Transparency will restore public trust in Mill Creek

A couple of months have passed since Mahoning County Probate Judge Robert N. Rusu Jr. made a crucial move in an effort to end the public battle over the management of Mill Creek MetroParks.

Rusu named two individuals to the board of commissioners who have made clear that transparency in all aspects of the operation of the park district is high on their agendas. They also support the judge’s idea for citizen involvement and have advocated the formation of nine citizen advisory committees.

Dr. Thomas Shipka, retired chairman of Youngstown State University’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, and Lee Frey, former mayor of Canfield, replaced Scott Schulick and Michael Senchak, who resigned.

Shipka and Frey have shown a willingness to not only speak their minds, but to lock horns with other commissioners when necessary.

Such disagreements may strike some area residents as counterproductive, given the controversy swirling around Executive Director Aaron Young over his staff restructuring decisions and his management. To us, a clash of opinions and ideas may well be the way to restore the public’s trust.

Indeed, Shipka and Frey have said that while they have questions and misgivings about the elimination of 13 positions, they aren’t calling for Young’s head.

However, they are interested in restoring the balance of power between the board of commissioners and the executive director.

Last week, Shipka made a motion to strip Young of some of the authority that had been bestowed upon him by the previous board.

The motion is music to our ears because it states that commissioners “must approve in public session of a board meeting, prior to implementation, any proposal, plan, or decision of the executive director of Mill Creek MetroParks, which has a significant impact on the employees, services, programs, or facilities of the Mill Creek MetroParks, including but not limited to, the budget, capital improvements, reorganization, restructuring, retrenchment, reassignment, labor agreements and property acquisition.”

Necessary response

Although the motion was put on hold because of a pending lawsuit filed by three area residents, we believe it is a timely and necessary response to what has been going on at the district for quite a while.

The change in Young’s job description should not be viewed as punishment, but rather as a necessary step to give back to the commissioners the authority they had – prior to Feb. 8.

On that date, the board expanded Young’s responsibilities, and shortly thereafter the executive director implemented the staff restructuring that resulted in the elimination of the 13 positions. Among the employees terminated were several who had been with the district for many years and were popular with supporters of Mill Creek Park. The perceived heavy-handedness on Young’s part triggered the public outcry.

To further muddy the waters, the executive director privately discussed the reorganization with the commissioners and then implemented it – without a public vote of the board.

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this page that we take exception to any public body making important operational decisions behind closed doors. To us, there can be no compromising when it comes to transparency and openness in the conduct of the people’s business.

The secrecy surrounding the personnel decision-making not only angered a large number of area residents, but it triggered the lawsuit.

The three plaintiffs allege that the MetroParks board, Young, and several current and former board members violated the state’s open-meetings law when the internal reorganization was being planned and implemented.

There are residents who believe that Young’s actions warrant his termination. We don’t share that view and are pleased that the two new board members, Shipka and Frey, aren’t rushing to judgment about the executive director’s future.

The commissioners are on the right track in working to restore the public’s trust in the management of Mill Creek Park. They should be given a chance to sell their ideas to their colleagues on the board.

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