ELYRIA — Eight city officials were asked to leave the old Lorain County Courthouse on Wednesday after arriving to conduct health, fire and building code inspections that were requested by county Common Pleas Judge James Burge.
County Administrator Jim Cordes said he was just going into a regularly scheduled public meeting with the county commissioners when he learned of the inspections and dispatched Special Projects Director Karen Davis to intercept the inspectors.
“There was an inspection of our building going on. They said they were called by Judge Burge, and we said he doesn’t own the building,” Cordes said.
The inspections — which city officials said will be rescheduled as a courtesy to the county — come as the commissioners are locked in a dispute with Burge, who serves as the administrative judge of the General Division, over where the county’s Adult Probation Department should reside.
Burge and his fellow judges want probation moved from the old courthouse to the unfinished fifth floor of the Lorain County Justice Center, a request county officials have called too expensive. The price tag on the work to build out the fifth floor is estimated at between $2.4 million and $2.8 million.
The commissioners have suggested the Probation Department be relocated to a county-owned building at 374 Broad St. at an estimated cost of about $1.3 million.
But the downtown location has drawn criticism from Burge, Elyria Police Chief Duane Whitely and Elyria Mayor Holly Brinda, who are concerned that loitering probationers could cause problems downtown as the city works to clean up the area.
On April 2, Burge warned the commissioners that if they didn’t agree to his proposal to move probation to the Justice Center by May 2, he would issue a court order requiring them to make numerous improvements to the old courthouse.
Court Administrator Tim Lubbe said the judges have tried to get various problems at the old courthouse addressed for years, but haven’t had much in the way of cooperation from the commissioners. He said conversations between the court and the county date to at least 2008.
“I think the court has been more than patient,” he said.
Wednesday’s inspection also isn’t the first time the judges have called in the city to inspect the courthouse. A similar request in 2012 turned up problems ranging from leaky ceilings to missing baseboard trim and ceiling tiles, to mold under floor coverings and peeling paint.
Elyria Chief Building Official Phil Lahetta said Thursday that this week’s inspection was stopped before it was complete, but during the time officials from the Building Department, the Fire Prevention Bureau and the city’s Heath Department were there they didn’t notice anything that mandated closing the building.
“There wasn’t anything at that time we could see that would require us to have them vacate,” Lahetta said.
Cordes said he doesn’t believe the city can just enter a building and start inspecting it without permission from the property owner.
“I was extremely frustrated and surprised by the unannounced presence of these inspectors since the owner of the building did not request the inspection nor did they receive notification of an inspection,” he wrote to Brinda in a letter dated Thursday.
Elyria Safety Service Director Mary Siwierka said the city doesn’t always need the permission of property owners to conduct an inspection if there’s been a complaint. She said the inspectors were invited by the tenant to conduct the inspection.
Brinda said the city isn’t trying to take sides in the dispute between the judges and the commissioners. She said the inspection was conducted because it was requested.
“In the course of responding, our inspectors were approached by Ms. Davis, who said Judge Burge was not authorized to make that request,” Brinda said.
Cordes said he also found the timing of the inspection suspicious because it took place at the same time that the commissioners are normally scheduled to meet.
“It could be concluded by a reasonable person that the timing was suspect,” he said.
Brinda called the suggestion that the inspections were timed to coincide with the commissioners’ meeting “ridiculous.”
Siwierka said the inspection was scheduled last week by the Building Department’s Kevin Brubaker based on the schedules of the departments involved. She said it was blocked off to take place between 8:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.