Friday, December 24, 2010


Bliss and delight can be replaced with irritation and discord in a heartbeat within the confines of North Canton city government. While there are times that all seems love and kisses at North Canton City Hall; other times produce charge, countercharge and finger pointing. The latter is prone to flare up when there is a failure in city services.

One such failure happened this past Monday (December 20th) when an accidental fire occurred in a home located on Pittsburg Avenue in North Canton.

The outstanding North Canton Fire Department headed by Chief John Bacon responded lickety-split to the call, but alas, alas there was no water at the first hydrant and a second - a least momentarily. However, the third time turned out to be charm for getting water with which to fight the fire.

People familiar with the situation and in a position to know say there was no disruption in fighting the fire due to the failed hydrant.  Because Stark County's fire chiefs (as well as their peers in Summit) do a terrific job of working in a coordinated fashion through what is known as "mutual aid," Jackson Township and the City of Green were "Johnnies on the Spot" with their tankers to begin quelling the fire while the malfunction hydrant situation was overcome.

One thing that the general public might not understand about tough financial times is that government all the way from the top to the bottom (Stark County based government) are looking for ways to cut costs. What matters most to the citizenry is whether or not the cuts affect public safety services.

The one thing that city officials in any locale are loathe to do, is to cut such services. For elected officials, if there is a failure in safety services laid at their feet, the consequences might result in the official(s) becoming "unelected." For appointed officials, dismissal can come in nanoseconds.

During Mayor David Held's tenure as North Canton's chief executive, the city has been looking very hard at ways to keep The Dogwood City in a balanced budget.  It was not that long ago that city officials were holding meetings at the North Canton Civic Center to inform the North Canton public about the coming financial crisis. Not that many months ago, city officials were predicting deficits in the $1 million range for 2012.

Through belt tightening in the form of letting a number of employees go (e.g. the former chief administrator) and refinancing some of its bonded debt, North Canton is now projecting a surplus for 2012.

Apparently, part of the belt tightening threatens to interfere with the city administration's ability to keep tabs on the "ready or not" status of the city's hydrants. So when the hydrant mishap was discovered in the midst of dealing with the Pittsburg fire, the SCPR is told that there were pointed words exchanged between Mayor David Held and various council members.

The nature of the pointed words?  "I told you so;" more or less.

Held reminded  current city council President Daryl Revoldt and Councilman Jon Snyder of a prior council's refusal to fund what he calls an "efficient and effective" restructuring of North Canton's workforce he requested of council a number of years ago.

According to Held, about four years ago North Canton was having difficulty manning the the annual flushing of hydrants and checking attendant waterline valves.   His solution:  create "cross-utility" employee positions in which employees working in the streets department (general fund workers) be cross trained to flush hydrants and turn valves as water department (an enterprise fund) employees.

In this Held concept, the workers would rotate back and forth between the two departments on a "as needed" basis in the ebb and flow of the two departments' workload.

However, the former council refused to fund the Held initiative and therefore he has had to hire summer temporary help in order to accomplish the work of ensuring that the hydrants are functioning properly.  In Held's thinking, since properly performing hydrants are a public safety factor, it is far more prudent to have veteran city workers doing the hydrant and valve work rather than 18 year-olds working a summer job.

Of course, North Canton City Council controls the purse strings. We all know that "the power of the purse, is the power to control" - period!  Held says that the hydrant that failed last Monday was checked this fall by what The Report understands to have been a full time water department employee.  But he feels that the failure is a "wake-up call" that servicing of the 900 or so North Canton hydrants should not be dependent on bringing in summer temporaries.

Held did not put it this way, but the SCPR will.  If there is a future hydrant failure that records show was serviced by a temporary employee and the failure affects the fire department's ability to effectively deal with a fire, how is that going to go over with the property owner and by the North Canton public-at-large?

It seems to The Report that Held has a good plan in his cross-training proposal and it deserves serious consideration by council.  Held tells The Report he will be resubmitting his proposal to council over the next month as council deals with North Canton's 2011 budget.

However, the rub between Held and several North Canton councilpersons runs deeper than the fire hydrant incident.

Council as the purse-string controller is moving deep into the administration of Mayor Held to reorder and reconstruct how with what personnel the city does its administration.

Held did everything he could possibly do to save his former chief administrator's job as the personnel who serves in city administration at Held's discretion by city charter. But it has been known for some time that there have been councilpeople who wanted Held's former chief to be gone. Being the conciliator type of person he is, Held agreed to a face-saving way of the chief's removal without it appearing that council forced his hand.

But the SCPR believes that is exactly what happened.

While Held is the ever cheerful mayor for public appearances sake, he has to know when he has been manhandled and occasions such as the hydrant incident provide him with a perfect cover to get back at council.

Look for more difficulties to plague North Canton government internal relationships in the coming weeks.   Held has the task of hiring an aide to combo Chief City Engineer and Administrator Jim Benekos.  Council will be replacing former finance director Alex Zumbar.

Council, in what the SCPR believes was pressuring the removal of Wise,  was party to placing a workload burden on Benekos that is unsustainable. That the city has well over 100 applications to sift through for a deputy city administrator position, may draw the process out.  However, it could be that North Canton officials have already decided to hire Police Chief Michael Grimes (one of the applicants as confirmed to the SCPR by Mayor Held) but is nonetheless going through the winnowing process to ensure that there is no "knock-'em dead" applicant with tons of experience who could provide more instant relief to the Benekos' overload.

It is critically important for North Canton to get the right person for the finance director job. Zumbar did superlative work for the city in the midst of tight finances and his replacement will have to have similar Houdini qualities if North Canton is stay on a positive track of keeping its finances in the black.

For if North Canton falls into the financial red, then there will be no peace and harmony at city hall because there will have to be an additional trimming of personnel. Cuts in staffing very likely will mean that the remaining staff will be spread so thin that they cannot stop, by implementing proactive preventive measures, failures in service.

And if public safety equipment and services are among the failures, there will be quite an uproar to say the least.  Moreover, there will be a reigniting of a blame game and finger pointing!

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