County updates staff meeting policy
Agenda to be released before session
YOUNGSTOWN — Mahoning County commissioners have enacted a new policy regarding notification to the news media and public about the topics they discuss in staff meetings.
The commissioners typically have these staff sessions each week in their meeting room at their offices in the county administration building.
The new policy is to notify the news media and public of the topics to be discussed by releasing an agenda for staff meetings the day before the meeting.
Staff meetings frequently involve discussions that go into closed “executive session” to discuss matters such as pending litigation or personnel issues. The three county commissioners typically attend staff meetings.
WHY NOTIFY NOW?
Such meetings have come under scrutiny in recent months because of a questionable staff meeting Nov. 17 that involved the commissioners, then-county prosecutor Paul Gains and then-chief assistant prosecutor Gina DeGenova. Also in attendance was chief assistant prosecutor Linette Stratford.
DeGenova is now Mahoning County prosecutor. The commissioners appointed her acting prosecutor several days after the Nov. 17 meeting at a staff meeting. The county Democratic Party Central Committee this month appointed DeGenova to fill the last two years of Gains’ unexpired term.
Also questioning commissioners staff meetings is a lawsuit filed against the commissioners by Ricky Morrison, a county maintenance worker who was fired and then reinstated. Also, the Mill Creek MetroParks questioned the validity of an executive session staff meeting the commissioners wanted to hold with the MetroParks regarding McGuffey Preserve, run by the MetroParks. Community members have criticized the maintenance of the facility.
This week’s commissioners meeting notifications gave the time and place for the regular weekly meeting in the basement of the county courthouse and a separate “agenda” for staff meetings beginning at 11 a.m. Thursday at the commissioners offices. Previously, the office did not provide an agenda for staff meetings, only stating the time and place.
The Nov. 17 staff meeting actually began at 10:30 a.m. with the commissioners, and was paused while the commissioners held two budget hearings at their offices at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., followed by the meeting with Gains at 1:40 p.m. The Gains meeting was never mentioned to the public.
When Audrey Tillis, county administrator, was asked Thursday the reason for now announcing the topics to be covered at staff meetings, she said: “As always, the commissioners are committed to continued transparency to the fullest extent permissible by law.”
She said prior practices have been in place since before any current commissioners took office, adding, “we are and have been fully compliant with open meeting regulations.”
She added: “We understand that additional openness is especially important in a day and age where media resources are routinely stretched thin. Accordingly, the commissioners’ office will continue to work to make our process more transparent.”
Thursday’s staff meetings included one with Allan Landfried, county facilities director, for an executive session for “employment of a public official or employee.”
They also had a meeting with Karen U’Halie, county human resources director, for an executive session on “compensation of a public official or employee.”
Another meeting was with Sheriff Jerry Greene to talk in executive session about “pending or imminent court action, matter to be kept confidential.”
And another was with Tillis, the administrator and director of the commissioners’ office of budget and management, on various issues such as “follow-ups, incoming correspondence, events, calendars, funding requests, meeting request, board agenda items, misc., etc.” That part of the staff meeting was held in open session.
The Nov. 17 meeting with Gains, DeGenova and Stratford was questioned because The Vindicator learned from sources that Gains was going to notify the commissioners at that meeting that he was retiring. A Vindicator reporter tried to attend the meeting but was denied entrance. Gains later emerged from the meeting but refused to comment on the reason for the meeting.
He held a news conference the following day to announce his retirement. He later denied that he discussed his retirement with the commissioners Nov. 17, but Commissioner Carol Rimedio Righetti conceded that Gains did discuss his career at the meeting.
When DeGenova was asked about the Nov. 17 meeting, she declined to comment on what she, Gains and Stratford talked about. In a filing in the Morrison lawsuit, DeGenova denied that the Dec. 1 staff meeting where Rimedio Righetti and Commissioner David Ditzler allegedly voted to fire Morrison was illegal.
Commissioner Anthony Traficanti told The Vindicator he voted no at the meeting.