Legal fee expenses keep declining

“Legal fees are tax dollars that are sucked out of what people are paying for, I hate spending a penny on lawyers, but that number is never going to be zero”
Andy Ouriel
Mar 11, 2014

 

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”

Comments

Babo

There should be no legal expenses associated with running a county owned park district because the County Prosecutor's office by statute is the legal representative of a County Park District. There are no legal expenses associated with a park that the Prosecutor's civil division should not be able to provide. This misuse of outside counsel is but one example of how prosecutors reward outside legal counsel through unnecessary contracts in exchange for political donations and support.

Some enterprising attorney really ought to consider filing a taxpayer's recovery action against the prosecutor and the outside law firms to recover all the unnecessary legal expenses paid for by taxpayers as illegal expenditures.

SamAdams

Babo, I don't question that you're right about the responsibility for representation for the Parks and where that responsibility lies. I would point out, however, that the grand total of legal expenses for the Greenway project would have been ZERO if Park officials hadn't stolen the land to begin with!

Want to decrease the legal costs? Try not doing anything illegal. It's just a suggestion...

Babo

True, but the parks lawyers should have pointed out it was illegal. Baxter didn't because he had a personal financial reason in allowing the private law firm for the Metro Parks to profit unlawfully from the Metroparks

Julie R.

Gee, (said w/sarcasm) no wonder Kevin Baxter went running to hide when I found that fraud QuitClaims Deed filed in the Erie County Recorder's office dated 7 months before my mother's death that fraudulently transferred her half to her house in Huron ....... prepared by some Lorain County attorney that I never heard of before from a law firm that I never heard of before, either.

But then Baxter wasn't the only one that went running to hide, so did the Auditor and the Probate Court Judge.

Babo

Baxter received a direct financial benefit from the then Baumgartner & O'Toole law firm in 2002 when the Erie County Commissioners (including Commissioner Butcher who was facing criminal charges for soliciting under aged girls) approved using public funds to pay the law firm for work related to his private company Island Express Boat Lines. As I recall the work involved the Vermillion Port Authority where present Mayor Bulan was employed.

All of the money spent on Legal work for the Greenway ought to be recovered as illegal expenditures through a taxpayers suit against Baxter, and the former Parks Board members. The only way things will change if people start trying to hold public officials financially responsible for their unlawful acts and expenditures of funds through Taxpayers' lawsuits.

Nemesis

Like clockwork, Julie. Some things never change.

reader

How about filing suit against the law firm that advised the park board on the faulty land purchase from the railroad?

Nor'easter

Why didn't the Park district recover on the Title Insurance?
Or were they foolish enough to think they didn't need it?

Julie R.

The Park district recover on Title Insurance? What a joke. They didn't even have title insurance. What title company around would ever be stupid enough to give out title insurance knowing the property didn't even belong to the railroad to begin with. Even the attorneys for the railroad covered themselves w/legal documents that stated they didn't think the railroad owned the property after they stopped using it --- it should go back to the original owners.

Also, MetroParks used taxpayer monies to buy (i.e. steal) the property. In other words, they paid cash. Had they gone through a financial institution they never would have been able to steal the property, either, because a financial institution would have required a title search before approving a loan.

Babo

Correct, which is why Baxter's office as statutory counsel for Metro Parks is really responsible for the loss of taxpayer money. A taxpayer's suit against the former Board members would flush this all out. The demand is made upon Baxter to recover the illegal expenditures by the Parks Board. He will refuse to bring the case, which allows taxpayers to bring it themselves. The Board members should then bring in Baxter and their former legal counsel claiming they acted on advice of counsel.

Julie R.

Once again, MetroParks had title insurance on all those properties they stole? That's comical. If that was true, the title company's insurance company would have been representing MetroParks, not Baxter & Co.'s favorite Lorain County law firm of Stumphauzer & O'Toole. (a.k.a. Baumgartner & O'Toole) The title company's insurance company also would have been the one on the hook for 3.2 million, not the Erie County taxpayers.