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Canfield mayor hopefuls address voters; charter changes scrutinized

Canfield City Manager Wade Calhoun said Wednesday's session on the Nov. 2 general election ballot items in front of Canfield voters is the first of three to be scheduled before the election.
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From left to right: Don Dragish, Bruce Neff and Kathryn Young

CANFIELD — The three candidates for Canfield mayor addressed city residents during the first of three informational sessions Wednesday evening at city hall.

Businessman Don Dragish, Councilman Bruce Neff and Kathryn Young, co-chair of the Park, Recreation and Cemetery Board shared their visions for the city. They're running for the seat soon to be vacated by Mayor Richard Duffett, who announced earlier this year he would not seek re-election.

Officials also discussed police and fire renewal levies, as well as three separate charter amendments set to appear on the Nov. 2 ballot, which would shorten council term limits, allow electors to recall the city manager and prohibit managers from putting city resources toward political action.

Officials said Wednesday those amendments originated from outside the city as part of a "vindictive" retaliation, led by a union representing city workers.

Mayoral candidate Don Dragish

First to speak was Don Dragish, the self-employed businessman and owner of Dragish Marketing, who lives along Brookpark Drive in Canfield. His wife is a teacher. His 10-year-old son and  6-year-old daughter both attend C.H. Campbell Elementary School.

On Wednesday Dragish repeated the slogan “Let’s keep Canfield, Canfield.”

Dragish is a former Canfield City councilperson, elected in 2014. He became president of council the following year and departed following the 2017 election.

During his term, he helped establish the city’s first Joint Economic Development District agreement, which paved the way for the Windsor House at Canfield skilled nursing facility at the corner of U.S. Route 62 and state Route 446 — a facility estimated to generate $164,000 in tax revenues for Canfield schools and more than $253,000 in income taxes, he said.

Dragish said he can be “instrumental” in bringing new developers to the city, “to bring revenue back to the city like we once had before,” accommodating retail generation and expanding the tax base without levying new taxes.

Mayoral candidate Bruce Neff

Next was first-term Councilman Bruce Neff, who said he’s descended from one of Canfield’s “founding families,” who settled in the area from Pennsylvania more than 200 years ago.

Neff graduated from Ashland College with a four-year degree in biochemistry. He then obtained his teaching certification from Youngstown State University and instructed at Mahoning County Joint Vocational School, now the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center.

For the last 30 years, Neff’s business has been professional video and system design integration. His electrical company, LED3, specializes in sales and rentals of LED light systems, serving many states.

Neff said he intends to continue the work outgoing Mayor Duffett did to improve conditions in the city. He said he’ll look to recruit residents working in the region’s growing electric vehicle and additive manufacturing sectors to expand the city’s tax base.

He said he also wants to continue to promote the Village Green and add new utilities and infrastructure there.

“We need experience, sound thinking, wise decisions and fiscal responsibility,” Neff said. “I will strive for smart and controlled growth in Canfield.”

Mayoral candidate Kathryn Young

Kathryn Young, who spoke last, is co-chair of the city’s Parks and Recreation Board and a self-described “homemaker” who’s raised her children to adulthood in her 30 years living in the city.

Young earned an accounting degree from St. Bonaventure University in New York, and worked with local accounting firms as well as the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, after graduating with an ROTC scholarship.

Nowadays Young is most often homesteading along North Briarcliff Drive with her chickens and bees — the latter of which produced Blue Ribbon-winning honey at this year’s Canfield Fair, she said.

She’s also been an active and vocal participant at Canfield City Council meetings over the past five years, pressing officials on legislation she feels “has not been in the full interest of the people,” she said Wednesday.

In those meetings, Young said she’s been a strong advocate for fiscal accountability, especially related to water utilities and the long-planned, 300-acre Redgate Farm development at South Palmyra and Leffingwell roads in Canfield Township. More recently, she’s questioned officials’ allocations of COVID-19 relief funds.

“What do I bring to the table? … I dream big,” she said.

Three charter amendments

Nov. 2 voters can decide whether to make three proposed changes to the city’s home rule charter relating to council term limits, new electoral powers allowing voters to recall the city manager and oversight measures for city managerial employees found putting city resources toward political activity.

Though organizers obtained the about 160 signatures of Canfield voters needed from to place the three charter amendments on the Nov. 2 ballot, city officials said Wednesday the measures didn’t originate within the city, and were instead led by out-of-town union leaders whom they say are pursuing a vendetta against the city following three years of labor negotiations that ultimately failed.

Mark Brooks of Nashville, Tenn., who represents the Utility Workers Union of America, part of AFL-CIO, and two other union members living in Columbus and Canfield, filled out the petitions earlier this year. At a Sept. 1 council meeting, Brooks alleged City Manager Wade Calhoun threatened union employees for supporting the amendments.

"We support the charter amendments because we think they're good ideas. Ultimately, the voters are going to decide,” Brooks said,  "It is not a fact that the city does not spend taxpayer dollars promoting what are essentially issues that should be left to the voters. It is a fact,” Brooks said, according to a city transcript of that Sept. 1 meeting. “When your city manager learned that we were supporting citizens who want to support charter amendments, your city manager called our members into a meeting on city time and threatened to fire them all."

Calhoun responded that was "not true."

"The second example,” Brooks said. “Our members were subjected, on city expense, from uniformed police officers telling them why this is a bad idea. We think that's an abuse of city resources. We think it should be illegal. It certainly should be contrary to the charter."

One proposed amendment creates a new section of the charter allowing voters to remove the city manager from office, but only after the manager has spent at least six months in the role. The removal vote would function like a recall election for an elected official.

Canfield city managers are appointed by council, rather than elected. Currently, only city council members are able to oust the city manager.

A city manager removed from office in this manner would remain ineligible for rehire to the position for at least four years, though they would still be able to run for elected office.

Council President John Morvay said Wednesday he thinks the amendment is concerning because it could cause Calhoun’s or any other city manager’s actions to become influenced by politics.

Another proposed amendment would prohibit the city’s “managerial” employees from putting city funds or resources — including work time — toward political efforts, like the nomination of candidates or levy campaigns.

“Managerial” employees include the city manager or assistant or deputy managers, the city’s directors of public safety, service and finance, the police chief, the public works superintendent, the municipal attorney and any other employee with managerial or supervisory responsibilities.

"Any action by a managerial employee to restrain, coerce, intimidate or direct any employee of the municipality to further any of the foregoing shall be considered a violation of this section,” the proposed amendment reads.

"A lot of what we saw happen last month is illegal under Ohio law," Brooks said earlier this month, presumably referring to the meeting on the charter proposals he claims Calhoun held with union employees. "You certainly can't spend money to campaign for a levy. You can speak your opinions [as] private individuals and this doesn't change that.

"What we see missing from the charter, apparently, is a very explicit statement. For example, hypothetically, calling in a group of people and threatening to fire them if they don't persuade their union not to engage in proposals to amend the charter, that should be misconduct under this charter."

During that meeting, Brooks claimed the union published an email containing proof that Calhoun had threatened employees to the website, but that website was not populated as of Wednesday evening.

"But you have it in black-and-white, a clear threat from your city manager on company time — city time, sir — to city employees on city time that they may be disciplined because of their civic activity,” he said. “That is what this charter amendment speaks to. That is improper use of taxpayer money — not to mention it's unfair to the employees."

Employees who violate the proposed policy would forfeit their position and be ineligible for rehire for at least five years.

Under the proposed rule, employees charged with this violation could be removed in the same manner as council members would remove the city manager. That’s by a majority vote of council, according to the current city charter. Council members earlier this month noted that amendment wouldn’t be compatible with council’s current powers, as only the city manager is able to terminate employees.

If the employee has been in the position less than six months, they could be removed without a public hearing. If they have been in the position longer than six months, council members may instead choose to suspend them for up to 45 days.

A third proposed amendment would change term limitations for city council members including the mayor, allowing them to serve no more than two consecutive two-year terms. Currently, the charter allows council members and the mayor to serve up to four consecutive four-year terms.

Term-limited council members would be able to run again after sitting out at least one term.

The term limits would essentially take effect in 2024, impacting any official elected in 2023 or beyond.

Canfield voters in 2014 opted for two-year terms, but a measure to go back to four-year terms passed narrowly in 2018. Since then, sitting council members have repeatedly spoken out in favor of longer terms, arguing two years isn’t long enough to get acquainted with the job.

All council members on Wednesday urged voters to defeat all the charter amendments on Nov. 2.

“In my view, I don’t believe anybody other than the City of Canfield should be able to propose a charter amendment,” said councilperson Chuck Tieche. “I don’t believe a representative that represents a union or any other special organization that’s not a resident of the city should not be able to put things on the agenda.”

Two renewal levies

Also up for city voters’ approval on their Nov. 2 ballot are renewal levies for the city police department and the Cardinal Joint Fire District.

The police department seeks a renewal of its 3.9-mill, five-year levy, which voters first approved in 2017, said Chief Chuck Colucci. If renewed, the owner of a property valued at $100,000 would continue paying $136.50 per year; $682.50 over five years.

The levy revenues fund five full-time police officers in the city. Colucci said he’s heard the criticism that “we already have too many police officers,” but said Canfield’s number of officers per 1,000 residents is actually below the nationwide average.

“We do need to keep Canfield, Canfield. I like how safe it is,” Colucci said. “I was at a council meeting not too long ago. A resident was upset about traffic [and] said they’d rather be living in Youngstown.

“We’ll keep you safer. They’re short-staffed, they’re underpaid and they’re in a struggle right now.”

The levy revenues also allow the department to “consistently” replace police cruisers. Using levy funds, the department has also been able to replace Tasers, radios and purchase body and dash cameras, he said.

In the five years since the levy was installed, department spending has only grown 2 percent, Colucci said.

“We’ve done everything we can to reduce spending and make sure we’re accountable for everything we do,” he said.

Colucci told voters he was first hesitant to seek a levy, but declining local government fund allocations ultimately left no other choice. He said he hopes this year’s ballot will be the last to include a police levy.

“I hope that in five years, we don’t have to ask for it again. I hope that it can come off,” he said. “You work hard for your money and I appreciate that.”

The fire district also seeks renewal of its 0.42-mill, five-year levy for general operating expenses. If passed, the owner of a property valued at $100,000 would continue paying $14.70 per year; $73.50 over five years. But under the county’s latest, depreciated tax rates, that’s actually down to $12.09 per year, or $60.45 over five years, Fire Chief Don Hutchison clarified Wednesday.

Hutchison said the levy originated in 2006 and it now generates $228,866 a year for the district. That money puts gas in the engine tanks, puts tires on ambulances, covers insurance premiums and replenishes medical supplies — or even just paper towels — in the fire station.

Each of the district’s ambulances averages 20,000 miles a year, he said. The district is now averaging about 1,000 EMS calls a year, he said. So far this month, the district has seen more COVID-19 related calls than in all of August, he added.

Hutchison said he intends to boost the department’s Insurance Services Office rating — currently at the third-highest level out of 10 — in order to “considerably” lower insurance premiums for new businesses coming to the area.

Justin Dennis

About the Author: Justin Dennis

Justin Dennis has been on the beat since 2011, covering crime, courts and public education. Dennis grew up in Poland and Salem and studied journalism and communications at Cleveland State University and University of Pittsburgh.
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