August 29, 2014

Elyria
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Online network to cover Manna co-op trial

ELYRIA – A county judge has granted permission to the online Courtroom View Network to cover a civil trial next week in which the owners of a LaGrange food cooperative have sued several government agencies over a raid on their property last year.

The Dec. 1, 2008, raid on Manna Storehouse on state Route 303 has already garnered quite a bit of attention and complaints that local authorities overstepped their bounds.

Assistant Lorain County Prosecutor Scott Serazin said complaints about how deputies handled the raid – law enforcement disputes claims that officers stormed the home of John and Jacqueline Stowers with guns drawn – are obscuring the real issues in the case.

The Stowers contend that they didn’t need a license to acquire and redistribute food to members of their cooperative, but state officials disagree.

“To us it’s a pretty clear-cut case,” Serazin said. “They buy products, mark it up 20 to 25 percent and they sell it.”

Among the documents seized during the raid was a copy of an application to get a license that is required to be able to sell food, Serazin said.

David Cox, an attorney for the Stowers, said public safety was never threatened by what the Stowers were doing.

“We’re arguing these people are not a retail food establishment,” he said.

The Stowers would obtain food from various farmers and then redistribute it to cooperative members, Cox said.

The Lorain County General Health District, which has been named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office and the Ohio Department of Agriculture, had no authority over the Stowers, Cox said. And when Jacqueline Stowers wrote a letter asking health officials to explain their rationale it was ignored, Cox said.

“We don’t serve the government, the government serves us,” he said. “So what they did in this case is pretty unconscionable.”

But Serazin said the Stowers must be held to the same standards as anyone else who distributes food. For instance, he said, while meat seized during the raid has been held in proper storage since it was taken by investigators, the Stowers have never produced proof that their refrigeration systems meet code.

Cox said investigators never examined the Stowers’ freezers.

Also seized during the raid were computers and documents for the co-op. No one has been charged in the case, according to court records.

Several organizations, including the Buckeye Institution for Public Policy Solutions, have urged members to attend the trial, set to begin before county Common Pleas Judge James Burge on Thursday.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.