Sunday, September 9, 2018
There’s so much egg dripping down the faces of Trumbull County Commissioners Daniel Polivka and Mauro Cantalamessa, they could host a prayer breakfast. The prayer (in place of bacon) would be for divine inspiration, which Polivka and Cantalamessa certainly lacked when they made the dunderhead decision to hire Atty. Rebecca Gerson as the county’s new administrator.
Gerson had no discernible qualifications to manage the day-to-day operations of county government, and to serve as purchasing director and administrator of Trumbull Transit, the county’s transit system. Yet, the two commissioners decided she was worth $85,000 a year plus a lucrative benefits package.
It took a mere five months for the 25-year lawyer to call it quits. To add insult to the injury she visited upon county government, Gerson didn’t wait until Thursday to leave – as she had told her bosses she would do. She bailed.
Richard Jackson, the county’s human resources director, is taking over additional duties as administrator and purchasing director.
The Vindicator obtained records through a public records request that shows Gerson was off sick 11 Ω days from the start of her assignment, including five days in the last two weeks of her stint .
But while Polivka and Cantalamessa wipe the egg off their faces, their colleague, Frank Fuda, has every right to wear a you-know-what grin.
Fuda, who has been adamantly opposed to bringing a county administrator on board because the job has been unfilled for 12 years and government operations have not suffered, questioned how Gerson would handle what are essentially two full-time jobs.
But that wasn’t the only reason Fuda broke ranks with his colleagues. The commissioner said he was only made aware of Gerson’s application a day before she was hired in March.
If Fuda has a right to gloat, then so does this writer, who commented on the hiring April 15 in this space with the headline “Puzzling decision in Trumbull County.”
Here’s what was written, in part:
“Why would commissioners Polivka and Cantalamessa bring her on board without giving the public a chance to weigh in? Could it be that they knew the decision would not play well in the bright glare of taxpayer scrutiny?
“Here’s the uncomfortable truth: Gerson has no discernible qualifications to serve as administrator, purchasing director and administrator of Trumbull Transit.”
Her resume shows she had worked as deputy law director with the city of Youngstown, an assistant Mahoning County prosecutor and part-time judge in Girard. She ran unsuccessfully for Girard Municipal Court judge in 2011.
The column of April 15 posed this question:
“What does any of that have to do with overseeing the day-to-day operations of county government, managing the transit system, and handling the purchasing of goods and services?
“So why was she hired?
“Polivka, Cantalamessa and the county’s human resources director, Richard Jackson, said she had the proper skill set, such as her experience in handling union grievances.”
Compare that endorsement to the reaction from the commissioners when they learned that their shining star had dulled.
“That’s news to me,” said Cantalamessa, after being told that Gerson wasn’t going to be around for as long as she had indicated.
Fuda, who has locked horns with Polivka, chairman of the Trumbull County Democratic Party, over hiring practices, was much more blunt in his reaction to the administrator abandoning ship:
“We need her to be here.” He noted that county government is facing deadlines for a $500,000 grant application related to Trumbull Transit.
While Gerson’s departure does not necessarily mean the county will lose the money, missing a deadline could be detrimental to the application.
This disastrous hiring decision by Commissioners Polivka and Cantalamessa demands an objective evaluation.
For whatever reason, the officeholders rushed to judgment – with the wrong choice.
Their failure to have a completely transparent hiring process deprived them of crucial input from a myriad of sources, both inside and outside government.
Gerson’s contention that she was well qualified by virtue of being a lawyer and knowing how to “multitask” should have sent up red flags.
It wasn’t as if the commissioners were breaking new ground in the hiring of an administrator. Last February, they chose Mike Matas, one of the two finalists recommended by a screening committee consisting of Darlene St. George, Howland Township administrator; Dennis Blank, one-time Warren mayoral candidate; and James Dignan, president and CEO of Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber.
Unfortunately, Matas, who was scheduled to start work on March 19, changed his mind. He sent commissioners an email saying he was resigning “due to a family matter.”
Matas is the budget director of Lake County.
Here’s what Cantalamessa said about the last-minute change in plans:
“It’s disheartening because I thought we had a clear-cut plan, and it got turned upside down.”
There was a second candidate recommended by the screening committee, Larry Collins of Saline, Mich., the former assistant administrator for the city of Ann Arbor.
Gerson wasn’t on anyone’s radar, and yet she ended up with the administrator’s job.
So here are some questions for Polivka and Cantalamessa: What was it about Gerson that led you to throw caution to the wind and offer her the job? Was it her education, her work experience or deep understanding of county government, in general, and the administrator’s position, in particular?
Here’s another question for the two commissioners: How extensively did you interview Gerson to get a sense of her fitness for the job?
And finally this: Was there any influence-peddling in the hiring of Gerson? To put it bluntly, did anyone of prominence place a call on her behalf?
With all the egg that’s dripping down their faces, Polivka and Cantalamessa may want to hatch another plan for filling important positions in county government.