Official will not again seek post as Seneca Co. commissioner

Wagner voted to tear down courthouse in ’11

10/11/2013
BY VANESSA McCRAY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN — The only Seneca County commissioner still serving after debris settled from a 2011 decision to demolish the county courthouse will not seek re-election.

Jeff Wagner, a former state representative who was elected commissioner in 2010, will leave the post when his term expires at the end of 2014.

Mr. Wagner was one of two commissioners who voted in 2011 to tear down the 1884 county courthouse in downtown Tiffin.

He did not return calls and an email requesting comment on Thursday.

Seneca County Republican Party Chairman David Koehl this week announced Mr. Wagner’s decision not to run again. Mr. Koehl said the commissioner, after more than two decades of public service, wants to spend more time farming — a decision he mulled for months. Mr. Wagner didn’t rule out another political post but has no specific plans to run for an office, Mr. Koehl said.

He said the courthouse debate split the county and believes the controversy factored into the commissioner’s decision not to run. Ardent courthouse supporters won’t forget his role in the building’s demise even “20 years from now,” Mr. Koehl said, adding “Jeff’s smart enough to know that.”

“He’s very dedicated, hardworking. He makes up his mind and sticks to his commitments,” he said, of his years in office.

Then-commissioner Ben Nutter also approved the demolition contract in 2011. Dave Sauber, another former commissioner, voted against it.

Mr. Nutter lost a re-election bid in 2012 to Commissioner Fred Zoeller. Voters last year also elected Commissioner Holly Stacy to replace Mr. Sauber, who lost to her in the GOP primary and who plans to run again.

“I have the utmost respect for Commissioner Wagner. He’s served the people of Seneca County for a number of years, and I respect his decision,” said Mr. Zoeller. “I think it’s an opportunity to bring in new vitality and life and progressiveness within Seneca County.”

Mr. Wagner will serve the remainder of his term, Mr. Zoeller said.

Nearly two years ago, Mr. Wagner contended the county couldn’t afford renovation and said he didn’t want an empty building downtown when he voted to tear down the courthouse.

“I will never fully grasp the passion that you have for this building and I want to respect that,” Mr. Wagner told courthouse backers in a 2011 meeting. “… If you want to hate me because of that, I understand. I’m only doing what I feel is the right thing to do.”

Seneca County residents still talk about that demolition decision, said Brenda Stultz, who lives in Adams Township and advocated for preservation.

“The courthouse in Seneca County was a long, drawn-out process of controversy and Jeff Wagner would have been in the midst of that controversy...,” she said.

She thinks those discussions would have continued had he run again, though she isn’t sure how voters would have responded to his candidacy. He may have gotten votes from those who wanted the courthouse issue to “go away” and received support based on name recognition, she said.

“I can only speak for myself, that it continues to plague me as such a poor decision by citizens and commissioners alike,” she said.

Feb. 5 is the filing deadline for the May 6, 2014, primary. The general election is Nov. 4, 2014. Seneca County Board of Elections Director Andrea Carroll said no one has inquired yet about running for the seat.

Mr. Sauber said he will run for the open seat, a decision he made before he knew Mr. Wagner would not seek re-election. He wants to make the juvenile court handicapped-accessible and improve highway safety.

The courthouse vote would have come up in a race pitting him against Mr. Wagner, Mr. Sauber said, though he isn’t sure how the old issue would have influenced voters.

Early in the years-long debate, Mr. Sauber favored removing the courthouse and replacing it, but he voted against the demolition contract in 2011 contending the county couldn’t afford the nearly $400,000 removal cost. Instead, he wanted to accept a proposal to mothball the structure at no cost to the county.

“I was the only no vote against two yes votes, and to this day I still feel that the building should not have been removed,” he said.

Mr. Wagner previously served as a Seneca County commissioner for six years until heading to the capital in 2003 as a state representative. He left that office because of term limits.

Contact Vanessa McCray at: vmccray@theblade.com or 419-724-6056, or on Twitter @vanmccray.