Commissioners respond to BOE letter

By Eddie Mowen Jr. -

EATON — Preble County Commissioners on Monday, Dec. 6, read into record their response to a recent letter from the PC Board of Elections letter regarding proposed office space commissioners are offering them and a request for more.

Commission President Rachael Vonderhaar read the letter prepared by their attorney in an ongoing lawsuit the BOE has filed against the county.

The letter addressed to BOE Director Terri Hans. Vonderhaar read, “The Preble County Board of Commissioners is pleased to offer the Preble County Board of Elections new space in the recently purchased Junction Village Mall. This is more space than used by most similarly sized counties and is an opportunity to end the ongoing litigation in a way that best serves our citizens.

“As you know the Board of Elections has provided services from our historic courthouse for as long as anyone can remember. From early voting to registration, the Board of Elections’ two full time employees and helpers have had more than enough room to serve the residents in Preble County. It was also convenient. The courthouse houses multiple county functions, and the Board of Elections has been a natural fit. But things began to turn the last few years when the Board of Elections first claimed that it needed more room than the courthouse could provide.

“When the commissioners identified thousands of more square feet available within the courthouse, the Board of Elections then identified so called ‘deal breakers,’ with the courthouse — everything from radon to lead paint,” Vonderhaar read. “The commissioners resolved every identified maintenance issue, real and imagined. And when the Board of Elections asked questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act, the commissioners ultimately spent $75,000 to ensure that the courthouse complied with what the Board of Elections claimed was required.

“So, the commissioners’ efforts were not enough to please the Board of Elections,” the letter continued. “According to the Board of Elections, the only solution was a new building at the tune of more than $350,000. That was just the purchase price and did not include fixing the building to meet the proposed use or ongoing maintenance costs. In contrast, the courthouse, which had served the Board of Elections for decades, was still convenient and cost effective to taxpayers. So two years ago, the Board of Elections sued the commissioners. The lawsuit is ongoing and lacks merit. Worse, it is a request to use public funds for a lawyer who would then sue the commissioners. It is a lawsuit to fund another lawsuit, all with public funds.

“Rather than win in court, the commissioners have spent the last few years pursuing good government. In mediation after mediation the commissioners have listened to the Board of Elections’ concerns. In the meantime, other departments have been more than happy to use the newly renovated courthouse space. Now the commissioners and the Board of Elections have a unique opportunity to end the dispute,” the letter continues.

“The commissioners recently purchased Junction Village Mall in Eaton. The shopping mall already houses several government functions including the Bureau of Motor Vehicles and the Title Office. Adding the Board of Elections would be convenient for our citizens and avoid a costly and unnecessary standalone building just for the Board of Elections.”

The letter goes on to state, the space(s) proposed by the commission for the BOE in Junction Village Mall is more area than used by five boards of elections in similarly sized counties in the region, according to the Ohio Secretary of State.

The letter continues, “The final design would be completed by an experienced design team from Innovative Office Solutions, which the Secretary of State also vouched for.

“Finally, everything would be on one floor and there’s ample parking among, other amenities. It is a true, win-win,” it says. “The commissioners hope that the Board of Elections accepts the new space in Junction Village Mall and dismisses the lawsuit. To accept this offer, no later than Dec. 31, 2021, the Board of Elections must pass a resolution agreeing to use this space and dismiss the lawsuit. Otherwise, the Board of Elections will remain in the courthouse and the commissioners will fully respond to the merits of the lawsuit.

“After two years of mediation, it is time for this issue to be put to bed. The commissioners look forward to securing a premier place for citizens to exercise their most important right at Junction Village Mall and working with the Board of Elections on other important issues.”

“I think that the letter kind of gives a little bit of a synopsis of where we’re at so far,” Commissioner Adam Craft said following the reading of the letter. “Hopefully, it pushes the resolution. I know since you and I became commissioners this past year, we’ve been very open,” Craft told Vonderhaar. “We tried.”

Vonderhaar agreed. “And it’s time that the people of Preble County are the priority in this conversation and the dollars and time that is being spent in this situation — it’s time for it to be resolved. And this is a healthy win-win for everyone.”

“Unfortunately, this is one of the situations where the taxpayer loses either way,” Craft said of the litigation facing them. “Because every month this drags out, using both our attorneys the board of county commissioners is having to pay to defend our position, and then also paying out of the same General Fund for the Board of Elections to bring a suit against us. It’s a lose-lose for the county taxpayers.”

By Eddie Mowen Jr.

Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4061 and follow on Twitter @emowenjr.

Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4061 and follow on Twitter @emowenjr.