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Firing of Balakos still drawing public concern

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION – Steve Vukelic was among four individuals to partake in public participation during Tuesday morning’s meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Health. --- Andrew Grimm

STEUBENVILLE – More than a month may have passed since Nicole Balakos’ termination of employment, but time passed has not eased all concerns.

Balakos was terminated as Jefferson County’s health commissioner by the board of health during a special meeting on Sept. 10. Tuesday morning, multiple locals got on the agenda to voice their support for the former health commissioner and voice their concerns about the direction the county’s battle with COVID-19 has taken since her departure.

Dave Ramsey, chairman of District Advisory Council, said the employees of the health department made it clear to him they were happy working with her during her tenure.

“I heard comments that they enjoyed coming to work,” he said, noting he spent time interacting with the different departments and employees. “One employee told me how nice it was to have someone they work with, not for.”

He also praised the staff for their work in the interim.

“They’re the best at what they do,” he said. “There’s a reason they have survived these past few weeks on their own. They were hired by a health commissioner that knew how to hire good personnel.”

Ramsey said Balakos took over a “disaster” when she was hired, citing financial and personnel issues.

“There were a lot of tough decisions that had to be made and she did step on some toes,” he said.

He also criticized board President Terry Bell, saying, “It’s time for (Bell) to lead this board, not be led by members of this board.”

“President Bell, it’s up to this board to right a wrong that was made.”

He thanked Dr. Frank Petrola, the lone board member to vote against Balakos’ termination, for “standing up and doing the right thing.”

Royal Mayo, local civil rights activist, raised questions about the civil rights aspects of Balakos’ termination.

“I’ve been a civil rights activist for over 20 years, and she is in a protected class,” Mayo said. “The ramifications of what could happen with the way this board has acted towards her is very, very serious.”

He said her firing “seems to be over a minor technicality.”

“The technicality seems to be on the board, because the contract is of course never drawn up by the person that signs it, it’s drawn up by the people who are to enter into the contract with the person,” he said. “That conflict no-longer exists.”

“Who committed the illegal act?,” he later asked, urging the board to reconsider the termination lamenting, in his opinion, it was the board’s error, not hers. “This very body just said (in August Balakos) was doing an excellent job. What are you going to do? Go out into the dark and try to find somebody else? You already had the person you wanted.”

He also stressed concerns that the board may be obligated to pay Balakos her salary while also paying a new commissioner.

Mayo pointed out that since Balakos was terminated and the health department has been operating without a commissioner, the county’s COVID numbers have increased considerably.

“Since she left, COVID-19 cases (have increased),” he said. “We’re not taking the precautions we should take. You need somebody at the helm.

“This (pandemic) is serious. We’ve got to take personalities out of it. We can’t not like a person, or have a beef to grind with a person, and affect everybody in this county.”

Bell declined to answer questions from Mayo later in the meeting, stating the policy is to keep the meetings from being “five or six hours long.”

The third speaker in support of Balakos was Steve Vukelic, who complimented Balakos working with him to understand issues surrounding the APEX Landfill and her leadership in the community during the pandemic, noting he saw her at a Big Red football game passing out masks.

“I’ve heard a lot of rumors about why she was terminated … it has nothing to do with her job performance,” he said.

Vukelic also criticized the involvement of the Ohio Attorney General’s office in the matter.

“Local politics should stay local,” he said.

Board member Dr. Patrick Macedonia took exception to the comments.

“I want the citizens of Jefferson County to be aware that we have not jeopardized the health of this county because we don’t have a commissioner,” he said, commending the staff of the health department.

He also took exception to Vukelic’s comment about the attorney general’s involvement, clarifying contacting the state was a procedural move by the county prosecutor’s office and not something that was done by the board.

“It’s not a board decision, that’s a normal process,” he said. “It was not this board that sent that to the attorney general’s office. That is a process the prosecutor’s office had to do as part of their process.”

Bell blamed local events, singling out in particular “First Friday” and “Octoberfest,” not following protocols for the rise in COVID cases, not the lack of a commissioner before pushing for the meeting to follow the agenda when the audience pushed back.

The topic of the public not following COVID guidelines was again raised later in the meeting, with Macedonia stating, “The public in our community has to start taking responsibility for their actions,” comparing a lack of compliance in the county to what he said was much better compliance he saw on a recent trip to Michigan.

“Until the public here does their part, don’t be blaming the health department,” he said.

The atmosphere began to get contentious again when the board moved to approve the minutes of the Sept. 10 special meeting, during which Balakos was fired amid questions about the voting procedure used to do so, and the Sept. 15 regular meeting without publicly reading them.

Later in the meeting, a draft copy of the job description that will be used to potentially hire a new health commissioner was approved to be amended by board members and finalized at next month’s meeting.

Petrola, raised concerns and voted against accepting the draft.

Prior to the end of the meeting, the board went into executive session to discuss personnel and legal matters for about an hour. Petrola left in the middle of session.

Upon returning, a motion was made for the board to continue to review applications for the position that were received by the deadline and streamline the process of getting relevant applications to the personnel committee. Another part of the motion was for a special meeting to be held for the board to review the job description and applicants, specifically noting that meeting is not to make a hire.

One other public participant spoke, and not about Balakos, though he was no stranger to the board.

Joe Scugoza, of the Crossridge Landfill, asked the board for another opportunity to meet and discuss potential plans for the landfill.

He noted there are multiple new board members who were not a part of previous talks and did not partake in the 5-0 vote for the board to oppose a proposal for the landfill to be sold and reopened.

“We would like to sit down and have a good, solid informational session with the board,” Scugoza said. “I would love to have a real meeting with all the proper information. We have new board members who were not here a year ago. I think this is something that is necessary to get some of the issues resolved.

“We have a lot of new board members and a lot has changed in the last year. For the board of health not to have a real informational session and discuss all of the different options, I feel the board isn’t doing their job of protecting the health, safety and well-being of Jefferson County.”

Scugoza talked about an event held last week at St. Florian Hall, which he said presented some new information.

Macedonia noted he attended the event and while it won’t change his vote, said it makes it worth listening to Scugoza.

“I think it would behoove us to hear his presentation so we can say we did our due diligence,” he said when the topic was raised again.

Petrola was less welcoming of the proposition, as he was the lone dissenting vote on a motion to hold a special meeting with Scugoza.

“I’ve been listening to your crap for five years, I’m not going to listen to it no more,” he told Scugoza.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful and I don’t want to be disrespected,” Scugoza said, saying he did not want to go back and forth with Petrola.

The landfill was also among the topics with environmental health director Marc Maragos, who provided a letter to board from Ohio EPA stating that receipts for leachate removal have not been received by the agency.

Carla Gampolo noted inspection at the landfill did not show the leachate collection system to be overflowing at the time.

Maragos also updated the board on odor complaints from the APEX Landfill, with Macedonia showing displeasure that the state requirements for action are not enough.

Gampolo offered words of support for local school districts’ handling of the pandemic protocols.

“I give them all an A-plus,” she said. “Our schools are working very, very hard to keep our kids safe.”

Macedonia made a motion for the board to send a letter to local school boards commending them for their actions.

County medical director Dr. Mark Kissinger talked about the uptick in COVID cases in the county during his report to the board. He noted that while cases have gone up, the county has followed the global trend of the rate of severe cases requiring hospitalization, ICU beds and deaths going down.

“It’s not all bad news,” he said. “If you look at the dashboards, even internationally, you’ll see this massive increase in cases, but the death rate is still going down almost every place.”

He also discussed plans for distribution of a potential vaccine, which he said could be available “possibly in the next month or two.”

The board also moved to continue a suspension of the food service license of Homemade Buffet for an additional 30 days, with a requirement that the owners submit written plan to address correcting violations of the health code and governor’s orders in the next seven days.

The owners were supposed to appear before the board Tuesday, but were not present.

Board member Clark Crago called it “their last chance” before permanent suspension of their license.

(Grimm can be reached at agrimm@heraldstaronline.com)

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