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Commentary for 2018

Commentary from other years 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013
Last update on March 17, 2018

Published March 17, 2018, by Thomas Jones

The LaDue Watershed Protection Group, a group of a few individuals, rented Adam Hall from 7-9 PM on the evening of March 15, 2018. After posting fliers and getting radio and television advance publicity, about 90 individuals, many of them recognizable as members of the group known as Protect Geauga Parks, were in attendance. Local activist Kathy Hanratty, known earlier for her organization of anti-fracking demonstrations and sit-ins, as well as her role as an officer of Protect Geauga Parks, appeared to have the largest exposure at the meeting.

One of largest fallacies that the LaDue Watershed Protection Group tried to promote was the sale of carbon credits in place of harvesting 425 trees from 12,000+ acres in the LaDue Reservoir area of Auburn Township. In theory, the trade of carbon credits was supposed to permit big industrial producers continue their production of industrial product and CO2 if they could provide payments to small industrial producers in developing countries. Further research about the viability of carbon credits reveals that the Chicago Climate Exchange, which would have been the site of carbon trading, collapsed in May 2010. Although there is still a carbon market in Europe, there is absolutely none in the United States in 2018.

Ms. Hanratty noted that representatives of the group had attended a December 2017 Akron City meeting in order to propose the selling of the carbon credits in place of thinning out over-mature trees. Ms. Hanratty noted that the City of Akron had not been responsive to the plan and that the City of Akron had not responded to an invitation to be present at the current meeting. As a matter of clarification, a phone call placed to the City of Akron earlier in the week revealed that the City of Akron had no foreknowledge of the meeting arranged by LaDue Watershed Protection Group. Additionally, a representative from the City responded that the group holding the meeting was apparently violently opposed to any cutting of trees, though none of the members of the group held title to them.

During the question and answer period of the program, Auburn Township Fiscal Officer Fred May suggested the audience ask Geauga Planning Commission member Tom Jones “what the Planning Commission could be/is doing about Akron’s cutting trees on its Lake LaDue property.” The question was reminiscent of 2010, when Fred May was a member of the Auburn Township Board of Zoning Appeals hearing my case of zoning inspector error. During that hearing in the presence of an attorney and a court reporter, Fred May blurted out, “What about 519.213?” That comment might have been a relevant question except for two points that Fred, a practicing lawyer, should have known. First, Ohio Revised Code 519.213 only would apply if the township had enacted a wind turbine zoning amendment. To this day, Auburn Township has still not enacted any wind turbine amendment. Second, even if the Auburn Township Zoning Commission had been able to get a wind turbine amendment approved by the Board of Trustees (they vetoed it way back in 2011), a farm engaging in agriculture is exempt from township zoning by ORC 519.21. In fact, the City of Akron is engaging in agriculture, more specifically silviculture, and is therefore explicitly exempt from township regulation. Fred May knows this fact well from his own BZA experience. To highlight an old paraphrase from the Old Testament and some twenty-first century movies, Fred May “has been weighed and measured and found wanting.”

Further, the answer to Fred May regarding the instant question regarding the Planning Commission is is simply that the Planning Commission has no authority over Akron, agriculture in a township, or any private property. The Planning Commission can only make recommendations which are non-binding. We on the Planning Commission , which includes the three County Commissioners, could have a good discussion on the matter if Dave Dietrich were asked to put it on the agenda for a meeting. Following such a discussion, however, the Planning Commission and the County Commissioners still have no power to impact Akron’s legal decision to log its own property.

Prior to Fred May’s trying to avoid an issue he was too cowardly to address, Township Trustee Patrick Cavanagh stood up to address the audience. Akron, he
said, is engaging in agriculture and is protected under ORC 519.21. He further explained that all agriculture in a township is exempt from zoning, even though Akron “took this property by and large through eminent domain” and “they have not been great neighbors but they have been bullies to some degree.”

In the meantime, although Trustee John Eberly was not present, Trustee Michael Troyan certainly was. A week ago he was quoted in the local media as saying that the township was waiting for a response from the Chagrin River Watershed Partners. However, Mr. Troyan did not volunteer a word. The Chagrin River Watershed Partners must have concurred that the City of Akron has every right to harvest the trees on its private property without private residents and attendees from outside Geauga County protesting that they have standing to determine the outcome of the Akron’s conservation policy. Mr Troyan was silent.

Published Saturday, March 10, 2018

Waiting until the March 5, 2018, trustee meeting was adjourned, an unidentified resident asked what it would take for Stafford Road speed limits to be reduced from 45 to 35 miles per hour.

While Road Superintendent Emerick Gordon explained about speed limit signs, Trustee Eberly appeared to become antsy and join the conversation without any invitation. The resident turned to look at Eberly and announce, “Please don’t interrupt me.”

At that point, Eberly was seen to grow red in the face. Perhaps forgetting the presence of the video camera, he grew louder and more argumentative, noting that the resident had been forbidden into the Administration Building. Next he ordered the resident out to the parking lot.

Remember, Auburn residents, that your Trustee apparently can demand that you not attend public township meetings. This is the same trustee who has been seen sweet-talking the parents of Boy and Girl Scouts after a squeakingly narrow victory in November 2017, During that election season there were more reports of Mr. Eberly’ s aggressively volatile behavior toward his political opponent.

Does Mr. Eberly appear quick to provoke a fight? Could that be some short-circuit fuses going haywire? Or just manifestations of another bully who is too scared inside to be a gentleman?

Published Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Nearly ten years ago Auburn neighbors of a 64-acre vineyard that produced its own brand of wine from
its grape vines found itself embattled by a group of neighbors who decided to make the farm engaged in viticulture the “enemy of the people.” Neighbors attended township meetings en masse and reported to the trustees how, with the use of their township roads, cargo trucks carrying vast tonnage of grapes and grape juice would be endangering the lives of their children and wearing out their street to make it possible for the farm to be producing and marketing its own wine. Those of us who witnessed this worst kind of neighbor relations remember how neighborhood nimbyism pinpointed the farming family and and sought to make them “the enemy of the people.” That witchcraft era lasted from about 2008 until 2011, when the Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal brought by the Auburn Township Trustees in the hope of reversing the decision of the Eleventh District Court of Appeals in order to make farm enterprise subject to the whims and dictates of the Auburn Township Zoning Inspector with a little help from his friends, the Auburn Trustees and their friends in the Geauga County Prosecutor’s Office.

The Ohio Township Association in its 2018 annual Winter Conference sought to bring new light onto this historical perspective by presenting a seminar for Ohio’s township trustees regarding the latest developments about the do’s and don’ts of appropriate township behavior towards Ohio’s farmers, practitioners of the largest industry in the State of Ohio. The presenter for this seminar, entitled “Agriculture, Exemptions, and Updates” was Elizabeth Hayden. She is an assistant prosecutor in the office of the Greene County Prosecutor. Nearly ten years after the events which brought Auburn neighbors into irrational Nimby mode, the topic of Schabel v. Troyan still is fresh, relevant, and critical to the understanding of township elected officials and appointed zoning officials. In all of its original disgrace, the episode witnessed the farmer-vintner going through what could later be termed a sham hearing of the Auburn Township Board of Zoning Appeals to apply for both a conditional use and a variance nether of which was required.

Because of ORC 519.21, none of this charade was ever necessary because the 64-acre winery at the end of a cul-de-sac with residentially-zoned homes was exempt from all of the travesty to which it had been subjected. The farm was an active agricultural entity under the Current Agricultural Use Valuation Program (C.A.U.V.). As such it was part of the program set up by the Ohio Legislature to encourage and sustain local agriculture. Instead, the Auburn “officials” sought to prove that agriculture was subservient to the whims and desires of Auburn zoning and its trustees, who were cowed by the voices of the farm’s neighbors apparently terrified for the safety of their children playing on the street and the integrity of the street itself.

When the Auburn Township BZA refused to recognize the validity of agriculture within township borders, the winery brought action in the form of two cases (09A000609 and 09M000646) that were eventually merged. When the Geauga Common Pleas judge’s decision came up different from that of the Auburn BZA but still did not reflect the superiority of agriculture over zoning, the farmer-vintner appealed again, this time to the Eleventh District Court of Appeals. On the heels of the Terry v. Sperry (“Twelve Vines”) ruling in favor of Myrddin Winery at the Ohio Supreme Court in 2011, the Eleventh District took nearly two years to rule in 2010G2955 that townships exercise no zoning control over agriculture, whether the farm production be crops, livestock, bio-fuel, aquaculture, or alternative electric power when that production is subservient and in direct connection with the agricultural output of the farm.

Enraged that the justices of the Eleventh District Court had found in favor of the landowner, there is a reliable account that at least one of the Auburn Trustees, to no avail, made a direct and personal appeal to higher justice to request a reversal of judgment. That outcome never materialized, and the vintner/farmer pursued the production of his vinted agricultural product.

Auburn Township Trustees, bound to spend all the taxpayer money in Geauga County that they could utilize to get the desired outcome at no personal expense, used their assist ant prosecutor in the then David Joyce Prosecutor Office to file a brief seeking reversal in the Ohio Supreme Court (which had already decided the Myrddin Winery case). The farmer-vintner, who did not have the option of using county taxpayer funds, filed his brief at a cost exceeding $5000 and had to wait for the outcome. Many months later the Supreme Court sent back its decision that it declined to accept jurisdiction, to the embarrassment of the common pleas justice and Auburn officials. At least one local newspaper shouted the headlines from its front page, and many Geauga County farmers took note.

So here it is 2018, and presenters at the annual Ohio Township Association seminars at its winter conference in Columbus still need to be informed about the right of agriculture to exist in townships without the interference of zoning. The lessons of the Ohio Court System and the Ohio Agricultural System still need to be taught to those making legislative, judicial, and quasi-judicial decisions in Ohio’s townships.

Published Monday, February 19, 2018

In response to Auburn Trustee’s comment at the February 5 Trustee meeting that Auburn Township would be writing a letter to the City of Akron following the voiced concerns of a couple of residents on Bartholomew Road, this writer on February 11, 2018, sent a public information request to Fiscal Officer Fred May, stating

“This is a public information request in re a document referenced at the public Auburn Trustee meeting of Monday, February 5, 2018. During the meeting, Trustee Troyan advised that the trustees would be sending a letter to the City of Akron in re the detrimental issues resulting from the upcoming logging of a 42-acre parcel identified as 01-016700 with extensive frontage on Bartholomew Road.

Since Mr. Troyan referenced the letter as an imminent action during a public session, I am requesting a copy of that document.”

To date, there has been no reply from Mr. May, although during the week of February 12, the township website published a letter addressed to the trustees from the Chagrin River Watershed Partners. The letter defended the role of the City of Akron to engage in a sustainable, responsible program of monitored forest growth. The indication at the February 19 Auburn Trustee meeting was that there were actually two letters from CRWP. The one letter at the township website has subsequently been replaced by an informational link to the City of Akron’s sustainable forest-maintenance program. The 42-acre Auburn parcel on which 420 trees are to be removed during the upcoming year, is part of that conservation program.

Trustees mentioned that the County Engineer would be closely involved in the upcoming project. Additionally, they noted that reduced-load signs would be
posted in the area contiguous to the actual logging. Based on that statement, we must remind all readers that the actual enforcement of legal weight limits on commercial trucks, including those hauling cut trees en route to purchasers/end-users is the responsibility of the Geauga County Sheriff’s Department, which assigns specific deputies to the task of actually weighing trucks to enforce legal weight limits. To make certain that there are no misconceived notions, we must emphasize that the Geauga County Engineer’s Office has no role in the weighing of commercial trucks and/or enforcement of legal weight limits imposed thereon.

In the meantime, since Mr. Troyan referenced the letter that would be sent to the City of Akron and Trustee Cavanagh tonight referenced the existence of a draft of said letter to be transmitted, this writer’s public information request for a copy of that communication stands. Should this writer not receive said request, there will undoubtedly be a second request, with possible other outcomes.

Published Thursday, February 15, 2018

Three and one-half months after the arrest of former county IT specialist, Stephen Decatur, and a few weeks after the arrest of his daughter Stephanie Stewart for aggravated theft and money-laundering, State Treasurer Josh Mandel announced earlier this week that Auditor Gliha’s adoption of Ohio http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook. Would create a fabulous opportunity for Gliha’s office to demonstrate governmental transparency.

For those Geauga political subdivisions already participating in the http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook program, which anyone can access online, there are conclusions. For the sake of academics, one can readily search for employee salaries in 2015, 2016, and 2017, depending on the political subdivision. Moreover, one can check out which vendors collect payments most often. Nevertheless, the documentation will not necessarily permit the researcher to find out specifically what the payments are for. For instance, a very cursory search lets the researcher checking on the Geauga County Sheriff’s Department know that Maplevale Farms bills the Geauga County Sheriff’s Office every month of the year, sometimes twice a month, typically in amounts of $1400 to $2500. But for what goods or services? None of the invoices tells what Maplevale Farms billed for, what hourly rate Maplevale implemented, or what any itemization might have been. In the case of Auburn Township, which joined http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook in early 2017, other than learning that Auburn Township’s spending has just about doubled since 2014 and that every payment under the category of Parks and Recreation is labeled merely as “Improvement of Grounds,” one cannot seem to find any record of expenses except for through the end of 2016. Furthermore, the records available for one township are not necessarily the records available for any of the rest of the townships that are participating in the program. In short, the records that are available to the public depend specifically on the kinds and numbers of records that the reporting Geauga County Auditor or the township fiscal officers choose to include (or not include) on a timely or untimely basis. In short, http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook is no silver bullet to determine government transparency.

The point is that the Geauga County Auditor’s Office in general, and Auditor Frank Gliha, in particular, have been attempting to convince the populace that Geauga County is a safe, secure place with excellent fiscal accountability. Recently, Gliha noted, according to the Geauga Maple Leaf, that as a result of Geauga County’s new participation in http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook, Geauga County residents now can take comfort in having “confidence in Geauga County government.” Not so fast, Frank.

With the recent 334 indictments against Stephen Decatur and his daughter, Stephanie Stewart, for actions over the last eight or so years, it would have been more accurate for Gliha to express hope that http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook might help “restore confidence in Geauga County government,“ especially since it has been widely reported that Gliha did not wish even to involve the Prosecutor’s Office when questionable expenditures to the IT Department and Decatur allies exceeded $50,000 at one time without a bid process, in violation of Ohio Revised Code.

For the record, Frank Gliha finds himself challenged for the position of County Auditor in the May 8 County Primary contest. Voters may remember that a fledgling candidate for the Auditor position in the 2014 primary contest lost the contest to Gliha by a mere 75 votes. In the 2018 primary contest, an experienced fiscal officer from Geauga County appears to be a much more credible threat to Gliha during this serious betrayal of Geauga voter confidence. Charles Walder, Gliha’s challenger, is the incumbent financial director of Russell Township.
During the Commissioner meeting of Tuesday, February 13, 2018, financial reports revealed that the county has already paid in excess of $20,000 for the very preliminary investigative work of Jim Flaiz-appointee, Brian Kostura. At this time, the commissioners have not received any appraisal of the upper limits of legal expenses that Kostura can or will bill the county.

Gliha’s announcement earlier this week that http://ohiotreasurer.gov/Transparency/Ohios-Online-Checkbook brings “a firsthand view into county expenditures at any time of the day” will certainly not bring much reassurance to swindled Geauga taxpayers. Neither will this after-the-fact major blunder on the part of the Auditor “reinforce confidence” in the checks and balances missing from the ADP Commission. Readers will note that the ADP Commission is and has been firmly under Gliha’s thumb. That thumb apparently twitched and wavered far too many times, while apparently fellow ADP member, Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, like Little Boy Blue of the nursery rhyme, “was under the haystack. . .fast asleep.”

Published Wednesday, February 7, 2018

They came with flyers in hand from a Saturday meeting at the Bainbridge Library regarding disapproval of Akron’s plan to harvest 400 mature trees on 42 acres owned since the 1960s by the City of Akron. Using various arguments, including the prospect of damaged roads, diminished property values, and disapproval of Akron’s “get-rich quick” program, two Auburn residents appealed to Auburn Trustees to plead their cause with the City of Akron. Noting that the tree-removal would be a clear-cut that would bare the acreage, thereby causing erosion, and reduce the value of their nearby residential property, the two individuals also stressed the wear and tear on newly- chip-sealed Bartholomew Road from massive flatbeds overloaded with tree trunks and returning over and over only to haul out more lumber.

The couple identified one of the organizers of the program as Kathy Hanratty, a Chardon Township landscaper, environmentalist, and founding member of a Geauga 501c4 organization known as Protect Geauga Parks. Mrs. Hanratty has been reported to be against Akron’s proposed thinning of mature trees on LaDue Reservoir property. Reportedly, she and a few others attended an Akron City Council meeting to request that Akron reconsider its plans by investing in wetland mitigation credits, known by some as a way to compensate landowners for not cutting trees or changing the ecoscape of a parcel.

By the end of the couple’s presentation, Fiscal Officer Fred May made copies of the couple’s paper documentation for the Trustees, who promised the would contact the City of Akron by letter. Earlier, Trustee P J Cavanagh had dropped the name of Sarah LaTourette, State Representative who is on the Agricultural Committee, as a potential source of relief for the two presenters, who claimed to live right across from the wooded parcel in question. Trustee Eberly, the lone official to express reservation about township involvement, noted that the success of wetland mitigation credits depended on investors willing to step up to the plate to buy and trade them, much like the concept of “trading paper,” not necessarily based on the value of something as permanent as the price of gold, silver, or platinum. After the gentleman verbalized that someone down the street had bought wetland mitigation credits, Eberly told him to line the prospective buyers up. The gentleman had no more to say.

The issue that brought the two residents to the Auburn Township meeting of Monday, February 5, has been planned by the City of Akron since November, 2017. Both the Akron West Side Leader and the Akron Beacon Journal of November 28, 2017, discussed the conservation pilot program being reinstated by the City of Akron after a thirty-year hiatus. According to the two publications, when the City of Akron initiated LaDue Reservoir to help preserve the city drinking water supply in 1962, it was also deeply involved in the planting, maintenance, and harvesting of hardwood trees in the area, with the intention of thinning out mature trees to provide better growing conditions for younger trees and seedlings.

According to both newspaper articles, “Up until the late 1980s, the city’s forestry program did the logging. . . Watershed rangers and employees oversaw the tapping of maple trees for syrup and even the raising and shearing of sheep on the lands around its reservoirs. The money stayed in-house as the green program buffered the water supplies from commercial and residential developers.” (Livingston,”Water Department Looks to Make Money on Hardwood Trees around Reservoir.” November 28, 2017, 2:28 PM BeaconJournal/Ohio.com)

With a focus on reducing costs, the city abandoned the conservation program and laid off its resident conservation experts before 1990. Starting in 2011, however, the city has been planting 3000-4000 hardwood tree seedlings at a cost of $.25-$.75 apiece. Additionally, the City of Akron spends $1500 annually to maintain them so that they can reach maturity in 40-50 years. These mature trees can then also be harvested. The 417 trees planned for harvesting starting in March, 2018, will be assigned to “the highest and most responsible bidder” in the hopes of realizing $50,000-$70,000 that can be poured back into the conservation program “to help fund a comprehensive and eco-friendly plan to bring back revenue-generating programs the city abandoned some 30 years ago.” The logging on the 42-acre Auburn Township parcel will clear no more than ten trees per acre, certainly not a clear-cut operation. In fact, according to the Assistant Law Director, the trees that are cut will be barely noticeable to the observer.

This writer is impressed with the plans to re-institute a “green” program by the City of Akron for the large Auburn Township parcel. We are disappointed that a meeting set up by Ms. Hanratty at the Bainbridge Library resulted in two Auburn Township residents contending that the tree-cutting will diminish the valuation of their land and damage Auburn roads. It would appear that these individuals have no knowledge of the fact that the 42-acres in question are not public property in which they or Auburn Township are stakeholders.

We are also interested in Zoning Inspector Kitko’s response to the couple when he explained that forestry practices are part of agriculture. “I hate agriculture, “ he sneered, referring to a clear-cutting operation in Auburn Township about the fall of 2011, when some Auburn residents complained about resulting drainage problems on their parcels. That operation was clearly outside of Auburn Township zoning authority. Officially, forestry-clearing is termed “silviculture.” Silviculture is the practice of controlling the establishment, growth, composition, health, and quality of forests to meet diverse needs and values. It is a very-strictly regulated procedure overseen by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and, indeed, is a highly-respected branch of agriculture.

Perhaps Mr. Kitko’s dismay comes from his hard-learned knowledge over time that forestry, as well as agricultural practices, are not subject to the dictates of any township zoning inspector. Mr. Kitko, after several expensive legal issues over the exemption of agriculture from township zoning, at last realizes that there is a power higher than his own.

All told, the Auburn Township meeting was a bit of a fiasco, especially with Trustee Troyan urging the couple that “two members of the media are furiously writing.” Nearly immediately after the comment the writers for The Geauga Maple Leaf and the Chagrin Valley Times rushed over for personal conversations with the couple as soon as Troyan expounded how “all publicity starts with the media.”

So, Auburn Township, you have been dared to tell the City of Akron to change its conservation practices. Go for it, guys. The Geauga County Prosecutor, regardless of Ohio Revised Code 519.21, in the past, has bent to your whims, when you felt threatened that voters would turn you out (they almost did that very thing in November 2017), if you did not precipitate litigation against township agricultural interests reportedly costing Geauga taxpayers $1 million. Are you going to make fools of yourselves again. . .by telling the City of Akron it has no right to use its own property?

Or, with hard-learned experience, will you shut the hell up and let the February 5 fiasco try to fade into oblivion, letting the local media babes be the fall guys?

Published Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Veterans Administration employee, Judy Zamlen-Spotts, made a special visit to the January 30, 2018, Geauga Commissioners meeting to explain her appreciation to JFS Director, Craig Swenson, for coming to the aid of a homeless veteran during the very bitter cold weather in December 2017. Listen to and watch Judy’s explanation to Geauga Commissioners, Tim Lennon and Walter Claypool, and County Administrator, David Lair.

Published Saturday, January 27, 2018

Since late October, Geauga County officials have been reeling with concerns over internet and financial security that have arisen as a result of practices by Stephen Decatur, chief internet technology employee. Hired over a dozen years ago by then auditor Tracy Jemison, Decatur apparently raised no concerns or suspicions until October 2017, when a number of shocking discoveries were made about dollars spent, apparent lack of competitive bidding, firewall problems, improper access to county employee data, and transfer to foreign accounts in what appears to be money laundering.

Decatur was first charged on a fourth degree misdemeanor in Chardon Municipal Court for having an improper interest in a contract, when it was discovered that funds paid by the county in connection with internet technology had been paid by Auditor Frank Gliha to SMCS Tech of Fairlawn, Ohio, a company owned and operated by Stephanie Decatur Stewart, a daughter of Stephen Decatur. Reportedly, when Gliha had asked if SMCS was owned by his daughter, Decatur denied the relationship. Free on bond after being charged, Decatur immediately lost his county job as IT Chief after the discovery that the county had paid about $260,000 to SMCS Tech and that a substantial portion of that money had been transferred to overseas bank accounts. These discoveries were made by an employee in the Auditor’s Office and reported to the Prosecutor.

In early November more information about breaches in internet security came to light. Firewall equipment purchased over two years ago to provide internet security had never been installed on county computers. Consequently, Auditor Gliha made a special appearance to ask the Commissioners in public session to authorize the payment of $25,000 for Black Box Corporation, to evaluate county internet infrastructure, in addition to $15,000 for the audit that had uncovered the firewall problems Gliha, along with Flaiz and other elected officials, sit on the Automated Data Processing Committee, which apparently was rubber stamping payments to Decatur and SMCS, and overlooking oversight procedures.

By November 27, the case had been turned over to Geauga County Common Pleas Court as a criminal case. Prosecutor Flaiz announced that he would convene a grand jury to examine the evidence for probable cause. Subsequently, Ohio Chief Supreme Justice, Maureen O’Connor, appointed a visiting judge to oversee the case.

By early January, Prosecutor Flaiz announced the assignment of Bryan Kostura to investigate practices in Auditor Gliha’s office. From the outset, there was comment that Kostura was an acquaintance of Flaiz who would exonerate Gliha from any further scrutiny, in spite of the fact that Gliha’s office paid an invoice to SMCS Tech for $58,000 without invoking ORC 307.86 to ask for competitive bidding on services exceeding $50,000 in cost. At one point, Flaiz noted that “[computer technology] services were provided and the invoices related to these vendors were paid even though no contract existed. . . Because no contract or agreement was entered into with the subject vendors, no ADP board members, county employees or county officials outside the auditor’s office were aware of these matters.” This quote raises the question whether Flaiz’s explanation was supposed to focus blame on Gliha’s office as the only knowledgeable party or whether every other ADP committee member was simply in the dark or simply not engaging in proactive critical thinking. Equally curious is the fact that Geauga law official, Sheriff Scott Hildenbrandt, also a member of the ADP committee, apparently saw no reason to ask any questions about business transactions with either Stephen Decatur or his daughter, Stephanie Decatur Stewart.

On Friday, January 26, 2018, the Geauga County Grand Jury’s finding of probable cause against Decatur was added to the criminal case. In an earlier statement, Flaiz noted that once indictment/s were returned, the results of an independent review of the Geauga County Auditor’s Office by State Auditor Yost would be announced.

An examination of Decatur’s Geauga County Common Pleas Court record reveals the presence of multiple liens filed against him since 2009, in one case, a judgment exceeding $22,000. This situation raises the question as to why Auditor Gliha and his evaluation team were not more concerned about the motivation and/or opportunity that county employees who handle taxpayer money or internet data have in compromising county safety and welfare. We suggest that any evaluation procedures used with county employees examine those employees’ handling of personal financial matters to monitor and uncover those employees with the motivation and opportunity to misuse public moneys.

We understand that in addition to the fourth degree misdemeanor charges of the original case, the findings of independent counsel Kostura will result in an additional charge of second degree misdemeanor. The minimum amount thought to be embezzled is about $260,000 with estimates reaching $4,000,000. The odds of that money being returned to the county are said to be very slim. The outcome of this case will undoubtedly be a costly one for us all.

Published Thursday, January 18, 2018

Although there were 22 items on today’s agenda, item 10 took over an hour and had three commissioners, the county administrator, and the assistant prosecutor totally engaged, as well as puzzled. Commissioner clerk Christine Blair admitted to “not getting it.” At one point, Commissioner Walter Claypool asked Commissioner Ralph Spidalieri, “Ralph, do you know where you stand?” without getting a verbal response.

Chester attorney, Caterina Cocca-Fulton represented property owner CM Cocca Development, LLC, on the parcel identified as 11-028200, which, according to the Geauga County Auditor’s webpage, houses two large commercial buildings and a home with access off Lynn Drive in Chester Township.

Agenda item 10 read as follows: “The Commissioners’ Office is requesting the Board review and decide the Variance Request for Site: 8279 [sic] Mayfield Road, Chesterland, Ohio- Commercial Office Building, Owner: GM Cocca Development LLC.” Later research revealed that the actual tangible address is 8299 Mayfield Road, and it is parcel 11-028200.

Mrs. Cocca-Fulton cited the actions of the Geauga County Soil and Water Conservation District in requiring a note to be attached to the deed and filed at the Geauga County Recorder’s Office as an anti-business, unconstitutional, and unenforceable violation of due process of Ohio Revised Code. Her testimony was a follow-up to an earlier letter written to the County Commissioners. Additionally, she described the current inspection requirements imposed by GCSWCD as “a denial of due rights, unsupported by Ohio law.” Mrs. Cocca-Fulton called on the Commissioners to grant the property owner a variance that would relieve the owner of the hardship it faces if it grants GCSWCD the right to unlimited ingress/egress to/from the property in perpetuity and the resulting from a compulsory signing of GSWCD’s agreement without any compensation. According to Mrs. Cocca-Fulton, signing such an agreement would be a denial of the owner’s due rights, an apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment (Illegal Search),which, if filed in court, would set a precedent for Geauga County when the outcome finally reached maturity and legal resolution in the courts.

Accompanied by Assistant Prosecutor Laura LaChapelle, GCSWCD Director, Carmella Shales, presented a lengthy rebuttal. LaChapelle prefaced Shales’ remarks with the acknowledgment that the topographical features causing the GCSWCD’s intervention had not been caused by the property owner and that any resultant litigation filed on behalf of the property owner were outside the scope of the current situation. Carmella Shales noted that there had been an amendment to GCSWCD’s procedure completed in September 2017, apparently with the knowledge and approval of the County Commissioners, for a property owner to submit to a maintenance agreement. She stressed that GCSWCD always gives ten days’ written notice of its intent to inspect a parcel in person, in compliance with NS4 requirements. Failure to obtain the property-owner’s consent to the ingress/egress of GCSWCD could result in the Prosecutor’s Office receiving a legal search warrant granted by Geauga County Common Pleas Court. Mrs. Shales noted that GCSWCD’s big concern is not with the present property owner but with a future owner. That concern, she said, is the basis for an agreement submitting to perpetual ingress/egress and inspection filed in the county recorder’s office.

The first Commissioner to respond, Walter “Skip” Claypool, noted to consider the constitutional rights of the property owner. He noted the geographical peculiarity of the parcel, zoned both residential and commercial. He also emphasized that the case at hand concerned a retention pond installed on residential property. Residential property owners, he continued, were not required to sign any kind of enforced maintenance agreement with the GCSWCD, thus creating an unequal standard for this particular property owner.

Mrs. Cocca-Fulton noted that GCSWCD’s insistence on the presence of a document requiring the property-owner’s signature without any contractual right or privilege in return for that signature is a miscarriage of justice. She noted that the grant of a variance to avoid the maintenance/inspection agreement being filed with the deed is an “easy way to resolve” the current difficult situation.

Mr. Claypool responded decisively, “We have the latitude to create a variance.”

Mrs. Shales cited the existence in the county of 4000 retention ponds. Since 2003, she noted, GCSWCD has had problems with owners not complying with maintenance/inspection requirements “all the time. If Cocca sells the property, there will be a new owner who could fill the retention pond in. In my opinion, the county can gets a black eye for not enforcing the maintenance agreement.

Mrs. Cocca-Fulton referenced the changing/clouding of a clear deed when GCSWCD’s Declaration of Restricted Covenant to cover the maintenance/inspection agreement is filed in the Recorder’s Office with the deed. She emphasized that per ORC [307.79(D)], “The board of county commissioners or any duly authorized representative of the board may upon identification to the owner or person in charge, enter any land upon obtaining agreement with the owner. . .in order to determine whether there is compliance with the rules adopted under this section.” (Emphasis added)

Assistant Prosecutor LaChapelle noted the right of Mrs. Cocca-Fulton to challenge the agreement on judicial bases but noted again that any legal outcomes were outside the scope of the issue at hand. Mrs. Shales noted that the scope of this particular parcel was “nothing different from the other cases.”

Mr. Claypool interrupted that this particular case involved the deprivation of the property owner without the benefit of due process or easement in exchange for a financial benefit. LaChapelle quickly responded that the agreement at hand was not an easement. Claypool emphasized that the agreement would be a modification of a free title for a property owner where the retention pond is located on a private piece of property,

Commissioner Lennon made a brief comment, but Mrs. Cocca-Fulton emphasized the issue of law and the complication of a “mussed-up title” upon easy sale of the parcel.

Mrs. Shales stressed the inconvenience of not having the Declaration of Restricted Covenant in place in correlation with the small size of her department and the inconvenience of staff members having to run down non-compliant property owners. Assistant Prosecutor cited not only ORC 307.79 but also section 302 of county regulations.

After asking about the possibility of an extension of time and being told that the absolute deadline for resolution was that day [January 18, 2018], Commissioner Lennon stated, “If we can’t come to agreement today, my inclination is to deny the variance.”

“What is the authority” for the GCSWCD demand, inquired Mrs. Cocca-Fulton.
“ORC 307.79,” quickly responded Carmella Shales. Nothing in the record indicates the need for a modification of title, asserted Mrs. Cocca-Fulton.

Mr. Claypool noted that the only thing that GCSWCD needed was a statement agreeing to the maintenance procedure not necessarily filed in the Recorder’s Office.

Mr. Lennon asked again,”Do we have to make the decision today?” Assistant Prosecutor answered, “This is the twentieth day, so the answer is yes.”

Appearing to waiver, Mr Lennon noted, “I don’t know if constitutionality is an issue for today,” although he strongly agreed that because the property was both commercially and residentially-zoned, the need for the Restricted Covenant might be excessive.

Mrs. Cocca-Fulton picked up on that thought. “The agreement results in a title that is less than free and clear and shows evidence of redundancy.”

Thinking aloud, Tim Lennon asked, “Is it hardship? Is it constitutionality? Is it both? Yes.” Some ten minutes earlier he, along with County Administrator Lair, had voiced skepticism about the constitutionality issue.

Commissioner Spidalieri voiced his first comment: “If this property were zoned commercial, you would not object.”

LaChapelle at this point offered to meet with all parties in an effort to resolve the issue.”

Mr. Lennon now noted, “I don;t think the recording deprives the owner of his rights. It is peculiar that the property is both commercial and residential, but your property is still free and clear. All businesses have to abide by Geauga County regulations.”

It was time to make a motion because the conversation had gone on for about an hour and one-half. “Ralph,” asked Claypool, “do you know where you stand?”

After some hesitation, Spidalieri responded. “At the end of the day, there is an obligation to enforce.” Up until this point, Claypool appeared to be the only Commissioner in favor of a variance, with Spidalieri appearing to vote against a variance and Commissioner Lennon wavering in more than one direction.

Mr. Claypool at this point expressed his admiration for individuals who take the time to stand up for their due process rights. “People don’t want a fight, but every once in a while we have someone who is willing to push back.” Claypool’s point appeared to express the importance of people willing to fight on principle as the protectors of everyone’s civil rights.

Ralph Spidalieri ventured again. “If we were to approve this variance, you [GCSWCD] still have the right to enforce.”

Mr. Lennon: “You [Cocca-Fulton] don’t have a problem with inspection?”

Mrs. Cocca-Fulton: “If a judge issues a legal search warrant, GCSWCD has the right of entry.” She noted that up until this point there had never been a refusal to GCSWCD to enter the property.

Mr. Lennon: “If we have an influx of people requesting variances now, I would have to reconsider. . .I move that we grant the variance.”

At this point Commissioner Clerk, Christine Blair, expressed confusion over the language of the motion.

Within a few minutes, Carmella Shales noted, “I’m not feeling that Cocca is agreeing.”

“Can we have an extension?” asked Claypool. “No,” answered LaChapelle.

Mr. Lennon added, “I’m leaning toward a change of mind. Either you [Cocca] agree to the deed restrictions or you don’t. You knew the requirements at the outset.”

In the end, with the assistance of County Engineer employee Nick Gorris and Deputy County Administrator Linda Burhenne the final permit/agreement was to wait for the signature of the property owner and include the permanent parcel number. The final motion contained language that “the owner. . . will comply with regulation 4.020 but will not be required to file with the Recorder. This action is to be completed within thirty days.”

It was 11:15 AM. The conversation had started shortly after 9 AM. It is the conclusion of this writer that all three Commissioners demonstrated extreme patience and open-mindedness in their willingness to provide public time to discuss the serious issues and questions presented by Attorney Cocca-Fulton. This writer is reminded of her own experience from 2010-2013 when township trustees in Auburn Township expressed their contention through their assistant prosecutor that said trustees were not willing to discuss any issues with the owners of two farms.
As one of those farm owners, this writer will never forget the injustice that those incumbent trustees demonstrated when they and their zoning inspector, all still officiating, insisted that farms were subject to township zoning restrictions, in contradiction to ORC 519.21. That law code was so overlooked that both farm owners were forced to appeal to the Eleventh District Court of Appeals, who overturned both judgments in favor of the farms. Nevertheless, Auburn Township felt compelled, at Geauga County taxpayer expense, to file with the Ohio Supreme Court an appeal which required a legal response at farm owner expense. In the end, after considerable expense, the Supreme Court of Ohio refused jurisdiction. Both judgments became topics of conversation for participants from Ohio townships who participated in the annual Ohio Township Association conferences as well as for participants from the American Planning Association who attended biannual conferences of the APA locally and nationally. The farms had won, but only because “every once in awhile we have someone who is willing to push back.”

The Commissioner session of 1/18/18 was/is a victory for property owners and taxpayers in Geauga County and a lesson in liberty and due process for all. Liberty is never free; it requires blood, sweat, and tears and the motivation to do the right thing without any personal gain.

Bravo, Geauga County Commissioners! Bravo, Attorney Cocca-Fulton! You all made us very proud to be Geauga County residents and observers of the civil/civic process here.

Where did the rest of the COMMENTARIES go? Every year in January we create a new page for the New Year. The missing COMMENTARIES have been moved to 2017 COMMENTARIES. Thank you for your patience.