Geauga Park District problems…..another swamp that needs to be drained?

Thanks to our fellow patriots in Auburn Township for their diligence in “shining the light into the Geauga darkness”.  LFC will be checking out Ohio Revised Code section 1545 to see if it applies to Lake County, and if it does, do we comply with it.

Published Tuesday, October 31, 2018

Russell Township (Geauga County) held a special meeting at the invitation of the Geauga County Budget Commission on Monday, October 29, 2018 at 5 PM in the town hall. Although these township meetings are normally not well-attended, this one drew a full house, including several individuals who are not Russell residents.

The three well-known members of the Budget Commission are Auditor Charles Walder, a Russell resident and former Russell Fiscal Officer until his appointment to his new position by the Geauga County Republican Central Committee, Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, and a representative from the office of the County Treasurer, Chris Hitchcock. Also accompanying Walder were Chief Deputy Auditor Ron Leyde and Chief Compliance Officer Kate Jacob. Walder started the meeting a few minutes late, explaining that the purpose was to update everyone at the public meeting about the unfolding of events concerning Russell’s 1545 Park District, one of two such districts organized in Russell. Both park districts are requesting that registered Russell voters approve a levy at the November 6 election.

Russell and Chester Townships are two Geauga County entities with 1545 Park Districts. Regulations regarding the 1545 are subject to Ohio Revised Code 1545. Both political subdivisions have found themselves the subject of rocky roads regarding administration and financing of these entities, whose unpaid commissioners are appointed by the county’s probate judge, Timothy Grendell. Several years back Chester Township became embroiled in a lengthy and expensive legal battle that wound up in the Ohio Supreme Court.

Although the current issues regarding Russell’s 1545 have not resulted in litigation, there is speculation, including that voiced by Prosecutor Flaiz, that the current situation could wind up with the park commission filing litigation against the Budget Commission in Geauga Common Pleas Court for refusal to approve 2019 funding. The 1545 has experienced conflicts with the Budget Commission for the last several years, but the failure of the park commission to receive funding approval by the September 1 deadline appears to be a precedent in Geauga County, complicated by the inability of the Ohio State Auditor, as identified by Walder, to complete a performance audit on Russell Township itself.

2018 has been a particularly trying year in Geauga County. Readers will recall that back in April, elected Auditor, Frank Gliha, resigned suddenly after the loss of $1.8 million in county funds was attributed to activities of a former technology director, his daughter, and two other individuals. Gliha’s signature okayed every requisition for payment authorized by the former director, who then arranged payment for the other individuals. Although many in the county thought that Gliha deserved a harsher resolution, he was found guilty primarily of dereliction of duty, which carried a $1250 fine and prevention from holding any elected office for four concurrent years. Public information requests have further revealed that part of the criminal case against Gliha was sealed, making it forbidden to be accessed by the public. Stephanie Decatur Stewart, daughter of the former IT chief, recently pled guilty to one count of the original 334 count indictment against her in exchange for her testimony in any upcoming criminal trials regarding the $1.8 million loss and sentencing by Visiting Judge Robert J. Brown in January 2019.

The 1545 Commission is just another part of the Geauga County swamp that appears to require draining. Financially, there is concern that funds intended for the land acquisition account of the 1545 have been mixed up with those intended for the entity’s general fund with a discrepancy of some $52,000. During the initial phase of the Russell special meeting Walder noted that the problem was compounded by manual accounting methods instead of software, particularly the UAN system recognized by the state auditor and widely-used by fiscal officers and others responsible for keeping accurate accounting of public funds.

In spite of hiring a private accounting agency, Alger and Associates, from Canton to “clean up” and refigure the accounting of the park board, the situation became more complicated in the last couple of months when that agency asked for assistance in understanding the computation of inside and outside millage. Mr. Walder took time to explain the difference between both. Outside millage, which results from voter- approval of levy issues, is roughly equated as one mill generating about $150,000 for collection. Inside millage roughly equates as one mill producing about $250,000 per year in income. Therefore, if the funding of the General Fund is designated to be .15 mill, as was the case for the Russell 1545 prior to 2014, the yearly calculated dollar amount is about $37,500.

The drama of the 1545 is extending through October. After expending over 100 man-hours of assistance to the park commission, Walder and his staff requested information through public information requests that were denied by the commission and its legal representative, Dale Markewitz, of the Chardon legal firm of Dolan Dinsmore Thrasher. Some may be familiar with the fact that Attorney Markewitz also performs legal duties for the Geauga Park District and in fact represented GPD in its own meeting with the Geauga Budget Commission. As a frame of reference former GPD “official” counselor, David Ondrey, was replaced by Dolan Dinsmore Thrasher attorney, Mary Brigid Matheney, when Ondrey announced his candidacy for Geauga County Common Pleas Judge to replace the retiring Forrest Burt.

At the October 15 meeting of the Geauga Park District, Geauga Park Commissioners discussed without taking any action their apparent willingness to lease the former Modroo farm, purchased in 2016 for a reported $1.2 million, from the Russell 1545. Because the former Modroo property is still subject to a conservation easement held by the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, it is subject to restrictions about maintaining the property under “passive” restrictions that limit human activities. In the meantime the same topic was also the subject of public meetings in Russell, where elected officials expressed disapproval with such an alliance with the county park district at the potential harm to Russell taxpayers, who are slated to vote on the two park levies next week with a potentially clouded outcome.

Regardless of the outcome, the Russell 1545 finds itself encumbered by extensive legal fees with no end in sight. Scott Wayt, spokesman for the 1545, reported that Attorney Markewitz suggested to them that the board could fight the Geauga County Budget Commission decision to prevent funding of the entity at least through 2019.

The drama goes deeper. According to the language of ORC 1545, each appointee to a 1545 is required to take an oath of office and “give bond for that faithful performance in the sum of five thousand dollars” to be “approved by and filed with the county auditor.” The Chief Compliance Officer for Auditor Walder discovered last week upon making a public information request for evidence of surety bond for each Commission member that the respondent for the 1545 Russell Park Commission denied the request with no legally-required explanation for the denial. Further investigation by the Auditor’s Office revealed that there simply were no surety bonds for the commission members on file with the Auditor as required.

According to ORC 3.30, an elected or appointed official “who refuses or neglects to give such bond”
. . .” is deemed to have refused to accept the office to which he was elected or appointed” and any and all actions undertaken by each and every official in such situation are considered null and void. Consequently, the 2019 budget submitted to the Geauga County Budget Commission is now illegal and void. As a result of all the confusion and reported lack of cooperation from the 1545, its outside accounting firm, and its legal counsel, the Budget Commission, as noted by both Flaiz and Walder, reported to the public its decision to report the inadequacies to the State Auditor.

Election results from both Russell park levies should be available on or before Wednesday, November 7, but resolution of this complicated dilemma will take much longer to unfold.

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