December 19, 2014

Elyria
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Commissioner casts deciding vote to hire relative

ELYRIA — Lorain County Commissioner Lori Kokoski cast the deciding vote last week to hire her half-brother to work at the Charles Berry Bascule Bridge in Lorain, which the county oversees.

Although Ohio’s nepotism laws typically bar government officials from being involved in the hiring of their siblings and other close family members, Kokoski said she was told by Assistant County Prosecutor Gerald Innes that in this case there was an exception.

Kokoski said she was adopted as a young child into a different family than Edward Mervis and Innes’ opinion was that the adoption effectively severed the familial ties that would have prevented her from voting in hiring Mervis.

“Because I was adopted, Jerry Innes said it was not considered a violation,” Kokoski said.

She also said that while she and Mervis do know each other, they aren’t close and don’t have what people would consider a normal brother-sister relationship because they weren’t raised together.

Susan Willeke, education and communications administrator for the Ohio Ethics Commission, said to her knowledge her agency has never officially opined on anything like Kokoski’s situation.

Willeke said Kokoski did the right thing by consulting with a county lawyer before casting the vote. She said in general if a public official gets legal advice and follows that advice, even if it turns out to be wrong, the official likely wouldn’t face legal repercussions.

But Commissioner Tom Williams said he thinks Kokoski shouldn’t have voted on hiring Mervis for the bridge operator job that has starting pay of $11 an hour.

Williams, the lone Republican commissioner, said he voted against hiring Mervis because of his relation to Kokoski, while Commissioner Ted Kalo voted in favor of the appointment. Both Kokoski and Kalo are Democrats.

“I don’t believe that she should have voted for a relative for the position when there’s other people qualified,” Williams said. “I believe it sends a bad message to the public.”

County Administrator Jim Cordes said Kokoski passed along her half-brother’s resume to the bridge Superintendent Al Zocchi, who came back with a list of the top three candidates. Mervis was Zocchi’s top pick, according to an email he sent last month.

“I base this on my experience working here at the bridge and 5 years at JSI supervising and assisting in staffing … (body language, eye contact),” Zocchi wrote.

Kokoski said aside from giving Cordes the resume and casting a vote, she had no other involvement in the hiring process.

“There was no influence or pressure put on anybody,” she said.

Kokoski said she tried to be upfront about her relationship with Mervis and that’s why she consulted with Innes before she voted. She also said that if her half-brother was qualified for the position, he shouldn’t be denied the job just because of who he’s related to.

Contact Brad Dicken at 329-7147 or bdicken@chroniclet.com.