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It isn't water over the dam



Published: Sun, April 13, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Early in his tenure, Girard Mayor James Melfi contacted an FBI agent for advice on how to deal with some of the questionable things he had found in city hall while reviewing the operations of various departments. Melfi says he didn't hear back from the federal agency, and then just got too busy putting out financial fires that threatened to destroy the city.

Now, the mayor is running for a second four-year term and isn't about to ask the feds to come in to review the actions of previous administrations. Such a move, he says correctly, would be characterized by his opponents as nothing more than cheap politics.

Indeed, Melfi would not even commit to a special prosecutor, as suggested by The Vindicator, to investigate the 1995 purchase of Girard Lakes from Ohio Consumer Water Co. The suggestion in an editorial last Sunday was prompted by an independent appraiser's report that placed the market value of the property at $1.25 million. City government paid $2.51 million and had to borrow the money to close the deal.

When the principal and interest on the loan are paid off in 12 years, the purchase price will have risen to $4.7 million. Given the fact that no formal appraisal was conducted before the purchase, The Vindicator editorial argued that a formal investigation by someone with subpoena powers is warranted.

However, on Monday, after he had met with the newspaper's editors and writers in his quest for an endorsement for his re-election bid, the mayor was evasive. He said there is a city council meeting Monday and he wants to see what the lawmakers have in mind.

Puzzling

Melfi admits being puzzled about the decision by the previous administration and council at the time to buy the lakes as a potential drinking water source -- from a company that supplies drinking water. He wonders why, if the lakes were such an asset and had such great economic potential as a source of drinking water, Ohio Consumer Water just didn't build a purification plant itself.

The mayor suggests the answer lies in the cost of such a plant -- his estimate is $70 million -- and the limited customer base.

But, Melfi is running for re-election and doesn't want to be accused of playing politics, especially since two individuals challenging him, Vincent Schuyler and Louis Adovasio, were involved in the purchase. Schuyler was mayor in 1995, and Adovasio was a member of city council.

However, given the facts surrounding the transaction, the mayor and council have an obligation to seek objective answers to the many questions that have arisen.

As the federal government's investigation into government corruption and organized crime in Mahoning County has shown, it doesn't take much to pique the interest of the FBI or state investigators.

Case in point: Frank Lordi, the former Mahoning County commissioner. Lordi became the target of an investigation after it was alleged that while in office he had used county employees to do political work for him.

Prison term

The value of the time the employees spent doing the campaign-related work was estimated at $200. Lordi was charged with theft in office and Youngstown Atty. David Betras was appointed special prosecutor. Betras was able to get a guilty verdict against the commissioner who was subsequently sentenced to 18 months in prison. He served eight months before being released on shock probation.

Then there's the case of former county Judge Martin Emrich who was sentenced to 30 months in prison after he admitted that he took bribes -- $14,500 in cash and yard work -- to influence his duties as a judge.

In the early stages of the investigations of these and other public officials, many in the community characterized what was taking place as a "witch hunt."

But investigators were undaunted, arguing that it was their responsibility to fully investigate the conduct of the individuals who were in positions of trust.

The same argument can be made to justify the appointment of a special prosecutor to delve into the Girard Lakes deal. It is possible that the probe will find nothing untoward and that the parties involved will be given a clean bill.

But Mayor Melfi and members of council owe it to the former mayor and council and to Ohio Consumer Water to erase any doubts taxpayers may have about the way the purchase of the lakes was handled.




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