Property rights are among the most important rights Americans have.
So, when it comes to the government taking any citizen’s land for the public’s benefit, even if only a small amount of it to widen a road, the law must be followed.
That means doing things like making proper public notification of meetings and documenting discussions. Property owners should also have an expectation that officials know, and are following, the laws on eminent domain.
Unfortunately, an appeals court ruling this week strongly suggests that Putnam County landowners along the path of the Putnam County 5 widening project were all but left out of the process. That’s troubling.
It’s even more troubling that county commissioners didn’t follow the law by passing a resolution stating the widening project was necessary for the public’s benefit before conducting property assessments, and that a judge failed to recognize the vote on the resolution needed to be unanimous to proceed.
Now, Putnam County has what amounts to an illegally constructed road, and taxpayers will have to pay a steep price for it.
A reading of the 57-page ruling suggests the project was flawed almost from the start.
Landowners were led to believe there was nothing they could do about losing their land.
Commissioner meeting notices were only posted on a white board at their office without agenda details. Discussions weren’t provided to those asking for minutes of minutes.
Landowners were kept in the dark and by the time a public meeting on the Road 5 widening was held in January 2012, the plans were already a done deal.
To make matters worse, when some property owners filed for an injunction to stop it, Putnam County Common Pleas Judge Randall Basinger allowed it to proceed.
Basinger didn’t even reprimand the commissioners for the obvious open public meetings and public records laws violations.
The matter is a case study in how not to implement eminent domain powers, and there should be lessons learned from it.
Now the ball is back in Basinger’s hands, and there appears relatively little he can do to right the wrongs.
The widening project is done. The 3rd District Court of Appeals is right that it would be counterproductive to tear it out and start over.
Certainly, Basinger will have to address the open meetings violations. Ohio law allows for a $500 penalty for each infraction, and, depending on who is counting, there could be hundreds of infractions.
Then there is the issue of whether property owners are entitled to damages, and the matter of attorney fees. Those alone will be substantial.
Sadly, in such cases, taxpayers, not the public officials involved, are the ones left to pay the bills. Whether or not the commissioners got bad legal advice, there’s no excuse for ignorance of open meetings and public records rules.
We hope the court will do what it can to prevent a repeat.
Open government education should be required for all county officials, and Basinger himself should sit in.
Commissioner meetings must be announced on something more than a white board. Discussion on matters as important as eminent domain must be noted in the minutes each time they come up.
Anything less would be an insult to anyone who owns property in Putnam County, or elsewhere.
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