More division at port authority

VIENNA – The Western Reserve Port Authority on Wednesday divided on whether to pay $14,000 billed by a local company for public relations and strategic planning services over the last three months, because the contract spelling out the terms was signed by the port authority chairman but never approved by the full board.

According to a memorandum of understanding, the port authority, which governs operations at the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and area economic development projects, would pay a $3,000 monthly retainer to Youngstown-based V.C. Rubenstein Associates Inc. for things like public relations, marketing, consulting and newsletter creation.

An additional fee of up to $5,000 was listed for “facilitation” on the port authority’s strategic plan, which is being developed by another contract organization.

The memorandum was signed in late January by port authority chairman James Floyd and Rubenstein president Carolyn Rubenstein, but never had come before the full board for approval.

Now the board is faced with $14,000 in costs incurred for services, including the retainer for three months and the $5,000 fee for assistance with the strategic plan.

At Wednesday’s port authority meeting, an item calling for approval of the Memorandum of Understanding between the port authority and Rubenstein Associates was pulled from the agenda, and instead discussed in executive session. Members cited the legally permissible purpose of the executive session as “potential litigation.”

Following the lengthy closed-door session, the board failed to pass a motion that would have authorized payment of the $14,000 debt, with member Don Hanni voting no, and members Patrick Pellin and Ron Klingle abstaining. The three yes votes from Floyd, Scott Lewis and Martin Loney were insufficient to pass the motion.

“The board never had any input on this,” Hanni said. “The idea is (when) spending money, you have to have the whole board.”

Attempts to reach Floyd for comment following the meeting were not successful.

Port Authority records show Rubenstein and Associates has been used by the port authority since October 2012 by former Port Economic Development Director Rose Ann DeLeon, who left the port authority in January for medical reasons. Records indicate the port authority paid Rubenstein $24,912 for professional services between October 2012 and Jan. 31 of this year.

Carolyn Rubenstein said she was “flabbergasted” at the board’s reaction.

“This was our third year working with Rose Ann (DeLeon), so we didn’t know anything differently,” Rubenstein said. “In the past, she (DeLeon) paid it out of her budget. It’s very frustrating. We have worked very hard. We have never been told that we weren’t approved. Everybody was very aware of the work we did for the strategic plan.”

The port board voted 5-1 to authorize board member Ron Klingle, who chairs the board’s economic development committee, to meet with Rubenstein in an attempt to resolve the matter. Floyd voted no.

  • In an unrelated matter, the port authority also voted unanimously Wednesday to allow Mahoning County to take over the port’s purchase of an Austintown building planned for use as a new Mahoning County Dog Pound.

Following Wednesday’s meeting, Mahoning Commissioner David Ditzler called the port authority board “dysfunctional” and said the move was triggered to improve commissioners’ comfort level with the purchase.

“The purchase is too important for us to lose, and our (commissioners) board just felt that the port authority board is too dysfunctional to put all our eggs in that basket,” Ditzler said. “The best comfort level we could have was to take it out of the port authority’s hands.”

Port authority chairman Floyd last month had taken a blank check to the sheriff’s auction and put a $25,000 down payment on the building. Hanni also had questioned that move because the purchase had not been pre-approved by the full board.

Wednesday, Floyd said the county would reimburse the port authority’s $25,000.

Trumbull and Mahoning county commissioners, troubled by the port authority division, met in recent weeks to consider dissolving the board. Wednesday, Ditzler said commissioners are awaiting legal advice on the matter, but he believes dissolution is the best direction to go. He could not give a timeline on any action.