Youngstown, Ohio (PT) – On 12 February, 15 employees of the Mill Creek MetroParks, one of the largest municipal park systems in the United States, were dismissed without notice. These employees were not permitted to gather their belongings or to speak with their co-workers, and were escorted off the premises by MetroPark police officers. Two of these employees, Ray Novotny and Keith Kaiser, were department heads and had worked as public servants at Mill Creek for over 30 and 27 years, respectively. This is an ongoing series to examine the causes of these firings, and what the culture of the Mill Creek MetroParks says about local government.
You can view the original Pontiac Tribune article on this issue here.
The dismissals of 12 February were made without notice, with Executive Director Aaron Young saying in a video interview with the local paper of record, the Youngstown Vindicator, that the decision had been made that day, “at his leadership,” though he also said that the Board of Directors of the MetroParks were aware and supportive of the decision.
Under Ohio law, a park district like Mill Creek Park is overseen by a the local Probate Judge, who appoints between three and five commissioners to organize and carry out the duties of the district. The office of probate judge is an elected position, but all other positions in the leadership of a park district are appointed or hired. The park commissioners, or Board of Directors, are however imbued with the power to hire employees; specifically outlined in ORC 1545.07 are the duties of Secretary and Treasurer, but it is not unusual for such a board to hire a position such as Executive Director, or a similar position, to oversee day to day operations. However, legally, policy decisions must be at the knowledge and support of the Board of Directors; the position of Executive Director, as envisaged in the Ohio Revised Code section dealing with public parks, is a purely administrative one, that of a hired contractor with no ultimate power outside of implementing decisions by the Board.
This creates a problem for the 12 February decision date. The date of the last meeting of the Board of Directors was four days previous on 8 February. The minutes of this meeting have not, at the time of this filing, yet been released. We do have, however, the minutes of the January meeting, held on the 11th – over a full month before Mr. Young claims the decision was made. These minutes strongly suggest that this decision was, at the very least, discussed during this meeting. The relevant section states:
Germaine Bennett moved the Board meet in Executive Session for the following reasons:
• To consider the appointment, employment, discipline, or compensation of public employees.
• Collective Bargaining Matters
The motion was seconded by Mike Senchak and the vote taken resulted as follows: Voting Aye: Bennett, Durick, Ragan, Schulick, Senchak Voting Nay: None The motion was passed, and the Board met in Executive Session at 6:40 p.m. Germaine Bennett and Scott Schulick left during the Executive Session. Bob Durick motioned to return to Regular Session. Mike Senchak seconded the motion and the Board returned from Executive Session at 9:15 p.m. The vote taken resulted as follows: Voting Aye: Durick, Ragan, Senchak Voting Nay: None
As we can see, the Board sat in conversation about ”employment, discipline, or compensation of public employees” and “collective bargaining matters.” This language would imply a discussion of hiring or firing employees. This discussion was conducted between 6:40 and 9:15 pm, a total of two hours and thirty-five minutes, indicating a lengthy conversation on these matters. However, as this conversation was conducted in “Executive Session,” there is no transcript available at this time; as the Secretary clearly indicates that several members left the meeting and recorded the vote to return to Regular Session, it is difficult to believe that minutes were not kept for this conversation, but these minutes have not been made public. The Pontiac Tribune has requested access to these records and will report on them in the future.
The use of the “Executive Session” appears to be a means of keeping the decisions of the Board private. For example, the meetings held to interview a new Executive Director for the Metroparks in the first place were conducted during a five hour Executive Session on 13 December, 2014. This process was also not documented in the minutes of that meeting. From an article in the Youngstown Vindicator:
“We actually went into executive session for almost five hours on Saturday,” said board president Lou Schiavoni. “We still came out not really knowing . We kind of got our collective minds together, talked some on Sunday, and just decided Aaron’s the man,” Schiavoni said.
Ohio’s Sunshine Law precludes the board from making a decision at an executive session. The phone calls on Sunday may have been a violation of the law, and would nullify Young’s appointment.
Thus, Young’s statement that his decision was made that morning, with the support of the Board, would seem problematical. If his authority and position as Executive Director are in and of themselves fully legitimate – which seems to be an open question – his own personal decisions to dismiss these employees is invalid without the authority of the Board, and if the Board made this decision during an Executive Session, then there is a possibility that they have violated Ohio’s Sunshine Law. The Board would seem to be aware of these rules, as even during the 13 December meeting, the minutes list this statement from a Board member:
Ms. Marrow asked that the Board be addressed with their questions, that it’s the decision of the Board to hire an Executive Director, and that any policy decisions come directly from the Board, not the Executive Director.
All of these questions could be avoided by increased transparency in the conduct of the MetroParks, as well as increased democracy; a transparent process and an elected Board would increase public faith in their local government and services. Even at the hiring of Young, the Board President Lou Schiavoni stated that they did not have a public hearing in the hiring process because, as stated in the previous Vindicator article:
I believe it would have caused more divisiveness because maybe one group would have liked Aaron, maybe one group would have liked Justin , and maybe one group would have liked Trevena,” Schiavoni said. “We just thought that it was in our best interests to let go. He’s going to be the face of the park, he’ll be able to answer any questions they pose to him.
It would seem that avoiding public divisiveness was again a factor in making a decision affecting 15 careers and an entire community. Unelected officials in positions of power and authority making decisions behind closed doors are likely the rule, rather than the exception, in Ohio and around the country. Local government everywhere should be open, transparent, and democratic, and those who do not share those values should not involve themselves in public service.