TIFFIN With two lawsuits pending that claim Seneca County commissioners violated Ohio s Sunshine Law, the commissioners yesterday agreed that the public could address the board before it adjourned its meeting.
Commissioner Mike Bridinger suggested the change in procedure saying it was his goal to be open and transparent.
We adjourn and then we let the public speak, he said. I would rather that before we adjourn, we let the public speak.
Commissioner Ben Nutter said he had no problem with that, although he asked that members of the public who address the board do so with legitimate questions and concerns and avoid personal attacks.
Mr. Nutter said the prior policy had been in place when minutes of meetings were written out and it was too cumbersome to transcribe everyone s comments. Now the meetings are recorded on digital video discs.
A group of county residents attempting to halt demolition of the county s 1884 courthouse sued the commissioners in Seneca County Common Pleas Court in late May, claiming they violated state law by deliberating about the fate of the courthouse privately before taking an August, 2006, vote to adopt a 15-year, space-needs plan that included razing the courthouse.
The Blade also has sued the commissioners in the Ohio Supreme Court, alleging that they withheld e-mails related to plans for razing the courthouse.
During the public comment period yesterday, Tiffin resident Joe Ranker thanked the board for reversing its policy, then told them he had made his own public records request in an attempt to find out who decided the 1884 courthouse was a health hazard and that visitors should wear masks to enter it.
He said he found no evidence the building was ever declared hazardous, and he then asked the commissioners to consider a third option: rather than tear down the courthouse and build a new one or do a multimillion-dollar restoration of the building, why not clean it up, do what is necessary to make it functional, and start using it again as a courthouse?
I say the building is functional, Mr. Ranker said. Put it back in service.
Jackie Fletcher, one of the plaintiffs in the local lawsuit, said preservationists have been suggesting all along that the courthouse be renovated in stages.
Another of the plaintiffs, Rayella Engle, said there are individuals and organizations willing to donate their time and labor to work on the old courthouse.
I think this would be a wonderful way to bring the community back together, she said. We would be saving money, and we would have the building.
As others at the meeting mentioned people willing to paint or repair the clock or donate their own time, Mr. Bridinger suggested the group compile a list of what volunteers could bring to the project. After the meeting, though, both Mr. Nutter and Commissioner Dave Sauber said the time to save the courthouse has come and gone.
I wish it was as simple as a simple paint job, Mr. Sauber said, adding that the county would have to do considerable work to occupy the building.
It would take a significant amount of money just to get it back to where it was just the most minimally functional, Mr. Nutter said.
Also addressing the board was James Koehl who challenged the commissioners to take a public stand against the kind of harassment he said his wife, Lin Talbot-Koehl, has received since she became involved with the fight to save the courthouse. He said she has received threatening phone calls at home and that their property has been vandalized.
All three commissioners said they did not condone that kind of activity, and Mr. Sauber urged Mr. Koehl to report the incidents to police.
If it s come to that, it s a sorry situation, Mr. Sauber said. I just hope whoever it is gets caught and they re punished.
In other business yesterday, commissioners agreed to proceed with plans to sell a 1919 Model T at a Nov. 10 public auction despite a request by the foundation of the Seneca County Museum not to sell it.
Mr. Sauber said the commissioners had discussed the car with foundation president Jim Roberts and offered it to the foundation before deciding to sell it, but Mr. Roberts gave them the go-ahead to sell it.
Museum Director Tonia Hoffert said that at a recent foundation board meeting, some members were concerned that if the commissioners sold the car, it would set a precedent that would lead to the sale of other museum property. She said the museum did not want the car because it had no room to store it and it is not significant to Seneca County history.
Mr. Nutter called it a ridiculous notion that the commissioners would sell items from the museum. He said he planned to talk to the foundation board, with which commissioners have always enjoyed a good relationship.
I m disappointed that they would take that position, he said after the meeting, speculating that it could be related to the ongoing debate over the demolition of the courthouse.
If they wanted it for its historical value, that s well within their mission, Mr. Nutter said. But their mission is not to dictate policy to the Seneca County commissioners.
The commissioners also approved allocating $60,000 to the county board of elections to cover the additional costs associated with the primary and general election for the 5th District congressional election necessitated by the death of U.S. Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Tiffin) last month.
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