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Published: Friday, 9/21/2007

Seneca County commissioners urge dismissal of Blade lawsuit

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU

COLUMBUS - The Seneca County commissioners yesterday urged the Ohio Supreme Court to throw out a lawsuit filed by The Blade seeking to force release of e-mails in which the board privately discussed the fate of the 1884 Tiffin courthouse before making a public decision to raze it.

County attorney Mark H. Troutman argued in the motion that "substantially" the same issues have been raised by "substantially" the same people in county court, and that the local case is alive and headed for a permanent injunction hearing on Tuesday. The local court had refused to grant a temporary restraining order in the separate case brought by six county residents, but the plaintiffs have indicated they intend to appeal that decision to the 3rd District Court of Appeals in Lima.

"This duplicitous suit cannot circumvent the Seneca County Common Pleas Court's jurisdiction while the case proceeds toward a permanent injunction hearing," Mr. Troutman wrote.

The motion contends there are "minor factual pleading differences" between the two cases, but argues that allowing both to proceed simultaneously raises the specter that the county could be found liable for damages to two parties suing over the same public records and conduct.

The Blade's attorney, Fritz Byers, said yesterday the newspaper is not "in any way involved" in the Seneca lawsuit pending before Judge Charles Wittenberg.

"The Blade's suit is based on documented and admitted violations of the public records law, involving destruction of certain public records and the failure to produce other records in response to The Blade's request," he said. "Interestingly, since The Blade's filing, the commissioners produced an additional 700 pages of documentation supposedly discovered after the suit was filed.

"The commissioners' claim that their illegal conduct regarding records should escape scrutiny because a trial judge in a different suit has ruled they didn't violate open meetings law reflects either dishonesty or confusion, but in any event is utterly without legal merit," he said.

The Blade reported earlier this week that some of the e-mails released after the filing of its suit showed that the commissioners privately considered drafts of plans to demolish and replace the courthouse weeks before their Aug. 31, 2006, public approval of a plan to do so, a move The Blade maintains violated Ohio's open meetings law.

The e-mails showed that a fiscal analysis comparing the costs of restoring or replacing the structure had been circulated and reviewed among commissioners, staff members, and a Tiffin businessman prior to the public meeting, where commissioners approved the demolition plan without comment from the public.

The lawsuit in Seneca County was filed by six local residents seeking to save the courthouse from the wrecking ball. Their attorney, John Barga, could not be reached for comment.

The Blade turned to the Supreme Court after the commissioners failed to fully comply with a series of formal public records requests by the newspaper for all e-mails received, sent, and deleted since Jan. 1, 2006.

In the motion filed yesterday, Mr. Troutman said the board "relishes" the opportunity to prove it acted legally.

Contact Jim Provance at:

jprovance@theblade.com

or 614-221-0496.



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