Secrecy raises questions on group’s purpose

Members of the Trumbull County Budget Review Committee on Friday released the results of their toils in a seven-page report outlining where the committee thinks county commissioners can cut costs, generate more revenue and, in some cases, even spend more money.

The 19 recommendations include things like cutting down the huge public contribution to county workers’ pension plans; hiring a consultant to audit county government utility usage and another to analyze department organizational charts; create new positions for county administrator and purchasing director; and reduce the county’s property tax rate while raising the sales tax by 0.5 percent.

The committee’s 12 members say they volunteered some 800 hours on the plan. Still, the recommendations require even further analysis, and we urge county commissioners not to jump on board with any until they dive deeper into the effects of these recommendations.

In the end, we may agree with some points and we may disagree with others. Sadly, however, we can only wonder how legitimate the recommendations are after the secrecy this group — clearly defined in Ohio law to be a public body — has demonstrated by refusing to acknowledge that they are a public body and refusing to comply with Ohio Open Meetings laws when discussing important issues involving taxpayers’ wallets.

Twice in the previous two weeks a Tribune Chronicle reporter was escorted from the meeting room when this group discussed issues not listed among Ohio’s nine exemptions to open meeting access.

Sadly, the ring leaders in limiting the media’s (and thereby the public’s) access are two committee members who should know Ohio’s sunshine laws better.

Local attorney Jeff Goodman, who has sought public office as Warren law director, has argued against transparency and stated the group is not a public body.

Guy Coviello, former editor of the Tribune Chronicle who now works as the Regional Chamber’s government liaison, was the committee member who escorted the reporter from the room.

During his years serving on this newspaper’s editorial board, Coviello championed the rights of taxpayers and fought publicly for transparency in government. In what can only be described as a hypocritical turn of events, Coviello now is describing a meeting to discuss drafting a letter as reason enough for the group to meet privately. When he escorted the reporter from the room, he said it would not be fair to share the contents of the draft with the public before the commissioners saw it — a clear violation of sunshine laws.

Nine reasons are listed in Ohio’s open meetings law for a public body to legally enter executive session. They include discussing personnel, purchase or sale of property, pending or imminent court action, collective bargaining matters, matters required by law to be kept confidential, security matters, hospital trade secrets, confidential business information of an applicant for economic development assistance and veterans service commission applications.

Nowhere does it list discussing the draft of a letter as a legal exemption.

Both Coviello and Goodman — along with the group’s other 10 members, Brian Angelo, Mike Bollas, Ben Kyle, Bernice Marino, Mike Matas, Rich Musick, Barry Profato, John Sandberg, Stephen Stoyak and John Talstein — were present Tuesday when the group again entered executive session, this time allegedly to discuss “pending or imminent court action.”

When our reporter was again asked to leave, she stood in the hallway in the Trumbull County Administration Building in plain sight, and overheard discussions that went far beyond possible litigation. Instead, discussions inside the room dealt with things like how the group’s support of a tax increase would be a better way to influence public opinion; how it could control the headlines by giving the media something to write about and how meeting minutes should reflect only thatit discussed a pending records request.

Certainly, the group’s lack of transparency coupled with the illegal private meeting overheard by our reporter cast serious aspersions upon the intended purpose of this group that was hand-picked by Trumbull County commissioners.

One could make the case with all the secrecy involved that the effort was really a farce to have a so-called independent committee act as a “buffer” for the politicians as they raise the sales tax and pave the way to add at least two new highly paid employees to the county payroll.

It’s a tired old political trick for government officials such as our county commissioners to appoint a citizen’s committee they know will rubber stamp a plan to raise taxes. The city of Warren’s mayor, in fact, used the tactic to accomplish raising the city’s income tax last year.

They want the taxpayers to believe there is no other option than raising taxes and then hope the voters will be happy enough to return them to office when their terms expire.

Whatever the reason for their efforts to meet secretly, we know one thing is for sure. Without trust of our public officials — and subcommittees they appoint to conduct public business — we have nothing.