ELYRIA — A judge Tuesday urged Lorain County Commissioners and the Lorain County Board of Mental Health to resolve a months-long war of words over the mental health board’s merger with the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lorain County, and the makeup of the board that will govern the two from now on.
Lorain County Common Pleas Judge Chris Cook last week granted the mental health board a temporary restraining order against the merger until he could hear evidence that the process to choose members of the new 18-member merged board either violated or complied with state law.
During a court hearing Tuesday, Cook suggested the parties find a compromise. And they did to an extent, with Lorain County Commissioners agreeing to let the mental health board decide on two additional appointments out of six that the commissioners made to the merged board.
More remains to be done by the mental health board, which will meet today to consider the matter further. Cook also encouraged the commissioners and the board to continue talking.
“I’m not telling you what to do, I can’t do that,” he told both parties following negotiations, “but if two or three board members from the mental health board’s recommendations could be put on a new board, that might resolve this and we can start doing the job serving Lorain County as opposed to fighting about who’s going to be on the board.”
Lorain County is the only one of Ohio’s 88 counties to not have a joint mental health and addiction services board. Commissioners announced the merger in March, but controversy reigned as mental health and ADAS board members said the appointments were soiled by politics.
Mental health board members have said they were disappointed how the commissioners chose their appointments to the 18-member merged board. Commissioners accepted four names the mental health board recommended and six it did not to fill 10 seats.
Mental health board members argued, but commissioners disagreed, that the county was bound by law to accept the board’s recommendations (the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services recommended an additional eight members for the 18-member board).
Without discussing any accusations of political games, Cook said the delivery of important mental health and addiction recovery services was an issue too important to be put off beyond the end of the week.
“I think you would agree and the commissioners would agree, the sooner this new board comes into existence and begins to do its job, to serve the citizens of Lorain County with two of the most important services that are available — mental health care and drug treatment and drug addiction care — again, is better for Lorain County, right? I mean, I think everybody would agree with that: No matter how this plays out, the quicker the board gets functioning, gets up to speed and begins to fulfill its statutory and moral obligations, the better for all of us,” he said.
He told the parties they were close to resolving the issue Tuesday.
“I don’t want to decide this issue because it’s not my job to usurp the authority of the commissioners,” Cook said, noting that he could not find case law governing the issue before his court. “I want some signal of cohesion and being on the same page here, versus some judge telling you how to do it.”
Cook said as the plaintiff in the legal matter, the mental health board had the burden to show that commissioners acted improperly or abused their authority, and “the standard is high.”
“I’m putting this on the mental health board,” Cook said. “The mental health board brought this lawsuit. They have the burden to convince me, and maybe alternatively a superior court, that the Lorain County Commissioners abused their authority and I’m not sure that they did. But I also think that the resolution of having two additional members appointed by the mental health board makes sense. It makes sense for the community, it makes sense these were selected and approved members and it gives a little bit better representation.”
The mental health board will meet 4:30 p.m. today at its offices in the Amy Levin Conference and Learning Center, 1165 North Ridge Road in Sheffield Township.
Cook scheduled the next potential court hearing in the matter for 11 a.m. Thursday.
“If I’m not convinced that the commissioners have abused their authority or failed to act within conformance of the statute, these two potential seats could very quickly go back to zero,” he said. “I want a resolution that will end this litigation within 24 to 48 hours ... to put the best board together to serve our community.”
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