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Public property use must be restricted



Published: Sat, July 16, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains is upset because two trustees in Springfield Township ignored an opinion from his office regarding the private use of government-issued cell phones. He has reason to be -- but not just because trustees Shirley Heck and Jim Holleran adopted a phone policy last month that retroactively allows employees to make personal calls on township cell phones.

The prosecutor should be spitting nails over the fact that, in this day and age, there still are elected officials in Mahoning County who have not grasped the concept of separating the personal from the public. It isn't as if Gains was plowing new ground in telling Heck and Holleran that state law is clear when it comes to personal use of anything that has been purchased or leased with taxpayer dollars.

And it isn't as if there haven't been numerous cases in this region of individuals on the public payroll crossing the line and getting into trouble.

At a time of increasing taxpayer discontent with all things government -- reflected in the ever-growing list of failed tax issues -- it is foolhardy for anyone in the public sector to push the envelope. But that's what trustees Heck and Holleran did on June 8 when they approved a resolution retroactively to allow Fire Chief Brian Hughes and EMS Captain Karen Philibin to make personal calls on township cell phones. The reason for their generosity? Hughes and Philibin are on call 24 hours. So what?

Job description?

We would be very surprised if the fire chief and the EMS captain took the jobs not knowing that they would be on 24-hour call.

To his credit, Trustee Reed Metzka not only voted against the resolution, but pointed out that it is illegal to make personal calls at township expense. Those two words, township expense, go to the heart of the issue. It is why the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is looking into cell phone usage in Springfield Township.

Have Heck and Holleran not heard the phrase, "Using one's public position for personal gain?" It was repeated often in former Congressman James A. Traficant Jr.'s criminal trial.

It does not matter that some time in the past there was an agreement that allowed the chief and the EMS captain to use the township phones for personal calls. As Prosecutor Gains pointed out in a letter dated June 16 to the trustees, "The board of trustees cannot authorize by resolution what is not otherwise authorized by law."

We have been steadfast in our belief that public employees are well compensated for the jobs they do and, thus, should not expect any additional benefits. Indeed, a growing number of taxpayers are of the opinion that government employees in general are overpaid, given the regular raises they receive, even in difficult economic times, lucrative benefit packages and pension plans that are rarely seen in the private sector.

In addition to ignoring the opinion from the Mahoning County prosecutor's office, Trustee Heck sought outside counsel's advice on the issue because she apparently did not like what came from the county's chief lawyer. We wonder who will pay the outside counsel's fees.




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