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Published: Wednesday, 4/6/2005

Commissioners, juvenile judge settle dispute

BY STEVE MURPHY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Culbert Culbert
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FREMONT - The Sandusky County commissioners and the county's juvenile and probate judge agreed yesterday to settle their legal dispute over the allocation of office space in the courthouse.

The settlement, which Judge Brad Culbert and the commissioners signed during a morning meeting, awards a disputed first-floor office to the county auditor's tax map staff and gives the judge a smaller, nearby office in the northeast corner of the courthouse.

Those space assignments, according to the agreement, are to be temporary. The settlement calls for a committee of elected county officials and design and security experts to develop a long-term solution over the next 40 months that could include expanding the courthouse or moving offices into other county-owned buildings. The panel is to begin meeting by May 1.

Both sides said they were satisfied with the agreement, which ends more than two months of legal wrangling and public feuding.

"It's probably fair to say that both parties felt, from my observation, that there's more to be gained by seeking a negotiated resolution," said Joe Albrechta, an attorney for Judge Culbert.

"It's a tremendous stress relief, not only for us, but for the other elected officials and other employees of the county," said Dan Liskai, president of the commissioners. "We can go forward and provide services and run this country as a business. It's been a hard 90 days."

The legal crisis began Jan. 21 when Judge Culbert barred the commissioners from finishing renovation of the office they had earmarked for the tax map staff.

The judge found the commissioners in contempt of court six days later after they failed to turn over a key to the disputed office.

The contempt finding was later lifted as part of an agreement to have the dispute mediated by Harry Sargeant, Jr., the presiding judge of Sandusky County Common Pleas Court.

But Judge Sargeant withdrew, and the two sides could not agree on terms for talks with a proposed replacement, Mike Hyrne, a mediator in Wood and Hancock counties.

On March 3, Judge Culbert ordered the commissioners to prepare the northeast corner office for use by a member of his staff within four days. The commissioners responded by appealing to the Ohio Supreme Court.

The court froze proceedings in the case March 7 and instructed the two sides to meet with Mr. Hyrne. The court's involvement helped nudge Judge Culbert and the commissioners toward yesterday's agreement, Mr. Liskai said.

"It was very, very productive," he said. "Mike deserves a lot of credit. He worked very hard to get us all to come to a consensus. It's very sad that it got to that point, but it's over and done with."

Mr. Albrechta said the judge compromised by accepting a smaller space in the courthouse than he wanted.

"If you considered it like a piece of pie, the space that Judge Culbert is getting is like one-fourth of the pie," he said.

The judge plans to move a probation officer into the office to make room for a newly hired court services director, his attorney said.

The two sides also agreed yesterday to settle a disagreement over Mr. Albrechta's fees. The commissioners had objected to bills the attorney submitted to them for payment for the period between Jan. 20 and Jan. 24, the day before Judge Sargeant signed an order appointing him as Judge Culbert's legal counsel.

Mr. Albrechta said he agreed to a request from the judge to waive his billings from those five days, and the commissioners agreed to pay half of the amount billed for Jan. 25. According to Mr. Albrechta's office, he is owed $36,482.25 for representing the judge.

Contact Steve Murphy at:

smurphy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6078.



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