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Published: Wednesday, 8/29/2007

Judge denies request to spare Seneca County courthouse

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - Six residents trying to stop demolition of Seneca County's 1884 courthouse lost their battle in Common Pleas Court yesterday, but they insist they'll keep fighting.

"We're disappointed, but we have not given up," said Rayella Engle, one of the plaintiffs. "We think we still have a very good case, and we're planning on going to the appeals court with it."

In a six-page opinion, visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg denied the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction, which would have prohibited the county commissioners from razing the shuttered courthouse.

Judge Wittenberg, who is retired from Lucas County Common Pleas Court, said the preservationists had not shown any evidence that the county commissioners violated Ohio's open-meetings law prior to deciding to bulldoze the courthouse.

"They have failed to present sufficient proof that defendants engaged in deliberations in a nonpublic setting in contravention of" the Ohio Sunshine Law, the judge wrote.

"The Court appreciates plaintiffs' and their counsel's desire to preserve the Seneca County Courthouse," he continued. "The Court agrees with plaintiffs that if defendants are not enjoined and they proceed to demolition, the 1884 County Courthouse will be gone forever, and the loss will be irreparable. However this Court must apply the law to the facts presented to it, and the Court cannot enjoin the actions of the duly elected commissioners because of sympathy or public opinion."

The plaintiffs contended the commissioners violated the open-meetings law last August when they approved - with no discussion - a 15-year plan for county facilities that called for demolishing the courthouse.

Judge Wittenberg said the lack of discussion did not mean officials had colluded in private.

"The condition and status of the Seneca County Courthouse had been discussed by the commissioners for many years, had been the subject of a proposed sales tax increase, and had been a major issue in [Commissioner Dave] Sauber's election campaign," the judge wrote. "Defendants reasonably believed no further discussion was necessary."

Commissioner Ben Nutter applauded the decision, which he hopes will end the debate over the soon-to-be-razed courthouse.

"It's time for them to stop this nonsense, and [their attorney], John Barga, should advise them as an officer of the court that this is ridiculous and it's a waste of taxpayer money," Mr. Nutter said.

The commissioners have paid more than $40,000 in legal bills to a Columbus law firm to represent them in the lawsuit, and those bills will continue to mount as the case moves through the appeals process.

"The way I figure it, each of them owes us about $10,000, and we take checks," Mr. Nutter said.

Mark Landes, an attorney for the commissioners, said the board has more issues to consider than simply preserving a building.

"They're preservationists. They're focused on one thing," he said of the plaintiffs. "We don't have that luxury. We need to think about scarce resources. We need to think about the people served by the courthouse."

Mr. Landes said the plaintiffs should "come clean" and admit they had no evidence the commissioners did anything illegal.

"They ought to get away from where they are now, which is to stop at nothing to keep the county from having a modern courthouse no matter what the cost of taxpayer dollars, no matter what it costs in character assassination," he said.

Plaintiff Jacqueline Fletcher of Republic said she was disappointed but not entirely surprised by the ruling. She said she would keep fighting.

"I've lived in the county a long, long, long time and I feel this is the way to go," she said. "I think it's in the best interests of the county to capitalize on our heritage. I'm not sure a modern courthouse is going to help us in that way."

At a meeting Monday night, the Tiffin Historic Trust decided to start a pledge campaign to raise $1 million to replace the clocktower on the 1884 courthouse. The tower was removed in the 1940s and replaced with a "modern" structure that many people say detracts from the building's appearance.

Ms. Fletcher said the preservation group also is planning to march in the Sept. 15 Heritage Festival parade with a 10-foot "Save Our Courthouse" banner.

She and the other plaintiffs - Ms. Engle, Nancy Cook, Lenora Livingston, Adams Engle, and Douglas Collar - have sent a letter to Gov. Ted Strickland and state and federal lawmakers asking for intervention.

Mr. Barga said he was preparing an appeal on Judge Wittenberg's Aug. 7 decision in which the judge dismissed two other claims in the courthouse case - that the commissioners breached their fiduciary duty by failing to obtain expert advice and explore all options before deciding to raze the courthouse, and that the commissioners did not have authority to demolish the courthouse. Along with the appeal, he said he would ask the Third District Court of Appeals in Lima to grant an injunction to stop demolition while the appeal is pending.

"I think the effort to halt the demolition now moves to the Court of Appeals," Mr. Barga said.

Mr. Landes predicted the appeal would be "very tough sledding for them."

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



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