Cuyahoga County Executive, NOACA board president tussle over contract renewal for agency head
Tension arose between Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne and Lake County Commissioner John Hamercheck at the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency meeting Friday over the contract renewal for Executive Director and CEO Grace Gallucci.
The discussion was fueled by written exchanges beginning Monday between Hamercheck, the president of the agency’s board of directors, and Ronayne regarding a contract extension for Gallucci. Her contract is set to expire in June.
Neither party expressed dissatisfaction with Gallucci, who has served as executive director and CEO for the metropolitan planning organization for 11 years. The issue, as Ronayne put it, came down to the process.
“Mr. Chair, there is no board that I know of, or at least that I would chair, that would put forth the CEO to make her own presentation about --in fact, write to us with the memo to ask for our approval and put it on the screen with her list of accomplishments,” Ronayne said. “Mr. Chairman, that was for you to do, … not the CEO.”
Hamercheck said he’d been “blindsided” by the tension over the issue, and the concerns raised lacked credibility as the procedure the agency followed aligned with prior practice and the Ohio Revised Code.
“Openness and transparency is exactly what we do. It is exactly what we've been holding to,” Hamercheck said. “Good governance does come from adhering to those things faithfully. So, when we're being scolded for adhering to the policies that have already been agreed to, what are we supposed to do? That's very distressing.”
Prior to Friday’s board meeting, the contract was discussed by the Executive Committee during executive session on November 3. In letter sent to Hamercheck Monday, Ronayne complained that the contract renewal was “rushed with little notice to review materials” and Gallucci was present during committee discussions in closed session.
Ronayne, in the letter, added that he and other committee members were asked to vote on the contract without seeing or reading the contract itself.
“For the reasons listed above, I did not vote to recommend the contact extension,” Ronayne wrote. “I could not in good conscience endorse a process that was so obviously flawed and recommend a contract the details of which I knew so little about."
Ronayne asked for a two-month extension of the executive director’s contract, and for the vote on the full term to be postponed until a performance evaluation of the executive director with performance measures for leadership is completed and provided to board members for review.
In a written response on Wednesday, Hamercheck denied Ronayne’s request to vote for a two-month contract extension with additional review of the renewal.
The contract renewal was discussed at three Executive Committee meetings prior to the Board of Directors meeting Tuesday, Hamercheck wrote, the first of which was held in August. It was at this initial meeting, Hamercheck said, that the executive director’s performance review, contract renewal and new base salary were discussed without Gallucci present.
Of these meetings, Ronayne attended one, Hamercheck said.
“It is vitally important to NOACA that the position of Executive Director is stable and consistent,” Hamercheck wrote. “The Executive Committee has clearly done its due diligence and conducted a thorough process to support its recommendation of the extension of Ms. Gallucci’s contract. To suggest otherwise is out of bounds.”
Ronayne wrote a response to Hamercheck Friday morning, prior to the start of the board meeting, and said the reason for his initial letter, and the push to postpone to vote, stemmed from a desire to maintain NOACA’s credibility and transparency as an organization at a time where agencies have been under public scrutiny.
“As you know, public boards in this region have recently been criticized for not scrutinizing their leaders’ employment contracts,” Ronayne wrote. I tried to give you appropriate guard rails for effective governance. I believe your rebuffing of them puts this Board, and its Executive Director, in a questionable light, and certainly opens this Board to scrutiny.”
No other member of the board or of the public brought up concerns over transparency or contract renewal prior to Ronayne’s Monday letter, Hamercheck told Ideastream following Friday's board meeting.
In his letter, Ronayne detailed the prior discussion of the contract while in executive session. He said the meeting was held in Gallucci’s office, and Ronayne’s request for the executive director to remove herself from the meeting was denied by Hamercheck.
“When I suggested that the Executive Director excuse herself from this Executive Session on the grounds that we were discussing her contract you interjected and told me, ‘That’s not the way we are going to do it.’”
Hamercheck refuted Ronayne’s claim during the Friday board meeting.
Ronayne went on to write that, upon request of required materials, NOACA legal counsel Nancy Griffith told Ronayne documents were sent to Hamercheck along with the committee chair and vice chair, but not to other committee members.
The county executive emphasized what he said is a need for transparency throughout the contract review process.
“I still hope that with your guidance the CEO’s contract will be given the chance to be fully vetted and that should board members who just received the contract this week need more time to deliberate, you will grant them that time,” Ronayne said in his letter. “Otherwise, the legacy of this action will always be construed as rushed and not transparent. That legacy neither bodes well for your Chairmanship or this Board.”
The contract renewal proposes a three-year extension with a potential one-year renewal. The contract would also come with a 5% salary adjustment to $291,679.
The salary increase reflects, in part an adjustment to make Gallucci's salary comparable to that of male executive directors of metropolitan planning organizations, Hamercheck said.
"The base pay of 291,679 is the bottom of the pay period, and I'm just going to come round and say it, for her male counterparts," Hamercheck said. "We are trying to correct some issues of the past."
Cleveland City Council President Blaine Griffin supported the renewal of Gallucci’s contract, in part because women leadership in agencies like NOACA is limited, he said.
"Unbeknownst to a lot of people, Mrs. Gallucci is probably one of the only females in leadership in this field," he said, "and to be able to operate in, quite frankly, sometimes a hostile environment, as we've seen with very hot topics like we are dealing with climate change."
Griffin went on to say that Gallucci's prior work as Executive Director was enough to show favorable performance deserving of the contract extension with the pay increase.
“Any other organization that would just show all of the metrics that have been met would have no conversation about giving her this 5% [raise],” he said. “I support this resolution because, quite frankly, she just showed that she has touched every point that this board has set forth for us to really ask her to perform for this organization.”
Elyria Mayor Frank Whitfield said that while he agrees the process should be evaluated, he was hesitant to vote against the contract renewal when Gallucci proved to be an effective CEO.
“The alternative is we demonstrate cold feet toward our executive director and then that executive director then starts to apply and explore other opportunities out there,” Whitfield said.
Other members, including Lake County Commissioner John Plecnik, hoped to find a middle ground that would not alienate Gallucci while also giving the board effective time to review materials.
“It would be an insult to our executive director to have a vote that was not unanimous on her contract,” he said. “I think it would be very reasonable for us to take this up at the next meeting with all the information that's been requested provided to the entire board so that we can make a confident, fully informed vote.”
The full board voted 23 – 14 in favor of postponing the vote on the contract until its January meeting to allow the full board time to review essential materials