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Search for Mahoning elections official ‘hobbled’

YOUNGSTOWN — Members of the Mahoning County Board of Elections expect to hire a deputy director at a Dec. 30 meeting after a second round of interviews with finalists.

Board Chairman David Betras said the selection committee that interviewed seven candidates was “hobbled” by an article in Tuesday’s Vindicator about an “agreement and release of all claims” with Melissa Wasko, one of the candidates, that called for her voluntary resignation from the county Job and Family Services department, effective Dec. 31.

“I’d like to get a (deputy) director on, but with the help of The Vindicator, that’s been made more difficult,” Betras said at a Wednesday special board meeting.

Wasko is seen as one of the favorites for the job, which pays $81,200 annually.

A second round of interviews with finalists is scheduled for 4 p.m. Dec. 29 with the expectation a candidate will be presented to the elections board at a special 4 p.m. Dec. 30 meeting.

Tuesday’s article disclosed that county commissioners approved an agreement Oct. 21 with Wasko — the wife of Bob Wasko, who retired Nov. 30 as a board of elections member after 21 years — for her to retire as JFS program administrator as of Dec. 31.

It also detailed that she stopped working at the JFS office on Oct. 21 and her “regular work site (is) her home or any other off-premises work site that Wasko chooses at her own expense.” She was required to return to JFS all county property in her possession or under her control, and that by signing the agreement she was giving up her right to sue the county.

She and the county also denied any liability or wrongdoing in connection with her employment and separation.

Sources said Wasko was among a number of JFS employees who faced allegations over work environment issues at the agency.

The Vindicator on Wednesday received a copy of an investigation report filed Oct. 25 by Drew C. Piersall of the Columbus law firm of Zashin & Rich.

Piersall was hired to investigate allegations against Wasko of potential violations of the county commissioners’ personnel manual as claims of race discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment were leveled against her.

Piersall interviewed 16 current and former JFS employees in August and September and reviewed thousands of documents as well as a number of audio recordings, according to his report.

Piersall wrote he was going to end his probe by interviewing Wasko, but she resigned before he could do that which “obviated the need to pursue the investigation any further.”

Piersall wrote that based on his investigation “it is my opinion that Ms. Wasko’s alleged conduct did not rise to the violation of any pertinent employment laws governing race discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment. No final determination could be made on this issue however, due to Ms. Wasko not being interviewed as part of the investigation.”

He added that it was his “opinion that Ms. Wasko may have violated the Mahoning County Commissioners’ personnel manual. Again, no final determination could be reached on the issue since Ms. Wasko’s resignation was secured and she was not able to provide a response to the allegations made against her. And given Ms. Wasko’s resignation, no further investigation is necessary due to the simple fact that there is no potential disciplinary action that could or should be taken against Ms. Wasko at this time.”

State law requires the deputy director to be from the opposing political party as the director. When Joyce Kale-Pesta, who is also the county Democratic Party chairwoman, retired Nov. 30 and became a board member, Thomas McCabe, the deputy director and chairman of the county Republican Party, was selected as director.

For a deputy director to be hired, the recommended candidate would need the vote of at least one of the two Republicans on the board: Sandra Barger and Bob Aurandt.

Meanwhile, at Wednesday’s meeting, the board agreed to increase the pay for locations that have more than one voting precinct. Currently, the pay is $100 for the first precinct and $75 for each additional precincts.

At Kale-Pesta’s recommendation, the board agreed to pay a $100 flat fee for every precinct. It will add about $3,200 in costs.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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