Will this week’s appointment of the mayor of Niles by the Democratic precinct committeemen and -women remove all vestiges of one of the most corrupt administrations in the history of the city?
It all depends on which one of the 10 candidates for the job has the courage to stand Wednesday before the 12 party officials and publicly repudiate former long-time mayor Ralph Infante.
To be sure, such a move is fraught with political danger. But with Infante behind bars in state prison serving a 10-year sentence, the need for a total cleansing of city government is clear.
Infante’s successor, Thomas Scarnecchia, a former member of Niles City Council, had started the cleansing, but he suddenly retired June 18 after just 21/2 years on the job.
Council President Barry Steffey Jr. has served as acting mayor and is one of the candidates vying for the appointment.
The new mayor will serve out Scarnecchia’s term, which expires at the end of 2019.
But the evil spirit of government past must be exorcized, not only for the good of the community, but for the well-being of the Mahoning Valley.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Infante’s tenure as mayor epitomized public corruption that has been the hallmark of this region for so many years.
Scrubbing Niles clean of all the reminders of Infante’s presence in city hall and the community would be a move in the right direction.
Is such drastic action necessary? Well, consider the motto that defined the mayor-turned-jailbird’s years of using his public position for personal gain:
“Don’t worry about the f------ cops. I got this. I own the judges in this town.”
The ultimate insider of the county Democratic Party was found guilty by a jury of 22 state criminal charges stemming from his 24 years as mayor.
After he was led away in chains from the Trumbull County Common Pleas Court to begin serving his 10-year sentence, Ohio Auditor David Yost, who triggered the criminal investigation, had this to say:
“Eventually I think we got most of the folks to stand up, but there wasn’t anybody who was saying, ‘Thank God, you’re here. I’ve been waiting 20 years to tell my story.’”
But Infante’s conviction isn’t the end of the saga, which is why this week’s appointment of the next mayor is so important.
Here’s what Yost said about what lies ahead:
“Our work is not complete in the Mahoning Valley.”
In Niles, the state is expected to continue looking into city government’s activities spanning the Infante years. During the trial, Visiting Judge Patricia Cosgrove set aside – not dismissed – four gambling charges and one charge of engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity that had been filed against ITAM No. 39.
Infante and his wife, Judy, ran the McKinley Heights bar until several years ago. They sold the club.
It’s unfinished business the next mayor will have to deal with. Sweeping the issue under the rug is not an option.
Another piece of unfinished business is the free water the city provided for the Cafaro Co.’s baseball field adjacent to the Eastwood Mall. In addition, city government waived building permit fees for the company’s new headquarters.
During his trial, Infante denied having anything to do with the $60,000 in free water or the waiver of thousands of dollars in building permit fees.
Was he lying? If he wasn’t lying, who in city government authorized the special treatment?
Finally, the next mayor will have to confront the city’s fiscal crisis, which has resulted in the state declaring an emergency.
In other words, the coming 17 months will require the steady hand of leadership from the mayor. And just as importantly, the city’s chief executive will have to keep the Democratic Party at arm’s length. There was an incestuous political relationship between Infante and the party. He was secretary and also served as a Democratic member of the board of elections.
Here are the 10 applicants for the mayor’s job: Barry Steffey, council president and acting mayor; Councilman Barry Profato, D-at large; Councilman Steve Mientkiewicz, D-2nd; Councilwoman Linda Marchese, D-3rd; George Kaniclides, Niles safety director; James Julian, commercial recruiter for a staffing agency; John Madigan, who oversees the operations of state-run liquor agencies in Niles; Stephen Hrosar, painting contractor; Robert Violette, music director for youth groups in Niles, Youngstown and Ashtabula; and George Kuriantnyk, profession unknown.
Of the 10, only one has run for mayor. Profato was a write-in candidate in the 2015 general election against Scarnecchia, who had defeated Infante in the Democratic primary.
Despite the obvious ballot handicap, Profato received 2,018 votes to 3,074 for Scarnecchia.
You would think that his performance would give him the edge on Wednesday, but when he invited the 12 Democratic precinct members to a get-to-know-you gathering, only two showed up.
Thus the question: Who’s pulling the strings for Wednesday’s meeting? The answer may be revealed as the candidates make their final pitches.