By Ed Runyan
Trumbull County Commissioner Paul Heltzel, an attorney, says it might be “a little tricky” for the commissioners to require private organizations such as SCOPE to provide public access to its budgets and board meetings.
But by virtue of the commissioners’ having control over the distribution of money SCOPE and other organizations receive from the senior citizens levy, the commissioners should be able to influence SCOPE to provide the public with financial information and board access.
“We have leverage because they get a lot of money, but they should do it anyway because they’re dealing with public money,” Heltzel said of SCOPE.
Commissioner Frank Fuda said he believes the commissioners would be unable to impose public-access requirements on SCOPE because only a portion of SCOPE’s operations are dependent on money from Trumbull County taxpayers.
“We can’t tell them how to operate,” Fuda said.
Though the commissioners ran into some problems while working with SCOPE during the early years of the levy, Fuda said he thinks hiring a levy administrator in October 2009, Diane Drawl, has helped keep problems to a minimum.
A group of senior citizens who attend the Cortland SCOPE center raised questions starting in January about the finances for SCOPE Inc. SCOPE is a 50-year-old nonprofit organization that provides services to senior citizens. SCOPE stands for Senior Citizen’s Opportunity for Personal Endeavor.
SCOPE receives about $700,000 per year from the Trumbull County seniors levy and an additional $600,000 annually from state and federal sources.
SCOPE’s total income is between $1.7 million and $2.4 million per year, according to the organization’s tax return.
The group from Cortland SCOPE had concerns about the restroom at the center and went Jan. 30 to talk to the board of directors about it, but the board refused to allow them to attend its meeting.
The board also refused to allow the group to see minutes of the board’s meetings or to see SCOPE budgets.
Cyndie Hammers, one of the Cortland SCOPE members who first voiced complaints about the agency denying the public access to board meetings and finances, said Janet Schweitzer, SCOPE’s executive director, and Genevieve Bauman, board chairwoman, contacted her last Thursday and asked her if she was interested in being a board member.
Hammers said she hasn’t decided yet, but she’s concerned about the motives behind the invitation and is concerned that SCOPE might just be interested in gathering personal information about her, because they asked her to provide a resume.
Hammers said SCOPE has also provided her with information about the Cortland SCOPE’s finances in recent weeks, which she appreciates.
Fuda said says he doesn’t think it’s that difficult to get problems worked out as long as you’re willing to meet with the parties involved.
“You’ve just got to get people together and solve it, really,” Fuda said, adding that he’s been told the SCOPE board has plans to make administrative changes in order to improve communication.
Fuda said SCOPE is also looking at a possible new location for Cortland SCOPE with better restroom facilities.
Commissioner Dan Polivka said he would be willing to look into the possibility of requiring SCOPE to make its records and meetings more open to the public and would be willing to ask the prosecutor’s office to advise him on whether it would be legal.
“I’d be willing to look at that with the prosecutor’s office and my colleagues,” Polivka said.
James McFarland, a Warren funeral home director and SCOPE board member, says the attention paid to SCOPE in recent weeks is unfair because SCOPE “has done so much good. People couldn’t even comprehend what it’s done.”
There has been some discontent among employees in recent months, McFarland said, and he suspects that is the reason for the discontent that has bubbled to the surface.
Hammers said she and her Cortland SCOPE friends are not asking for access to information about SCOPE’s finances to help employees with their complaints about the agency.