GPD Address Public Questions at Budget Meeting
March 16, 2023 by Amy Patterson

In a rare occurrence, Geauga Park District fielded on-the-spot questions from the public during the March 13 Geauga County Budget Commission meeting.

In a rare occurrence, Geauga Park District fielded on-the-spot questions from the public during the March 13 Geauga County Budget Commission meeting.

County Treasurer Chris Hitchcock, who sits on the commission along with Auditor Chuck Walder and Prosecutor Jim Flaiz, opened the floor for public comment after concluding their discussion with the GPD.

He asked the audience — which was larger than usual for budget commission meetings — if they had any questions for GPD Executive Director John Oros or Fiscal Officer Dawn Sweeney.

Jane Valvoda asked Oros to explain GPD’s reasoning for separating from the oversight of the auditor’s office.

“That’s a good question,” Oros said. “We felt that we could manage our own fiscal operations … and we still believe we can do that.”

The budget commission has been highly critical of the GPD board’s lack of public comment at their meetings, with Flaiz comparing the board to the “Chinese Communist Party” during a Feb. 22 budget commission meeting.

In addition to the above question, the public centered on GPD’s lack of transparence, with Flaiz confirming the district is the only public entity in the county that does not allow public comment as a component of their meetings.

Dave Partington, a member of Protect Geauga Parks, told Oros he greatly appreciates all the work he has done over his career and the positive things he’s done with the GPD.

“But starting in the end of June, in 2021, when you separated (from the county), things began to —problems began to be created,” Partington said, referencing comments earlier in the meeting by Walder, who explained some of the difficult financial processes now being performed by Sweeney were once the job of Deputy Auditor Ron Leyde.

“(Previously), things were taken care of so that you could not get yourself into financial difficulties. I would strongly encourage you to return under the umbrella of the auditor’s office, right this ship this way, get yourself back on track,” Partington said. “The taxpayers have given you three generous levies and we want you to spend those monies in (an) appropriate way.”

Geauga resident Shelley Chernin also spoke, thanking the commission for opening the meeting to the public. Chernin said if the public had been allowed to comment at GPD board meetings, the board may have been made aware of problems with appropriations before they were flagged by the budget commission.

“I first became aware that maybe there was the fiscal problems of some sort in January when some amendments were tabled at a park board meeting with no discussion,” she said. “There was absolutely no discussion at the park board meeting about why these amendments were being tabled.”

Chernin said a public records request for communications regarding the tabled amended certifications only revealed conversations about scheduling meetings with various department heads and GPD board members.

“But there was nothing of substance (in the) public records requests I got. Nothing of substance is put in writing. So, I don’t understand when the work of the park district, of substance, happens,” Chernin said. “It doesn’t happen on paper. It doesn’t happen in the public meetings. When was there a discussion with the commissioners about tabling these budgetary amendments?”

There was no way to know whether decisions were made through serial phone meetings or in executive session, Chernin said — both of which would be a violation of Sunshine Laws.

“It’s very disturbing as a member of the public,” she said. “And quite honestly, when there’s no transparency, when we can’t see the working of a public agency, we start to suspect corruption.”

“Obviously, the business of the park district is not conducted in public because there’s barely any discussion,” Flaiz added, piggybacking off of Chernin’s comments. “It’s a scripted event, most of the board meetings I’ve seen, so I share your frustration as a taxpayer.”

Walder said while there is no law that says GPD must have public comment, when things “start to become mysterious,” it’s his office that gets the phone calls. His staff has records of paper transactions, which puts his staff in the middle between the public and the GPD, he said.

“That’s oftentimes where relationships fall apart. Because we’re brokering, we’re trying to broker your message, but we shouldn’t be doing that,” he said. “You should be giving your message.”

Walder encouraged Oros and the GPD board to field their own questions because his office does not have full knowledge of the situation.

Allowing public comments more than once a year — and at times other than stressful budget meetings — would soften the blow and keep people more aligned, he added.

“Most people just are curious to know why, you know, and they don’t always have to agree,” Walder said. “But they have a right to know. It’s their money.”

Oros said the GPD encourages the public to email park commissioners.

“Then, we can prepare for the upcoming meeting and answer those questions during commissioners’ time,” he said.

“Well, I think that’s good. But I guess the question I would ask is, how’s that working? How’s it working for you,” Walder asked.

“We’ve gotten very few questions but you know, we’ve let people know that they can do that. I just thought I’d reference it,” Oros replied.

Flaiz drove the point further, telling Oros he knows why the GPD separated from county oversight.

“(Separation) made zero financial sense, made zero business sense. Any business person on your board would never do that for their personal business if they were getting those services for free,” Flaiz said. “The only reason you did it was to avoid oversight and avoid transparency, period.”

Flaiz said the GPD’s acts obstruct the public from looking at what’s going on in the district — and obstruction seems to be their intent.

“When you have $12 million of our money and you’re looking to avoid oversight, avoid transparency, you don’t take public comment, and you have very little or no discussion other than a scripted meeting, I think people are frustrated,” he said.