ELYRIA — The two Republicans running for Lorain County commissioner this year are hoping to break the lock on the three-member board’s majority that Democrats have long enjoyed.
In recent years, only Dave Moore, who served one term before opting not to seek re-election, and current Commissioner Tom Williams have proven that someone with an “R” next to their name on the ballot can win the support of voters for the job.
Williams’ 2010 victory has led to clashes with his two fellow county commissioners, Ted Kalo and Lori Kokoski, Democrats seeking their third four-year terms this election.
Their challengers, Amherst City Councilman Phil Van Treuren, who is running against Kalo, and Columbia Township Trustee Mike Musto, who is facing off against Kokoski, insist they can win and end the partisanship they believe has infected county government.
An office divided?
Van Treuren placed the blame for the disputes with Williams, which have ranged from whether the commissioners should stop getting the newspaper and paying for coffee at their meetings to arguments over whether to save the financially beleaguered St. Joseph Community Center in Lorain, at Kalo’s feet.
“I think he’s one of the most partisan people I’ve met in Lorain County,” Van Treuren said this week. “He’s a good person who cares about Lorain County, but most of the decisions he makes have something to do with politics.”
Kalo rejected that argument, pointing out that he’s routinely worked with Republican mayors and businesspeople on Team Lorain County, one of the county’s economic development arms, and others.
“I have never brought partisan politics into that commissioners office, ever,” Kalo said.
Musto said he sees a similar problem with Kokoski, although he points to what he believes is a record of her voting with Kalo virtually all the time. He acknowledged that Kokoski ultimately sided with Williams against Kalo and voted to stop getting the newspaper and giving away coffee at the office, but he said that was last year.
“Anything that Ted has wanted to do, Lori goes right with him,” Musto said. “Whether it’s Lori’s idea or not, she’s voting for it.”
But Kokoski said the commissioners actually end up voting unanimously most of the time even if Williams has a tendency to bring up controversial topics that she and Kalo disagree with him on.
“It seems like every week is a new deal of him trying to make us look like we’re divided,” she said. “We’re united — we just go about accomplishing it in different ways.”
Musto and Van Treuren also have hit their opponents on issues of transparency. Van Treuren is quick to point to when Williams recently walked out of an executive session because he believed the commissioners were improperly discussing a controversial plan to add a Lorain County Transit bus route to Cleveland, which is now being tested by the county.
He also complained that Kalo and Kokoski have deliberately excluded Williams from some meetings, including those dealing with proposals designed to pump more county money in St. Joe’s, something Williams has questioned the wisdom of doing.
Kokoski said Williams was left out of some of the St. Joe’s meetings because the fear was he would try to sabotage efforts to keep the building open.
“You don’t invite somebody into a meeting who’s against it,” she said.
Both incumbents insisted that they aren’t doing public business in private. Kalo said he often discusses issues on the phone and in person with other government officials and constituents.
“I don’t say, ‘Hey, let’s have a secret meeting and go off book,’ ” Kalo said. “I sit down and I talk to people.”
Those interactions are as an important a part of a commissioners job as doing paperwork or sitting in meetings, Kalo said. For instance, he said he routinely travels to Columbus and elsewhere in the state for his work with the County Commissioners’ Association of Ohio or the Northeast Ohio Area-wide Coordinating Agency.
On the job
The five-point plan Van Treuren is touting as part of his campaign insists that he will be a full-time commissioner and leave his Internet marketing job if he’s elected. It’s a dig at Kalo’s continued running of his floor covering business.
Kalo scoffed at the notion that he’s not giving his all to his county job.
“Sitting in the office from 8 to 4:30 does not make you a full-time commissioner,” he said.
Musto also has said he’d leave his job running a home inspection service, although he intends to remain involved with his wife’s horse stable if he’s elected. Kokoski’s only job is as a commissioner.
She said her experience is what sets her apart from Musto, particularly when it comes to dealing with the complex issues of county government, especially the budget.
“I don’t think now is the time to learn to be a commissioner,” Kokoski said.
Musto said his experience in the township and the private sector will allow him to slip easily in to the commissioners’ job if he elected. He argues that Kokoski hasn’t been a good steward of county money.
He accused Kokoski and Kalo of squandering millions of dollars the county had in the bank when they first took office in 2005. He — as well as Van Treuren — point to projects such as the $759,000 renovation of the commissioners’ offices in 2006 as wasteful spending. The commissioners insisted at the time that the renovation was necessary to bring the commissioners’ offices into the 21st century with new technology and a more professional appearance.
Kokoski said the problem hasn’t been the commissioners’ spending habits. She said the county has seen sales tax revenue decline, endured millions of dollars worth of cuts from the state’s contribution to county government and watched interest income drop by millions of dollars since she and Kalo were elected.
“I really believe we have a revenue problem, not a spending problem,” she said.
She’s quick to point to her efforts to move the dispatchers of the Lorain County Sheriff’s Office to the county’s 911 call center, a move that county officials estimated saved roughly $700,000 and allowed three laid off sheriff’s deputies to be brought back to work, as proof of her fiscal responsibility.
Kalo said he too has worked hard to keep the county fiscally solvent even as his opponent has blasted him for three failed efforts to convince voters to back a sales tax increase. Kalo said he still believes the county does need to raise its current 6.25 percent sales tax, which is one of the lowest in the state, although he doesn’t think that will happen any time soon.
Van Treuren said he wouldn’t impose a sales tax increase, as the commissioners did in one instance. If a sales tax hike is necessary, both he and Musto insisted they wouldn’t do it without putting it to voters first.
The problem with the previous efforts, Van Treuren said, is that voters don’t trust the current commissioners to spend their money wisely. Musto echoed that argument.
“(The voters) want fiscal responsibility,” he said. “They want them to start spending money a little more wisely.”
Musto said he backs Williams’ proposal to bring in the Ohio Auditor’s Office to conduct a performance audit, something Kokoski said she wouldn’t object to although she doesn’t believe it will be very effective unless the county’s other elected officials agree to participate.
Van Treuren said he intends to go through the budget closely and find ways to cut spending. He points to the roughly $25,000 per year the county spends on a professional videographer to record and edit the commissioners’ meetings as one area he’d cut. He said he’d still record and broadcast the meetings even after the videographer is fired.
Williams made a similar push earlier this year, but was rebuffed by Kalo and Kokoski.
Both Musto and Van Treuren said they don’t intend to simply go along with whatever Williams wants to do if they’re elected.
“Am I going to agree with Tom Williams 100 percent of the time? Absolutely not,” Van Treuren said.
Kalo said that Van Treuren isn’t as bipartisan as he contends, arguing that he’s voted with one fellow Republican on Amherst City Council nearly 100 percent of the time.
The campaign trail
Although the race between Kokoski and Musto has been relatively quiet so far, the campaigns for Van Treuren and Kalo are in high gear.
Van Treuren insists that he’s working harder than anyone ever has in a commissioner’s race to win his election. He said he’s spent massive amounts of time going door-to-door, analyzing voting trends and microtargeting voters with specific campaign mailers.
He said he has an active online campaign and has been a persistent presence at various community events. One of his more controversial choices was a sign he put up on the portable toilets at the North Ridgeville Corn Festival that urged voters to “Flush Ted Kalo out of office!”
“I’m an underdog,” Van Treuren said. “I can’t afford not to be bold. I need to get my name out there.”
Kalo said he plans to win votes with his record and not gimmicks.
“I don’t think that’s in good taste, and I don’t think the public is receptive to that,” he said of the toilet campaign sign.
Kalo said that although he’s been attending a lot of candidate nights lately, most of his campaign consists of what he always does.
“I’ve actually been out in the community speaking to residents about issues,” he said.
Van Treuren is fond of saying he doesn’t dislike his opponent personally and said Kalo has always been professional with him.
“I think he would be a great guy to sit down and have a beer with, but he’s done a very poor job for Lorain County,” he said.
Kalo said he’s got nothing against Van Treuren personally either, but disagrees with his challenger on the direction the county needs to be headed.
“I don’t quite share his perception of how people feel about me and I think that will show at the ballot box on Nov. 6,” he said.
Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or firstname.lastname@example.org.