Seneca's shame

The Seneca County Courthouse is depicted in the lower right-hand corner of the Tiffin-Seneca Sesquicentennial plate, issued in 1967. The county courthouse built in 1836 is depicted at the lower left.
The Seneca County Courthouse is depicted in the lower right-hand corner of the Tiffin-Seneca Sesquicentennial plate, issued in 1967. The county courthouse built in 1836 is depicted at the lower left.

Within days, heavy equipment will start to demolish Seneca County's splendid old courthouse, leaving an empty lot in the heart of Tiffin. The enthusiasts for destroying the 1884 Beaux Arts building, after neglecting it for years, will win. But what will that victory consist of?

It's easier to say what will be lost: a chance for economic redevelopment, increased tourism, and job creation in Tiffin, with a restored courthouse at its center to maintain a sense of place.

An effort to save county taxpayers money, by adapting and reusing a serviceable structure instead of spending much more to raze it and replace it with something new -- and likely ugly.

And an opportunity to tie the history of Seneca County and Ohio to their future, by preserving a state public landmark. Instead, Tiffin and Seneca County face the prospect of observing their 200th anniversary in 2017 with nothing to commemorate, except shame.

Other Ohio counties have preserved their historic courthouses, treating these buildings and county taxpayers with respect and dignity. In Seneca County, though, two members of the board of commissioners -- Democrat Ben Nutter and Republican Jeff Wagner -- have pursued a wanton tear-it-down-now policy, abetted by servile county bureaucrats.

Even when citizens showed clearly how renovation would be better and cheaper than demolition, Mr. Nutter and Mr. Wagner refused to listen to any voices other than their own. County voters can return the favor next year, when Mr. Nutter will seek re-election.

The county should expect no discretionary federal or state aid for a new courthouse. Meanwhile, whatever else these two politicians do for the rest of their public careers and lives, this is how they will be remembered. Some legacy.

The blame for this needless, unforgivable destruction is not theirs alone. Gov. John Kasich paid lip service, but no more, to rehabilitating the courthouse -- an example of the unconventional thinking he has exhorted local governments to embrace to cope with the state budget cuts he has imposed on them. When it became clear that the board majority in Seneca County would defy his expressed wishes, the governor retreated.

The Ohio Supreme Court, whose members routinely extol the majesty of the law -- and who have not been shy about seeking the best facilities for themselves -- could have rescued one of the state's most magnificent legal temples. Seneca County's courthouse is part of the statewide judicial system for which the high court sets standards.

But without deigning to explain why, six of the court's seven justices displayed their legal scholarship last week by refusing to grant an emergency order sought by taxpayers and preservation advocates to halt the demolition, even temporarily. The plaintiffs, knowing when they're beaten, are dropping their lawsuit.

Two justices who voted against saving the courthouse, Republican Robert Cupp and Democrat Yvette McGee Brown, are up for election in 2012 (as is Republican Terrence O'Donnell, the only justice who did not indulge an appetite for destruction). These justices may find it harder to evade public accountability during their campaigns for what they have done.

Bar and judges' associations were silent on the fate of the courthouse, So were other elected officials whose jurisdiction includes Seneca County.

In the meantime, the county's makeshift court facilities continue to violate accessibility provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act, as they have since the old courthouse closed in 2004. The county's refusal to provide facilities that are minimally adequate to the efficient administration of justice does not appear to trouble local or state officials. Regulators in Washington may want to look more closely at this neglect.

When the cornerstone for the Seneca County Courthouse was laid on June 24, 1884, Gen. William Harvey Gibson pledged in a speech: "We are not building for ourselves, but for countless generations; not for an age, but for centuries." Surveying the default of visionary, courageous leadership in this episode, Ohioans can feel sad about how far the state's public spirit has regressed.