The Power of Probate Court Judges and NEO's Metro Parks

5 minutes ago

Geauga County Courthouse
Credit Tim Rudell / WKSU

Metro Parks are among northeast Ohio’s most popular places. But in recent years, conflicts have emerged over who runs them--and how much power they have in running them. WKSU's Tim Rudell takes a closer look at the role probate judges are playing in this.

In Ohio there is such a thing as a 1545 park district. That refers to the the 1917 statute that established it. These are local parks, governed by boards appointed by the probate judge of the county they’re in.   

The public's place in operating the parks
For Kathy Hanratty, president of the citizen’s group “Protect Geauga Parks,” the set-up has become frustrating. She believes the core purpose of Geauga Metro Parks is being altered by the probate judge here, Tim Grendell, and that he is beyond accountability.

Her frustration and that of her group began in 2013 with a change the park board -- including members newly appointed by the judge -- made in the parks’ mission statement. The change added the words: “the promotion of recreation.”

“The original purpose as stated in 1917: In order to provide the preservation of natural resources park districts may be created. And so, that was the sole purpose.”

Protect Geauga Parks president Kathy Hanratty (3rd from left) and trustees Shelley Chernin (l), Dave Partington (2nd l) and Barbara Partington (far r)
Credit Tim Rudell / WKSU

​'You can do both'
Grendell has been Geauga County probate judge since 2011.  He says the change is in keeping with updates in the original state law.

“It says in there that 1545 parks are formed to preserve natural resources and permit uses for the public recreation consistent therewith.  So it’s in the statute. You can do both.”

'I've told them what I like and dislike, but no more than Joe Citizen.'

Kathy Hanratty says she and Protect Geauga Parks actually agree that the park system needs to serve a broad balance of interests, including recreation. But they are pushing back against what they see as casting aside “preservation.”

Mistrust and claims of judicial overreach
“The reason that we were founded is that there was a really recent disconnect from that essential balance.  We have been pretty much usurped by one person and a small group of his compadres who have done wholesale change away from conservation towards entertainment.”

Protect Geauga Parks member Dave Partington argues that whether the original law says he can do it, Judge Grendell should not have done it without the public.

'We have been pretty much usurped by one person and a small group of his compadres.'

“One of the discouraging things about the current state of the park district is that they are not at all interested in public input.”

Hanratty and Partington also say that they and the other members of Protect Geauga Parks now distrust the judge to the point of thinking he may be excluding public input because he wants to dictate park board decisions. 

Judge Tim Grendell, Geauga County Probate Court
Credit Tim Rudell / WKSU

Just a Joe Citizen?
Grendell calls that "nonsense. I’ve never told a park board member to vote on anything. I’ve told them what I like and dislike, but no more than Joe Citizen.  Look, if you have a problem, let’s sit down and talk about it.”

But Kathy Hanratty and Barbara Partington say the animosity in both directions is making that difficult.

“He only has invited to meet with us at the probate court, which we have refused.

"We have invited to meet with him at the library, which he has refused. And he sent his constable over to escort us across the street ... to his office, which we declined. Because, in the court room you are subject to contempt of court. And this judge has used that inappropriately in the past.”

The judge says that’s not why he wants to meet in his office.

“I would love to sit on a forum with some of these people and talk through these problems. But it needs to be a forum that’s fair and unbiased. But they don’t want to do that, they just want to beat.”

​A bill expanding the judge's powers
Grendell says he favors a controversial bill sponsored by one of his former colleagues in the state legislature, Bill Seitz. He wants to change Ohio law to redefine probate judges’ authority over the parks -- including their authority to deal with what they deem to be disruptive criticism.

He also says accusations against him are a spill-over as he's pushed a new concept of what the parks need to be.

“Our parks don’t address the kids under 30 very well. We’re putting in an action park. It’s going to have a BMX bike trail, fishing docks on the ponds, and a zip line. And it’s geared to get younger people, who someday will have to vote for levies, interested in coming to parks."

The conflict in Geauga is not unique to Geauga. In neighboring Mahoning County, some local residents have been embroiled in a war of words with those overseeing Mill Creek MetroParks.

The issue in both cases is accountability.  And as long as probate judges are by law the unilateral authority over the managing of metro parks, such conflicts seem likely to continue.