By Ed Runyan
Trumbull County commissioners, during a meeting Tuesday that may have violated Ohio’s open-meetings law, discussed a proposal from the Western Reserve Port Authority to create a Transportation Improvement District and apply for state funds to improve local railroads.
The three commissioners met with port authority officials and two consultants without notifying the public about the meeting in advance.
When a Vindicator reporter saw the meeting taking place, he entered the meeting room and listened to the last couple of minutes.
Sarah Lown, a port authority representative, said afterward that the meeting took place to explain that the commissioners would be asked to appoint members to a Trumbull County district; Mahoning County commissioners were asked to appoint members to a separate Mahoning County district.
Then both counties, with assistance from the port authority, would apply to become a Transportation Improvement District next September, said Rose Ann DeLeon, port executive director.
Lown said the districts would each be eligible to receive up to $250,000 annually from the Ohio Department of Transportation that would be added to other money for planning, engineering and construction costs associated with a railroad improvement.
The port authority, which runs the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and conducts economic development activities, recently received results of a study it commissioned that identified and ranked the rail-line restoration projects to best promote local economic development.
Trumbull County’s Transportation Improvement District most likely would recommend one of two projects — at the Ohio Commerce Center in Lordstown or near Warren Steel Holdings (formerly Copperweld Steel), Lown said.
Mahoning County commissioners, who met with Lown and DeLeon earlier, most likely would recommend a project at V&M Star in Youngstown or CASTLO Industrial Park in Struthers, Lown said.
When asked after the meeting why commissioners had the meeting in private, Commissioner Frank Fuda said Ohio law allows commissioners to hold “information only” meetings in private as long as no decision is made at the meeting.
When asked whether Trumbull commissioners support the idea of creating such a district, Fuda said county officials are being urged to support this type of project because of the potential for it to help two counties — Trumbull and Mahoning — at the same time.
A rail improvement in one of the two counties is likely to help the other county because some rail lines run through both, said Commissioner Dan Polivka.
David Marburger, an Ohio attorney specializing in public records who also represents The Vindicator, said there is precedent in some Ohio appeals courts for government bodies holding “informational-only” meetings in private.
But the Ohio Supreme Court has never supported them, Marburger said.