YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio -- U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan worries the state of affairs at the Western Reserve Port Authority could imperil the economic development initiative he spearheaded.
Mahoning and Trumbull counties formed the port authority in 1992 to assume responsibility from the city of Youngstown for operation of Youngstown Municipal Airport in Vienna Township, now known as Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. More recently, Ryan, D-13 Ohio, led the campaign to establish and fund an economic development division and capitalize on development tools available to port authorities.
That led to the hiring in 2009 of the port authority’s first executive director, Rose Ann DeLeon, who stepped down for medical reasons earlier this year.
“The current issues appear to have intensified over the past several months and I am concerned the economic development initiative for which I advocated could be in jeopardy, not because it was my initiative, but for the loss of the powers and resources it brings to the region,” he said in an email to The Business Journal.
Concern has intensified in recent months over infighting among members of the port authority’s board of directors, to the degree that the boards of commissioners for both Mahoning and Trumbull counties met Friday in Warren. Each county appoints four members to the board of the port authority, which receives a share of bed tax revenues collected in each county.
“We have a dysfunctional port authority right now,” remarked Trumbull County Commissioner Paul Heltzel, following Friday’s meeting. “The people behind it are not working together. They are creating a lot of problems and there has to be some changes made.”
One board member, Richard Schiraldi, recently resigned. Another member has submitted his resignation but Heltzel declined to identify the individual because the resignation won’t take effect until later this month. And another member has signaled his intent to resign but had not submitted a resignation letter yet, the commissioner said.
Ryan is aware of the “state of affairs and current challenges,” he said. “My staff and I are in constant contact with county commissioners, board members, working staff at the port and other organizations related to economic development activity in the region,”
Ryan said he sees how port authorities can be used as a powerful economic development tool for local governments. “The tools in the toolbox are there; we just need to manage it more effectively,” he stated.
Mahoning and Trumbull commissioners, following consultation with each county’s prosecutor, expect to meet again in two to four weeks to “either formulate a plan or possibly not” with respect to governance of the Western Reserve Port Authority, including possibly dissolving the current board and replacing it with a new one, Heltzel said.
Speaking with reporters following Friday’s meeting, conducted mostly in an executive session called to discuss staffing, personnel and legal matters at the port authority, Heltzel said both boards appear amenable to changing the port authority’s governance.
Under one scenario that Heltzel outlined, the port authority board would be dissolved and a “straw man” would take over its assets and liabilities while a new port authority board is constituted.
“There’s no easy way to get rid of board members,” Heltzel said. “They have to be removed for misfeasance, malfeasance or nonfeasance. That’s the only statutory way to do that unless they’re convicted of a crime.”
Ryan told The Business Journal he would do what he is asked to help ensure the region has “a viable and robust” port authority.
“I would imagine there are a variety of solutions to the issues at hand and understand that the commissioners are looking into each of those options to see which routes are the most effective and expedient,” Ryan said. “I believe they are equally as concerned as I am and are looking at ways to right the ship swiftly.”
Any attempt to dissolve the port authority will be met with resistance from the board member cited as the primary cause of discord, Don Hanni III, who has frequently clashed with other board members. Hanni raised concerns over board member Scott Lewis being involved with a real estate deal involving the port authority – for which Lewis was reprimanded -- and more recently raised concerns about the board buying property for a new Mahoning County animal shelter.
Hanni has vowed to serve his remaining eight months of his term on the board to serve as a “watchdog” on the public’s behalf. “This would all end if I resigned because they don’t want to hear the truth,” he said.
If the county commissioners attempt to dissolve the board, “I’ll fight them. I’ll go right to court if I have to,” Hanni said. “I don’t think they have the right to do it, to be honest with you.” He also questioned whether such action might jeopardize deals such as the port authority’s bond financing of the Hollywood Gaming at Mahoning Valley Race Course project in Austintown or other projects.
Hanni agreed with the assessment that the board is dysfunctional. “The bottom line is what’s wrong with the board is what’s wrong with the county commissioners,” he said. “They in fact condone people making money that shouldn’t be.”
The Ohio Ethics Commission ruled that Lewis had “an unlawful interest in a public contract,” he continued. He also raised the issue concerning the dog pound property purchase because the port authority board’s chairman, James Floyd, “took steps to spend money without getting the approval of the board.”
Other board members and the port authority’s legal counsel defended the purchase as proper.
Copyright 2014 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.
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