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Published: Tuesday, 9/11/2007

Blade sues Seneca County over request for records

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

COLUMBUS Claiming Seneca County commissioners intentionally withheld public records from The Blade, or destroyed them, the newspaper Monday asked the Ohio Supreme Court to order commissioners to retrieve and turn over all e-mails concerning the proposed demolition of the county s historic 1884 courthouse.

The complaint also asks the court to prohibit commissioners from razing the shuttered courthouse until the county has complied with the state s open-records and open-meeting laws.

Elected officials acting in good faith should have nothing to hide regarding their deliberations and decisions, Toledo lawyer Fritz Byers wrote in The Blade s complaint.

And to ensure that principle, Ohio law mandates openness in deliberations and decisions through a well-harmonized pair of laws Public Records and Open Meetings that operate together to cement the crucial principles of transparency and public scrutiny.

As a campaign by historic preservationists raged this summer to try to save the courthouse in Tiffin from the wrecking ball, The Blade submitted a series of formal records requests to the county asking to see all e-mails received, sent, and deleted by the three commissioners between Jan. 1, 2006, to the present. Some e-mails were made available, but, the newspaper contends, others were destroyed or not provided.

Specifically, no e-mails were produced from Commissioner Ben Nutter s e-mail inbox between Jan. 1 and July 19 of this year, and Mr. Nutter admitted he destroyed e-mails received during that period, the complaint states.

If they were no longer administratively necessary, I probably deleted them, Mr. Nutter reiterated yesterday.

He said commissioners had nothing to hide and that just yesterday he discovered that archived e-mails from his county e-mail account had not been turned over to The Blade by an employee of the commissioners. Those e-mails were immediately given to the county s legal counsel, Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor of Columbus for review, he said, adding that they then would be provided to The Blade.

If they weren t included, it was merely an oversight. It wasn t that we were intentionally holding them back, but she didn t go through my archive file, Mr. Nutter said.

He accused The Blade of playing dirty politics by taking the commissioners to court.

Mr. Nutter and Commission President Dave Sauber, who support demolition of the courthouse, insist their decision is based on financial considerations. They contend renovating and maintaining the old courthouse would be cost-prohibitive.

On behalf of the state of Ohio and our valued readers in Seneca County, we ve reluctantly taken this action today, John Robinson Block, Blade co-publisher and editor-in-chief, said last night. We believe that records were illegally destroyed or withheld, records that we think will likely prove Seneca County commissioners also violated Ohio s Sunshine Law when they voted to destroy the county s historic courthouse.

Six county residents, local preservationists, have also filed a suit in Seneca County Common Pleas Court alleging commissioners violated the open-meetings law and committed other infractions when they voted Aug. 31, 2006, to approve a plan for county buildings that included demolition of the 1884 courthouse.

The residents were recently denied a preliminary injunction halting demolition but have filed a notice of appeal with the Lima-based 3rd District Court of Appeals.

Re-energize efforts

John Barga, a Tiffin attorney who represents the six residents, said he was encouraged by The Blade s efforts, which he said will re-energize his clients efforts.

I am very pleased and encouraged by the actions taken by The Blade in attempting to retrieve electronic correspondence and e-mails that we have not been able to obtain in the trial court, Mr. Barga said. I am especially pleased that they are focusing on the deliberations and e-mails that occurred prior to the Aug. 31, 2006, meeting, arguing issues that we argued strenuously in the trial court.

Mark Troutman, one of the Columbus attorneys representing the commissioners, said he could not comment on the complaint until he had the opportunity to read it, but he expressed disappointment that The Blade filed the complaint. He said that yesterday he promised a Blade reporter that a new batch of e-mails from an electronic folder not specifically enumerated in The Blade s public-records requests would be provided as soon as they were reviewed by legal counsel.

We confirmed with [the reporter] that additional e-mails existed and also an intended response time of approximately 48 hours within 30 minutes of [the reporter s] initial telephone call, Mr. Troutman said. For that, we are quite shocked that a lawsuit has been filed under such circumstances.

The Blade s complaint cites other instances in which it seems e-mails were destroyed or withheld.

No e-mails were produced from Commissioner Mike Bridinger s in-box or sent-messages folder and only seven were produced from his deleted-messages folder.

Mr. Bridinger, who supports saving the courthouse, said yesterday that he routinely destroyed e-mails when he took office Jan. 1, 2007 a practice of read em, delete em that he had until the office informed him not to delete e-mails dealing with county business.

Seneca County s plan for records retention that it is required to keep on file with the Ohio Historical Society states that e-mail will be retained if it has a significant Administrative, Fiscal, Legal, or Historic Value.

Being a new commissioner and never before being a public employee like this, I quite frankly was not aware, Mr. Bridinger said.

Substantial gaps

The complaint also alleges there were substantial gaps between the dates of e-mails produced for Commissioner Sauber. There were no e-mails between April 12, 2006, and June 23, 2006, for example, while the county produced 420 e-mails from Mr. Sauber s account in 2007.

Mr. Sauber could not be reached for comment yesterday.

The Blade, which is seeking attorneys fees in the case, asked the high court to issue a writ of mandamus that would subject the Board s deliberations and decision-making to a healthy, indeed necessary public scrutiny. Either that scrutiny will give the public needed assurance that the Board s decisions about the Courthouse are prudent, lawful, and productive, or it will expose imprudence, incompetence, illegality, or dishonesty. In either event, the benefit to the public will be palpable.

The newspaper has championed the state s public-records act and open-meeting laws numerous times by filing lawsuits, successfully forcing public officials to turn over public records and conduct the public business at open meetings at a variety of institutions, many times recouping its legal fees from the agencies that refused to turn over the records.

Some of the higher-profile cases include a 1992 case in which the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the University of Toledo Foundation s records are public; a 1996 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court ordering Hancock County to turn over records of suicide investigations; a 1997 decision by Van Wert County Common Pleas Court ordering the release of investigative records involving the murder trial of death row inmate John Spirko, and a 2005 decision by the Ohio Supreme Court ordering that the investment records of the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation and Tom Noe s coin-fund records are public.

Douglas Collar, a Tiffin preservationist and one of the six plaintiffs in the preservationists lawsuit, said government should be an open book for citizens.

I think that government has an obligation to be forthcoming and transparent to its citizens, Mr. Collar said. That s a basic principle of democracy, and I think that s an important principle to uphold in any case whatever the issue.

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



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