Commissioners are forgetting transparency

We have many questions about what might have been discussed behind closed doors at the Mahoning County commissioners office last month, but we’ll never know with any certainty because not only was the public not permitted to attend, but it wasn’t clearly notified.

Former Mahoning County Prosecutor Paul Gains; Gina DeGenova, the attorney ultimately appointed by commissioners to replace Gains; and a few others met with the three Mahoning commissioners in a closed-door session for more than an hour last month. One day later Gains announced his retirement, and days later, commissioners voted to appoint DeGenova to replace him temporarily.

After catching wind of the suspected Nov. 17 meeting, our reporter, Ed Runyan, stood in the lobby of the commissioners’ offices but never was allowed to enter the meeting.

Commissioners staff says they did notify the public of the meeting — via a convoluted notification about a daylong staff meeting with no specifics.

They might believe the notice followed the letter of the law, but we believe it skirted the law, and avoided any attempt at transparency.

Under Ohio law, public bodies must publicly announce their meetings in advance. Also, a public body must vote in an open meeting to enter executive session before closing the meeting. That means our reporter should have been permitted to enter the meeting, at least during the open session.

What’s worse, the county’s top elected attorney and his assistants who advise and represent the commissioners attended this private meeting. Undeniably, they should have realized the steps required by Ohio law were being skirted.

When pressed for explanation, Gains later said he attended the Nov. 17 meeting “for legitimate reasons” that had nothing to do with his retirement.

However, Commissioner Anthony Traficanti told our reporter, in fact, Gains did announce to commissioners at the meeting that he was retiring.

Our demands for transparency don’t end here.

Four days later, commissioners again entered executive session, this time for 10 minutes as part of a “staff meeting” to “consider the appointment of a public employee or official,” according to other documents subsequently obtained by The Vindicator. There they discussed appointing an acting prosecutor to replace Gains.

Commissioner David Ditzler later told our reporter that letters from DeGenova, attorney Lynn Maro and former assistant prosecutor Brad Gessner seeking the appointment were reviewed. According to meeting minutes we subsequently requested, this review and discussion was handled during a 10-minute (yes, 10 minutes) executive session.

One day later, at the regular weekly commissioners meeting, commissioners voted to appoint DeGenova acting county prosecutor.

Commissioners justify their participation in “staff meetings,” even though they aren’t generally held in the public meeting room and sometimes move about the building, making it very convenient for discussing county business, and suspiciously inconvenient for public participation.

On this day in question, the public notification listed the “staff meeting” beginning 9:30 a.m., ending 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.


When asked why commissioners don’t hold staff meetings in a more public place than a conference room at the back of their offices, county Administrator Audrey Tillis said private meetings there are not private because people in the hallway can hear what is being said inside.

Again, really?

Further, why did commissioners use a “staff meeting” to discuss such an important matter when they had a regularly scheduled commissioners meeting just one day later?

And why do commissioners even attend a “staff meeting,” considering they already employ a county administrator to handle staffing matters.

“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. 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.”

Commissioner Carol Rimedio-Righetti said having open-ended meetings gives commissioners “flexibility.”

“We don’t know what will come up … if you have an emergency, someone comes in and says we need to see you. By law, we are registered as having staff meetings,” she said.

We disagree. Commissioners do not need flexibility. They need transparency.



Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today