Children Services: Board says county’s merger decision illegal

Washington County Commissioner Ron Feathers speaks to the Children Services Board Thursday beside Commissioner David White, center, and Commissioner Rick Walters, right. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

Citing Sunshine and open meeting laws, the Washington County Children Services Board voted Thursday to acknowledge the county commissioners’ intent to merge its agency with Washington County Department of Job and Family Services but gave that intention no merit.

Formally, the motion made Thursday night by board member Beth Miller only recognized the receipt of an Oct. 25 letter from the commissioners stating the intent to merge.

But, because the board was notified on Oct. 25, with a written effective date of Dec. 27, the members don’t recognize the commissioners’ notice as valid or legal.

“We have discussed that (letter) and believe as a board that the commissioners have not complied with the rules and regulations set forth in the Ohio Revised Code, the Ohio Administrative Code and the Ohio Commisioners Handbook,” explained Board Chairman Tim Loughry. “We acknowledge the receipt of that letter but do not believe we were put properly on notice, nor that the commissioners have provided the proper justification for the redesignation.”

This would be the same justification any citizen or member of the board could use, Loughry explained, to file a lawsuit to stop the action, although he said he hopes it doesn’t come to that.

More than 50 local residents, foster parents, county employees and children services employees listen to the comments of Washington County Commissioners at the Children Services Board meeting Thursday. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

“Because the action and its discussion was taken in public session, my understanding is that any action of this sort could be declared invalid,” he continued, referencing the admission by the commissioners that no public discussion with meeting minutes occurred about the merger besides an August regular business meeting and the resolution to send the Oct. 25 letter.

When asked by the crowd of more than 50 gathered Thursday, the three commissioners, who attended the meeting and spoke but did not convene their own public meeting, said there’s not enough data to convince the group gathered that the merger would benefit the county or the children served by children services.

But all three commissioners, Ron Feathers, David White and Rick Walters, left the meeting prior to the board’s vote.

Immediately after their exit, Washington County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Williams spoke to the group gathered.

“Whether they combine or not, I’m still going to be removing children,” he stated. “There have been accusations of mismanagement of money, but you can’t manage money if you’re not given enough to operate…It appears you’re the only agency that’s this micromanaged but I commend the workers, I know you and I know how hard it is.”

Washington County Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Williams speaks at the Washington County Children Services Board meeting Thurday, saying he will still remove children from homes and require foster placement regardless of whether or not a merger between Children Services and Washington County Department of Job and Family Services occurs. (Photo by Janelle Patterson)

According to the Ohio Revised Code, the commissioners may redesignate the public children services agency under DJFS only after:

1. First notifying the children services board of the intent to redesignate.

“In its notification, the board of county commissioners shall provide the county children services board a written explanation of the administrative, fiscal, or performance considerations causing the board of county commissioners to seek to redesignate the public children services agency,” reads the code.

This notification the commissioners say occured on Oct. 25, when all three commissioners took a letter to Executive Director Jamie Vuksic after recessing their regular business meeting.

2. Then the commissioners must next provide the children services board with an opportunity to comment on the proposed redesignation before the redesignation occurs.

The children services board considered three options Thursday, to not acknowledge the letter, to acknowledge its receipt but deny its merit, or to vote whether or not to approve of the designation.

Board Member Doug Mallett said Thursday without a business analysis proving the merger wouldn’t adversely affect the agency, he couldn’t support the action.

3. If within 60 days the county children services board notifies the board of county commissioners that the county children services board has voted to oppose the redesignation, the redesignation must then be unanimously approved by the commissioners to occur.

“We do not want to fight on this,” said Walters before leaving the meeting, but the commissioners did not indicate whether they would move forward regardless of an approval from the board.

According to the Ohio Administrative Code the commissioners must also provide notice to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services of its intent 90 days prior to the proposed merger, by formal resolution.

DJFS Director Flite Freimann said on Oct. 25 he also was notified that date, when the commissioners originally saw an effective date of Dec. 27.

The OAC also requires the combining agencies to develop a plan outlining changes, which must be submitted to the state no later than 60 days prior to the proposed merger date.

Freimann was in the Children Services office Wednesday touring the building with Vuksic and Stewart and three of his DJFS staff, and Vuksic said a plan may be forthcoming from Freimann analyzing three options. Those include DJFS moving into the Children Services building on Davis Avenue, vice versa with an addition to the DJFS building, or no move at all.

The next request made of the commissioners is that they prove their action is legal by providing the business analysis for the merger.

The commissioners said a new timeline of an April 1 merger was not amenable to their plans, with White questioning the agency’s state fiscal supervisor Ivin Fleenor’s direction that a merger could not occur legally before that date.

“He’s been wrong before,” said White.