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Frenchko seeks new COG lawyer

WARREN — During a Wednesday meeting of the Trumbull County Council of Governments, the new county commissioner questioned the choice of attorney the public body uses.

The council of governments, or COG, was formed in 2018 and is made up of many county communities. The townships, cities and villages pay a small fee to join the COG and can petition for projects that utilize the shared resources of the group members. So far, projects mostly have included building demolitions that use the staff and equipment of the Trumbull County Engineer’s Office, for which the particular community reimburses the engineer’s office for, through the COG. The COG also is working on a joint program to test fire equipment for safety and effectiveness at participating fire departments.

Warren attorney Jeff Goodman was selected as the COG’s attorney, a position required by state law, and helped draft the COG’s founding documents and bylaws.

Goodman holds other attorney positions in the community, including parliamentarian for the Trumbull County Democratic Party, defense attorney in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court and works under county Engineer Randy Smith in the county’s highway department, where he handles personnel issues. Smith uses the prosecutor’s office for other legal work.

While Goodman could bill the COG for services he has rendered, he has not, said James LaPolla, Howland trustee and chairman of the COG, except for some work his secretary did, and for some postage and paper. Goodman said he volunteers for the COG because he believes in the COG’s mission of communities helping communities.

Commissioner Niki Frenchko said she has a few problems with Goodman.

She said she believes it is a conflict for him to serve as attorney for the engineer’s office and the COG. On one side, Goodman is volunteering his time to perform legal services, but on the other hand it is to give work to the engineering office that employs him, Frenchko said.

Smith said Goodman does not work on COG-related legal issues for him.

Goodman said he takes conflicts of interest seriously and does not believe one exists. When a conflict arose with another board he was on, the county’s mental health and recovery board, he quit the board. County commissioners accepted that resignation Wednesday. Goodman said he bought a building where one of the board’s vendors is a tenant.

Frenchko said Goodman neglected a record request she made of the COG in November and when he did partially respond to the request at the end of December, he did so by mailing some it to her boyfriend’s house in Mentor instead of providing it to her directly. During Frenchko’s campaign against Trumbull County Democratic Party Chairman Dan Polivka, the former county commissioner she ousted in November and a political ally of Goodman’s, Frenchko faced challenges about her living arrangements between her home in Warren and her boyfriend’s in Mentor. She prevailed on those issues.

Frenchko asked in early November for some documents and others on Nov. 16. She requested the COG’s governing documents, the policy and procedure manual, contracts from 2018-2020 and conflict of interest statements, according to an email with COG officials that Frenchko forwarded.

Goodman said he sent the board’s bylaws and constitution through the mail to Mentor with a letter dated Dec. 29, and to his knowledge that was everything she asked for and anything he didn’t send he was not in possession of, like conflict of interest statements, because they do not have them. He did not know she requested contracts.

LaPolla said he believes there was a miscommunication. It took a while to finish the request because they were waiting until she was commissioner, he said. The fiscal officer responded to part of the request and she thought she handled everything, but she might not have realized what Frenchko meant by contracts, LaPolla said, noting he thought everything was turned over.

Frenchko said she wanted the information to familiarize herself with the COG’s operations once she took office, but the delays have prevented her from doing so and now make her question the commitment to transparency.

Frenchko said she believes it is inappropriate for the COG to not have conflict of interest statements and classified that as a failure on the attorney’s part. She said conflict of interest statements disclose important information about property ownership and business activity that the public can view to see that their public bodies are acting ethically.

In an added layer of tension, Goodman represents Frenchko’s ex-husband in an active, pending domestic issue in Trumbull County Common Pleas Court.

Goodman said he has been opposing counsel on several domestic matters with Frenchko. Frenchko said she believes that is another conflict, because with an active case, she does not believe the two should be in contact and he shouldn’t be the one to handle any inquiries or requests she might have.

She wants the COG to replace Goodman, she said. LaPolla said there is no plan to do so.

Commissioner Frank Fuda said he agrees there may be a conflict, and there is at least an appearance of a conflict. Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa said he is in communication with the county prosecutor’s office and is seeking more information.

Frenchko said Goodman also has publicly insulted her, Fuda and Cantalamessa and doesn’t believe that is the type of proper “decorum and respect” for a public entity to project. Goodman said her claims are baseless.

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