County must dismantle the transit board

There is no need for the existence of the board that oversees Trumbull County transportation issues.

In fact, we believe the Trumbull County Transportation Board acts as little more than an unnecessary layer of insulation between county elected officials and the contractor hired to run the system.

That’s why we renew our call for Trumbull County commissioners to dismantle the board and proceed without it.

Commissioners in October voted to hire Trumbull County Transit Administrator Michael Salamone to manage the transit operations. Having worked in local government overseeing the Medina County Public Transit system for about a decade, Salamone came with good references and high expectations. He is paid $78,500 plus benefits that include a rent-free apartment in a government-owned building in Howland. With his qualifications and compensation, we see no reason why he shouldn’t independently handle duties like bidding out provider contracts, overseeing transportation contractors, answering to the Federal Transit Administration on issues of federal funding and more. In fact, that is what he already is expected to do.

But the fact is, his progress at accomplishing the goals he has set out to do often is hampered by disagreement and dysfunction on the board that also oversees the transit system.

Trumbull County’s transportation system is limited in its scope and is operated solely by use of outside contractors. Other than Salamone — who is overseen and paid by the commissioners, not by the transit board — there are no transit employees. There is no levy or any other continuous funding stream. In fact, the transportation system doesn’t even own any vehicles — those are owned by the contracted provider.

So why, exactly, do we need a board?

Further, many members of the existing board have little to no expertise on the intricate details involved in operating a transit system, FTA requirements or even the state laws that spell out transparency and openness required of public bodies.

The transit board has been plagued for years with controversy. Most recently, the board came under fire by the FTA for failure to respond in a timely manner to requests for documentation. Now the FTA has responded by imposing new restrictions and oversight. Complaints from residents have been raised over difficulty getting rides, and the board appears to have limited oversight of the contracted provider. In January, the board acted against Salamone’s advice and renewed transit mobility manager Michael Verich’s $36,000-per-year contract. Salamone had said, based on the scope of the system, the county did not need a mobility manager at this time. The board ignored his recommendation.

The board, at one point, also operated in a clear case of obstructionism when several members abstained from voting to bid out the provider contract. Salamone was tasked with rebidding the contract upon his hiring in October, yet now more than six months after the contract expired in December, the board has done little more than stifle that attempt and continue to renew the contract at its existing terms rather than open it up broadly for new bids.

The board also has participated in what we view as clear violations of Ohio’s Sunshine Laws. In March, we were critical of Transit Board Chairman Robert Faulkner’s attempt to circumvent open meeting laws by engaging fellow board members in an email exchange to discuss transit board business.

Now, we question whether it was appropriate for the board to adjourn last week into executive session to negotiate a provider’s contract. According to the board’s attorney, the executive session was allowable under the open meetings exemption that allows public bodies to discuss pending or imminent litigation. This, he said, was prompted by threat of a lawsuit from provider Community Bus Service if the contract is not renewed. Combining an allowable reason for entering a closed-door session — to discuss pending or imminent litigation — with unallowable reasons — to discuss terms of a vendor contract — put the board on a path down a slippery slope.

At the end of the day, Salamone was hired and is well-compensated to do a job that he is very capable of doing. The board — whether intentional or not — has hampered and even obstructed his attempts to do his job.

In order to logically move this system forward, commissioners should dismantle the board and allow Salamone to oversee it directly, while reporting to the elected board of Trumbull County commissioners.