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Published: Wednesday, 12/21/2011

Countersuit filed on courthouse

Senaca County officials seek denial of halt to razing

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A chain-link fence surrounds the courthouse, placed there Monday in preparation for demolition.
A chain-link fence surrounds the courthouse, placed there Monday in preparation for demolition.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

TIFFIN — Calling the claims against them frivolous, the Seneca County commissioners asked the Ohio Supreme Court on Tuesday to deny a request by a group of county taxpayers for a court order to halt demolition of the 1884 courthouse.

RELATED CONTENT: Letter from Judge Steve C. Shuff to Seneca Co. Commissioners

RELATED CONTENT: Relator's Motion for Temporary Restraining Order

RELATED CONTENT: Supreme Court of Ohio TRO Response

RELATED CONTENT: Seneca County Commissioner's Response

The response, written by Seneca County Prosecutor Derek DeVine, was filed a day after the taxpayer lawsuit was submitted to the state’s highest court. Mr. DeVine said in his response that the group clearly was seeking to force commissioners to renovate the courthouse rather than to provide adequate court facilities as their suit purports.

“[County commissioners] have decided to remove the dilapidated 1884 courthouse structure,” the response states. “Relators’ frivolous suit attempts to trump the decision-making of the board.”

The suit, filed by Columbus lawyer David Carroll, contends that county commissioners have a legal duty to provide a courthouse that complies with federal access requirements and standards set by the Ohio Supreme Court. The suit also alleges commissioners are ignoring the “binding commitments” they made to accept a $5 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to renovate the courthouse, which has been vacant since 2004.

“The commissioners, in doing resolutions over the last two years, made what they called in their own resolutions a binding commitment to the people of Seneca County to rehabilitate the courthouse,” Mr. Carroll said Tuesday. “To me, the word ‘binding commitment’ and ‘commitment’ don’t mean we’ll do it if we feel like it. It means they are promising to do it so we are asking the court to make them keep their promise.”

He said Seneca County common pleas judges would be subpoenaed as witnesses.

In recent years, the judges affected by where the county’s court system will land have been quiet on the issue of demolition versus renovation, commenting that it is the decision of the commissioners.

What one judge appears to be frustrated about, however, is that after almost eight years, the county still does not have adequate court space.

On Monday, Seneca County Common Pleas Judge Steve Shuff submitted a letter to county commissioners that said the court’s home in the courthouse annex building has inadequate space and an inefficient layout, inadequate seating, deliberation rooms that are not soundproof, and tables and chairs for counsel that are too close to the jury box. The building was designed for the probate and juvenile courts, which remain in a small building across the street.

“Clearly the annex building was NOT to house the General and Domestic Relations Divisions of the Common Pleas Court,” Judge Shuff wrote. “Nearly eight years have passed since we moved to the annex building. After hundreds of thousands of dollars in studies, reports, etc., Seneca County remains where it was eight to 10 years ago regarding court facilities.”

The annex was built to house the probate and juvenile courts, but when the main courthouse was shuttered in 2004, the common pleas division was moved there temporarily. The county has two common pleas judges and one judge who handles the probate/juvenile division.

In his response to the lawsuit, Mr. DeVine said “numerous changes” have occurred since commissioners agreed to renovate the courthouse in 2009. Among them, he said, was a significant decrease in state funding and the disappearance of $2 million in state aid pledged by former Gov. Ted Strickland. Commissioners have the legal authority to demolish the courthouse, he said, and taxpayers have a right to vote them out if they don’t like their decisions.

“Relators are challenging the policy decisions of the Seneca County commissioners in court, when the appropriate forum to implement their policy preferences is the ballot box,” the response states. “If Relators seek to manage the affairs of Seneca County, our system of government mandates that one or more of them should first be elected to the office of county commissioner.”

Mr. DeVine met with Commissioners Ben Nutter and Jeff Wagner in executive session for about 30 minutes Tuesday over the litigation. Commissioner Dave Sauber, who has opposed spending money on demolition, was absent because of surgery.

Mr. Nutter said commissioners were advised by Mr. DeVine not to comment on the suit. Earlier in the meeting, he told the audience that because of the pending litigation, the board would not entertain any comments or questions about the courthouse.

That was a disappointment to advocates for the courthouse, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s unfortunate. My preference is to see open dialogue,” Franco Ruffini, deputy state historic preservation officer, said afterward. He said courthouse supporters did not want to file a lawsuit but felt it was necessary with demolition work beginning at the site. A chain-link fence was erected Monday by B&B Wrecking and Excavating of Cleveland, the firm hired for $373,000 to tear down the courthouse. Workers were inside Tuesday to start asbestos removal — required by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency before demolition can proceed.

“Our goal is to try to get people back to the table,” Mr. Ruffini said. “If you don’t talk, you’re not going to find a solution.”

Theresa Sullivan, vice president of the Tiffin Historic Trust, said it was frustrating that the commissioners have repeatedly refused to allow representatives of the Seneca County Courthouse and Downtown Redevelopment Group to meet with the county’s bond counsel to discuss a proposal for guaranteeing the county’s debt service on the renovation loan. “We absolutely did not want it to have to come to this,” she said. “We just wanted the commissioners to work with us. We think we’re reasonable people.”

Rayella Engle, one of the 44 plaintiffs listed on the taxpayer suit, said in her mind legal action was a last resort. “I think it’s sad it came to this,” she said. “I wish that we could work together to come to a solution, and I hope we still can.”

Mr. DeVine suggested in his response to the court that the Ohio Supreme Court was not the appropriate venue for the complaint, but Mr. Carroll disagreed. “This case is of such importance to the public, such importance to the state, such importance to the administration of justice in this state, we felt it was an appropriate case to be bringing directly into the Ohio Supreme Court,” he said.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at: jfeehan@theblade.com or 419-724-6129.


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