Officials’ gathering scrutinized
Gains, commissioners met prior to the appointment of prosecutor’s replacement
YOUNGSTOWN — A Nov. 17 meeting at the Mahoning County Commissioners Office in the administration building between the commissioners and county Prosecutor Paul Gains may have violated the Ohio Open Meetings Act.
According to documents provided by the commissioners office last week, following a Vindicator public records request, the commissioners went into executive session at 1:40 p.m. Nov. 17 with Gains; Gina DeGenova, then-chief assistant prosecutor; Linette Stratford, another chief assistant prosecutor; and county Administrator Audrey Tillis. The meeting lasted until 2:55 p.m.
When a public body goes into executive session, it must vote in an open meeting to enter executive session before closing the meeting. A Vindicator reporter was waiting in the lobby of the commissioners office at the time — and was denied entrance to the meeting.
When Tillis was asked whether she agreed the reporter should have been admitted to the public portion of the meeting, she said she did not know whether the reporter was there when the meeting started and did not know what steps a staff member at the entrance to the commissioners office took before denying entry.
The documents The Vindicator obtained state that “no action” was taken at the end of the meeting. And they state that the reasons for the executive session were to “consider the appointment of a public employee or official,” to “consider the investigation of charges or complaints against a public official or officials” and “matters required to be kept confidential.”
Gains told The Vindicator last week that the “appointment of a public official” had nothing to do with his retirement; he was there for matters having nothing to do with him or his office.
DeGenova declined to say what Gains, Stratford and she talked to the commissioners about. None of the people at the meeting would discuss the nature of the discussion about an investigation of charges or complaints against a public official or officials.
The three commissioners voted to enter executive session, the document states.
The commissioners office also may have erred in not informing the news media and public that Gains was having a prearranged meeting with the commissioners Nov. 17.
The Vindicator became aware of the meeting Nov. 16 when a source said Gains was meeting about 1:30 p.m. Nov. 17 with the commissioners to announce he was retiring as county prosecutor. Gains did not reply to a Vindicator reporter’s text message prior to the 1:30 meeting asking if the reporter could attend.
At the end of the meeting, Gains spoke to the reporter but declined to confirm his retirement. He invited The Vindicator to attend a news conference the next day at his office. That is where Gains announced his retirement.
The following Monday, Nov. 21, the commissioners went into executive session at a “staff meeting” to “consider the appointment of a public employee or official,” according to other documents obtained last week by The Vindicator.
That ended up being a review of three letters they received from three people who wanted the commissioners to appoint them as interim county prosecutor for about five weeks starting Dec. 1 and ending in January, when the Mahoning County Democratic Party Central Committee meets to fill Gains’ unexpired term for the final two years in office.
Letters from DeGenova, attorney Lynn Maro and former assistant prosecutor Brad Gessner were reviewed, according to Commissioner David Ditzler. Maro has said publicly she is interested in running for prosecutor as a Republican.
When the commissioners came out of executive session into a public meeting 10 minutes later Nov. 21, they took action to “move forward with (a) resolution to appointment of county prosecutor interim position,” according to a document provided by the commissioners office.
The following day at the regular weekly commissioners meeting, the commissioners voted to appoint DeGenova acting county prosecutor.
NOV. 17 MEETING
A Vindicator reporter went to the commissioners office at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 17, hoping to attend the meeting where Gains purportedly was going to announce his retirement to the commissioners. The reporter was denied entry and was told the meeting was an executive session. He stayed at the commissioners office another 90 minutes, until Gains emerged from the meeting room. Gains declined to comment on the reason for the meeting or to confirm that he was there to tell the commissioners he was retiring.
Gains was asked again last week about the Nov. 17 meeting and whether it was appropriate for him to announce his retirement to the commissioners while accompanied by DeGenova, whom he later praised to the commissioners publicly for her integrity and experience. He said he did not go to the meeting with the commissioners to announce his retirement.
He said the meeting was regarding the reasons stated for the executive session, but he cannot discuss what took place at the meeting because it was an executive session.
“If I was going to announce my retirement to the board of county commissioners, I would have had the whole media there,” Gains said. He was there “for legitimate reasons. It had nothing to do with my retirement,” he said.
Commissioner Anthony Traficanti said last week Gains did tell the commissioners at the meeting he was retiring, and Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said Gains talked about his career as prosecutor at the meeting but did not talk about who would replace him.
“I was kind of shocked that Paul was leaving because I never had a heads up that this was happening,” Traficanti said. “It was really weird because the rumor mill usually runs rampant, and I was just shocked. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, he’s leaving?'” Traficanti said Gains told the commissioners he was going to have a press conference to announce his retirement.
Traficanti said there were other issues discussed at the Nov. 17 meeting that were “executive privilege that we were talking about” that dealt with people other than Gains.
Ditzler had earlier told The Vindicator there was discussion Nov. 17 about the three people who had submitted letters to the commissioners asking to be appointed to replace Gains, but meeting minutes indicate that conversation took place at the Nov. 21 meeting that Gains did not attend.
Gains, Traficanti and Rimedio-Righetti all said they were unaware that a Vindicator reporter was in the lobby asking to attend the Nov. 17 meeting. Gains questioned whether the reporter was there at the time of the public portion of the meeting. Tillis said she knew the reporter was there but does not know whether it was at the time the commissioners voted to enter executive session.
“With that one, I don’t know the timeline, what happened at the front (of the commissioners office),” Tillis said.”So by the time you were there, Paul and them came in and we went right in. We were probably already in executive session.”
When Tillis was asked why the commissioners don’t hold their staff meetings in a more public place than a conference room at the back of their offices instead of the meeting room at the courthouse, Tillis said private meetings there are not private because people in the hallway can hear what is being said inside.
When DeGenova was asked last week about the Nov. 17 meeting and whether it involved the selection of an acting county prosecutor to replace Gains or any specific people who wanted the appointment, she declined to comment.
“It’s executive session, and I can’t say anything about it,” she said. But she indicated she attended the meeting throughout and was not asked to leave the room at any point.
When DeGenova was asked whether she thought the Nov. 17 meeting was conducted legally, she said that would be a question for the staff of the commissioners office because she does not know what notifications its staff sent to the news media.
“I can’t speak on how they do their notice. I don’t know. I can’t speak on how they notify their staff meetings,” she said, adding: “They do this all the time. I have no reason to believe there was anything wrong with the advertisement.”
She said sometimes someone from the prosecutor’s office will attend a weekly staff meeting in the meeting room at the commissioners office similar to the Nov. 17 meeting.
“Sometimes we are on the agenda, and we come down. Sometimes we are not,” she said. Sometimes the staff meeting includes an executive session. She said she believes a form is filled out regarding that part of the meeting.
The commissioners hold their weekly public meetings in their meeting room in the basement of the county courthouse.
The room where the Nov. 17 meeting took place is within the commissioners office on the second floor of the county administration building next to the county courthouse.
Sometimes the commissioners hold their weekly staff meetings at their courthouse meeting room, frequently right after or before the regular weekly public meeting, which involves discussions of items on the commissioners agenda, voting and public comment.
As for the vague information the commissioners gave for the Nov. 17 “staff meetings” that included the meeting with Gains, Tillis said the staff meetings went on that day from 9:30 a.m. until the meeting with Gains ended at 3 p.m.
The notification was for a “staff meeting” that began at 9:30 a.m., ended when the commissioners held their regular weekly meeting at 10 a.m., followed by more “staff meetings” at 10:30 a.m.
The “staff meetings” were going to be held either in the commissioners meeting room in the basement of the courthouse or in the commissioners meeting room at their offices in the administration building next door, according to the meeting notice The Vindicator received.
After the 10:30 a.m. staff meetings, the commissioners held two budget hearings at their offices at the administration building — at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. — and then the meeting with Gains began at 1:40 p.m. The Vindicator attended the 11 a.m. budget hearing with Sheriff Jerry Greene at the administration building. The 12:30 p.m. budget hearing was with the domestic court.
“Ten-thirty is when our staff meetings would start, and then they would keep going until” the meetings were over, Tillis said, adding that this has been the practice of the commissioners office “consistently” for many years. “Nothing has changed,” Tillis said of how staff meetings are held and advertised to the news media and public. The 1:40 p.m. meeting with Gains was part of the “staff meetings” notification for 10:30 a.m., Tillis said.
“I could have four meetings within that time frame between (10:30) and when they stop. We don’t say when they will end. We just say they start at 10:30,” said Tillis, who also is the director of the commissioners’ Office of Management and Budget.
Rimedio-Righetti said the reason for the nonspecific meeting notices for staff meetings is that the commissioners need flexibility.
“We may have something come up, regardless of where it is when it comes up in the county,” Rimedio-Righetti said. “We don’t know what will come up. Most of them are scheduled, but if you have an emergency, someone comes in and says we need to see you. By law, we are registered as having staff meetings.”
Tillis said the meeting with Gains was “scheduled” for the time it took place, but it was scheduled after the two budget hearings because there was a “time crunch.” The commissioners had to appoint Gains’ replacement by the Nov. 22 meeting to accommodate his last day on Nov. 30, she said.
Two candidates, meanwhile, have applied to be appointed by the Mahoning County Democratic Party’s central committee as the next county prosecutor. The committee will vote Jan. 7 on who will fill the unexpired term.
One is DeGenova. Gessner, an assistant Summit County prosecutor since 2001, is the only other one to submit a letter of interest to the county party for the appointment by Friday’s deadline.