who not only live in the county but also pay taxes that are used to cover salaries and maintain the county parks.