August 23, 2014

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Sheffield mayor ends 14 years in office

SHEFFIELD — The stack of papers kept growing as Mayor Darlene Ondercin cleaned out her desk.

In four days, she will leave an office she has held for the last 14 years. John D. Hunter, a retired union man, will replace her after taking 56.6 percent of the vote to her 43.3 percent.

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CHUCK HUMEL / CHRONICLE
Darlene Ondercin in her Sheffield office.

She spent most of Wednesday sorting through papers she’d accumulated, putting pictures and mementos that adorned her walls in boxes as she reminisced.

It’s been a while since she’s been addressed by anything other than “mayor.” And while she had hoped to enjoy a fourth full term to follow through on the dozens of projects she had begun, she said getting back to her family will be a gift.

“It was tough on all of them, I’m sure,” she said of her husband and four children, ages 16 to 20. “Everybody knows who they are and I’m sure it was very difficult. Luckily, we haven’t had to read about them in the newspaper.”

Although the actual office was a part-time job, she said the duties were anything but.

She was on call 24 hours a day, forced to bring her children to work with her in the beginning and couldn’t go anywhere in town without people needing her to put her mayoral hat on.

“It got to a point where there wasn’t time when I wasn’t a mayor,” she said. “I had to stop going to a church in town where I had gone most of my life because I would get bombarded by people. I needed that one hour each week just to decompress.”

But those were the consequences of doing a job she loved, she said. And she wouldn’t have traded any of it.

During her tenure, Sheffield grew from a small rural town to a thriving commercial municipality marching toward becoming a full-fledged city.

The general fund, used to pay for basic city operations, swelled from $700,000 when she became mayor in 1993 to $4 million today, and the police and fire departments went full time.

“I don’t regret one day of it,” she said. “I’m leaving Sheffield better than I found it, and I hope it continues on that path.”

A landfill motivates

It was a landfill that pushed Ondercin into politics.

News spread like wildfire in 1993 that Council was considering allowing one to be established on 200 acres of land on the east side of town.

She came to her first Council meeting then and was instantly hooked.

“When I started on the Planning Commission, before she was mayor, I remember her coming with her youngest daughter to Council meetings,” said Ron Forster, a current Council member. “She was so interested and asked so many questions.”

Weeks later, she helped circulate petitions opposing the landfill and, at the next election, she received more votes than anyone and was elected to Council.

Her fellow Council members appointed her Council president, and eight months later, the incumbent mayor chose to resign, forcing Ondercin to decide between filling the mayor’s shoes for the next two years or stepping down from Council for not fulfilling her legal obligation.

An already busy mother of four was being asked to be responsible for an entire village — a rather daunting proposition.

“It was scary,” she said. “I’d only been on Council for eight months and in politics for two years. I had no idea what I was getting into.”

A draftsman by trade, Ondercin had left the work force in 1987 to raise her children after her first child was born prematurely. She had moved from Avon Lake, where she was born and raised, to Sheffield just a few years earlier with her husband, a Westlake native.

“It was a tough decision,” she said. “I knew if I took the job, a lot of things would have to change at home and here. It meant bringing at least two of my kids to work with me. After I took the job, I had file drawers filled with crayons and snacks for my kids.”

There was a steep learning curve, Ondercin said, but she resigned herself to learn as she went, speaking with whomever had expertise and trying to make the position her own.

“All the red tape I encountered killed me,” she said. “I tried to work very hard to streamline the process, but sometimes you can’t.’’

After winning her first election for mayor, Ondercin said she became more comfortable in the position.

She said she was proud of policies such as working toward bringing in big and small businesses as the area grew. 

“You have to diversify,” she said. “If you don’t, and one business leaves, it can devastate the town.”

The next step

Ondercin said she still has some unfinished business — coincidentally, the 200 acres of landfill land that started it all.

Under her direction, that land was developed into a business park in 2002, but only one business has leased space there. Ondercin said poor economic times are to blame, but Hunter blamed poor performance on the part of the mayor as the reason it wasn’t filled.

Hunter’s friends on Council, Leo Sheets and Kevin Watkinson, said Ondercin no longer communicated with Council as she did in the past and was no longer doing her job effectively as a result.

Those are claims from people with personal agendas, Ondercin said, and it’s the one part of the job she is happy to leave behind.

She said on election night, she was upset by the loss but realized it was a possibility.

“I always knew in the back of my mind that sooner or later this could happen, that people would want a change,” she said. “It’s easy to sit back and point your finger — did Ondercin lose or did John Hunter win, but for what? I’m very fortunate to have been here for 14 years.”

Forster, who still has two years left on Council, said the village won’t be the same without her.

“Most people don’t realize how much stuff she did behind the scenes,” he said. “She missed out on a lot of family time to be mayor. I’ve never seen a person more dedicated and concerned about the village. She did a fantastic job and went beyond the call of duty. I don’t know if they make a word to describe her dedication.”

Contact Adam Wright at 329-7151 or awright@chroniclet.com.