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Published: Wednesday, 7/11/2007

Historic Seneca County Courthouse razing put on hold

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN The 1884 Seneca County Courthouse was granted a temporary reprieve from the wrecking ball yesterday.

Visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg ordered that Seneca County officials not physically demolish or destroy or remove any fixtures from within the old courthouse before July 25, when a hearing on a request for a preliminary injunction to stop the courthouse s demolition resumes.

The judge, who is retired from Lucas County Common Pleas Court, issued the order prior to recessing court at noon after a day and a half of testimony on a motion by a group of county residents to halt the impending demolition of the historic courthouse.

Seneca County commissioners voted last month to proceed with demolition and build a new but smaller structure for the clerk of courts and the two common pleas courts. The residents suing the commissioners and the clerk of the board allege commissioners violated open meeting and open records laws and failed to fully investigate all options and funding opportunities before deciding to raze the now-vacant courthouse.

Judge Wittenberg cautioned that his order should not be construed to mean he was leaning one way or the other about the injunction. He also said he had no reason to believe the county would begin tearing down the old courthouse, which loomed outside the courtroom window directly behind him.

Still, the plaintiffs represented by Tiffin attorney John Barga were pleased with the order.

Naturally, that s a relief for us, Mr. Barga said.

I think he was just concerned that something might happen in his absence because the county commissioners had stated that they weren t going to stop working on demolition plans, Mr. Barga said. Our greatest fear is something has happened or something will happen.

Seneca County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., who is representing the commissioners along with two Columbus attorneys, said he believed Judge Wittenberg simply wanted to keep the status quo while the case was pending.

It wasn t necessary, but it wasn t harmful, attorney Mark Landes said of the judge s order.

County Commissioner Dave Sauber was on the stand throughout the morning and again defended the commissioners decisions about the courthouse and how they came to those decisions.

Mr. Barga grilled him about the state of the county s economy, asking if he was aware of how many foreclosures and bankruptcies had been filed. Mr. Sauber said he wasn t but that the information wouldn t have factored into his decision that the courthouse should be replaced.

Asked whether the county had applied for any grants, applied for state funding through Rep. Mark Wagner (R., Sycamore), or applied for federal assistance through U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Tiffin), Mr. Sauber said commissioners had spoken with the legislators but not made formal application for financial help.

Judge Wittenberg asked a few questions of his own several of which concerned the circumstances of Mr. Sauber s election in November, 2004. Mr. Sauber testified that he was one of four candidates and had campaigned on the premise that he felt the courthouse should be razed.

Asked whether the courthouse was a big issue at the time, Mr. Sauber said it was, along with the previous board of commissioners decision to impose a 0.5 percent sales tax increase after voters in 2002 had rejected a 0.25 percent increase that would have been used to renovate the courthouse.



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