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New Mahoning elections official mired in controversy

YOUNGSTOWN — The Mahoning County Board of Elections hired a new deputy director: Melissa Wasko, who took a voluntary retirement from county Job and Family Services while an investigation into claims of discrimination and creating a hostile work environment was ongoing.

The 4-0 vote Thursday immediately drew criticism from a number of those in attendance at the board meeting, including a JFS case manager and the president of a union representing 135 workers at the agency.

David Betras, board chairman, defended the hiring of Wasko — the wife of Bob Wasko, who retired Nov. 30 as an elections board member — to the position that pays $81,200 annually as well as the process that landed her the job.

“In my mind, I am comfortable with this decision, and I can live with this decision,” he said.

In the past, the hiring of directors and deputy directors at the board were done without an open process because they are “political patronage jobs,” Betras said.

Instead, Betras said a five-person committee was created that included him; Joyce Kale-Pesta, the other Democratic board member who retired Nov. 30 as director; Thomas McCabe, the new board director who was deputy director and is the county Republican Party chairman; Herb Washington, CEO and founder of HLW Fast Track Inc.; and Kathi McNabb Welsh, county chief deputy clerk of courts.

The job had to go to a Democrat. State law requires deputy directors at boards of elections to be from the opposing political party as the director.

“This is the first time in the history of the board this was opened up,” Betras said. “I’m very comfortable with the decision. I understand she had problems, but she couldn’t talk about them” because of an agreement she reached with the county commissioners regarding her voluntary resignation.

Betras said Wasko received a majority of the committee’s votes, but didn’t disclose the final vote.

Wasko wasn’t at Thursday’s meeting and couldn’t be reached to comment after it. She starts the new job Monday.

Of the seven people who applied and were interviewed last week, three met Wednesday with the committee for a second round as finalists. They were: Wasko; Ann Simms, the board’s absentee and provisional supervisor; and Michele Clarett, Youngstown’s chief deputy clerk of courts.

Betras acknowledged Martyn P. Ross, Youngstown State University’s manager of building services, was the best candidate. But he was disqualified because he voted in 2016 for Republican Donald Trump and the position is a Democratic one, Betras said.

“If you look at his resume, it wasn’t even close,” he said.

After the Thursday vote, Maria Olverson, a JFS bilingual case manager, told the board Wasko caused “damage to all of the employees at JFS,” “manipulated” people and “is the one who has ruined whatever we had as far as a nice good working environment.”

Olverson, who said she takes pills for anxiety and depression as a result of Wasko, warned the board: “She will create chaos here as well.”

Kevin Perry, president of the union that represents 135 JFS employees, said there were numerous complaints about Wasko at the county agency.

“There were two women of color who applied who would have done a great job,” he said referring to Simms and Clarett. “This was a slap in the face to the African-American community and to the citizens and taxpayers of Mahoning County. With all the complaints against (Wasko), they had two candidates with spotless records. This is the person chosen? That’s not right.”

County commissioners approved an agreement Oct. 21 with Wasko for her to retire as JFS program administrator, effective today.

WASKO INVESTIGATION

In the agreement, Wasko agreed to stop working at the JFS office — which, like the board of elections, is located in Oakhill Renaissance Place — on Oct. 21.

It was also agreed that her“regular work site (would be) her home or any other off-premises work site that Wasko chooses at her own expense” and she was required to return to JFS all county property in her possession or under her control and that by signing the agreement she was giving up her right to sue the county.

She and the county also denied any liability or wrongdoing in connection with her employment and separation.

The board of elections met last week with the plan to hire Wasko. But Betras said at that meeting that a Vindicator article about the Wasko agreement “hobbled” the process and “made (it) more difficult.”

Sources said Wasko offered to withdraw after the article was published, but ultimately decided to remain as a candidate.

The county commissioners hired Drew C. Piersall of the Columbus law firm of Zashin & Rich to conduct an investigation into Wasko with a final report issued Oct. 25, four days after the voluntary retirement deal was reached.

Piersall was hired to investigate allegations against Wasko of potential violations of the county commissioners’ personnel manual as claims of race discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation and creating a hostile work environment were leveled against her.

Piersall interviewed 16 current and former JFS employees in August and September and reviewed thousands of documents as well as a number of audio recordings, according to his report.

Piersall wrote he was going to end his probe by interviewing Wasko, but she resigned before he could do that which “obviated the need to pursue the investigation any further.”

Piersall wrote that based on his investigation “it is my opinion that Ms. Wasko’s alleged conduct did not rise to the violation of any pertinent employment laws governing race discrimination, disability discrimination, retaliation and hostile work environment. No final determination could be made on this issue however, due to Ms. Wasko not being interviewed as part of the investigation.”

He added that it was his “opinion that Ms. Wasko may have violated the Mahoning County Commissioners’ personnel manual. Again, no final determination could be reached on the issue since Ms. Wasko’s resignation was secured and she was not able to provide a response to the allegations made against her. And given Ms. Wasko’s resignation, no further investigation is necessary due to the simple fact that there is no potential disciplinary action that could or should be taken against Ms. Wasko at this time.”

OTHER OBJECTIONS

Also objecting to Wasko’s hire at Thursday’s meeting were Sarah Brown-Clark, Youngstown clerk of courts and Clarett’s immediate supervisor, and Jaladah Aslam, president of the Youngstown-Warren Black Caucus who raised concerns back in July about the potential hiring of Wasko.

“A few months ago, the rumor was this would happen,” Aslam said. “It really irked everybody because we know what happened. I appreciate the process the board took, but this happened exactly like I thought it would.”

Aslam said: “I will be watching this person because if we get complaints here like we got from black and brown employees at JFS, I will be a pain in the neck to this board.”

Betras responded that if he finds out Wasko “is not respecting black and brown voters, she’ll be removed. She knows she’ll be under the spotlight and needs to do a good job. If she doesn’t, we’ll start the process again. Because her last name is Wasko doesn’t make her more qualified or less qualified.”

Brown-Clark said Clarett was perfect for the deputy director’s job.

“I wanted to put an African-American woman in this office without the (baggage) of” Wasko, she said. “Even though the outcome was predicted, my employee could have made you proud.”

Betras said the process was fair.

“Everyone said it was rigged,” he said. “It was not rigged.”

dskolnick@vindy.com

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