When David Freel contends that the Mahoning Valley is different from the rest of the state, given the relatively large number of government officials caught in the political-corruption dragnet, he isn't just being another out-of-towner indulging in uninformed criticism.
Freel knows what he's talking about -- not only because of his position as executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, but because he's home grown. He was raised in Niles and has family in the Valley. And in his job as the state's top-ranking ethics official, he has acquired intimate knowledge of some of the major cases that have arisen out of the federal government's crackdown on political corruption and organized crime in the Valley.
For instance, he was involved in the investigation of the Mahoning Valley Sanitary District, which was the target of a special audit by the state auditor's office. Of particular interest to investigators was the behavior of two former MVSD directors, Edward A. Flask of Poland and Frank DeJute of Niles.
Freel, who the keynote speaker Wednesday night at the annual dinner of the Citizens League of Greater Youngstown, offered some advice to residents of the Valley that we hope will become a clarion call for all honest citizens who are no longer willing to sit quietly while this region's reputation is dragged through the mud.
Expectations: "The challenge is to make the difficult choices," the executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission said. "It's up to you to create the expectations of having the highest level of ethics. The responsibility of changing the climate in a community is with its people."
But Freel also had words of encouragement: "We're beginning to see change here."
While the light at the end of the dark tunnel of corruption may be somewhat blocked by the ongoing federal criminal trial of Congressman James A. Traficant Jr. of Poland, D-17th, Freel is right when he says that people's tolerance level for political corruption is not what it used to be.
The weeding out process is continuing, and with each election, we are a step closer to the goal of ridding government at all levels of individuals who are morally bankrupt or are unqualified for the positions they hold.
But the Mahoning Valley will have won its battle against political -- government -- corruption when individuals inclined to enrich themselves and their cohorts at the public's expense are no longer comfortable doing so.
"The people of this area have to take ownership over democratic institutions by being informed and active," Freel told the Citizens League gathering.
That advice could not have come at a better time. There is an election in May and it is incumbent upon all of us to find out as much as we can about the candidates who are running. It has been said often in this space: Democracy isn't a spectator sport.