The village of Galena has hired special legal counsel to handle its dispute with Berkshire Township over the ownership and maintenance of a cemetery.
The law firm of Frost Brown Todd has been hired to look into the matter.
“They are experts in municipal law so they are checking into what the law says,” said Jeanna Burrell, the village’s administrator.
The township has cared for Galena Cemetery for more than two centuries. However, township officials said in March they found an overlooked provision of state law they say requires the village to maintain the grounds because the cemetery is wholly located within its boundaries.
Township officials have said that on Sept. 11, after a 30-day transition period, they will no longer maintain the cemetery. Trustee Bill Holtry has said the township has not received any cooperation from the village to make the transition smooth.
“We’re in no hurry,” Burrell said. “The township can say whatever they want to say. That doesn’t mean that it has any implication for us.”
The township’s view on the matter has been supported by the Delaware County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ohio Auditor’s Office, which said in a June letter that township trustees could be held liable and “ordered to pay into the general fund any money spent maintaining and operating” Galena Cemetery — if they don’t relinquish it to Galena.
In an Aug. 21 letter from Mark Fowler, an assistant prosecuting attorney in Delaware County, to the village of Galena, the prosecutor’s office reiterated its opinion.
“The village does not have the option to accept or deny its statutory responsibility to operate the cemetery,” Fowler writes.
Village officials have said they do not have the money, manpower or equipment to maintain the cemetery, and have not conceded it is their responsibility to do so.
“This is an egregious and callous disregard by the trustees for families during their most difficult times,” Galena Mayor Tom Hopper said in a statement. “This cemetery is an extremely important part of the fabric of not only our village, but our entire township and the larger community. These are our families and we take this very seriously and we most certainly feel a strong moral connection with the affected families. My family has burial plots in the Galena Cemetery and my daughter is buried there.
“As elected officials, we have a responsibility to ascertain our legal rights and responsibilities. We have to know definitively that it is legal to spend village taxpayer dollars on the cemetery, not just take the trustees’ word for it just because they say so. We continue to research the subject by hiring special legal counsel specializing in municipal law. While you may have been led to believe this is a done deal, these are extremely complicated issues involving real estate, contracts, finances and emotions, and we do not take any of that lightly.”
Village officials have not ruled out legal action. That, however, could prove to be costly.
“Seeking a court order in this matter is not only unnecessary, it would be a frivolous waste of judicial resources,” Fowler wrote to village officials. “It would be a waste of (the township’s) valuable resources and those of this office. If the village continues to insist on taking this matter to court despite the clear mandate of the law, we will insist that the court order (the village) to compensate us for our time and resources.”
The discovery of the section of state law that prevents that township from spending public dollars on the cemetery came amid high tensions between the two entities.
Village officials have been researching a measure that would allow Galena to withdraw from the township, an action taken after two township residents tried to initiate a merger of the two political subdivisions.
The Galena Cemetery, located on Walnut Street, is one of two maintained by the township.
Dustin Ensinger can be reached at 740-413-0902 or on Twitter @EnsingerDG.