By jeanne starmack
In the race for council president, an appointed incumbent is taking on a newcomer to politics.
Juanita Rich, who was 4th Ward councilwoman before becoming council president in January, is running against George Levendis.
Rich became council president after former mayor George Krinos resigned and former council president Bill VanSuch replaced him. She moved up because she had been president pro tem.
Levendis says he believes the city needs changes. He has been attending council meetings for the past two years.
Levendis is concerned about a problem the city’s finance director has had with reconciling monthly bank statements to the city’s books. Sherman Miles, who now says he does not want to discuss the matter in public, was trying to reconcile April 2010’s statement as of September. VanSuch confirmed Miles has not been able to reconcile $7,000. Without up-to-date reconciliations, the city can’t ask the state for release from fiscal emergency by the end of this year as it had hoped.
“I’m just concerned about getting the finance director to do his job reconciling books and doing what a finance director is supposed to do,” Levendis said last week.
He also said he is concerned about improving the city’s Insurance Services Office rating, which was downgraded from a 6 to a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10 last year. The rating, which is based on a municipality’s ability to provide firefighting services, affects insurance-policy costs for businesses and homeowners.
Levendis also said he believes the city council should have allowed the mayor and the city administrator to talk to a company that wants to lease city property in the brownfields for a fracking-fluid waste disposal well.
VanSuch and administrator Jack Dill had asked council to allow them to negotiate with D&L Energy. A lease could mean up to $90,000 a year for the city, along with $20,000 for the right to drill the well. VanSuch and Dill said the talks would be for information-gathering only and council would have a say over whether the city would enter into a lease with D&L. But council sent the issue to its environmental committee.
“I think we should listen to what the [Environmental Protection Agency] says about these wells, and have a public forum,” Levendis said.
“But if there’s no harm and revenue for the city,” I think we should do it,” he said.
Levendis also said he would not take health-care benefits from the city, and that he favors eliminating pay, benefits and cellphones for council members.
Levendis had some criticism for current officeholders. “They aren’t open to new ideas,” he said. “In the real world, they would all be replaced.”
Rich, who prides herself on her knowledge of the city’s home-rule charter, said she has concerns Levendis does not follow rules.
At issue recently, she said, was a blinking road sign he erected on property along U.S. 422 at Sycamore Street. The road sign had a campaign message. Rich said the city cited him and the property owner because it is a zoning violation to have a blinking lighted sign anywhere in the city.
Levendis took it down, but several days later he put it up again on another property along U.S. 422 across from the flea market.
“It was very defiant. I went to the police,” Rich said Monday.
Levendis said he told city council that if his sign is a violation, then so are blinking Christmas lights.
Rich also took Levendis before the Mahoning County Board of Elections in August to have him thrown off the ballot because he indicated on his election petition that he is running for “president of council” rather than “council president.” Her contention is that the charter did away with the position of “president of council” in 1971, and the positions have different responsibilities. But the elections board supported Levendis.
Rich took issue with Levendis’ assertion that he will not take city health benefits.
“I’d like to remind people of the last elected official that didn’t take benefits,” she said. Former mayor Krinos agreed not to take them so he could hire a secretary in his office, then took them, creating an unbudgeted expense for the city.
“See how that turned out,” she said. “A lot of people just say what they think people want to hear to get elected.”
Rich said that on the fracking-waste disposal issue, council is proceeding cautiously. “We have done research, and we’re concerned with what we’re seeing,” she said.
She also said she believes the council has accomplished a lot toward getting out of fiscal emergency, a status its had since 2004.
“Our five-year forecast shows us in the black,” she said.