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Cherry-picking and misleading?

Published: Sun, April 13, 2014 @ 12:02 a.m.

By Todd Franko (Contact)



Those were among the top accusations from Mahoning County bosses when they took to the podium Thursday to make our reporting in The Vindicator their most vital county business last week. Not potholes. Not poverty. Not contracts.

So important were we made that news rival (but still pal) Stan Boney tracked me down for his 11 p.m. Thursday news report.

(Industry secret: Competing media are most always friendly on the sidelines of life. But in the field of news play, each works hard to keep distance from other media. It’s an ancient code similar to campaigning politicians who will not refer to their opponent by name.)

So for Stan to give me a call, the county’s grandstanding against The Vindy was significant.

We would wish that the facts would speak for themselves.

But when the heat gets turned up on officials, often it’s the media they choose to attack instead of their operations.

Best recent example?

The New Jersey bridge scandal.

It was shuffled and dismissed by New Jersey officials. But a newspaper reporter stuck with it and, well, Gov. Chris Christie is as presidential now as the Cleveland Browns are a powerhouse.

Best local example?

There was nothing wrong with Judge Belinky’s operations, he told us, despite the persistent rumors.

So we printed a significant story last Sunday on county pay raises — written by Pete Milliken and managed and illustrated by editors Mark Sweetwood, Ernie Brown and Robert McFerren.

It was prompted by the county’s asking for $7 million more in taxes from us. We set out on a long and labored effort to tell a part of the county spending that they will not tell us. They since have dropped that request and are asking only to make an existing sales tax a permanent tax.

We told the story because they don’t. When they do try, it’s not in a way taxpayers want to hear it, but is instead told in a way that makes them look their best.

What’s clear from citizens this week on our Facebook pages, in our Tweets and on the Vindy.com message board — county spending actions are not spectacular right now.

Here’s some of the countyspeak this week, followed by a bit of context from me:

David Ditzler, chairman of the county commissioners: We’ve reduced 289 jobs from 1,957 in 2009 to 1,668 county employees in 2013, for a reduction of nearly $7.5 million in annual salary expenses during that time.

My thought: Yes, we reported that over the years. Those were reductions out of necessity because funding forced it. Be careful to make it sound differently. But in 2012 and 2013, you added more than 20 jobs each year. That’s nearly 50 jobs totaling $2.5 million in expenses (if you conservatively assign each job a $50,000 annual cost in salary and benefits.) Why add those jobs when they were vacant? Why add, knowing you will ask voters for a new sales tax? Please list the new jobs and the salaries. That would have made a great chart.

Ditzler: “We chose to do the PERS flip to make government more transparent.”

My thought: The flip was also due to the fallout from SB 5 and citizen fatigue with out-of-skew health care and benefits.

That said, those citizens would have had different opinions if they knew that addressing their concerns meant the same money would be spent, it would just get transferred to the employee. Even further, taxpayers would have had further concern had they been told such a flip would cost taxpayers even more money in increased benefits costs, payroll taxes and more.

Good political leadership would have been to have a press conference with charts and breakdowns explaining how the county got into this pension payment situation (it was actually honorable in the 1990s) and that a fix to appease citizens would cost more money.

Instead they had charts to show we were idiots.

Ron Marian, mental-health board director, called me. We reported his pay hikes over the past four years, including a December hike even though he announced he was retiring. His staff shared the same raise trend even though the agencies they lead did not. Said Ron: We hit our goals. Staff should be rewarded.

My thought: I told him the guys at Best Buy and Pep Boys likely hit their goals, and likely did not enjoy 4 percent bumps because of the horrid economy. He wanted me to know he took a pay freeze once. It was about 25 years ago.

Sheriff Greene was my first contact last week (when I was sleeping): He projected that we sank the county sales tax, and that it will ultimately affect his team, which always takes it in the teeth when funding suffers.

My thought: I’m all for keeping the sales tax — just don’t support it being continuous based on the theatrics above. Make it temporary until better leadership arises to explain their new hires, show courage when a movement such as the pension flip is going wrong, or show restraint with raises on the eve of retirements.

Here’s another idea: Create a tax specifically for public safety. The sheriff’s department is the only division to cut back the way they did. That’s a bankable legacy. And Greene is one of my favorite officials. That’s bankable, too.

Combined tasks are worth more money: Not addressed.

We need to pay as much as other counties: Not addressed.

So you have a month to think about it, and county officials have a month to explain.

Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.


1thirtyninedollars(258 comments)posted 5 months, 1 week ago

I'd like to commend the Vindy on investigative reporting. Even if it didn't require much investigation or really "ruffle" that many feathers.
When will the hard stuff start getting attention?

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2Photoman(1003 comments)posted 5 months, 1 week ago

From my perspective it appears that the citizens of our valley are more than willing to pay reasonable taxes--if they can see positive results. Unfortunately they currently see their hard earned money going into a big, dark hole where many greedy hands withdraw dollars at will. And the good old boy system continues with little consideration given to the needs of the people.

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3UticaShale(854 comments)posted 5 months, 1 week ago

"My Man Todd." "You go bro!"

I was tuned in last night reading the round by round of the Paquiao fight and was waiting for the boredom to end and finally saw after a shower that Paquiao won dy a lukewarm decision.

Now here comes "rope-a-dope" FranKo, finally in the last few weeks fed up with the non leaders of the Valley, or he was pushed out of "Fort Vindy"; to get out there and start swinging! Earning his keep.

Kid Franco, you D Man now, the fact that the "Bonester" is calling on you, he likes that you have awaken maybe a sleeping Giant, the Vindy.

So keep on with the upper cust, the left hooks and bring the Vindy back whether you call it social media of a blog site, the ghost of the Vindy past, will give you the energy you need......if you are the one true one.

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4CongressWatcher(160 comments)posted 5 months, 1 week ago

I want roads, infrastructure, and safety. Great article Kid Franko! Can we focus on more focused taxes in those areas? However, it would require more voters following along, which also seems to be a contributing source of lack of leadership.

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5kurtw(848 comments)posted 5 months, 1 week ago

"I want roads, infrastructure, and safety".

I'll second that. Only problem is that most public employees are represented by Unions- ACMES most notoriously- with a different agenda: for them it's all about annual salary and benefits- the "High Threes" as your colleague Bertram discusses in his column- leading to a cushy pension for it's members and fat Union Dues for the scamsters in charge. NOTHING WILL CHANGE UNTIL THE POWER OF THE PUBLIC SERVICE UNIONS IS REDUCED OR BROKEN- it's that SIMPLE (and that's a "third rail" issue in a pro-union town like Youngstown- that's why the Vindy doesn't bring it up- but fact's are facts.)

P.S. Maybe the Vindy should send a "fact finding" delegation to Wisconsin to see how Scott Walker has managed to start reining in Greedy Public Service Unions- that's what we need to do here in Ohio- especially chronically strapped places like Y-town (Detroit Here We Come!).

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6kurtw(848 comments)posted 5 months, 1 week ago

Oh, half a compliment to you Todd, for getting the issue, like Bert in his Column, at least half right. You said as much as your employers allowed you to say but, you know, I know, everybody willing to admit it knows: NOTHING WILL CHANGE UNTIL THE POWER OF THE PUBLIC SERVICE UNIONS IS REDUCED OR BROKEN. It's that simple.

I guess here is another illustration of the Value of Public Message Boards where people with nothing to gain or lose can speak the simple truth without fear of next day joining the ranks of the Unemployed.
Attacking Unions in this town is the equivalent of attacking Allah in Mecca- asking for a whole heap of trouble- not to mention lost Subscribers.

(It helps, also, to be anonymous: picture windows are expensive to replace.)

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7gunr(49 comments)posted 5 months ago

You think you're anonymous, Kurt? Any members in your family who worked or are working on the 'High Threes'?

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8Knightcap(699 comments)posted 5 months ago

I wonder how these politicians would feel if I had free reign and removed $20, $50 or $100 from their wallets or purses. They wouldn't like it. Well, quit groping me and get your hands out of my pockets. I think the mob moved from Wilson Ave. to Oakhill.

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9Erplane(483 comments)posted 5 months ago

I read this column (and the rest of the Vindy) Sunday morning, along with other newspapers like the New York Times, Warren Trib, Financial Times, etc. And when I read the Vindy stories, I get a very uneasy feeling, that I never used to get. While I don't disagree that somebody needs to be watching over local government, I sometimes wonder if the mission of the Vindy isnt so much protector of the people's money, but rather provocateur.

a. Discussing blanket pay raises within local government is certainly worthy. But I bet there is a counterbalance with some local agencies actually having performance metrics met and exceeded. These of course, need to be flushed out. And comparing a government agency to Pep Boys and Best Buy is very apples to oranges. Sales managers who meet targets there are most likely rewarded.

b. The local govt stories also coincide with the watching of every salary spent at YSU. Again, watching isnt a bad thing. But there are negative effects of only reporting on salaries. It will be increasingly difficult for the university to attract promising teaching talent when they google search the area and see that their every penny is scruntinized by the local paper. Again, if there was a counter balance to find areas in which the university is doing more with less, and an analysis of the productivity of staff and academics, then a more complete picture is painted.

c. I think the Vindy does an excellent job of reporting on community life within the Valley - many stories reflect the heart of the people of the Valley. I do not feel the same can be said for the economic progress the Valley has made. Maybe the Vindy has conceded business news to the Business Journal. But when there isnt so much activity focused on the positives within the economy, again the comprehensive reporting feels unbalanced.

If you have the chance, go on YouTube and watch the last 7 minutes of Conan O'Briens last night hosting the Tonight Show. Its inspiring, and he comments on how much he detests cynicism. I am a huge fan of sarchasm, but there has to be a line drawn. I know the newspaper world is getting tougher and tougher, and we need newspapers to continue to survive, esp local papers. But the business plan of a newspaper would have to always remember why newspapers exist in the first place - fair, objective reporting that shows both sides in a way that empowers the reader to make informed opinions. The Vindy has done that for a century, and I hope that it will continue to find that balance.

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102muchtax(321 comments)posted 5 months ago

Look what the public union helped do to detroit, bankrupt? SCOTT WALKER FOR PRESIDENT! Would be the best to happen to this country!

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11DwightK(1256 comments)posted 4 months, 3 weeks ago

My problem with the story was that it reported raises as a result of promotion. There's no news there. Of course workers who were promoted received raises. Isn't that understood? The article should have focused on the smaller number of wage increases that were out of line with a good reason.

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