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Bad vibe from ‘secret’ meeting on COVID-19 funds

A big deal was made during a June 8 news conference about a June 30 regional summit to discuss the best ways to spend the incredibly large amount of money the area is getting from the federal American Rescue Plan Act, or ARP.

It turned out the meeting was closed to everyone but invited guests, which included big-wigs from business and charitable foundations.

Why bother having a news conference to tout a private meeting?

If you’re going to hold a closed-door meeting, it’s ridiculous to announce it.

There is nothing illegal or improper about the meeting as long as a majority of members of a governmental body didn’t attend to discuss public business. And there is absolutely no indication that was done.

But making such an announcement of a regional summit and then not permitting the public or the media — remember, this newspaper serves as the public’s eyes and ears — automatically makes me suspicious about what’s happening.

Why?

Well, plenty of city councils, boards of county commissioners and township trustees throughout the Mahoning Valley have had public discussions regarding what they may do with the millions of dollars they’ve received or will receive from federal COVID-19 funds through ARP.

For instance, Youngstown Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and his Cabinet have been going to the various wards throughout the city to get input from the public about what people want. Unfortunately, several residents want things — such as roads paved and new sidewalks — that aren’t permitted uses of the money. But still it’s good to give people a forum to discuss the funding.

Brown and his Cabinet held public meetings May 20 and 21 with various groups, including local business officials, to discuss plans for the $82,775,370 the city is getting from ARP.

So, are the business officials at the June 30 meeting, organized by the Youngstown Warren Regional Chamber, more important or entitled to special privileges that the business officials at the May 21 meeting didn’t receive?

I believe it looks that way.

Chamber officials said the June 30 meeting was done in private to allow for candid discussions of what to do with the money.

Sarah Boyarko, the chamber’s chief operating officer and senior vice president of economic development, said: “There was private industry in the room, and they prefer things to be done confidential.”

If you want a private conversation, pick up the phone.

I’m sure numerous public officials at the June 30 meeting have talked with people about the ARP funding. There’s no problem with that.

But that gives the closed-door secret meeting an even worse vibe.

If you were involved in deciding this was a good idea, you were wrong.

Trumbull County Commissioner Niki Frenchko said the media should have been allowed to attend the meeting and any future ones.

“I’m taken aback by the fact that everything related to the discussion was to stay in that room when it is not their funding,” she said.

Renee Fox, a reporter who’s seen more than her share of nonsense, asked to attend the meeting and the request was rejected. She and other reporters were told to show up at the meeting location about 4:30 p.m. to get information about what happened in secret. Fox showed up at 4 and practically everyone was gone. It was probably designed that way.

Again, there’s nothing illegal or improper about it as long as the state open meetings law isn’t violated. But it sure does bring back memories of how government operated in the Mahoning Valley in back rooms away from the public.

I don’t think that’s the look anyone was going for, but that’s what happened.

Even after all the corruption, greed, incompetence and stupidity I’ve encountered covering government and politics in this area for the past 26-plus years, I believe we can be better than this.

Call me an optimist — or an idiot.

Skolnick covers politics for The Vindicator and the Tribune Chronicle.

dskolnick@vindy.com

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