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Lorain County Board of Mental Health limits legal fees in lawsuit

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SHEFFIELD TWP. — In an emergency meeting Wednesday, the Lorain County Board of Mental Health voted to spend no more than $30,000 on outside legal counsel to represent it in court in a battle over the process behind its planned merger with the county’s Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board.

Board members said the move was undertaken to ensure that the merger with addiction services board follows the policies and procedures set forth under Ohio law.

The mental health board had “no qualms” about the merger, said Charlie Neff, its associate director and former executive director, only about the process to create it.

“I don’t think anybody involved in this dispute wants to do anything intentionally to harm anybody,” he said following Wednesday’s meeting. “We just want to make sure this is done the way it’s supposed to be done. ... We just want to make sure that new board is able to hit the ground running and do this important work and accomplish what the people of this community expect and deserve.”

With 10 board members present, the vote was 9 to 1 in favor of a resolution spending no more than $30,000 to retain the law firm of Seeley, Savidge, Ebert, and Gourash.

Board member Dan Urbin was the lone “no” vote. He told fellow board members the cost of the matter concerned him, especially since he was convinced the board does not have a case.

“With that, for us to spend $30,000, I believe that there’s not one of us in this room that if it was their $30,000 they would spend that kind of money on this,” Urbin said, calling for better stewardship of taxpayer dollars.

Board members Jim Slone, Tim Carrion, David Ashenhurst, Debra Singleton, Denise Eacott, Karen Sutera, Regina Costantino, Hope Moon and Tracey Frierson all voted yes.

“I think we do have a case,” Slone said. Carrion agreed, saying he believed the board’s case was “outstanding,” especially given a judge’s ruling last week granting a temporary restraining order against the dissolution of the board.

The process of merging the two boards already has cost the mental health board its executive director. Prior to her resignation, which was effective Sunday, Kathleen Kern called the merger process “chaotic.”

Neff said there was disappointment with the appointment process. The law regarding such mergers is “relatively specific” about filling the newly created board’s seats with those members recommended by the two boards that will be merged, he said.

“It is a merger of two boards. It is not dissolving two boards and creating a brand new one. So the intent of the Legislature I think is pretty clear there,” Neff said. “You’re taking one agency that’s been around for more than half a century and another one that’s been around over 30 years and we’re similar in our function but we’re different in how we achieve it. So it’s about how do you take that and blend that and take the best from both to create a stronger, more unified agency to move forward.”

In brief public comments Wednesday, ADAS board member Jean Anderson “applauded the efforts” of the mental health board to ensure the process follows the law.

“We have to be sure these boards stay nonpolitical,” she said.

Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Chris Cook on Sunday issued a temporary restraining order and injunction against the planned merger, the day before the merger was to go into effect.

Plans for the merger were put into place by commissioners in March. Until then, Lorain County was the last of Ohio’s 88 counties to have separate mental health and addiction services boards.

A new, merged board made up of 18 members — 10 chosen by county commissioners, with another eight appointed by the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services — was to start work Monday. Cook’s ruling put a halt to that.

Urbin, Moon, Ashenhurst, Carrion, Eacott and Sutera previously were named to the board of the merged agencies, along with 12 others.

In his ruling, Cook wrote that to grant a temporary restraining order is “predicated upon a showing that to do so would ‘be in the public interest.’”

“This Court cannot imagine many issues of greater public concern than the care and treatment of the mentally ill or (opiate)-addicted in our county,” he wrote. “The severity of these public health (crises) mitigate in favor of scrutiny — scrutiny that would be forever lost if The Mental Health Board is allowed to dissolve and be consigned to the dustbin of history.”

Cook will hear arguments from attorneys for the Board of Mental Health and commissioners at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Neff said Wednesday the merger affects the lives of thousands of people in Lorain County who depend on mental health and addiction services. The merged board will help coordinate that care, he said.

“I spent more than 30 years with the board, I care about it and for me it’s kind of been a labor of love. And I just want to make sure these people are taken care of. And everybody here does, and that’s not always been what’s been in the paper. And that’s sad because it really doesn’t capture, you know, how deeply these people care and how much time they put in. And they get paid nothing. It’s all because they care,” Neff said.

Contact Dave O’Brien at (440) 329-7129 or do’brien@chroniclet.com. Follow him at @daveobrienCT on Twitter.


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