Thursday, July 26, 2012


Ever wonder how inept the Ohio General Assembly is?

Well, you don't have to go far to find out.

We in Stark County have first hand experience with the screw ups in Columbus in formulating laws that don't work.

Remember the situation with former Stark County Treasurer Gary Zeigler?

Of course you do.

Zeigler had the misfortune of his chief deputy treasurer stealing upwards of $3 million.  A reality that came to light on April 1, 2009.

While Zeigler was not implicated in the theft, Ohio law  (ORC 321.37 and 321.38) provided that if money comes up missing from a county treasurer's office and is lost to the county, then the county commissioner "may" remove the treasurer which the Stark County commissioners did with Zeigler on August 23, 2012.

Trouble was that the Ohio Supreme Court held in a lawsuit initiated by Zeigler to be reinstated:
(June 23, 2011) ...  that R.C. 321.38, which  authorizes a county treasurer’s removal from office  “immediately on the institution of a suit,” is unconstitutional on its face because it  conflicts with Sect. 38 Art. II of the Ohio constitution that requires a complaint and hearing before an officer is removed.  Based on that determination, the Court issued a writ of quo warranto that removes the current Stark County Treasurer, Alexander A. Zumbar, and reinstates ousted Gary D. Zeigler to the remainder of his elected 2008 term. State ex rel. Zeigler v. Zumbar, Slip Opinion No. 2011-Ohio-2939 (LINK)
Folks, ORC 321.38 became law on October 1, 1953.

While the Stark County prosecutor's office shepherded the commissioners through the process of removing Zeigler (remember the Ohio Supreme Court says the law "is unconstitutional on its face") saying that they (the prosecutors) were relying on the Ohio General Assembly knowing what they were doing in putting the legislation on the books in the first place and not changing it over the course of nearly 60 years, it is obvious now that the prosecutors should have known better than to have relied on the Ohio Legislature being on top of things and making sure that compliance with 321.38 would withstand challenge if followed literally.

Eventually, the commissioners on October 19, 2011 negotiated a deal with Zeigler for him to leave office by resignation and retirement.

Yesterday it came to light in a board meeting held by the Stark County Land Reutilization Corporation (SCLRC) that the law authorizing the creation land reutilization corporations is deficient.

Ohio Revised Code Section 1724.04 (became law in July, 2010), in part, reads:
A county having a population of more than sixty thousand as of the most recent decennial census that elects under section 5722.02 of the Revised Code to adopt and implement the procedures set forth in sections 5722.02 to 5722.15 of the Revised Code may organize a county land reutilization corporation under this chapter and Chapter 1702. of the Revised Code for the purpose of exercising the powers granted to a county under Chapter 5722. of the Revised Code. The county treasurer of the county for the benefit of which the corporation is being organized shall be the incorporator of the county land reutilization corporation. (emphasis added)
Well, our county treasurer Alex Zumbar got all excited about this legislation and took steps in December, 2011 to interest the Stark County commissioners to pass a resolution authorizing the creation of  a Stark County based corporation (which is non-profit and quasi-governmental).

Zumbar has done a really good job as far as the SCPR is concerned since, once again, becoming treasurer upon Zeigler's resignation.

He has gone to town on whittling down the $40 million or so of delinquent real estate property taxes owed Stark County and has pushed the Stark County prosecutor's office to step up efforts to collect the back taxes.

However, try as they may, the prosecutor's office does not have a chance to collect taxes on the many, many of the delinquent taxpayers because in many cases the taxes are more than the value of the property most of which have been abandoned because they are uninhabitable.

With the help of former Cuyahoga County treasurer Jim Rokakis (who, when treasurer, worked hard to deal with some 27,000 abandoned and vacant homes in Cuyahoga County and who now leads Thriving Communities Institute, an organization he founded in 2011 with the Western Reserve Land Conservancy) and Robin Darden Thomas (land bank program director at Thriving Communities), Zumbar has taken the lead to develop a similar program for Stark County.

Zumbar has incorporated the Stark County effort under the name Stark County Land Reutilization Corporation (SCLRC) and has put together a board of directors (which includes Zumbar, Stark County Commissioners Tom Bernabei and Janet Creighton, Plain Township Trustee Scott Haws [representing township interests] and Attorney Lemuel Green (representing Stark County's largest city's [Canton] as provided for by Ohio law.  Green, incidentally and ironically (in the view of the SCPR) once worked for Gary Zeigler in the treasurer's office as one of his top lieutenants.

So everything was going swimmingly.

That is until yesterday.

Stark County assistant prosecutor Mike Bickis dropped a bomb shell.

Yes, a bombshell!

Picking up on discussion that the board members of the SCLRC contemplated that Zumbar would be the president of the corporation and would in that capacity be making decisions and recommending to the board that they endorse his determinations on specific actions in terms of what demolition proposals (and, also, later down the road what rehabilitations) would benefit from the infusion of SCLRC funds, Bickis, speaking as the legal adviser to the commissioners, questioned whether or not Zumbar in wearing three hats (county treasurer, a board member of the SCLRC serving as the lead and, if the board has its druthers, as president and a key decision maker in the day-to-day operations of the SCLRC) might put himself in violation of the ethical rules of Ohio (Ohio Ethics Commission) in terms of potential conflicts-in-interest.

It was discomforting to the board members (undoubtedly Zumbar) for Bickis to have raised the ethical questions.  Nobody on the board questions Zumbar's ethics.  Nor does Bickis.  But he sees it as his obligation as the adviser for the two commissioner members of the board (sitting as prescribed by Ohio law) to raise any ethical concerns that occur to him.

Bickis advised that it might be best (again, emphasis he was advising the commissioners as their legal representative) to hold off on making Zumbar the operations leader until the Ohio general attorney responds to a request made by the Mahoning County prosecutor for a clarification of whether or not there are statutes which would not permit/prohibit a county treasurer/auditor to operate a non-profit corporation while holding an official position.

Bickis says that the Ohio Ethics Commission has been asked to weigh in on the ethical aspect of the same question.

The SCPR understands that there are a number of counties which are planning to use the county treasurer or auditor as the non-profits day-in, day-out executive officer.

To return to the initial point of this blog which is the inadequate legal structure provided by the Ohio General Assembly in authorizing the creation of land reutilization corporations.

Bickis told The Report that it should have been apparent to the Legislature that creating a non-profit quasi-governmental entity, there were bound to be concerns about mixing private and public functions especially along potential conflicts-in-interest lines.

The SCPR believes that the "bastard" structure that the Legislature created was born of the Republican party's fixation with privatizing everything in sight.  Had they just made the land reutilization entity totally government, then there would not be the questions prompted by the Mahoning County prosecutor and Prosecutor Bickis.

And, of course, none of Stark County's four legislators at the time (Slesnick, Schuring, Snitchler and Oelslager) were not savvy enough to pick up on the problems they help create with this woefully inadequate legislation.

This episode brings to mind a meeting the Stark County commissioner had in early 2011 in which they brought in Schuring, Slesnick and Schuring (Christina Hagan did not attend) and asked them to do something to get rid of legislative mandates that were a burden to county government some of which are costly.

Schuring promised to tackle the specific list presented by Stark County Court of Common Pleas judge Tayrn Heath.

The last The Report knew, Schuring had gotten action on a grand total of two.

Go figure!

Schuring is a man who promised yours truly to get legislation passed to require local candidates who get contributions of $100 or more to have to identify the vocation or employer of the contributor.

Still waiting Representative Schuring?

Does anyone think that he'll keep his promise?

ORC sections 312.38, 1724.04 and the Judge Heath's list of antiquated mandates show the need for the Ohio General Assembly needs to have a permanent task force in place that is constantly reviewing Ohio's statutes for relevancy to 2012 government, conflicts between statutes and inadequately structured statutes and to deal with the problems accordingly.

Now onto the financing of Stark County's LRC.

Stark County commissioners approved a resolution earlier this year to provide the SCLRC with 5 mills of Stark County real property revenues which amount presently to about $500,000 annually.

Moreover, the SCLRC is in line to get about $2 million (likely a one-time grant) from Attorney General DeWine's Moving Ohio Forward Demolition Program later this year.

The SCPR applauds Prosecutor Bickis for his work in making sure all the ethical questions are resolved before the SCLRC gets off and running.

Here is a video of the discussion of the board members, Bickis and Robin Darden Thomas, (the land bank program director at Thriving Communities Institute):

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