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Published: Tuesday, 5/13/2008

Settlement in Seneca County courthouse battle OK'd

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Seneca County commissioners and the six county residents who sued them last year have agreed to cut their losses in a legal battle over the county's ill-fated courthouse.

The board voted 3-0 yesterday to approve a settlement with the six plaintiffs that calls for the historic preservationists to drop their remaining claims against the board and for both sides to pay their own legal fees and court costs.

The residents had accused commissioners of privately discussing a 15-year plan for county buildings that included demolition of the county's historic 1884 courthouse, and then adopting that plan in August, 2006, with no public discussion.

"It's an acceptable resolution of the remaining local issues. It may not be satisfactory, but it's acceptable," said John Barga, attorney for the plaintiffs.

The agreement allows the residents' appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court to move forward, which could be the last hope for saving the courthouse.

Mr. Barga has asked the Supreme Court to hear the case claiming it has statewide implications for historic public buildings because in effect it allows two commissioners to tear down a historic courthouse. The court has not yet said whether it will hear the case.

Since the residents' suit was filed last spring, commissioners have spent almost $80,000 to pay a Columbus law firm to defend it. In March, the board voted to go after the plaintiffs to recoup those costs, but under the settlement, the county agreed to pay its own legal bills.

"Legally, we're not going to pursue the money, but morally and ethically John Barga and his six plaintiffs should write a check to the county commissioners because they owe the taxpayers," Commissioner Ben Nutter said after yesterday's meeting.

One of the plaintiffs, Rayella Engle, said Mr. Nutter is forgetting that it was the commissioners who decided to hire outside legal counsel rather than use County Prosecutor Ken Egbert, Jr., to defend the county.

"They know very well that we do not owe that money," Ms. Engle said.

She pointed out that when commissioners were sued in 2005 over a public-records violation, the commissioners lost, and the court ordered the county to pay the plaintiff's legal fees.

Mr. Nutter and Commission Chairman Dave Sauber said that while commissioners contend they did nothing wrong, they could not justify spending an estimated $25,000 to argue the remaining claims in the preservationists' case - that commissioners violated Ohio's open-meeting and public records laws. The case was set to go to trial Thursday in Seneca County Common Pleas Court.

"We wanted vindication which is why we wanted to go to trial, but it wouldn't have been a good use of taxpayer money to get vindication and spend another $25,000," Mr. Nutter said.

Mr. Sauber said he just wanted to get on with the demolition and replacement of the old courthouse - a decision he believes was confirmed by voters in March when they defeated an $8.5 million bond issue that would have supported renovation. Gov. Ted Strickland had promised to seek $2 million in state funding for the project if the bond issue passed.

"For me it's a matter of putting this behind us," Mr. Sauber said. "It's unfortunate we had to expend any money to do this, but I really believe there's not one person in Seneca County who could possibly say we did not give the 1884 courthouse the attention it needed before we made our decision."

Jackie Fletcher, one of the six plaintiffs and a candidate for county commissioner, said it was unfortunate preservationists could not delay demolition at least until the November election when both Mr. Nutter and Mr. Sauber are up for re-election.

"The judges told us the remedy is the election, which of course is going to be in November, which will be too late," she said. "Both the appeals judge and the local judge said that's the remedy, but how can you have that remedy if there's no injunction to stop the demolition? To me, it's very sad."

Nancy Cook said she and the other five plaintiffs "were acting in what they felt was the best interest of the county at a significant cost to themselves in both time and money."

"The last two years have been a long two years for many of us," she added. "It's sad, very, very sad to know that it's going to come down."

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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