December 21, 2014

Elyria
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Commissioners, judges engaged in deadlock over building access

County judges want the Probation Department moved out of the old county courthouse because of poor conditions. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

County judges want the Probation Department moved out of the old county courthouse because of poor conditions. CHRONICLE FILE PHOTO

ELYRIA — County commissioners said Thursday they will defy a court order issued by Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge requiring them to turn over the keys to all doors on the second floor of the old Lorain County Courthouse by noon today.

“We think the courts are overstepping their boundaries on this,” Commissioner Tom Williams said. “We just can’t have madness where the judges think they can tell us to do whatever they want us to do.”

Burge said he was surprised by the commissioners’ plans not to comply with his order.

“I’m disappointed that they would take that attitude,” he said.

The judge said that if the commissioners actually do ignore the order, he will schedule a hearing in which the commissioners would have to explain why they shouldn’t be held in contempt of court.

Although the judge said he would have to hold a hearing before making a decision, he could potentially order the commissioners jailed until they turn over the keys to the second floor.

County Administrator Jim Cordes said the commissioners’ attorney, who was formally hired Thursday, told him that jailing the commissioners wouldn’t be legal. Cordes said Burge will be sent formal notice of the commissioners’ intentions today.

Burge’s order was issued in conjunction with a letter to the commissioners from Subodh Chandra, the attorney representing the judges. The letter complained that, earlier this month, work on walls containing lead paint in the old courthouse was done in an unsafe way and created a “significant hazardous condition” for county
Adult Probation Department workers who are based in the building.

Because the area where the work was done is now contaminated, Chandra wrote, some workers need to be relocated to the second floor.

The commissioners and the county’s General Division judges have been locked in a dispute for months over the judges’ desire to relocate the Probation Department to the unfinished fifth floor of the Lorain County Justice Center. The judges oversee the Probation Department.

Burge gave the commissioners an ultimatum in April in which he said if the fifth floor project wasn’t approved, he and the other judges would issue orders requiring extensive renovations at the old courthouse.

While Williams has been supportive of the fifth floor plan, his fellow commissioners, Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski, have balked at the estimated $2.4 million to $2.8 million price tag for the proposed move.

Kalo said he still believes that the old courthouse is the best place for the Probation Department.

“It’s a good old building and I think, with some money put into it, it will be more than sufficient,” he said.

Kalo also said the judges never inquired about expanding onto the second floor before Burge issued his order.

“They have not asked us,” he said. “They have demanded unfettered access to the second floor.”

But Chandra wrote in his letter that the courts have used all the floors of the old courthouse for years and a resolution passed by commissioners states that the building is devoted to the use of the courts.

“The (commissioners’) recent and inexplicable efforts to restrict access to significant portions of the Courthouse are thus improper and interfere with the Court’s operations,” Chandra wrote.

Chandra’s letter also stated that to prevent further problems, county maintenance workers need to coordinate with court Administrator Tim Lubbe before any repair work is performed on the old courthouse.

Even without the keys to the second floor doors, employees from the Probation Department have already begun moving into the spaces they intend to occupy, Cordes said.

County Facilities Director Karen Davis and one of her employees went over to the second floor Thursday evening to investigate a complaint from the Probation Department about an odor and the sound of running water emitting from a set of second floor bathrooms where the water is supposed to be turned off.

But Davis said she couldn’t access the bathrooms because the lock to the hallway leading to them had been changed and a conference table, boxes and other items moved into an old jury room behind the same door.

Cordes said Davis called Young Locksmithing Services to get the door open and the technician who answered the call told her that he had changed the lock at the request of the Probation Department earlier in the day.

Both Burge and Lubbe denied knowing anything about the lock being changed.

“We don’t change locks,” Lubbe said.

Burge said he would have been the one to approve the expenditure of funds for the locksmith but was never consulted about the work.

Kokoski said she thinks the court order is part of an ongoing effort by the judges to force the commissioners into a position where they have no choice but to acquiesce to the judges’ demands.

“They don’t want to resolve it,” she said. “They just want the renovation of the fifth floor. There is no compromise.”

Lubbe, however, said Burge’s order was a reasonable request, particularly given that the commissioners were told to provide additional access to areas of the old courthouse earlier this year.

“I think it’s a very reasonable order,” he said. “I think it’s a very simple order.”

Lubbe also said that it’s a matter of the health and safety of Probation Department workers. He said he has studies indicating that there are problems with lead paint, mold and asbestos in the building.

Cordes, who has previously complained about Probation Department employees entering areas they aren’t authorized to be in, said the problems inside the old courthouse are being exaggerated. He said the asbestos that is there isn’t a problem as long as it isn’t disturbed.

He also said that because the old courthouse is made of sandstone, a porous material, it can become damp and lead to mold, but health officials have told county workers how to deal with that issue.

Cordes also said he doesn’t know for certain the paint in question is lead-based. He and Kokoski said their understanding is that lead paint is only dangerous if it is eaten.

Burge said he isn’t an expert in lead paint, but he wouldn’t want to inhale it as some of his employees have.

“I don’t know what might happen if you breathed in the dust or the flakes,” he said.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, exposure to lead can cause cardiovascular problems, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems in adults. Lead exposure can also cause problems for pregnant and nursing women and their babies.

The EPA website also said that lead exposure can come from eating and drinking contaminated food and liquids and from breathing “lead dust by spending time in areas where lead-based paint is deteriorating, and during renovation or repair work that disturbs painted surfaces in older homes and buildings.”

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com. Follow him on Twitter @BradDickenCT.