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Published: Friday, 11/16/2007

Seneca County commissioners, Blade to work on records dispute


COLUMBUS - The Blade and Seneca County commissioners have agreed to a court request to try to resolve their public records dispute over e-mails in which the commissioners privately discussed the fate of their 1884 county courthouse.

The Ohio Supreme Court yesterday formally referred the case to mediation.

"I talked to the parties, and I think I can say they thought there were some things they could talk about in mediation. Mediation is voluntary," said the court's mediation counsel, Bill Zapp.

He conducts 80 to 100 mediations each year for the court and said about half of those result in settlements.

The Blade's attorney, Fritz Byers, declined to comment on the development.

Mark Troutman, the commissioners' attorney, said that, given the fact that a local lawsuit filed by preservationists seeking to save the courthouse has been placed on hold, "we thought it was time to lay down our swords and see what can be resolved."

The commissioners have agreed to do nothing irrevocable with the building before April 30, giving the state time to investigate funding for courthouse restoration as an alternative to the demolition the commissioners approved last year.

The newspaper's lawsuit asks the court to force the commissioners to produce all e-mails sent, received, or deleted since Jan. 1, 2006. The county initially provided some e-mails. After the newspaper sued, some 700 pages of additional e-mails were produced.

The Blade also has asked the court to force the commissioners, at their expense, to use computer forensic tools to recover from computer hard drives the e-mails it contends were deleted in violation of state public records law and the county's record-retention policy.

The mediation process should begin in about a month, said Mr. Zapp.

"The court is pretty flexible in giving me enough time to see if the parties can work out their differences," he said. "At some point, we may come to the realization that we can't get the case settled."

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