Port leader not making progress

When the Western Reserve Port Authority renewed Executive Director Rose Ann DeLeon’s contract for six months, it was because, according to her supports, she had so many deals lined up that the first half of 2013 would produce staggering results.

Nearly six months later not a single significant announcement has emanated from the executive director. The monumental loss of time and money since DeLeon was hired 3-1/2 years ago, sadly, can never be recovered. Even worse, public trust in commissioners from Mahoning and Trumbull counties, who appoint, fund and oversee the Port Authority board of directors, and public trust in the Port itself may be irrevocably damaged.

Damage control should begin by not renewing DeLeon’s contract when it expires next month, something the Port Authority should have done in December.

DeLeon was the highest-paid public official in the Mahoning Valley when she was hired at $155,000 per year plus expenses and benefits. Trumbull County Commissioner Paul Heltzel heralded her as the ”best of the best” in the nation when it came to inking economic development deals.

As her three-year contract neared expiration, her failure became a topic of heated debate among commissioners from both counties and the Port Authority board. The entities that funded her position – Warren, Niles, Howland, Youngstown and the Western Reserve Building Trades Council – would not consider another round of support. Some funders, such as Niles City Council President Robert Marino, publicly spoke on DeLeon’s lack of success.

With enough commissioners and Port Authority board members supporting DeLeon, she managed to get a six-month contract with a 40 percent pay cut. This was based on the prediction that three years of laying groundwork would blossom into major developments this year. Funding now comes from a tax increase imposed by commissioners from both counties.

It’s no surprise the six-month experiment failed after reviewing the first three years.

Her original contract said performance parameters for payment of a bonus ”will be established on a mutually agreeable, quantifiable performance criteria by Oct. 30, each calendar year.” Public records obtained by the Tribune Chronicle indicate no parameters were ever agreed upon.

After three years, correspondence about DeLeon’s performance reviews during her tenure indicated the board had submitted some performance parameters to DeLeon for her review, but she did not respond. A handwritten note on the photocopy indicates ”she will think more about this.”

Correspondence dated Nov. 23, 2010, the end of DeLeon’s first year, from Port Administrative Committee chairman Richard Schiraldi to DeLeon indicated ”the board is really struggling to come up with performance parameters to gauge your bonus next year (as stated in your contract). We are looking for your sincere thought on this issue.”

Still, the Port board voted to award DeLeon a $2,000 bonus.

The following year, Oct. 30, 2011, the board notified DeLeon that the board would not increase her salary but would award her a $5,000 bonus despite not finalizing performance benchmarks.

In 2011, the port board set goals for DeLeon that included developing more positive press, becoming more aggressive and higher profile, and communicating more with area communities and the port’s advisory committee. At the end of 2012, one of the chief complaints from the original funders, such as the City of Niles, was that they had rarely, if ever, heard from DeLeon.

Marino said, ”There was no feedback on what was going on out there, with our finances, the state of the economy.”

Clearly it’s time to part ways. Port Authority members should already be engaged on an alternative approach to economic development.