Failure in Youngstown, Pt. 2: Unelected Executive Power

Youngstown, OH (TFC) – On 12 February, 13 employees of the Mill Creek MetroParks, one of the largest municipal park systems in the United States, were dismissed without notice. These employees were not permitted to gather their belongings or to speak with their co-workers, and were escorted off the premises by MetroPark police officers. Two of these employees, Ray Novotny and Keith Kaiser, were department heads and had worked as public servants at Mill Creek for over 30 and 27 years, respectively. This is an ongoing series to examine the causes of these firings, and what the culture of the Mill Creek MetroParks says about local government.

You can view the original Pontiac Tribune article on this issue here.

Much of the controversy surrounding the February firings, as well as numerous other issues relating to Mill Creek Metroparks management, has centered around Executive Director Aaron Young, who was hired in January 2015. The circumstances surrounding Young’s appointment were themselves controversial, and are partially the subject of Part One in this series. This installment will focus on the mercurial character of Aaron Young, his leadership, and interactions with members of the community in order to help show why broad executive powers should not be vested in unelected officials.

 

Prior to being hired as Executive Director, Young served as Planning Director for the Geauga Park District in Geauga County, Ohio. In 2014, the Park District commissioned a personality and leadership study from O’Brien Leadership Systems. The resulting information on Aaron Young is enlightening. One quote:

 

When situations are inconsistent with the individual’s goals or opinions they may not support team efforts and can appear to be arrogant. This behavior was clearly demonstrated in a leadership team meeting. Aaron has developed the negative behavior of verbally tackling his teammates and using foal (sic) language which must be addressed.

 

Young, then, is described as argumentative and verbally abusive. This is borne out as a continuing behavior at Mill Creek Metroparks, where sources within the Park system have described him as “unpleasant to work for.” He has also revealed this behavior in heated meetings with the public, often being dismissive or combative when confronted. One example is the case of Judy Peyko. Peyko, an outspoken local park activist who has focused on filing public records requests in order to shed light on the financial decision making process of the MetroParks system, arrived with her husband Chris Peyko at the main park offices on 5 May, 2016. Attempting to examine records relating to an outside park contractor, she was rebuffed by Young himself, who was accompanied by MetroParks attorney Ted Roberts. Peyko described the incident that day via social media:

 

I just went Young’s office requesting to see the Clemans & Nelson Consultants report, as Clemans and Nelson are on retainer as the park’s consultants. I was told by Young that the report does not exist. I asked for other information and I was told that my question was too broad. I asked for other information to view and I was told to come back tomorrow maybe I can obtain the information then. Violation of the Sunshine Laws.

 

According to Peyko, Young then summoned MetroParks Police, including Police Chief James Willock. Peyko characterizes this an an attempt at intimidation and interference in the gathering of public records. This incident is documented in a seven page incident report, Incident Report 1-16-000420. Peyko disputes a number of statements made in the official document, but she and others have reported irregularities in the public records system, including finding that documents that were said “not to exist” turning up in future batches of documents and long delays in processing requests. Young attempted to explain this in a portion of a subsequent e-mail to Peyko, dated 18 May:

 

As we’ve already explained, it is evident that this request was one of the few (of the over 277+ individual requests you alone have made) that was not correctly addressed as we transitioned the public records request duties within the MetroParks from one employee to another.  Once we were made aware of the issue, we publically (sic) acknowledged the error and gladly provided the requested information.  We will continue to process all public records requests as we are required to do so in the manner that you are already more than familiar with.

 

This statement – passive aggressive as it may be – rings true. Days before, the high level park official who handled most of the public records requests for the park system had resigned Young’s employ, and the vast amount of records requests generated by public distrust in the park leadership has reportedly strained the office a great deal. Young does not stop here, however. He continues in the same correspondence:

 

It is evident by your lack of both professionalism and decorum, demonstrated through your public displays at recent Board meetings, as well as your numerous attempts at personal slander and defamation through your false accusations and the spreading of inaccurate claims via both social media and email correspondences, (all of which have been and continue to be documented), that you are the one with the malicious intent.  As a result and in an effort to preserve any and all future legal recourse, I will no longer be responding to your correspondence other than what we are required to do so by law.

As we see from the above passage, when stressed, Young may resort to insults and threats of legal action – the exact behavior detailed in his personality profile from his days in Geauga. The fact that this is directed at a member of the community he serves is a glaring example that the system itself should be reformed to better meet community needs. Returning to the Geauga report, another quote from the same profile sticks out:

Lack of and/or poor decision making will be an issue for him. Under stress Aaron’s style can become impatient and autocratic. Aaron is the one Director who does not possess the Amiable trait. With so many of the group being at the diagonal opposite Style of Amiable it could be challenging for all involved.

Kieth Roberts - Wikimedia Commons

Kieth Roberts – Wikimedia Commons

It has been claimed from sources within the Park system that Young was given “broad executive powers” by the Park’s Board of Directors, a body that legally must have all final decision making power in decisions at this level. It is thus questionable whether or not Young had any authority to personally make this decision without consultation, but it is an example of “autocratic” behavior. However, his next decision is certainly clear evidence of “poor decision making.” From this article in the Youngstown Vindicator:

 

On Feb. 18, Mill Creek MetroParks spent $70,000 on three 2016 Jeeps, one of which is for Executive Director Aaron Young. That brings the MetroParks’ total expenditures on new vehicles up to $189,364 since Young took over as director in January 2015, a fact that some residents point to as evidence that the park system was not in dire enough financial straits to warrant 13 staff dismissals. That figure compares with $68,650 spent on vehicle purchases in 2013 and 2014 under former park director Dennis Miller.

 

18 February – just days after the 12 February firings. Young defends the decision in the same article:

 

“I think maybe because of the timing, that’s what people are looking at,” he said. “But the reduction in staff and the vehicle purchases are only connected in that they are part of the organization looking to become more efficient. There is no direct tie from one to the other.”

 

But there is a tie: when financial decisions are made for any body, those decisions affect each other in a myriad of ways.The immediate public outcry over this decision is, in itself, evidence of poor decision making: even if the expense was justified – something that is in debate – the public relations fallout is not, to any sensible person, worth the trouble. To fire 13 long-time, qualified employees, and then spend $70,000 on vehicles, one of which is designated as the personal vehicle of the Director himself, is a public relations nightmare. If the Park Board did provide oversight on this decision, as they legally and ethically should have, then they failed in their civic duty to the community they serve; if they did not, then they have ceded executive power to a person who clearly lacks proper decision making skills, and have abdicated their responsibility to said community.

 

The Park Commisioners’ performance reports on Young (available here) are overwhelmingly positive, with Commisioner Bob Durick going so far as to compare Young to Abraham Lincoln. Durick, however, also claims in the performance review that “He has removed/replaced employees that fail to demonstrate what is expected of them.” Given the backgrounds and years of service of many of the employees terminated in February, “what is expected” of Mill Creek MetroParks employees is a mystery; that many of these employees were offered part time jobs at reduced pay clears this mystery up substantially: they are expected not to cost very much, regardless of their value. Durick states elsewhere in the document: “Aaron has earned the respect of employees. Some were not motivated at first based on past history but those that have stayed are now “on board” with his plan.” Surely, the threat of job loss does indeed inspire employees to “get on board,” but it is doubtful that most do so with any optimism for the future, as seen by recent high-level resignations.

 

One of Young’s lowest scores came from outgoing Park Commissioner Scott Schulick, who is among those who have resigned. From the Youngstown Vindicator:

 

Although Schulick also gave Young top scores in some categories, the director received the equivalent of a “B” grade in the categories of leadership, organizational knowledge, judgment, decision making, accountability, initiative, teamwork, directing, as well as quality and quantity of work.

Young’s worst “grade” from Schulick was the equivalent of a “C” on the topics of customer service and customer focus.

 

Indeed, this is also reflective of the Geauga personality profile and Young’s management style. Why is this problematic, and why is it an issue much larger than Mahoning County, Ohio? As a civil servant that is separated from the democratic process by three degrees, Young was hired by an unelected body, the Board of Park Commissioners, who themselves are appointed without a democratic confirmation process by the County Probate Judge. This is the sole official in this chain that has been elected by the community, and whose duties are not limited to this role.

 

In the case of Aaron Young and the Mill Creek MetroParks, Young is able to spend taxpayer money, and be supported by the unelected Park Board, without immediate oversight and democratic recourse. There is no mechanism in place for his removal, nor removal of Board members. A system that would directly elect Park Commissioners to the Board would allow the public to hold them accountable directly for Park activities, and free the county Probate Judges from having to be concerned with the issue.
In the end, there will always be personalities like Aaron Young. But Aaron Young isn’t the problem – the problem is a system that places individuals like him in a position of public authority without democratic involvement, and that is a universal problem, not just one in Youngstown.