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Published: Tuesday, 4/8/2008

Authority to demolish courthouse questioned

TIFFIN Six Seneca County residents fighting to save the county s 1884 courthouse yesterday asked the Ohio Supreme Court to decide whether county commissioners have the authority to demolish a historic county courthouse.

The group filed a notice of appeal with the court asking it to consider the case because the matter has public and general interest not only to Seneca County, but to all 88 counties in Ohio.

Specifically, they are appealing the Feb. 25 decision of the Ohio 3rd District Court of Appeals, which affirmed Common Pleas Court Judge Charles Wittenberg s dismissal of two of their claims: that the commissioners failed to obtain expert advice and explore all options before deciding to raze the courthouse and that state law doesn t give commissioners the right to demolish a courthouse.

These decisions allow two of any three commissioners in any of the 88 counties to vote to demolish a courthouse regardless of whether hundreds, thousands, or millions of dollars have already been put into restoration, said John Barga, attorney for the plaintiffs.

We don t believe that was ever the intent of the General Assembly.

Ohio s courthouses form a network of Ohio s history, culture, and heritage like no other buildings in the state. These courthouses are valuable treasures and before any are demolished, somebody besides the county commissioners must have the authority to make that decision.

He asked the high court to accept jurisdiction over the case, and, in the interim, to issue an injunction prohibiting demolition of the courthouse in Tiffin or even to declare a moratorium on the demolition of all courthouses in Ohio.

Columbus attorney Mark Landes, who has represented the county in the lawsuit, said he didn t expect the high court to hear the appeal.

Our feeling is, so far four judges have looked at this issue and all four agree his position has no merit and we would expect the Supreme Court agrees, Mr. Landes said, referring to Judge Wittenberg and the three-member appellate panel.

County Commissioner Ben Nutter said it was unfortunate the preservationists were unwilling to accept defeat.

The legal system on a couple occasions has said things like complete lack of evidence supporting their claims yet Mr. Barga forges ahead. Unfortunately, it costs the taxpayers money so he can answer to the taxpayers, Mr. Nutter said.

Last month, the county filed a motion in Seneca County Common Pleas Court seeking to recoup the legal fees the county has incurred in defending itself in the courthouse lawsuit, which is scheduled for trial April 28.

The commissioners contended the residents claims were frivolous.

On Friday, Mr. Barga fired back with a brief calling their request for attorney fees frivolous.

Its motion has been brought for an improper purpose to harass, frighten, scare, and maliciously injure the plaintiffs, Mr. Barga wrote in his motion.

He also contended that the board chose to spend taxpayer money by hiring a Columbus law firm to represent it rather than allowing the county prosecutor to handle the case.

The commissioners are proceeding with plans to demolish the courthouse and replace it with a new one after county voters on March 4 defeated an $8.5 million bond issue that would have supported renovation.

Jennifer Feehan



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