OTTAWA — Putnam County commissioners will meet for the third time in two weeks on Thursday, this time to vote on a resolution to not appeal an award of $611,375 in attorney fees for violations of the state’s public records and open meeting laws.
The planned vote was announced following an executive session Tuesday, when commissioners met with Putnam County Prosecutor Gary Lammers and spoke over the phone to a private attorney representing them on the matter.
The vote could be the beginning of the end of a long legal chapter in the Road 5 saga that has dragged for three years and cost the county $1.1 million in legal fees, $483,906 of which commissioners paid their own attorneys.
The meeting after the executive session was heated at times, with property owner Bob Patrick telling commissioners the lawsuit was not about money but about forcing the project on landowners. He said the plan was in motion before anyone living along Road 5 knew or could object.
“This is not about the money. It’s about getting it shoved down your throat,” Patrick said.
The legal wrangling centers on the widening of an 11.2 mile stretch of Road 5 between Pandora and Leipsic in 2009. In 2014, the appellate court found commissioners violated Ohio’s Sunshine Laws relating to open records after filing a petition to appropriate 10 feet of land along both sides of the road.
Commissioners used eminent domain to expand the road from 20 to 24 feet, but property owners were not given notice of the appropriation nor were they given a chance to object.
Patrick said the first time property owners heard about the project was at a public meeting well into the project with various county and state officials presenting blueprints of the plan. That’s when property owners learned their land would be taken through eminent domain.
“I’m sorry guys, that is not open government,” Patrick said.
Commissioner Vince Schroeder said commissioners did not intentionally do anything illegal.
“We thought we were informing the public adequately. There’s no reason for us to hide anything,” Schroeder said.
Patrick said property owners felt they were not treated fairly. Patrick’s brother, Tom Patrick, also attended the meeting and said the issue remains that the actions to take property for the Road 5 project was illegal since it violated open meeting laws.
While the meeting was heated at times, with Bob Patrick saying Commissioner John Love told landowners to take the matter to court several years ago if they don’t like it. Love said he never said that.
What Love said he said at the time was if someone does not like the $6,000 value per acre appraisers came up with, they could hire their own appraiser and file for a hearing in court for a judge to determine an amount.
Love also said the project has been in the works since the 1990s, well before the current three commissioners were elected to office. He said public officials were tasked with making decisions throughout the various stages of the project. Patrick agreed with that.
Bob Patrick also challenged Schroeder when he said commissioners tried to keep costs low but had to defend county taxpayers. Patrick said he and the other landowners had to use their own money to challenge the project.
“It’s different when you spend your own. I think both of you would have seen it different had it been your own money,” Patrick said.
Patrick said he is open to talking and possibly settling soon on the issue of how much the remaining property owners should receive in compensation for the taking of their land.
Schroeder said he always thought the Road 5 project was a good choice. The road was narrow and a safety concern, especially with truck traffic, he said.
“We felt this was really a good road. My decision was based on safety,” Schroeder said. “We saw a drop off the berm due to truck traffic I thought was unsafe.”
Schroeder said the road is now safer but appeared frustrated over the path it took to get there.
“It’s unfortunate how it all worked out,” Schroeder said.
Reach Greg Sowinski at 567-242-0464 or on Twitter @Lima_Sowinski.