Meeting of the minds needed to ease port authority tension

With all that’s going on in the Mahoning Valley on the economic development front, the controversy over the job performance of the executive director of the Western Reserve Port Authority needs to be resolved before it becomes a national embarrassment.

It has taken a long time for Mahoning, Trumbull and Columbiana counties to have a story to tell that does not involve a congressman going to prison, Mafia bosses controlling local governments, or economic despair due to persistently high unemployment.

The positive press coverage in state and national publications has focused on the Chevrolet Cruze being built in General Motors’ Lordstown plant, V&M Star’s expansion, the Advanced Additive Manufacturing initiative in downtown Youngstown and the globally known Youngstown Business Incubator. Coverage will take a negative turn if the port authority’s board of directors doesn’t end the sniping.

On Thursday, an attempt was made to ease tensions when four of the eight board members agreed to keep Executive Director Rose Ann DeLeon on the payroll for six months with a base pay of $47,500. Had they not done so, her current contract would have automatically been extended for one year starting Wednesday. Her salary under the contract is $155,000.

The issue of DeLeon’s employment has become so contentious that commissioners from Mahoning and Trumbull counties have been moved to weigh in. Each commission appoints four port authority board members.

At the board’s Oct. 27 meeting, Trumbull Commissioner Dan Polivka confronted board member Scott Lewis, an appointee of the commissioner and his colleagues, about DeLeon’s future. Polivka wants her gone, but Lewis and three others made it clear they weren’t ready to cut her loose. They then proposed giving her a one-year contract and paying her $95,000, rather than the $155,000 she was making. The wage reduction reflected the board’s concern about her missing work for several months because of cancer and her husband’s death. She was appointed to the job in 1999, and has built up support among port authority board members and some county commissioners.

Polivka is running for re-election, and during his interview with The Vindicator’s editorial board, he said his opposition to DeLeon is not personal, but that he wants to explore options, such as conducting a national search for a possible replacement.

We endorsed Polivka for re-election, but believe he should temper his seemingly confrontational attitude toward port authority member Lewis. There is nothing to be gained by such gamesmanship.

Polivka’s colleague, Commissioner Paul Heltzel, supports DeLeon, as does Mahoning County Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti.

Given that the port authority not only receives operating funds from the two counties, but also the cities of Youngstown, Warren and Niles, Howland Township and the Western Reserve Building Trades, there should be a meeting of all interested parties to discuss DeLeon’s future and the issue of the executive director position.

Federal funding

Congressman Tim Ryan of Niles, D-17th, should also be included because he was instrumental in creating an economic development arm of the port authority. Ryan secured financial commitments from the partners so an executive director could be hired, and he has brought federal money to the authority.

We supported the hiring of DeLeon because of her credentials and her work experience with the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority. We made it clear from the outset that this job was too important to be filled by a political hack or to become a political football.

We remain firm in our belief that qualifications and experience, rather than political connections and favoritism, should be the standard for public employment. Former officeholders or other public employees with no hands-on experience in economic development should not be considered.

A national search must be conducted if the decision is made not to retain DeLeon after her six months are up.

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