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Published: Wednesday, 9/26/2007

Judge orders gear, data in Seneca County courthouse case saved

Wittenberg Wittenberg
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TIFFIN - Seneca County commissioners, the county prosecutor, and six county residents fighting to save the county's 1884 courthouse were ordered yesterday to "preserve all electronic data and equipment" so that a forensic computer specialist can search for records related to the courthouse debate.

Visiting Judge Charles Wittenberg filed a one-paragraph order in Seneca County Common Pleas Court that said the computers must be preserved "until after such time that the opposing party has had an opportunity to hire a forensic computer specialist to obtain possible discovery, but no later than Nov. 16, 2007."

Tiffin attorney John Barga, who represents the preservationists, said he was pleased with the agreement, which was reached late Monday with attorneys for the commissioners.

The two sides had been scheduled to argue the matter in court yesterday.

"It was acceptable to me because it saved my clients two days in court," Mr. Barga said. "It accomplished what we wanted to accomplish, which was to preserve the computers and data."

While the plaintiffs have made several requests for e-mails and other public records related to commissioners' 2006 decision to tear down the old courthouse, Mr. Barga said he and his clients are convinced they have not received everything they are seeking.

When Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., last month brought a quote to commissioners for a new computer server for his office, Mr. Barga became alarmed that the county would dispose of the prosecutor's old computer equipment, which could contain pertinent data.

He is now looking at hiring Medina, Ohio-based Vestige Ltd. to search the computers for e-mails and other records that may be "invisible."

The search could cost his clients "in the ballpark" of $7,500, he said.

Mark Landes, one of two Columbus attorneys representing commissioners, said he offered a form of yesterday's agreement to the plaintiffs last week but got no response until Monday.

He said they can "do whatever discovery they need" - getting information that's on paper or in computers.

"We anticipate that we will ask for information from the plaintiffs and they will ask for information too," Mr. Landes said.

"We are confident that information is good. It will vindicate that the commissioners have acted responsibly and lawfully in its efforts to provide services to Seneca County."

On Aug. 28, Judge Wittenberg denied the six residents' request for a preliminary injunction that would have halted plans for demolition of the courthouse.

However, the group is continuing to pursue its lawsuit against commissioners, which claims the board violated Ohio's public records and public meetings laws when it voted to raze the courthouse in August, 2006.

The plaintiffs also intend to appeal Judge Wittenberg's Aug. 7 decision to dismiss two of the claims in their case - that the commissioners breached their fiduciary duty by failing to obtain expert advice and explore all options before making their decision and that commissioners do not have authority under Ohio law to tear down the courthouse.

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