Many moons ago, an idealistic (perhaps na Øve) political writer asked then Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman Don L. Hanni Jr. why there were so many political hacks working at the board of elections while Youngstown State University grads were forced to leave the area to find jobs.
Hanni, in all his profane glory, glared at the writer and said, “Because I own every one of the Democrats on the payroll. They would kiss my [expletive] in the public square if I told them to.”
That, in a nutshell, is the trouble with government: There are too many positions filled by individuals with little or no qualifications but with political connections.
Boards of elections in Ohio and throughout the country have come to represent the worst about the public sector. People hired at these boards are mostly party insiders or those with ties to political bigwigs or major campaign donors.
As Hanni, the late chairman of the Democratic Party known for his strong belief in political patronage, often put it, “To the victor belongs the spoils.”
DARK SIDE OF PATRONAGE
Unfortunately, patronage also is the bane of government’s existence. Individuals who get their jobs because of who they know, and not what they know, tend to be the most incompetent. They also are bulletproof.
Boards of elections, which receive their funding from the counties’ general funds, epitomize this dilemma.
Last week’s political uproar over the decision by the four members of the board of elections — two Republicans and two Democrats — to grant a 3- percent pay raise to the workers reflects a disconnect with reality that is troubling.
After all, the four — Democrats David Betras and Robert Wasko, and Republicans Mark Munroe and Tracey Winbush — are supposed to have a different perspective from those slopping at the public trough.
So, why did they throw caution to the wind? Because Betras, the county Democratic Party chairman, and Munroe, the county Republican Party chairman, want to keep their troops happy. This year’s statewide election will require the two parties to bring out the faithful — and that’s where public employees in patronage jobs come in.
But what is ironic about the pay increase — the board rescinded it after county commissioners pitched a fit — is that almost a year ago, Director Joyce Kale-Pesta, a Democrat, sent out a searing memo to the staff that said, in effect, don’t take your jobs for granted and be professional.
Here’s one of the do’s and don’ts contained in the Kale-Pesta memo:
“If you are away from your desk for more than 15 minutes, and I cannot find you or do not know where you are — you will be written up. I will NO LONGER search this office or building for missing employees.”
Missing employees? Some would suggest that it’s more common in government than many taxpayers from the private sector would want to believe.
Adding to the irony of last week’s pay-raise controversy is the fact that the board acted on the advice of the director. She told Betras, Wasko, Munroe and Winbush that the county commissioners were aware of the increase. They weren’t — and said so publicly and loudly.
Why? Because they were in the midst of deciding whether to place a 0.25- percent sales-tax increase before the voters in May.
Late last week, commissioners Anthony Traficanti, Carol Rimedio-Righetti and David Ditzler decided to wait until later — perhaps November — to seek approval of the 0.25-percent tax hike.
In May, voters will be asked to renew a 0.50-percent sales tax that is on the books for a five-year period at a time. The commissioners want to remove the expiration date and let the tax remain on for a continuous period.
Only the most na Øve would believe that the pay raise for the board of elections’ workers did not affect the commissioners’ decision. They could not risk having an angry electorate casting a vote on two tax issues.
There’s a cautionary tale under- lying the board of elections’ controversy that all county officials should take to heart: Giving public employees a pay boost when you’re asking the public to support a tax renewal and an increase is extremely foolish.