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Published: Sunday, 11/2/2008

Decision on Seneca courthouse awaits winners in 2 county races

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN Whoever is elected to fill two seats on the Seneca County Board of Commissioners likely will deliver the verdict on the county s 1884 courthouse.

Incumbents Ben Nutter and Dave Sauber voted consistently over the last two years to demolish and replace the courthouse, but four years after they took office, the downtown landmark still stands and may yet be renovated for the common pleas courts.

Mr. Sauber, 54, a Republican, is being challenged by Democrat Jacqueline Fletcher, 68, a retired teacher who has led the fight to save the courthouse, and independent Cheryl Huss, 47, who says commissioners ought to listen to voters who defeated a sales tax for the courthouse in 2002 and a bond issue for renovation in March.

Mr. Nutter, 41, a Democrat who also works full-time as a captain for the Tiffin Fire Department, is being challenged by Republican Holly Stacy, 44, who is president and chief executive officer of the Sandusky County Chamber of Commerce in Fremont, and independent Terry Love, who is hospitality manager for the Ritz Theater in Tiffin.

Ms. Stacy said the county s financial stability and economic development efforts are greater priorities to her than the courthouse an issue she believes should have been settled by now.

It s taken on a life of its own, and I think it s been a huge distraction for the county for too long, she said.

Mr. Sauber and Mr. Nutter insist they ve kept an open mind about the courthouse and still believe the building may once again be home to Seneca County s justice system.

The board has given a development group led by preservation consultant Franklin Conaway until Dec. 10 to come up with a viable plan for transferring the courthouse to the local port authority, which would renovate it and lease it back to the county.

We believe we have done everything we can as a board of commissioners to look at everything that has been presented to us, Mr. Sauber said. This is the last and final attempt to save it. If this doesn t work through the port authority, I don t see how anything else could, but I m very optimistic this is going to work.

Mr. Nutter is less enthusiastic. He said that to him, it comes down to what makes the best financial sense.

I m still not convinced that there s going to be any other fiscally responsible way [to save the courthouse], but Mr. Conaway has painted a rosy picture, and I m just hoping that they can follow through with that, he said.

Mr. Love, 43, said he is the only candidate offering specific ideas for bringing jobs to Seneca County.

He wants to work with Tiffin University and Heidelberg College on a program for returning Iraqi servicemen that will enable them to adjust to and finish college as well as a training program to prepare local residents to work with green technologies, such as wind turbines and solar panels.

Commissioners serve four-year terms and are paid $55,524 a year.

• OTHER RACES

For the second time, Tiffin attorney Derek Devine is challenging Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., for re-election. In 2004, Mr. Devine, 40, lost to Mr. Egbert, 44, in the Republican primary by 235 votes. This time, Mr. Devine is running as an independent.

I felt that the job of county prosecutor needed to be more nonpartisan, that the representation of local elected officials and the prosecution of criminal cases needed to be nonpartisan, said Mr. Devine, a former assistant prosecutor who works as a special prosecutor on cases outside the county.

Mr. Devine has been critical of the fact that the county spent more than $140,000 paying a private law firm to represent it in two lawsuits alleging violation of open-meeting and open-record laws.

The cases involved the county commissioners 2006 decision to tear down the 1884 courthouse. Mr. Devine said the county prosecutor should have handled the case.

Mr. Egbert, who last year said his workload did not permit him enough time to devote to the case, said the decision was the commissioners , not his.

If they said, We want you and you alone to handle it, then we would ve handled it, although I can tell you I was prosecuting 17 corrupt activity drug dealers at the time, Mr. Egbert said. It would have been very challenging keeping drug dealers off the street at the same time we were representing the commissioners.

Mr. Devine said that in addition to representing the county in future civil litigation, he would work more closely with city prosecutors in Tiffin and Fostoria so that all cases felonies and misdemeanors could be handled more efficiently and effectively.

Mr. Egbert, who is seeking his third full term in office, said he wants to continue to aggressively prosecute criminal activity in light of the fact that many recent cases have originated with defendants or activities that occurred outside the area and moved into Seneca County.

He has criticized Mr. Devine for representing criminal defendants an attack that the Ohio State Bar Association said was unfair because all defendants have a constitutional right to legal counsel.

Mr. Egbert defended his statements, saying his ads simply point out that he and Mr. Devine come from different perspectives.

The prosecutor is paid $115,613 a year.

County voters also will decide whether to re-elect Treasurer Marguerite Bernard, a Democrat who has been in office 29 years and in the news recently for failing to balance the county s main checkbook. She is being challenged by Republican Damon Alt, a certified public accountant and lawyer from Fostoria who also works as an assistant city prosecutor in Tiffin.

Mr. Alt, 31, said getting the books balanced would be his top priority. Ms. Bernard, 75, insists it s hers too.

The bank is still working on it. I m quite anxious, she said, referring to the account that has been unbalanced for more than a year.

The problem began when the state started transferring money to the county electronically, she said.

Mr. Alt said he believes it s time for change in the treasurer s office, particularly as it relates to technology. If elected, he said he would create a Web site for the office, make it possible for residents to pay their property taxes online, transfer money to political subdivisions electronically rather than by check, and look for other ways to run the office more efficiently.

Ms. Bernard, insisting she s not afraid of technology, said she did not ask for upgrades in office technology because the county didn t have the money for it. Asked how she can assure voters she can do the job after the problems with the checking account, she replied, Because I ve done it for 29 years and never had a problem balancing except since July 07 when the wires started coming through.

The treasurer is paid $53,214 a year.

• LOCAL ISSUES

• The Seneca County Mental Health and Recovery Services Board is seeking approval of a 0.8-mill, five-year additional tax levy for operations of mental health and recovery programs.

• Tiffin: Referendum on Miami Street near Tiffin University improvement project.

• Attica: 3-mill, five-year replacement tax levy for police; and 0.5-mill, five-year replacement tax levy for parks.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:jfeehan@theblade.comor 419-353-5972.



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