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Hubbard trustee challenges Niki Frenchko in GOP primary

WARREN — The two Republican candidates running for the GOP nomination for Trumbull County commissioner differ in both their temperaments and their goals.

Longtime Hubbard trustee Rick Hernandez is running in the March 19 primary against incumbent Niki Frenchko.

FRENCHKO

Completing her first term in office, Frenchko, a Warren resident, previously served in the U.S. Army Reserve, and has worked as a real estate manager in her own business. She worked with CT Consultants in the 2000s.

She earned a master’s degree in public administration from Kent State University, a bachelor’s degree in social work from Youngstown State University and a certificate in appraisal from Hondros College.

If reelected, Frenchko plans to continue her efforts to establish county administrator and budget director positions in the commissioners office. Both of her current colleagues have failed to support these initiatives. Hernandez also said he is against the hiring of an administrator.

Frenchko, however, believes these positions are critical in helping to move Trumbull County government forward.

“We need to have a critical staff,” Frenchko said. “We need competent people in the government that are running things in accordance with our statutory duties in a more responsible, efficient and effective way.”

She argues there are too many county employees in patronage jobs.

Frenchko argues that in order to make things work more efficiently during her second term, she would have to work with a like minded commissioner.

“A lot of issues we are having now are the current commissioners wanting to do what has always been done,” she said. “It has been impossible to get anyone to do anything differently.”

Frenchko said that everything she does relates to running a more efficient government.

“My background is public administration and government management,” she said.

Frenchko would like the county to begin grading all of its buildings in order for commissioners to be able to take preventive steps in maintaining them, instead of reacting to crises when something goes wrong.

“We have no living, breathing document as to what repairs have been done, grading them and logging each time there has been an improvement,” she said.

Frenchko said the county’s current budgeting process is backwards because it allows department heads to submit their budgets to the commissioners and to the county’s auditor’s office. The budget proposals then are presented to commissioners and, in Frenchko’s opinion, “rubber stamped” and approved.

She believes the commissioners office should submit its budget priorities to the departments and the auditor’s office. The departments then would react to what the commissioners office submitted and make appropriate suggestions or adjustments.

“As of now, commissioners have little say in establishing the county’s budget,” Frenchko said. “Budgets should be done and monitored throughout the year.”

Frenchko believes in zero-based budgeting to make sure that every penny is accountable.

“It is a difficult way of doing things,” she said.

The commissioner said if it were not for the ARP funds, the county would be in fiscal emergency.

She also wants to have a performance audit completed.

“They will take our county and compare it to other counties of our size,” she said. “Let’s try to do things a different way.”

Frenchko said she believes there is so much tension between the other two commissioners and herself because she is more knowledgeable and their egos are fragile.

“I’ve tried every way I can to try to accomplish things and they, genuinely, on some levels don’t seem to have the capacity of understanding things,” she said. “They feel like I’m just trying to make them look stupid. It is not true. Just listen to me, for the love of God.”

Frenchko said she simply wants to do better.

“That disrupts the status quo and the way things have been done,” she said. “It would be so much easier if they would just take some of my advice.”

However, since shortly after taking office, the commissioners and Frenchko have been the target of multiple lawsuits from commissioners office staff members. Several of the lawsuits have been dismissed by the courts without trials taking place. However, the county’s insurance provider settled some of the suits before they went to trial.

Frenchko objected to the settlements. She also filed civil suits against her fellow commissioners.

One of Frenchko’s lawsuits, filed against commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa, former commissioner Frank Fuda, Trumbull County Sheriff Paul Monroe and two deputies in connection with her July 7 arrest during a commissioners meeting provided both sides some partial victories, as some charges were dismissed.

However, the court found that a jury could find Monroe, Cantalamessa, Fuda and two sheriff’s office sergeants guilty of conspiring to have Frenchko arrested.

Frenchko’s attorney, David Betras, said the court’s actions stripped the defendants of their qualified immunity, so, if a civil suit is filed, any damages would have to be paid by the defendants, not through insurance policies.

Betras stated Frenchko’s 4th amendment rights were violated. The case is going forward to a possible jury trial.

Frenchko also filed a lawsuit against the commissioners in connection with alleged open meetings violations.

The commissioner, working with an organization called Open Government Advocates, in February 2023 filed a suit against Trumbull County commissioners, including Denny Malloy, former county clerk Paula Vivoda-Klotz and Cantalamessa. Fuda also was included in the filing.

The commissioner contends the commissioners and Klotz deliberated and took official actions while in private and without public notice.

Frenchko noted the commissioners violated the state’s open meetings law by not notifying the public of the private — via telephone and some email — meetings.

HERNANDEZ

Rick Hernandez, whose family has owned Hern Motors LLC since 1969 and has been a co-owner and member of the Hern Brothers Band with his brother David since 1980, sought to win the Republican primary in 2022.

Current Commission President Denny Malloy defeated Hernandez in the May 2022 primary race by winning 44% of the vote versus Hernandez receiving 30%. Christina D. Lee received 26%.

Hernandez, who graduated from Hubbard in 1979, expressed pride in doing as well as he did considering he ran a 10-week campaign for the nomination.

Although he was defeated in the 2022 primary, Hernandez has not stopped attempting to learn about the operation of the county’s government. He often attends the commissioner workshops every Tuesday during which items on the next day’s agenda are discussed among department heads and the commissioners.

Afterward, Malloy will allow county employees and others to bring up other issues that might be coming up in the county.

Frenchko has not attended the weekly workshop meetings during most of her term in office, saying they are being conducted incorrectly and meeting minutes are not accurately taken. The commissioner, however, often listens to the workshop meetings on Youtube.

She often holds individual meetings with department heads and others in an effort to familiarize herself with issues scheduled to be voted on during the commissioner meetings and other long-term projects.

Hernandez says, if elected, he will work to eliminate the toxicity he believes exists among the current commissioners and county employees that is seen during the Youtube streams of their meetings.

“Right now, Trumbull County is seen as a laughing stock,” Hernandez said. “It is not just among people in the county, but across the state.”

As a self-employed co-owner of a pre-owned car dealership and an entertainer, Hernandez suggests he has the skills to encourage people to work together, even during periods they disagree with issues they are addressing.

“I believe in building up, not tearing down people,” he said. “I believe in creating an environment of people gravitating toward you, instead of against you.”

Hernandez said he will work on addressing a variety of issues as a commissioner, including improving public transportation, moving the dog pound to a new location, establishing fire and EMS programs throughout the county, improving police and law enforcement, expanding water and sewer projects, expanding and exploring new projects with the county engineer’s office, elimination of injection wells in the county, improving the county’s 911 system and expanding economic development opportunities.

The primary candidate said he would not sign a contract with the Western Reserve Transit Authority that could expand bus service throughout the county, but also would lead to $7 million worth of sales tax increases for Trumbull residents.

While Hernandez understands the proposed program with WRTA would be especially helpful to residents in larger Trumbull communities such as Warren, Niles and Liberty, he is concerned the project would not help residents in the county’s northern communities.

He also is concerned about the way the sales tax vote will be taken in Trumbull and Mahoning counties, which will determine how the bus service will be financed. Hernandez does not want to take a chance that more Mahoning voters will support the tax proposal than Trumbull voters and then burden Trumbull’s residents with a tax they are not in favor of supporting.

“There is a much better way to do this than to allow Mahoning voters to determine our destiny,” Hernandez said. “We can do this and we can do it more efficiently at a lower cost.”

Frenchko previously expressed support of the county joining WRTA and then allowing voters to decide whether to support the tax increase.

Hernandez believes the negotiating skills he has established over the years as the owner of a car dealership and a band leader will help him in the commissioners role of contract negotiations with the county’s unions and contracts with area businesses.

He is an opponent of allowing more injection wells in the county as well.

“We have more concentration of injection wells than anywhere in the state,” he said.

However, Hernandez is not opposed to fracking opportunities.

He would like the commissioners to work more closely with the Western Reserve Port Authority to find ways to attract an airline to the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport in Vienna.

“Whether it be regional or multi-state, we can do better to offer the residents of Trumbull and Mahoning counties a major carrier service,” he said.

Hernandez said he also believes the commissioners need to concentrate their efforts to work with townships that are in need of transitioning from septic to sewer systems, as well as working with county residents in areas with malfunctioning wells to drinkable water systems.

Have an interesting story? Contact Ray Smith by email at rsmith@tribtoday.com.

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