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Heated Trumbull commissioner race attracts five

Three vie for Democratic nomination

WARREN — Three longtime Valley politicians are vying for the Democratic nomination for Trumbull County commissioner in the March primary.

Warren City Council President John Brown, Howland Trustee Dr. James LaPolla and former Warren Councilman and Commissioner Dan Polivka, are all seeking to face either the incumbent Republican Commissioner, Niki Frenchko, or Hubbard Township Trustee Rick Hernandez in the November election.

Brown, 66, worked at Thomas Steel Strip Corp. for 36 years before retiring in 2013. He served as Warren’s 2nd Ward councilman from 1986 to 1989, its 3rd Ward councilman from 2011 to 2019, an at-Large councilman from 2020 through 2021 and council president since 2022.

Since 2011, Brown said he’s gotten more than 650 pieces of legislation approved and he’s now eyeing a new office.

“Last summer, when the lawsuits that were paid out by the county of my tax money, our tax money, was over $500,000, I thought ‘I can do a better job than this,'” Brown said. “I can work with two other commissioners, maybe disagree at times, but do the job of government and get out of the way.”

If elected, Brown said he would be able to tackle the position of commissioner as a full-time job and said he would be at the commissioner’s office on a “daily basis.” With his belief of treating the commissioner position as a full-time job, Brown also said he does not believe the county needs to hire an administrator.

Frenchko has pushed for the commissioners to consider hiring a county administrator — a position that several Ohio counties employ.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said. “I think that would be at least $150,000 with salary and benefits. That is something that, as a full-time commissioner, I think is unnecessary.”

Brown’s main goal is the “overall economic development of Trumbull County.”

“There’s so many things on the economic horizon that I know about from Warren but it’s a spillover of what’s going on in the county and a lot of that is in Lordstown,” Brown said. “With Foxconn occupying the old (General Motors) Lordstown Plant and the people that are investing millions in downtown Warren, when you go out with them and talk with them and ask them ‘why?’ They say ‘We think that Lordstown is going to be the heart of the electric car industry for at least America, if not the world.'”

Brown also emphasized his belief that Trumbull County has a need for public transportation.

The commissioners recently voted to approve a start date of March 11 for two reestablished Western Reserve Transit Authority bus lines that were shut down in August because the Ohio Department of Transportation did not renew funding that previously paid for them.

Commissioners accepted $148,178.50 from Warren, which was needed to pay for half of the local match of $296,357 through the Federal Transit Authority’s 50/50 Flex Funds Grant that will be used to finance the bus routes through March 2025. The other half of the money is provided by the county.

ODOT has been providing funding for public transportation in Trumbull County since 2019. A proposed solution was to have Trumbull vote to join WRTA and to, with Mahoning voters, pass a quarter percent sales tax increase to pay for the services.

In Trumbull County, the proposed tax increase would raise approximately $7 million a year. The sales tax would raise approximately $9 million per year in Mahoning County.

Frenchko has been a proponent of the county joining WRTA to receive bus service throughout Trumbull County.

While Brown supports public transportation, he has reservations regarding WRTA.

“I don’t know that WRTA is the end-all-be-all for it,” Brown said. “You’re talking about putting $7 million on the taxpayers. I think there could very well be more efficient ways to go about bus service.”

Brown said there are other busing options in Trumbull County.

Brown said during his time with Warren Council as well as other boards throughout the county, he has been to “99%” of scheduled meetings and he plans to attend every commissioners meeting and workshop.”

LAPOLLA

LaPolla, 61, has served as a trustee in Howland Township for 11 years.

He said his experience as the president and founder of the Trumbull County Council of Governments has prepared him to “work well with everybody,” and to be able to handle the “chaos” that comes with being a Trumbull County commissioner.

“I was encouraged to give it a try,” LaPolla said. “I was kind of pushing back at first because I didn’t want to do it two years ago, that’s when I was first approached. This time, they said ‘you know what, Dr. LaPolla, you’ve done such a great job with COG, you work well with everybody,’ I don’t hold biases against anybody, I don’t hold grudges, ‘you should give it a try, I think you’d be a really good commissioner.'”

LaPolla said he and the other Howland trustees have always worked well together.

“We support each other, we trust each other, and we move on because we have the same and common goal,” he said.

LaPolla said Howland trustees do not get bogged down by “mundane things” because they work with a township administrator.

In his time as trustee, LaPolla has worked with Darlene St. George, who has been administrator since 2002 and recently announced her retirement. Trustees recently voted to hire and name Howland fire Chief James Pantalone as township administrator to succeed her.

“A lot of the background checks on things are done by the administrator so we get a neutral, informational packet that is brought to us that we can then read on our own, decipher on our own, interpret on our own and make up our own opinion,” LaPolla said.

LaPolla said he would fully support the hiring of a county administrator. He said the three Trumbull townships that have administrators, Liberty, Weathersfield and Howland, are three of the smoothest run in the area.

“Trumbull County would benefit by having that key component in day-to-day operations,” he said.

LaPolla has worked as a physician and foot and ankle surgeon since 1990. He is the owner and chief podiatric surgeon at Northeast Ohio Foot, Ankle & Wound Center Inc., according to his LinkedIn account. He said he plans to slow down his medical office if elected as he does not want to continue working 70 to 80 hours per week.

“I’ve already planned with my wife… That I’m either going to one, bring in an associate, we’ve already interviewed two people, or two, look at a physician’s assistant if the associate doesn’t work well or we don’t get the final contract, and three, instead of two offices go into one office,” he said.

LaPolla said such a setup would allow him to be in downtown Warren on Tuesdays for the commissioner’s workshops and Wednesdays for the meetings and then in his medical office for three days per week.

“I also have the ability to use my own office to look up information,” LaPolla said. “There’s no law that says I have to use the commissioner’s computer to look up some information. Everything’s open, I can do that in my office. I can even have my staff help me find information.”

LaPolla also highlighted the importance of public transportation. He said he believes Warren is one of the largest communities in Ohio without regular public transportation. LaPolla said his belief in this is inspired by his medical work.

“In the medical field, especially in podiatry, in orthopedics for the most part, if someone has a bad knee, broken hip, broken foot … whatever the case would be, and I tell them ‘(you) can no longer drive,’ that pretty much ends their independence,” he said.

While LaPolla said the funding would have to be worked out, he said he does believe the county needs some sort of public transportation.

If elected, LaPolla said he plans to “sit, listen and learn,” for the first year as commissioner. He said he would not be passive.

Other goals include making the county more efficient, doing a better job promoting the county and keeping Trumbull finances in check.

POLIVKA

Polivka, 60, the vice president of Polivka International, previously served as Trumbull commissioner from 2004 to 2020. He lost his seat to Frenchko.

Prior to serving as commissioner, Polivka was on Warren City Council from 1983 to 2003.

In January, the Trumbull County Democratic Party endorsed Polivka.

Polivka said he “never really stopped being commissioner,” minus the title and salary.

“People still call me. I have the department head’s cellphone (numbers) and I help people continuously throughout Trumbull County,” Polivka said.

If elected, Polivka said he would bring experience and professionalism to the commissioner’s office.

“During my time as commissioner, there were zero lawsuits filed against me,” he said.

Polivka said he would continue to be a “watchdog” of taxpayer money if elected. He said during his initial stint as commissioner, he fought against sales tax increases.

“Seven-and-a-half years ago, roughly, I helped stop that additional sales tax. They said it couldn’t be done,” Polivka said. “Seven-and-a-half years later and we’re still operating at the same sales tax.”

Polivka also said, if elected, he wants to continue working to make broadband internet available across the entire county.

“When I was there, we passed (legislation) to get a study going,” Polivka said. “I’d like to see that as one of the new goals, installed throughout Trumbull County to have better broadband across the county.”

Polivka also said he wants to help the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport secure a commercial airline. He suggested Breeze Airways as a potential option.

“Breeze Airlines, they go into Orlando and it’s quite an up and coming airline, I think they would be a good one to contact,” Polivka said. “When I was there we had supported Allegiant Airlines. It was 95% full at the time. They just went to a different marketing plan and wanted to fly out of bigger airports. I was very sad to see that.”

Regarding WRTA, Polivka said he has “always supported public transportation.”

“Throughout Warren and stuff, it’s not real busy,” Polivka said. “In Warren, there’s a lot of times where you look at that big bus going by and there’s three or four people on it. I think smaller buses, more economical, would maybe be better for public transit, right now until you get the numbers up.”

As of now, if elected, Polivka said he would not support the hiring of a county administrator. But, he said he would be open to considering the possibility in the future.

“I just think it’s important to get someone in there that can bring progress back to the commissioners office, rather than chaos,” he said.

Polivka also noted the importance of improving the collaboration of those serving as commissioners. He said the office needs to focus on getting work done. Polivka believes that he can unite the board of commissioners.

“I think somebody really has to unify the board,” he said. “I have a relationship with Mauro (Cantalamessa), I know Denny (Malloy), I think I’m the guy that can do that.”

Since beginning his campaign, Polivka said many residents have approached him and expressed support.

In 2020, Frenchko unseated Polivka, winning 52% of the vote to Polivka’s 48%.

At the time, Frenchko campaigned on getting rid of the “old boys’ club.”

Of the Democrats running for the nomination in the primary election, Polivka believes he is best suited to compete with either Frenchko or Hernandez.

“I’m the only one running, especially in the primary, that can hit the ground running,” Polivka said. “(I’m the only one running) that knows the job, knows the people, knows the budget. I have the experience. I have a relationship with the department heads.”

Michelle Garman, a Mathews school board member, was the fourth candidate in the race, but has since dropped out. However, her name will still appear on the ballot. Any votes cast for her will not be counted.

Have an interesting story? Contact Mason Cole by email at mcole@tribtoday.com. Follow him on X, formerly Twitter, @masoncoletrib.

Trumbull County commissioner

Democratic primary candidates

John Brown

AGE: 66

PRIORITIES: Support overall economic development in the county; Find the best option for community busing; Do the job of government and “get out of the way.”

PREVIOUS ELECTED OFFICE: Warren’s 2nd ward councilman from 1986 to 1989, its 3rd ward councilman from 2011 to 2019, an at-Large councilman from 2020 through 2021 and council president since 2022.

Dr. James LaPolla

AGE: 61

PRIORITIES: Making the county more efficient; promoting the county; keeping finances in check.

PREVIOUS ELECTED OFFICE: Howland trustee since 2011

Dan Polivka

AGE: 60

PRIORITIES: Bring experience and professionalism to the commissioner’s office; continue to push broadband internet to all parts of the county; Bring a commercial airline back to the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

PREVIOUS ELECTED OFFICE: Warren City Council from 1983 to 2003 and Trumbull County commissioner from 2004 to 2020.

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