FREMONT - Sandusky County's juvenile and probate judge found the county commissioners in contempt of court yesterday for failing to give him a key to a disputed office on the first floor of the courthouse.
Commissioners Dan Liskai, Brad Smith, and Terry Thatcher told Judge Brad Culbert they did not have a key to the office, which they used until October, 2003, and said they could not ask other county officials for a key without first consulting an attorney. The commissioners said they were unable to hire someone to represent them before the hearing.
"It's simply preposterous that it's come to this point," Mr. Smith said during the hearing. "The facts show we're doing what is appropriate."
Renovation work approved by the commissioners to convert the space for the county auditor's tax map office is nearly complete, but Judge Culbert wants to use the area for his staff and filed an order last week to stop the planned move.
That order also instructed the commissioners to provide him with a key to the office by noon Tuesday.
Judge Culbert rejected a request from the commissioners to continue the hearing and give them more time to find counsel. "It's now been over 56 hours and no key has been produced," he told the commissioners. "The court's position is that that's not a real difficult task."
After hearing sworn testimony from all three men, the judge issued a civil contempt finding. He said he would sentence them later.
"The good news is, gentlemen, that you'll be sleeping in your own beds tonight," the judge told the commissioners, adding that he could not order jail time in the civil proceeding. He ordered that the county sheriff "take possession of keys for the space that you vacated."
Joe Albrechta, an attorney for Judge Culbert, said he would ask the judge to fine the commissioners for each day that passes until they comply with his order, retroactive to Tuesday.
After the hearing, the commissioners declined to discuss the contempt finding. "We'll have counsel in place by Tuesday," said Mr. Liskai, the commissioners' chairman.
During the hearing, Mr. Smith questioned the propriety of the judge ruling on a contempt request filed by his own attorney.
"I think it's simply not appropriate that he files a motion with you asking you to do this . . . . You are essentially making a motion to yourself," he told the judge.
In response, Mr. Albrechta argued that the court "has the inherent jurisdiction to protect itself."
"The commissioners of this county have defied this court," he said. "No key was turned over. . . . This is an attempt to delay the inevitable, to delay the day of reckoning."
Mr. Liskai said county Prosecutor Tom Stierwalt told the commissioners on Tuesday that he could not represent them and that they needed outside counsel. Mr. Liskai added that the commissioners needed time to find an attorney from outside Fremont to avoid conflicts with pending court cases.
"We're not defying," he said. "And we're not trying to run. If we were trying to run, we wouldn't be here."
Mr. Liskai said county Auditor William Farrell had a key to the office, adding, "He has a separate budget from us. I just can't go over there and tell him to give me a key."
Mr. Farrell said in an interview after the hearing that no one asked him for a key, but that he would provide one if requested. "I'm not going to say no," he said.
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