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Judge set to take on feud

Elections case to be heard at end of month

WARREN — A retired Stark County judge has been selected by the Ohio Supreme Court to hear Trumbull County Commissioner Dan Polivka’s lawsuit that attempts to overturn the Nov. 3 election of his opponent, Republican Niki Frenchko.

Former Stark County Common Pleas Court Judge John Haas will be presiding over a 9 a.m. hearing Dec. 30 in the case. The hearing is scheduled in the large courtroom on the third floor of the Trumbull County Courthouse.

Haas was a judge on the Stark County Court of Common Pleas General Division in Canton for three decades. Haas stepped down from the court on April 15, 2019, after reaching Ohio’s mandatory retirement age of 75.

A story from the Canton newspaper upon his retirement reported that Haas was the longest serving of the 95 judges in the history of Stark County Common Pleas Court. He received his undergraduate degree from Miami University and a law degree from the Ohio State University. Prior to becoming judge, Haas was chief counsel in the Stark County Prosecutor’s office.

Polivka filed the civil lawsuit contesting the election, and the lawsuit originally was assigned to Trumbull County Common Pleas Judge Andrew D. Logan. The named defendants are Frenchko and the four members of the Trumbull County Board of Elections.

On Tuesday, the local court made a request for a visiting judge to handle the case, according to Edward K. Miller, director of the office of public information for the Ohio Supreme Court.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs, which include 66 electors who signed a petition and are represented by Columbus attorney Rick Brunner, are challenging “election irregularities” dealing with questions over Frenchko’s residency. On Sept. 8, 2020, at an investigation hearing concerning Frenchko’s two residences — one in Warren and one in Mentor — the election board voted unanimously to uphold Frenchko’s Trumbull County residency.

The plaintiffs asked a judge to set a hearing in 15 to 30 days and to void any election of Frenchko.

According to the court docket, Haas asked attorneys on both sides to file briefs and exhibits concerning the case by Dec. 23.

The election board on Nov. 18 certified Frenchko’s election, in which she defeated Polivka by 4,506 votes. Polivka held the office for 16 years and also is Trumbull County Democratic Party chairman.

The lawsuit also asks the judge to either order the board of elections to declare Polivka the winner of the Nov. 3 vote or for the court to order the board to hold a new election for county commissioner. If the matter isn’t decided by Jan. 3, 2021 — the day the new commissioner term is to begin — the filing asks the judge to fill any commissioner’s post vacancy that results.

Brunner, who argued that Frenchko is not a resident of Trumbull County at the board of elections’ Sept. 8 hearing, said he has appeared in Haas’ court.

“Judge Haas has had a long distinguished career as a jurist in Stark County,” Brunner said.

Frenchko’s attorney, Joe Szeman of Mentor, said he would not comment on the selection of the judge, but did say his client as of Thursday afternoon had not been served with the civil complaint.

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