By Matt Stansberry
The headwaters of Northeast Ohio’s three iconic rivers – Chagrin, Cuyahoga and Grand – spring out of Geauga County.
This rural landscape 30 miles east of Cleveland also contains 1,000 acres of kettle bogs and fens – wetlands made by melted glaciers from the last ice age, some of the rarest habitat in the state.
The county boasts the only dark sky park east of the Mississippi River, where people can look up with their naked eyes and see the Milky Way. Standing in the dark parking lot, you feel like you could fall off the planet.
It is also home to the state’s last population of native brook trout, in a tiny coldwater stream habitat. Biologists assumed the species had been extirpated in the state until remnant populations were discovered in 1972 in the headwaters of the Chagrin River.
In 1959, the Geauga County League of Women Voters created a park committee to try to preserve the landscape from the uncontrolled sprawl devastating the rest of the region. Five years later, the Geauga Park District opened its first, four-acre property.
Today, the Park District manages 10,000 precious acres. It protects some of the last, best places from greed, entrenched interests, and our own behaviors. “Many of the areas in the Geauga Park District are the kind of habitats that we’re losing today in Northern Ohio, and if they’re ever destroyed they will be gone forever,” says David Beach, director of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History’s GreenCityBlueLake Institute. “It’s vital for the Geauga Park District to maintain its stewardship of those special places.”
Unfortunately, that agency has been plagued by controversy with the dismissal of the longstanding Executive Director, appointment of a politically charged Park Board, and most disturbingly, the rewriting of the Park District’s bylaws and mission statement by newly appointed bureaucrats with no background in conservation.
At the very least, these disruptions disenfranchise longtime park volunteers, visitors, and employees, discarding the institutional knowledge and expertise necessary to maintain and plan for a sustained future.
At the worst, the moves put Northeast Ohio’s crown jewels in the hands of political extremists who could cause irreparable harm to the region’s biodiversity and character.
Timeline: Tragedy to discord
Each county in Ohio has a probate court. It is the responsibility of the probate judge to appoint members of various independent boards and commissions. As an example, the members of the Geauga County Parks Board are appointed by the probate judge.
This three-member Board of Park Commissioners, each appointed to three-year terms, is empowered by state law to hire professionals to manage park property, acquire land, designate law enforcement officers, and levy taxes to fund its operations.
The judge appoints the board; the board runs the park.
On May 23, 2011, a drunk driver struck and killed then Geauga County Probate Judge Charles Henry while bicycling in Troy Township.
In the wake of the accident, The Cleveland Plain Dealer wrote: “He was known to exchange his robe for jeans and bike, hike, jog, canoe, fish or do anything else that got him close to nature.”
Six months later, Timothy Grendell was sworn in as Geauga County Probate Judge, appointed by Governor John Kasich. Grendell had spent the last decade as a Republican state legislator.
His tenure overseeing the Geauga Park District proceeded quietly until November 2013, when the Park Board fired longstanding Executive Director Tom Curtin after 14 years at the helm.
The board voted 2-1, with Grendell’s recently appointed board members Mike Petruziello and Nick Fischbach choosing to not renew Curtin’s contract. Board member Jim Patterson voted to keep Curtin.
Grendell’s board members claimed the dismissal stemmed from a botched land donation. A couple had bequeathed property to the park, but not their car or the contents of their home. Apparently the Park District cut some corners, trying to move quickly.
“A car with its tires still on it was ordered buried by Tom Curtin at the Felkin property on Bradford Drive in Munson Township. The Felkins’ personal property, which was left to the park district by Donald and Dorothy Felkin, was never probated and the estate could have been contested. Firearms, including a Thompson submachine gun, that were part of the estate were negligently mishandled and to this day have not been adequately accounted for,” Fishbach wrote in Geauga County’s News-Herald.
Curtin denied that the guns went missing, but admitted that burying the car in the basement of the property was a mistake – a hasty decision in an incident that occurred over a decade ago.
In the interim, Curtin had built the Geauga Park District into one of the state’s most respected institutions.
In 2012, the park district won two Annual Awards of Excellence from the Ohio Parks and Recreation Association (OPRA): second place for Observatory Park, and third place for Orchard Hills Park. In 2013, the Geauga Park District took first place from OPRA and won the Governor’s Award for the covered bridge over the Maple Highlands Trail.
“These winners represent the best of the best in parks and recreation in Ohio,” said OPRA Executive Director Woody Woodward in the Geauga News. “These programs and projects are changing the lives of people around the state and building better communities in Ohio.”
Many people assumed that the Executive Director’s 2013 firing had been politically motivated, given Curtin’s impressive track record, and the fact that the buried car incident in happened in 2003.
At the following Park District Board Meeting, Curtin’s supporters showed up to protest the controversial firing. From the Dec. 17, 2013, News-Herald: “Tom is a great person. He made me want to be a better volunteer,” park volunteer Kristi Schmitt Burr said. “What you’ve done is a bloodletting.”
In January 2014, Grendell dismissed the entire Park District board, saying he wanted to move forward with a clean slate after the acrimonious and controversial dismissal. He appointed Lou Mucci and Mary Ruth Shumway.
The following month, Grendell’s new board hired ultraconservative political activist and State Representative candidate Linda O’Brien to do “leadership evaluations” on the district’s employees for $16,000. Unsurprisingly, O’Brien recommended reducing staff and payroll, which eventually resulted in layoffs of three more employees at the GPD.
At the June 10, 2014, Park District Board meeting, Mucci introduced new park bylaws that demoted the Park District’s primary mission of conservation to being on equal footing with recreation. Mucci also added a list of potentially approved “activities” to the bylaws, which included logging, mining, and ATV use.
On June 24, 2014, Grendell appointed a third board member, Brian Johnston.
With just two weeks on the job, Johnston voted unanimously with his fellow board members to rewrite the Park’s mission statement and bylaws at the July board meeting.
Since that time Grendell’s Board and GPD Interim Director John Oros have cut the park’s budget and suspended a voter-approved park levy.
Some of these changes – cutting the budget, promoting recreation, restructuring the park leadership – are pretty innocuous on the surface. But all of these changes seem to be pulled from a playbook written several years ago by Mayfield Heights-based political blogger Edmund Corsi, who believes the GPD should be dissolved and equates environmentalists with Hitler.
Corsi blogs under the pseudonym Geauga Constitutional Council, and advocates a belligerent approach that is toxic to political discourse. He was in the news in 2010 over a dispute with the Ohio Elections Commission, and the Plain Dealer linked Corsi with Grendell’s campaign.
Corsi seems to have removed some of the park-related posts since the controversy flared up, but they’re available using the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine:
We say YES to disolving it! Alot of people we have spoken to in Geauga County agree that the Park District is way out of control with their lavish spending and continual land aquisitions.
Just how many parks do we need in Geauga anyway? Geauga is so beautiful, everyone’s lot is like a mini park. The radical TREE HUGGERS out there will disagree, I’m sure of it.
Indeed, the tree huggers do disagree.
Protect Geauga Parks
Opposition to Grendell’s vision for the Geauga Park District started with the firing of Curtin, but the threat of mining and logging the park galvanized the broader community. A group of concerned citizens sprang up on Facebook, and coalesced into an organization calling itself Protect Geauga Parks.
The Facebook group included around 450 people as of mid-October, and the group has collected over 2,500 signatures for a petition opposing the changes to the park bylaws.
One of the organizers is Kathy Hanratty, president of the Northeast Ohio Native Plant Society and 22-year resident of Geauga County. She was one of the first people to alert the Ohio environmental community about the problems happening in the GPD.
According to Hanratty, the threat of oil and gas drilling in the park is a red herring. The bigger picture is that the politically toxic atmosphere will disgust voters and visitors, so that the current park leadership can sell off land. At that point it could then be logged, fracked, or developed.
“The forests protect our water and air, and provide resiliency to pollinators who provide us with food. Residents who never set foot in the park at all are getting more than their tax dollars’ worth in ecosystem benefits,” Hanratty said.
She referred to a 2013 study by the Environ Group in Burton, Ohio. The report extrapolated that the Geauga Park District provides massive returns on taxpayers’ investment in higher property values, cleaner air and water, and recreational services.
“This was one of the best-run park systems in the state,” Hanratty said. “If this can happen here, it can happen in any of the public parks in Ohio.”
According to Sandra Buckles, one of the steering committee members for Protect Geauga Parks, donations of land to the Park District will slow down because people aren’t assured that their lands will be preserved for the future.
“People have gone to their grave believing they’ve done something good for Geauga County and now [Grendell and the Park Board] are tossing it to the wind,” Buckles said. “A woman at the Geauga County Fair came up to me on a walker. She is a big land owner. She said ‘I’ve given a lot of my land to the parks. At the end of my life, I have one more small piece to give, and it’s going to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.’”
While Grendell and his board have appeased some on the far right of the political fringe, they’ve angered hundreds of people across the entire political spectrum, to the point that the Park District can’t even function.
Tuesday, October 14, on a stormy weeknight I arrived at the Geauga Park District’s West Woods with my family. Outside of the Park District office, over 90 people stood in the rain holding candles to protest the park’s current direction.
The Park Board had cancelled its October meeting 24 hours and 15 minutes prior to its scheduled start to avoid the crowd.
Empathy for the Devil
I am not supposed to like Tim Grendell. His history as an Ohio state legislator is marred by scandal, and he’s been on the wrong side of the fight on environmental issues in the past.
And yet, after watching an hour-long YouTube video of a September 18th 2014 speech Grendell gave before the Geauga County Tea Party, I begrudgingly began to empathize with him.
Grendell looms over the crowd. He’s funny. He’s patronizing.
He has the physical presence of a courtroom lawyer, the politician and orator. He plays the victim surprisingly well for a six-foot tall man in his position of power.
“There is no side to this story,” he says. “I’m here to tell you the truth.”
Grendell kicks off his address by accusing Save Geauga Parks of hacking into a Tea Party email system to try to cancel the meeting.
The people opposing Tim Grendell’s vision of the Park District are barely techno-literate, retired biologists and grandparents. The sweet lady who heads up the Facebook page for the opposition group types all of her posts in ALL CAPS either because she’s so mad, or she doesn’t know how to turn it off.
We’re not dealing with hackers here.
This kind of paranoia goes hand in hand with the Tea Party conspiracy that the U.N. is working through local park districts to move senior citizens out of their country homes and into subsidized urban rat traps under the direction of something called Agenda 21.
Stacy Mencimer, in Mother Jones, writes:
“Agenda 21 paranoia has swept the tea party scene, driving activists around the country to delve into the minutiae of local governance. And now that the midterm elections are over, they’re descending on planning meetings and transit debates, wielding PowerPoints about Agenda 21, and generally freaking out low-level bureaucrats with accusations about their roles in a supposed international conspiracy.”
According to Tea Party activists, these birders and native plant enthusiasts are just pawns in the U.N.’s ultimate goals of trying to reshape the world in the image of Scandinavia.
Throughout the video, Grendell sets up and knocks down a series of straw man arguments. He cherry-picks poorly phrased, misinformed comments from people he calls “malcontents.” At one point, he starts flapping his arms, mocking the birders who have called his rule into question.
He’s arrogant and disrespectful of the people who do not share his views.
But when I get past that, at certain points throughout the video, I find myself nodding my head in agreement, or at least understanding.
Grendell describes the incident at the Felkin property that sparked his recommendation to the Park Board to not renew Executive Director Tom Curtin’s contract. Park employees had mishandled the process under Curtin’s direction.
As Grendell tells it, when the last owner died, the Park District failed to find next of kin to transfer the property inside the house. The Park District violated federal firearms laws by letting some unspecified ranger walk off with a Tommy Gun they found on the property. They buried a car on site because they didn’t know what else do with it.
Now lawyers and lawsuits are involved. The GPD had to dig up the car. It sounds like a major fuckup. It sounds like a career killer for a guy who was already butting heads with Grendell.
When he talks about asking Geauga Park District board members to step down and approving a new board, Grendell makes it sound like he didn’t have any choice. The folks with relationships to the previous regime were fighting the appointees. He said he sat them down at a lunch where the guys started talking about suing each other. Grendell was sick of dealing with it.
“I have the ability remove everybody on that board at my discretion. No cause, no purpose,” he says. “Do I have ultimate responsibility for the people on that board? You bet.”
Addressing the rewrite of the Park mission and bylaws, Grendell acknowledges the vague language about logging and mining was sloppy. “The language was a little broad, and people jumped all over it,” he says. “It’s just that the language got a little loose, the political exploiters did what they are going to do.”
He vehemently denies the idea that the park is trying to cut the tax revenue and support park operations through logging and mining.
“If any of you know me, you know I have been against oil and gas drilling. I was against oil and gas drilling in the State Parks. I was one of the few Republicans who voted against that, to my peril. I don’t want oil and gas drilling in the Geauga County Parks. I’m anti-fracking.”
He sounds like a member of goddamn Greenpeace.
“Is anybody going to clear-cut in the Geauga County Parks? Not while I’m breathing. But what if Emerald Ash Borer rips through the parks? What if there’s a fire and you have to do some cutting?”
It sounds reasonable.
“There are some properties in this county, for example the wetlands on Mayfield Road, that’s habitat for native brook trout. There’s no way you or I are ever going to walk on that property,” Grendell said. “And nor should we, because we shouldn’t be disturbing the unique nature of that property for the preservation value that it has.”
Grendell does a great job papering over the concerns of the environmental community.
In fact, he’s gone to a lot of effort to silence those concerns, including commandeering the GPD’s newsletter, The Voice of Nature, to promote his version of events, and spending $4,000 on ads in local newspapers to do the same. When the Geauga County Auditor Frank Gliha hesitated to foot the bill and referred the matter to the Geauga County Board of Commissioners, Grendell issued a court order and threatened to hold Gliha in contempt of court.
On September 25, 2014, Grendell issued an order that the court would only work with the News-Herald going forward, cutting all ties with Geauga County’s Maple Leaf newspaper after it ran critical editorials on Grendell’s handling of the parks.
So he’s kind of a cross between somebody’s likeable grandpa, and Dick Cheney.
All politics are local
I would love to be writing about fall bird migrations, massasauga rattlesnakes, or brook trout. And instead I’m writing about county politics. Christ.
I would love to have been able to give Grendell the benefit of the doubt.
Unfortunately, Grendell and his board have a terrible track record so far. Losing smart and talented staff, cutting park budget, suspending voter-approved park levies, rewriting the bylaws — these actions do not instill confidence in the park district’s current direction.
And now Grendell runs uncontested on November 4 for another six years of absolute, unaccountable leadership of the GPD.
“I’m a nature writer, not a political journalist,” I complained to Sandra Buckles over a lunch in Chardon several weeks ago.
She looked at me and said, “I started out in conservation, and now I feel like I’ve walked into quicksand.”
Grendell has characterized the opposition thusly: “A small group of malcontents for years had it their way and only their way. They can’t stand the fact that times are changing.”
But in fact, it is about the hundreds of people who believe in the preservation of natural areas, standing up against a small but vocal group of Tea Party hacks.
Superficially this conflict is about how we manage Geauga Park District. But really, it’s about deepseated partisanship and dislike on both sides. The park district is a proxy for a bigger, societal problem where gerrymandered districts and increasingly self-selected media messages reward and reinforce the most extreme political views. (Belt senior writer Dan McGraw has an excellent column on this.) The fringe elements of our political system are calling the shots.
Introducing divisive politics to the Geauga Park District is an affront to people’s spiritual homes and sanctuaries. People’s lives are wrapped up in this. This isn’t about goddamn soccer fields; it’s about the continuation of a vibrant life in our region.
Judge Grendell is entrusted with the power and responsibility to govern his county. Whether he believes it or not, he’s also been entrusted with the natural heritage belonging to all of us in Northeast Ohio.*
The people who are protesting the Geauga Park District’s recent actions are scared and angry. They aren’t always polite, or for that matter, accurate.
But Grendell needs to be the bigger man. He needs to address not just the Tea Party kooks but the broader community with humility, not hostility and anger. For the sake of the parks, and the wildlife in them, he needs the environmentalists and nature lovers, the hikers and birders, to help support the Geauga Park District going forward.
These people and these places deserve better.
Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, Ohio. He is a dad, nature writer, and fly fisherman. Find him on Twitter @LakeErieFlyFsh.
More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at dwillustration.com.
*Judge Grendell did not respond to a request for an interview. I spoke with Geauga Park District Board Member Lou Mucci by phone, and his quotes from that discussion were not used, but echoed the sentiments Grendell expressed in the YouTube Video referenced above.
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