Columbiana Commissioners Wanted to Cut Drake’s Salary in Half

EAST LIVERPOOL — The board of the Columbiana County Port Authority and the county commissioners who appoint its five members think Tracy Drake, CEO of the port authority 22 years who is leaving Sept. 30, was paid far too much.

Drake earned $200,000 a year, receives a car allowance and has another $11,000 in deferred compensation.

“He was paid twice as much as he should’ve been,” Tim Weigle, president of the county commissioners says. “I personally feel that’s excessive.”

From October 2011 until Dec. 31, 2012, Weigle filled the unexpired term of a founding director of the port authority, Rusty Albright. He was elected commissioner in November 2012 and took office in January 2013.

Even before he took his seat on the port authority board, Weigle says, “I’ve always had concerns that [Drake’s] salary was too high.”

When Weigle joined the board, he continues, “It seemed everything was a big secret and I had to pry to get information out.” He was especially upset at the interest and fees paid Fifth Third Bank, headquartered in Cincinnati, for a letter of credit secured for the network operations center in Trade Park outside Leetonia.

The letter supported $2.2 million in bonds Fifth Third had issued. Huntington Bank acted as trustee.

“We were paying a lot of fees,” confirms Diane Ksiazek, manager for administration and finance. “That’s why we refinanced through Farmers Bank [of Canfield].”

“There was a lot of risk in what we [the port authority] did,” Weigle discovered upon taking his seat. “I thought the port authority was in hot water. … You can’t operate like that.”

The commissioner contends that Drake is the best-compensated chief executive of the 58 port authorities in Ohio. He is not, according to a spot check of larger port authorities in Ohio – Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, Cleveland-Cuyahoga County, Columbus-Franklin County Finance Authority, Development Finance Authority of Summit County (Akron) and Wood County (Toledo) – $245,000, $226,000, $360,000, $138,000 and $180,000 respectively.

With Drake’s third one-year employment contract set to expire at the end of this month, Drake announced Sept. 1 that Sept. 30 would be his “last official day.” The timing, if not the news itself, caught the board and county commissioners by surprise.

They had hoped that Drake, if he wouldn’t take a pay cut in his next contract, would portray his exit as a retirement.

The CEO of the port authority wouldn’t go along with the version his board wanted him to tell, saying in his announcement that he is relocating to Sarasota, Fla., where “I’ll base a consulting firm. A significant amount of my time may well be spent in Ohio.”

The president of the port authority board, Charles Presley of Salem, disputed the accuracy of Drake’s first sentence: “The port board of directors has informed me that they do not intend to offer a new contract for next year.”

Presley denied that he or the board had informed Drake that his contract would not be renewed. He allowed that the five board members had discussed extending Drake’s tenure but emphasized when interviewed Sept. 1, “The board has not taken action” on whether to renew Drake’s contract.” That subject presumably was to be discussed and acted upon at the next board meeting Sept. 21.

Presley declined to go beyond saying, “The board has not taken action” because “It’s a personnel matter. Legally I can’t talk about it.” The board is not prepared to have anyone to step in as chief executive is all he would add.

As to why Drake would make such an assertion, Presley responded, “He’s at liberty to make comments. I can’t comment.”

Mike Halleck, vice president of the commissioners and who served on the port authority board from Jan. 1, 2006, until Dec. 31, 2010, insisted Drake is retiring. During a recess in the county commissioners meeting Sept. 2, Halleck said, “He’s 63 years old and moving to Florida. It sounds like a normal retirement to me.”

Informed of the language in Drake’s statement, Halleck still characterized the departure as a retirement and said, “I wish him the best. I wish him congratulations.”

The commissioners and board do not dispute Drake’s record of accomplishments, some of which he included in his statement of five paragraphs, or as he wrote, that the authority “is currently in the best financial shape it has ever been,” to wit, holding almost $40 million in assets. The assets of the authority were $5 million when Drake began as executive director in 1993.

During his tenure, Drake secured more than $30 million in state and federal grants and funding that allowed the authority to build two industrial parks – Wellsville Intermodal Facility and Trade Park outside Leetonia – extend Internet service to all population centers within the county, and serve as a small-business incubator in its headquarters building in East Liverpool as well as the former Ferro Building there.

All contacted for this story were quick to praise Drake’s record (although Weigle attributed much of that record to the oil and gas boom in Columbiana County) and wish him well.

The founding board who hired Drake, which essentially remained intact until six years ago, has turned over. And the current board three times extended Drake’s employment in one-year increments, unable to enlist enough support among themselves to induce him to either accept a pay cut or present his departure as retirement.

Coverage of Drake’s announcement and Halleck and Presley’s reaction led a former member of the port authority board, Don Crane, to contact reporters to provide details of what he believed was missing from their stories. Crane, a Democrat, is the outgoing president of the Western Reserve Building & Construction Trades Council.

The labor leader, who wanted to be appointed to a second five-year term last December, said Weigle went to his house Dec. 16, the night before commissioners were to vote on his reappointment.

“Tim Weigle told me I would get reappointed if I agreed to cut his [Drake’s] salary in half,” Crane said. He wouldn’t and the next morning the three commissioners, all Republicans, chose Brian Kennedy, also a Republican, to replace Crane.

Crane also felt his reappointment was in jeopardy because he had moved to Green Township, just north of Salem, in Mahoning County. Weigle says he believes members of the port authority board should live in Columbiana County although state law allows members of port authority boards to live outside if they conduct significant business within the county they serve.

Asked to respond, Weigle said, “I’m not sure of the actual date but he asked if I could swing by his house,” so they could discuss port authority business.

That night was not the first time Weigle had raised his concerns about Drake’s compensation. “Don and I had discussed [earlier] that his salary was too high,” the commissioner said.

When Drake was hired, his salary was $50,000 a year and he was offered bonuses if he achieved various goals. The board recognized his performance and increased his compensation as the years passed. He was paid $105,000 with another $45,000 in performance bonuses in 2006.

Drake’s ability to land large projects such as the power plant Cogentrix proposed to build in Center Township and the coal gasification plant Baard Energy proposed to build in Yellow Creek Township – neither came to fruition – led the board to renegotiate his contract. Drake was amenable to a flat $200,000 a year, plus a car allowance, and no performance bonuses.

Rumors that Drake’s job was in jeopardy and that Halleck wants it have swirled for some time since the port authority board has renewed Drake’s contract in one-year increments, but no one would go on the record. One source alleges that about three years ago Halleck told a small group in the first-floor hall of the courthouse that he could do a better job than Drake.

In late August 2013, commissioners did create the post of county director of economic development and named former county assistant prosecutor Tad Herald to fill it at $60,000 a year. Herald is paid $65,000 today and said Sept. 2 that he is not interested in Drake’s job.

Two anonymous letters, purportedly from someone familiar with goings-on in the courthouse sent both the Morning Journal in Lisbon and The Business Journal, have proved prescient. The more recent, dated Sept. 8, asserts that Halleck, his fellow commissioner Jim Hoppel, and Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman David Johnson have “packed” the port authority board so Halleck can succeed Drake.

Crane told The Business Journal that Halleck wants Drake’s job and that should he get it, “Brian Kennedy would succeed Halleck as commissioner.”

The Business Journal could not reach Halleck to learn if he’s interested. Presley said Sept. 1 that the board would likely conduct a national search.

For his part, Drake has refused to say more than his initial statement.

The Columbiana County Port Authority is the only one in the state of Ohio that supports itself and does not rely on any funding from county residents or entities. Since Drake has headed it, the port authority it has shown a profit every year.

Pictured: One the “10 action items” Tracy Drake says he was given 22 years ago ago was to “develop maritime facilities” such as the Wellsville Intermodal Park along the Ohio River. Drake leaves the port authority with “a lot of irons in the fire,” he says.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.