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March 27, 2003

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State and CSD might settle case

Thursday, March 27, 2003

Enterprise Staff Writer

The judge scheduled to hear the state's case against Columbus Steel Drum instead has ordered lawyers for both sides to appear in his chambers in an attempt to mediate the suit.

Until about 4 p.m. on Tuesday, the case was scheduled to be heard in Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Harland Hale's courtroom on March 26. A representative from Hale's office said the judge issued a continuance to give himself time to meet with the parties in the case. That meeting was scheduled to occur at 1:30 p.m., also March 26.

"There was just confusion on what was going to happen (at the original hearing)," said Rachel Clark of Judge Hale's office. "There was just confusion and it didn't sound like it was anybody's fault."

Representatives from Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro's office said they were prepared to present evidence and witness testimony against Columbus Steel Drum. At the same time, however, lawyers for the defendant said they anticipated only a meeting with the judge to finalize a settlement agreement.

The attorney general's office filed suit against the Gahanna company in November, after the two parties failed to reach an agreement on how to abate odors emanating from the Blatt Boulevard plant.

The decision to take the case behind closed doors, however, has left some invested in the case angry and disappointed.

A spokesman for the attorney general's office, Mark Gribben, said the office has been dissatisfied with attempts to reach an out-of-court settlement and was prepared to present several days of testimony against Columbus Steel Drum.

"We were prepared to move ahead with a hearing on a preliminary injunction," said Gribben. "This is not how we wanted this resolved."

Columbus Steel Drum attorney Steve Haughey, on the other hand, said he thinks the state was going back on a settlement offer he thought was all but a done deal.

"We thought we had agreed to meet with the judge (Wednesday) to sign a settlement," Haughey said. "We found out at 5:05 p.m. (Monday) that the state was pulling back the terms of its settlement and was doing something different."

According to Gribben, the attorney general's office has offered Columbus Steel Drum more than one out-of-court settlement, most recently on Feb. 18.

At that time, Gribben said, his office was disappointed to discover that the two parties differed greatly on what was an acceptable agreement.

"We sent over a settlement with the understanding that, basically, all that needed to be done was get the signature on the paper," Gribben said. "It was sent back with basically a counter-proposal. It's not that we're miles apart, it's just that we were under the impression we had a settlement. They were obviously under the impression that what we were providing to them was a starting point."

Columbus Steel Drum's Haughey said that the state agreed to all but three of his client's changes. In return, his client was willing to relent on those sticking points.

"All I know is that nowhere in the ensuing discussion did anyone say, 'OK, we have an agreement," Gribben argued.

Haughey said he disagrees.

"That's their version of it," Haughey said. "That's not true. From our side of it, we had an agreement. Whether they said we did or not is something we'll take up with the judge (Wednesday)."

Both Gribben and Haughey refused to discuss the details of the proposed settlement.

What both men did agree on, however, is that Judge Hale intends to act as a mediator in reaching a settlement in the case. If that cannot be done, a new hearing will be scheduled for some time in the next week or so, they said.

"What we have (Wednesday) is a meeting with the judge to determine if the case can be settled with his assistance," Haughey said. "If not, we are fully prepared to go forward with a hearing and defend ourselves because we do not believe we are a nuisance."

A hearing is exactly what Ohio Citizen Action program coordinator Simona Vaclavikova said the residents she has helped organize around this issue are looking forward to happening.

Vaclavikova's organization has helped dozens of residents form a coalition called G-J CASE, Gahanna-Jefferson Citizens for a Safe Environment.

"Of course the neighbors and the coalition were very upset to learn about these negotiations happening behind closed doors," Vaclavikova said.

"We want to see it happen in the courts and we want a judge to hear witness testimony of those who have first-hand experience with the violations. If they cut a deal, the judge will never hear that. I believe the community wants the judge to decide what's right at this point, not the attorney general's office or Columbus Steel Drum."


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