Turmoil engulfs commissioners
Board struggles to work together
January 2, 2013
After serving a tumultuous first year in office together, the three Butler County commissioners reflect on the beginning of their term and look ahead to next year’s agenda. The commissioners dealt with issues and personality conflicts throughout 2012. Bill McCarrier, board chairman, who served a prior term in the 1990s, was unaccustomed to a contentious board. “It’s discouraging,” he said. McCarrier said the previous commissioners he served with had disagreements, but didn’t squabble. “We got along,” he said. “We never carried grudges.” McCarrier’s fellow Republican, Commissioner Dale Pinkerton, is serving his second consecutive term. He also was used to working civilly with commissioners in both parties. However, that changed in 2012. In April, Pinkerton sued fellow Commissioner Jim Eckstein for defamation. Eckstein maintains his innocence. Despite having to serve with a man he is suing, Pinkerton is trying to focus on the positive. “We all need to work together to move the county forward,” Pinkerton said. Eckstein said he’s only doing what he was elected to do by the people. “Can Butler County withstand honest, open change in county government to modify the status quo? I’m sure it can,” he said. Eckstein conceded there was much more to the job of commissioner than he initially thought. “It’s a lot steeper than I thought,” he said about the learning curve. Following Pinkerton’s lawsuit, Eckstein was subsequently sued by county personnel director Lori Altman and her husband, state Trooper Scott Altman, for the same defamation allegation. While those lawsuits are ongoing, the county settled a sexual discrimination complaint filed by Joyce Ainsworth, director of Children and Youth Services, for alleged mistreatment by Eckstein at a meeting. McCarrier said county employee morale plummeted in 2012 with the controversy surrounding the lawsuits, sexual discrimination complaints and other dissension. He said he and Pinkerton need to support the staff. “We have to keep encouraging them,” McCarrier said. “Tell them they’re doing a great job.” He blamed Eckstein’s behavior for contributing to the departures of some key personnel. Former county prison Warden Rich Gigliotti and Frank Matis, former emergency services director, retired early in the year. Chief county clerk Bill O’Donnell retired in the fall. He now works in a temporary part-time county post. County solicitor Julie Graham and Ed Rupert, director of property and revenue, are leaving in February. Graham and O’Donnell both cited the conflicts in county government as one reason for retiring. Eckstein said there’s a distinction between the rank and file workers and department heads, who have more accountability. He stressed there should be periodic shake-ups. “I believe in a healthy turnover of management in the public sector,” Eckstein said. “Change is good.” Eckstein attributed a 2004 increase to county pensions as to why longtime employees are opting to leave now. “You made it unprofitable to come to work,” he said. A subsequent county retirement board decreased the pension for new hires, but couldn’t lower ones for those who were already employed. All three commissioners agree the county found qualified successors to the posts. “I think we succeeded in replacing them with very competent people,” McCarrier said. Despite the discord, the commissioners did move forward with various projects. The board hired a firm to design a new office building, which would be constructed adjacent to the government center, for more office space. Eckstein opposed the move, saying the better choice was to buy an existing building on Main Street to save money. Although in the minority opinion, he’s glad he did the research into the costs to buy such buildings as the Holly Pointe. “I’m very proud of that,” Eckstein said. He said one of his goals is to provide concrete solutions to problems. Pinkerton said he’s satisfied there was sufficient research done by retired architect Dick Rittelmann to justify construction of a new building. “It’s something we really need to do,” Pinkerton said. He said a new building would meet the county’s office space needs for decades to come. Financing proposals indicate the estimated $10 million construction cost could be funded through borrowing that won’t increase property taxes. But Eckstein challenges that assertion, predicting cost overruns. In 2013, Eckstein wants to double the health care contribution from nonunion workers and take their spouses off the coverage. “Some of that we could implement as soon as we can,” he said. McCarrier and Pinkerton don’t oppose taking that step, but say now is not the right time. Eckstein also wants to scale back the scope of work planned for the pool at Alameda Park in Butler Township from an estimated $1.2 million to less than half that amount. The project isn’t budgeted for 2013. Work is expected to begin no sooner than 2014. The commissioners weren’t divided on all the issues facing them in 2012. In October they approved a financial settlement with two of the contractors that built the county prison on South Washington Street. Pinkerton said that agreement resolved the last lingering issue associated with the beleaguered project. “We’re out of that completely,” he said. Eckstein agreed. “It had to be done,” he said. The commissioners also approved a salary study on county posts be done to determine pay scales. Pinkerton said that move was satisfying after trying to get it done for the past five years. “It’s kind of nice seeing it come to fruition,” he said. Pinkerton said another boon for 2012 was bringing in federal inmates to the county prison, which the commissioners approved as members of the prison board. He stressed that revenue would offset a decrease in state inmates. Although the year was fraught with conflict, none of the commissioners regret running for office in 2011. “I’m glad I’m here,” McCarrier said. “We got a lot accomplished.” Pinkerton, who is not running for re-election in 2015, said he would continue to do what’s right for the county for the remainder of his term. He said the commissioners would have to continue reviewing expenses not mandated by the state or federal governments. McCarrier said he and Pinkerton have the freedom to make choices that are best for the county because they aren’t seeking re-election. “We have an opportunity to make a difference,” McCarrier said. He said Eckstein needs to realize he’s the minority commissioner, but not let that hamper him. McCarrier recalled the late Jim Green, a Democrat commissioner who usually was in the minority and who spearheaded multiple projects. “He was the spark plug behind the community college,” McCarrier said. He also cited former Commissioner Glenn Anderson, who brought new jobs to the county by enticing businesses to relocate. McCarrier said past events won’t stop him from trying to work with Eckstein in 2013. “I’m going to make every effort to work with everybody,” McCarrier said. Eckstein maintains he has a willingness to compromise for the good of the county. He said his actions and comments throughout 2012 shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone. “They didn’t buy a pig in a poke,” Eckstein said about the county’s voters knew what they were getting by electing him. Eckstein said it means a lot to serve as a commissioner. “You’re representing the people,” he said. “I love doing it. This is a real privilege to do this.” Eckstein said his main regret was not being able to fulfill his campaign pledge to donate a portion of his salary to the Sunnyview Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, which is in the red. He said the cost to defend himself against the defamation lawsuits has sapped his income. “I’m just sick about it,” Eckstein said. He vowed to honor that pledge once the lawsuits end. Eckstein also plans on attending municipalities’ meetings across the county to become familiar with the issues they face.