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Stand ground on contract, but also clean up act

Trumbull County commissioners were right to reject Randy Smith’s request that they reconsider reinstating him as Trumbull County sanitary engineer, despite his threats of litigation.

Many of the outrageous allegations Smith made this month in a four-page letter addressed to county commissioners appear to be vindictive. And that’s not to mention many or all of the personnel or department concerns he raises in the letter came about under his watch, while he was serving as county sanitary engineer. Still, some of the allegations about office behavior and language are very troubling.

Smith, the elected Trumbull County highway engineer, until recently also served as the appointed Trumbull County sanitary engineer.

But in November, commissioners decided to end that agreement, per the terms of the contract. Smith had been earning $24,000 per year for the additional responsibilities.

The arrangement, created in 2015, seemed to fail from the beginning, especially considering cost savings never amounted, despite promises by commissioners, and specifically from former Trumbull County Commissioner Dan Polivka, when they created the dual role.

We had questioned the wisdom of this partnership at that time. We demanded an analysis of potential cost savings and then ongoing accountability on whether cost-saving goals were being achieved. In fact, neither ever happened.

And the situation got worse as time went on because due to commissioners political affiliations with Smith as an elected official, the employer-employee line became blurred. It seems commissioners either forgot or ignored the fact that in his new capacity as sanitary engineer, Smith was their employee — not a fellow elected official. They are two very different classifications.

This blurred line was spelled out in Smith’s recent letter where he documented, for instance, improper and obscene language used by Commissioner Mauro Cantalamessa during a disagreement over sanitary engineering issues at the new electric vehicle battery plant being constructed in Lordstown.

As could have been expected, politics also came into play. In his letter to commissioners, Smith also accused commissioners of workplace harassment over things like his backing of former commissioner Dan Polivka. Commissioner Frank Fuda had been supporting Polivka’s challenger Niki Frenchko.

True or not, these are the risks that arise when political divisiveness exists in the workplace.

It wasn’t that long ago that we used this space to encourage Smith to avoid allowing politics to enter into his office hirings and operations. While that warning dealt specifically with his seeking re-election as highway engineer — not his sanitary engineer post — our point remains valid. Politics never must affect hirings or operations.

At the end of the day, we do not believe commissioners were out of line in ending their sanitary engineer contract with Smith, but they were wrong in the way they were conducting business with Smith during that contract’s existence.

This situation is ugly, and as Frenchko described it recently, a mess that commissioners will have to clean up.

While they should not crumble under his threats of legal action, they should learn from this instance and raise the bar on respectful language in the work environment and appropriate treatment of all employees.

The tone for professionalism in the workplace must start at the top, and be demanded in all departments.

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