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Legal fee expenses keep declining

Andy Ouriel • Mar 11, 2014 at 11:56 AM

Erie MetroParks’ annual legal fees continue to decrease.

Despite the drop, local taxpayers are still forking over stacks of green to defend the park district against lawsuits.

Park officials have spent about $1.3 million on attorney fees and other legal costs from 1995 through 2013, according to a Register analysis of financial data obtained through a public records request.

Budget projections also show local taxpayers fronting upwards of $190,000 on legal costs for this year and in 2015.

“Legal expenses are not inexpensive,” said Amy Bowman-Moore, the district’s executive director.

Green for the Huron River Greenway

A majority of these legal costs resulted from Huron River Greenway litigation.

In the early-to-mid 1990s, former park officials began the process of creating a greenway. This ultimately led to past parkleaders unlawfully seizing private land belonging to about 35 River Road property owners

But a 2007 Ohio Supreme Court ruling vindicated property owners, ordering Erie MetroParks to compensate some people losing their land because of the greenway.

Portions of the greenway, however, didn’t close until fall 2011, when an agreement between park officials, agreeing to relinquish most claims to the greenway, and private residents, reclaiming that land, finally occurred in Erie County Common Pleas Court.

Erie MetroParks still maintains two smaller trails, totaling about 1.5 miles, along the greenway for public use.    In the greenway era, spanning from 1995 to 2011, local taxpayers fronted about $1 million for MetroParks’ legal expenses. Park officials failed to break out legal expenses up unit recently, but most contend much of these costs derived from greenway-related issues. The total greenway fallout, which includes MetroParks purchasing land to build the trail, totaled about $3.3 million.

“Legal fees are tax dollars that are sucked out of what people are paying for,” Erie MetroParks commissioner Kurt Landefeld said. “I hate spending a penny on lawyers, but that number is never going to be zero”

Ongoing legal issues

The district is dealing with two outstanding cases, including one involving greenway litigation:

•Attorneys representing the estate of Vince Otrusina sued the district for slander and trespassing. Otrusina’s legal counsel didn’t partake in the fall 2011 courthouse summit.

•Gil Steinen alleging park officials mishandled an agreement pertaining to the Joseph Steinen Wildlife Area.

Steinen is entangled in his second lawsuit with Erie MetroParks, alleging employees abused a land agreement involving the wildlife area off Cleveland Road near Osborn MetroPark.

In 2004, Steinen sold the 376-acre property for $2.25 million to Erie MetroParks.

The park district and Steinen originally reached an agreement in 2010, clarifying some discrepancies between both parties. But Steinen still decided to pursue another lawsuit for mostly the same reasons detailed in his first lawsuit.

Park officials remain somewhat upset about two ongoing legal situations. Still, the number of lawsuits against the district has significantly decreased, appeasing both officials and taxpayers.

“There are always going to be legal costs associated with running a park district,” Landefeld said. “But we, as commissioners and administrators, have a responsibility to keep that number as low as possible and to avoid frivolous expenses”

Commissioners, employees and volunteers will likely repeat this message as they campaign this spring. In the May primary, Erie MetroParks goes on the ballot seeking new money through increased property values on homes in Erie County.

“We have dramatically reduced legal expenses, since the settlement of the greenway resulted in a very large expense,” Landefeld added. “Going forward, we are going to try to keep legal costs as low as possible”

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