December 17, 2014

Elyria
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Judge says court order on courthouse keys ‘moot’

 Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge

Lorain County Common Pleas Judge James Burge

ELYRIA — Roughly a dozen locks on the second floor of the old Lorain County Courthouse were rekeyed Friday at the behest of county Common Pleas Judge James Burge.

The move came a day after the county commissioners said they planned to defy a court order issued by Burge requiring them to turn over the keys to the second floor doors so that the county Adult Probation Department could begin using office space on that level.

Burge said both the commissioners and the courts have a set of keys to the doors. He said that since his staff now has access to the second floor, he considers his court order, issued Thursday, moot and likely won’t have a hearing on whether to hold the commissioners in contempt of court.

“We have access to the space,” Burge said. “That’s all we wanted, and I have no reason to believe a court case will go forward.”

But not all of the commissioners are as willing as the judge to let the issue go.

“He gave us an order that they wanted everything turned over by noon (Friday).” Commissioner Ted Kalo said Friday. “They already had started the move.”

After the close of business Thursday, county Facilities Director Karen Davis and one of her employees went over to the second floor to check on a complaint from the Probation Department that there was an odor and the sound of running water coming from a set of restrooms on the second floor.

But Davis found that the lock to the hallway that allowed access to the area had been changed and a conference table and other items had been moved into an old jury room behind the same door. Davis called Young Locksmithing Services and learned that the same technician had changed the lock earlier in the day at the request of the Probation Department.

Both Burge and court Administrator Tim Lubbe said they were unaware Thursday that Chief Probation Officer Beth Cwalina had called to have the lock rekeyed. Lubbe said Cwalina was trying to secure the items in the room, but she should have sought permission from her superiors before having the lock worked on.

Lubbe said Cwalina was given a verbal caution about acting without approval on matters involving the old courthouse.

“Because of the dynamic nature of this situation, that’s something I’ve insisted she keep me informed on going forward,” he said.

The county’s General Division judges oversee the Probation Department, which is based in the lower floors of the old courthouse, which is owned by the county commissioners.

The judges and the commissioners have been arguing for months over whether to relocate the Probation Department to the unfinished fifth floor of the Lorain County Justice Center.

Kalo and fellow Commissioner Lori Kokoski have said they believe the cost to do so is too high, while Commissioner Tom Williams has backed the fifth floor option.

Kalo and Kokoski are leaning toward renovating the old courthouse to address the concerns of the judges, who have said the building is rife with mold, asbestos, lead paint and other health concerns.

The expansion to the second floor, Lubbe said, was prompted by work done by county maintenance workers earlier this month on an area covered in lead paint, which can cause serious health issues.

Lubbe said once he and the judges learned about the lead paint issue, they began taking steps to relocate the workers assigned to that area to the second floor.

But Kalo said the judges and Lubbe never contacted commissioners to request the area be made habitable. Had they called and asked instead of sending a court order and a letter from their lawyer, the commissioners would likely have done what they could to accommodate the change, he said.

“The judges do not have the authority to take over additional office space,” Kalo said, comparing the feud to a landlord-tenant dispute.

Kalo said he believes the judges overstepped by launching a “frontal assault” with a court order instead of simply asking. He said the commissioners plan to meet with their lawyer, Robert Cahill, on Monday to discuss their legal options, including the possibility of asking the Ohio Supreme Court to intervene.

“We’re all on the same page that this isn’t right, so it’s got to be addressed,” Kalo said.

Williams said while he agrees that Burge crossed the line with his court order, he also doesn’t want to waste county money on a legal fight. The judges also have brought in their own lawyer after county Prosecutor Dennis Will, who usually represents both the commissioners and judges, removed his office from the case at the request of the judges.

Now that the Probation Department is on the second floor, Williams said there’s no point to continuing the battle.

“They’re in there. They gave us the keys. Let it go,” he said. “Let’s look at the big picture and figure out what we’re going to do with either the fifth floor or the old courthouse.”

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