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Mayor Brown’s baptism by fire

By Bertram de Souza

Sunday, March 4, 2018

It may be time for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to conduct an air-quality test in the office of the mayor of Youngstown. There seems to be something in the atmosphere that’s causing the occupants to lose control of their senses.

First there was John A. McNally, who believed that his criminal record would not be an impediment to his re-election as mayor.

McNally, who pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor charges stemming from his role in the Oakhill Renaissance Place criminal conspiracy, sought a second four-year term in 2017.

But the former Mahoning County commissioner misread the attitude of Youngstown voters pertaining to government corruption and misconduct.

McNally lost the Democratic Party nomination to Jamael Tito Brown, a former member of city council and the Youngstown Board of Education.

Brown, who struck a chord with the voters when he said McNally should have resigned after his criminal conviction, went on to defeat three independent candidates in the general election.

One of the challengers was Sean McKinney, former commissioner of buildings and grounds with the city of Youngstown under McNally,

McKinney hedged when asked if the former mayor should have stepped down because of his involvement as commissioner in the conspiracy to derail the county’s purchase of the former Southside Medical Center.

The mastermind of the conspiracy was prominent Mahoning Valley businessman Anthony M. Cafaro Sr.

Cafaro avoided prosecution because Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, gave him a pass.

McNally, former county Auditor Michael Sciortino and Youngstown Atty. Martin Yavorcik paid the price for roles in the conspiracy

Brown’s mayoral victory was seen as a demand from the public for honest, efficient and thoughtful city government.

The new mayor said all the right things when he took the oath of office. His transition team, made up of business and community leaders, reassured city residents that it wasn’t going to be business as usual in City Hall.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for Brown to be afflicted by mayoritis – a condition caused by breathing in the heady air of the office.

In the midst of trying to get a handle on the forthcoming general fund budget, which he inherited from the previous administration with a $2.29 million deficit, the mayor inexplicably decided to buy a brand spanking new vehicle – with taxpayer dollars.

His various explanations for going “sport utility vehicle” shopping before city government’s financial house is in order has failed to appease his critics.

Brown first said the 2018 Ford Explorer would be bought with Water Department money through the Cooperative Purchasing Program run by the state of Ohio.

There’s a surplus in the water fund.

Under the Youngstown Home Rule Charter, the mayor is the head of the Water Department and, therefore, Brown explained he would be using the SUV for water-related business.

Then, it became known he also intends to use the vehicle for other city business, and would be taking it home.

That prompted Law Director Jeffrey Limbian to publicly concede that about half the $28,757.50 cost would have to come from the 2018 General Fund, which is oozing red ink.

The issue of the mayor’s driving time and how to calculate the dollar amounts to be assigned to each of the funds could become a point of contention.

But Brown’s decision to buy a brand new vehicle goes beyond monetary considerations. It speaks to a tone deafness that is cause for concern.

He has fed at the public trough and has been involved in government long enough to know that there are no grey areas in politics.

If Youngstown residents perceive the mayor to be out of touch with reality, that perception will define his tenure over the next four years.

Brown has said he consulted with members of his administration and was told that past mayors also bought new cars when they took office.

The fact that no one in City Hall thought to caution him about the optics of the decision leads to the conclusion he’s being ill-served by those around him.

This is not an issue that will have a short shelf life soon to be forgotten. Every time Brown gets in the Ford Explorer city residents will be reminded that his priorities are skewed.

The mayor needs to recognize that his annual salary of $100,000-plus, along with a lucrative benefit package, puts him in the top echelon of wage-earners living in the city.

Not to be demeaning to him and other public employees, but the compensation they are now receiving through the generosity of the taxpayers will not be replicated if they lose their jobs. In other words, they’ve hit the jackpot by being on the public payroll.

The reality is that wages and benefits in the public sector have little to do with education, qualifications, experience or talent. It’s not about being the best and the brightest. It is about being in the right place at the right time.

Thus, Brown should have recognized that the gods have smiled upon him and, therefore, driving his own car to and from home would be a sign of gratitude.

He could have used one of the many city-owned cars during work hours and rented one for out-of-town travel.

Instead, he’ll be driving around in his shiny new SUV, while many residents of the Youngstown struggle to make ends meet.