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Published: Thursday, 10/25/2007

Seneca County courthouse defense nears spending limit

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

TIFFIN - The mounting cost of defending two lawsuits stemming from the proposed demolition of Seneca County's 1884 courthouse is bringing the county commissioners dangerously close to the state-mandated limit on spending for outside legal counsel.

The commissioners have set aside $100,000 to pay the Columbus law firm of Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor and are scheduled to vote this morning on allocating $15,000 more.

By law, commissioners may not spend more for outside legal services than the county prosecutor's annual salary - in this case, $112,552.

"We're aware of that, and I know the lawyers are aware of it," County Commissioner Ben Nutter said yesterday.

"We want to stay within the legal parameters, and I guess I have to have faith in the fact they are doing things the way they are supposed to be done," Mr. Nutter said.

The meter began running in June when six Seneca County residents sued the board of commissioners in common pleas court alleging, among other things, that commissioners had breached the open-records and open-meetings laws in deciding to raze the vacant courthouse.

In September, The Blade filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court alleging commissioners had failed to turn over e-mails and other public records the newspaper had requested.

County Administrator Cindy Keller said that as of yesterday, the county had paid $73,170.52 to the Columbus law firm for its work on the two cases. She said commissioners initially allocated $50,000 for legal expenses, increased that by another $50,000 on Oct. 4, and now may raise it by $15,000. Ms. Keller said their attorneys had recommended that amount.

County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., said he has informed and reminded commissioners of the spending limit laid out in the Ohio Revised Code, although he said the law allows the board to ask the common pleas court to authorize additional spending authority if the legal bills exceed his salary.

While Mr. Egbert acts as legal counsel to the commissioners, the board agreed 3-0 in June to hire Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor to handle the courthouse lawsuit after discussing the matter with Mr. Egbert in executive session.

Mr. Egbert, whose office employs four full-time and one part-time assistant prosecutors, said his workload would not have allowed him to take on the case without help. The prosecutor's office handles an average of 250 felony criminal cases a year and all juvenile cases, and represents county offices, boards, and the 15 townships.

"We certainly do have a lot of work to do. I don't mean to say I couldn't have handled it, but I couldn't have handled it by myself," Mr. Egbert said.

Nancy Cook, one of the six county residents who sued commissioners, said the group has long felt Mr. Egbert should be representing commissioners.

She questioned Mr. Egbert at Monday's commissioners' meeting about why he was not representing the county when legal expenses had already topped $70,000.

"He said, 'Well the commissioners voted to not have me do it,' and I said, 'Well, I'm going to tell you right now if the commissioners voted for you not to do it, you should have stood up to the plate and said I'm going to do it. It's my job and I was elected to do it,'•'' Mrs. Cook recalled.

Commissioner Mike Bridinger said Mr. Egbert had told them he was too busy to take on the lawsuit.

Mr. Nutter said he did not think Mr. Egbert's office had the staff or time to handle the lawsuit, which has become "very lengthy, very time-consuming."

"[His office] is just not big enough," he said.

"We're spending almost what his salary is on outside legal fees," Mr. Nutter said. "How could he possibly be equipped to handle this?"

Mr. Nutter said it was "not even irony that the people who are bringing lawsuits are trying to criticize that very spending. That may even be beyond being a hypocrite."

Mrs. Cook disagreed.

"The bottom line is they should never have hired those lawyers. The bottom line is Ken Egbert should have taken on that lawsuit," she said.

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



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