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Balakos receives public support at Jefferson County health board meeting

CONCERNED — Dr. Patrick Macedonia voiced his concern Tuesday over Jefferson County General Health District staff members trying to enforce state COVID-19 guidelines. Macedonia is a member of the health district’s board of directors. (Photo by Linda Harris)

STEUBENVILLE — Concerned residents looking for answers about the firing of Jefferson County District Health Commissioner Nicole Balakos left Tuesday’s meeting without them, though there was plenty of discussion about removing the word “enforcement” from departmental job descriptions as they relate to coronavirus regulations.

Balakos was terminated Thursday following a 90-minute closed-door meeting, from which the board of health had emerged armed with a prepared statement, read by President Terry Bell, announcing her firing. Only after announcing Balakos had been removed did members actually vote to terminate. By law, public agencies can meet in private to discuss sensitive issues, including personnel, but all decision making must be done in the public forum.

Bell belatedly told those in attendance at that meeting his announcement was the motion, and the only explanation given for Balakos’s firing was that the board had determined there’d been a violation of Ohio Revised Code section 2921.42. That provision, in part, prohibits elected or appointed public officials from benefiting from public contracts.

No further explanation has been offered, although it’s reportedly being reviewed by the attorney general.

Board members listened but did not respond to the concerns raised by four individuals who’d signed up to speak during the public comment period at Tuesday’s board meeting, all of them attesting to Balakos’s performance and questioning the board’s decision.

Michaelene King, a retired registered nurse with a PhD in nursing who at one time served on the board, pointed out Balakos had been board president before she resigned and was hired as health commissioner, a process that was overseen by Assistant Prosecutor Emanuela Agresta.

King said she “cannot describe all of the improvements in the Health Department” during Balakos’s tenure, and was critical of what she described as a “rude and demeaning manner” with which Dr. Patrick Macedonia, the man who replaced Balakos on the board, addressed her “at public meetings and during executive sessions.” King also claimed Macedonia was inconsistent in following protocol — moving to allow three people to voice their concerns about the proposed Crossridge Landfill sale at the board’s Nov. 19 meeting, but denying that same opportunity to individuals who wanted to address the board Thursday, telling the board, “I suggest we follow the protocols of no public speaking.”

King also suggested the manner in which Balakos was terminated was in violation of the Board of Health bylaws as well as ORC 3709.35, which stipulates that when allegations of misfeasance, malfeasance, or nonfeasance are raised, “the director shall notify the commissioner or board member as to the time and place at which such charges will be heard. If the director, after hearing, finds the commissioner or board member guilty of the charge, it may remove such commissioner or member from office.”

“Did Mrs. Balakos receive an annual performance evaluation as required by Article VIII, Section 6 of the Board of Health Bylaws?” asked King, who submitted her concerns in writing, adding,“Why didn’t the investigation and procedures of the alleged violation adhere to ORC 3709.35, ‘Preferment of charges against health commissioner or member of board?'”

Also commenting were Denise White, who asked “for clarification” on Balakos’s termination, saying, “It’s not clear why it occurred so quickly and without warning.”

“We are clear with what we’ve seen since she took over the health department,” White said in her statement, which she asked her husband to read. “We are very clear with what we’ve seen since she took over the health department, including … work habits, transparency and honesty with the public.”

“I do recall Dr. Macedonia didn’t want the city of Steubenville to merge with the Jefferson County Health Department,” she said in her statement. “Is that a problem? Commissioner Maple made comments (at meetings) on disregarding government health orders. Is that a problem? It seems some on the board have (a desire) to harass Mrs. Balakos on a far-reaching technicality.”

Balakos , she said, was “a stickler for the rules, right and wrong. She would not look the other way but she was willing to work with people.”

“I might add, when my wife heard about Mrs. Balakos’s termination, she called the board looking for information,” White’s husband added. “The lady on the other end was crying: She told my wife Mrs. Balakos was a wonderful leader and they were lost without her.”

Steubenville Sixth Ward Councilman Bob Villamagna noted the board had gone into the executive session to discuss personnel “and came out with a typewritten statement she’d been terminated.”

“You made a motion after the fact,” he said. “I’ve sat in many sessions where personnel were discussed and have never taken action in those sessions, it is prohibited by law. I’ve seen this happen one other time, and that was to the port authority director. How it was handled was shameful. Something stinks in this health department and I hope it comes out.”

Steubenville resident Royal Mayo pointed out that, “three women over the age of 50 have either been demoted or terminated” in Jefferson County.

“When you do things the way you did, people have to wonder what’s the real reason,” Mayo said.

“I don’t know what went on behind closed doors but I do know the vote went on before you came out here,” he added. “I think you should reconsider, it’s unfair. I think you’re going to be paying two people to do one job.”

Mayo continued his criticisms throughout the meeting, repeatedly interrupting the proceedings to ask questions or comment, prompting Bell to threaten to have him removed.

“After we’ve gone through public participation, it’s very difficult to allow people to raise their hand and speak,” Bell said.

“I have some questions, I’m trying to decide what this board does … My question is, does the board have the authority not to comply with a state-ordered mandate?”

“If the state health department says ‘jump,’ we say ‘how far,'” Bell said. “If the governor puts out a mandate,” we follow it.

Bell bristled when Macedonia chastised him for giving Mayo an opportunity to interrupt the proceedings, saying, “I’m giving him an explanation.”

“He doesn’t need an explanation,” Macedonia said. “Our board is designed to follow the rules.”

Bell, obviously irritated, told Mayo he was out of order and he was “going back to the agenda.”

“If I don’t stop talking, what are you going to do?” Mayo asked.

“We have a deputy sheriff here,” Bell snapped. “If you become disorderly and disrupt the meeting, I can have you removed.”

Macedonia, meanwhile, balked at paying Career Strategy Consultants to locate an individual to tackle enforcement activities related to a $15,000 grant Balakos had secured to work with restaurants and bars violating the state’s social distancing and mask guidelines. Staff members told him the money must be used for its intended purpose — enforcement activities — though the goal was not to close them down, “but to work with the restaurants and bars to get them in compliance.” They said they’d been unable to fill the position which, because it is a contract job, means it’s temporary and would carry no benefits.

And, because it’s funded through the CARES Act, the money must be spent by Dec. 31.

“I think it’s a good idea what we’re trying to do,” he said. “My concern is agencies that go out to do this (recruit personnel), you have to pay. I’m concerned about going through an agency.”

Bell questioned how they could enforce the state’s mask mandate.

“Educate,” Kelly Wilson said. “Tell them ‘this is what is ordered, this is what is required.’ There’s never any intent to close down any business, we just go out and tell them there is a mask mandate and it should be followed.”

Macedonia said there’s “no way to enforce any of this.”

“If we were a county in the red and cases exploding, I would agree with you,” he said, adding, “I’m really concerned about what we’re hiring that person to do, other than educate, educate, educate.”

Kelly pointed out the requirements are “very specific in grant guidance documenting what their job is to be. If we’re not going to do it, we need to modify it.”

At Macedonia’s urging, the board voted 4-1 to revise the parameters of the grant to remove the enforcement aspect.

Macedonia also asked the board to clarify the department’s Public Health Ethics Policy covering, among other things, prophylaxis –actions taken to prevent diseases to ensure “there’s no contraception” activities involved.

After the public meet adjourned, the board met in executive session with entire health department staff to discuss personnel issues.

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