Vindicator Logo

Intrigue veils race for mayor

By Bertram de Souza

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Retired Youngstown Police Chief Jimmy Hughes’ decision to drop out of the race for mayor and support DeMaine Kitchen prompts this question: Has Hughes been promised a job in a Kitchen administration?

The chief of staff to Mayor Charles Sammarone would do well to reconsider any commitment made to Hughes. Why? The residents of the city will not look kindly upon the retiree again slopping at the public trough. He had his fill when he was on the public payroll.

Consider: He worked in the police department for more than 34 years, which means he is now receiving a huge pension — more than 60 percent of the average of the three highest years of income? — and health care coverage. When he retired in March 2011, Hughes’ salary was $87,915.

It should be noted that he continued as police chief through the summer of that year.

But it isn’t only his pension that must give Kitchen pause about bringing Hughes back to city government.

Because of the indefensible way public-sector employees are able to legally game the taxpayer-supported system, Hughes walked away in the fall of 2011 with a severance check of $65,539.69. It was for unused sick leave, accumulated time, unused vacation days and longevity and hazardous duty pay.

To put that severance check in perspective, the median income for a family of four in Youngstown is $24,000.

But Hughes’ mother lode doesn’t end there.

Large payout

In 2003 — three years before he was appointed chief — he signed up for a state retirement program called the Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP). The program allows police officers to accumulate a large lump sum of money for retirement. Those who sign up have up to eight years to retire.

Hughes walked away with $500,000.

Kitchen, a former member of council, cannot be blind to the fact that taxpayers’ negative view of government is driven, in large part, by the belief that public employees don’t earn their keep and that when they retire have pensions and health care that are but a dream for many in the private sector.

Without a doubt, Hughes’ decision to withdraw — he was running as an independent — and his endorsement of Kitchen is politically significant.

Having two popular black candidates for mayor on the November ballot would have split the black vote to the benefit of John A. McNally IV, the Democratic Party nominee.

McNally, a former county commissioner, defeated another black candidate, council President Jamael Tito Brown, in the primary election.

There are two other candidates in the November race, but their presence is not significant.

The contest will be between McNally — he spent a whopping $88,463 to garner 3,292 votes in May, while Brown spent a lot less and received 3,142 votes — and Kitchen.

McNally’s 150-vote margin of victory reveals a vulnerability at the polls that may not be easy to overcome.

It was suggested in this space shortly after the May primary that the so-called Oakhill Renaissance Place scandal continues to haunt McNally. He, along with other current and former county officials and a prominent area businessman, were criminally charged by the state for their involvement in the scandal.

The charges were ultimately dropped but can be refiled. McNally insists that as commissioner he did nothing wrong in opposing the county’s purchase of Renaissance Place, the former South Side Medical Center.

One of its tenants is the county’s Job and Family Services agency that was relocated from the Cafaro Co.-owned Garland Plaza on the East Side.

With that dark cloud hanging over him, McNally knows that outspending his general-election opponents does not guarantee a win.

Party’s role

Turnout will be the key, and given that the black-white divide in voting remains a political reality, McNally will have to depend on the Democratic Party to generate interest in the race.

As the nominee, he can expect financial support, but whether the party faithful in the city are willing to ignore the Oakhill Renaissance controversy remains to be seen.

All bets will be off if the special state prosecutors decide to file the criminal charges again.

For Kitchen, the primary election highlighted McNally’s political weakness.

How he takes advantage of that will speak volumes about his campaign.