I-TEAM: RTA withholds pay from two board members, seeks opinion on law

CLEVELAND - The RTA has stopped paying two of its board members, and says it began investigating the payments before the I-Team started to raise questions about whether they are legal.

The RTA Board is comprised of a mix of elected local officials, high-ranking public employees, and private civic leaders.

Regarding public employees who are not elected, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine said in an interview with the I-Team that, in general, they can't be paid to serve on a public board.

"Public employees, clearly under Ohio law, cannot be paid by two different public entities for the same hours," he said, adding, "It's kind of a basic concept; you can't get double pay."

DeWine says, if the public employees were to take vacation time from their jobs, they likely could be paid by a public board for the time they serve on it.

"Basically, you clock out of one job, and go to the other," DeWine said, "And that's probably not a problem, because you're not getting paid, you know, double. But if you're getting paid double, it's wrong, it's against the law."

RTA Board President Dennis Clough said all board members have taken payments. The transit agency said Clough receives $500 a month as chairman, and other members receive $400 a month.

Two RTA board members, Cleveland cty official Valarie McCall, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District official Leo Serrano, are public employees who are not elected to their positions.
RTA said it has been withholding their stipends "until the matter is resolved."

Two weeks after the I-Team's initial inquiry, RTA asked the Ohio Ethics Commission to interpret the law, and provide for an opinion on the matter, and said "those responses are currently being reviewed."

Regarding elected public officials, the law is clear: they can be legally double paid - both by their employers and by a public board for the time they spend working on the board's business.

Andrew Pollis, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, says Ohio actually has two standards for public employees who serve on public boards: one standard if they are an elected official, and a different standard if they are not.

As to the standard for elected officials, Professor Pollis said, "I think there's a lot of doubling going on here, both in terms of the standard and the dipping."

While he doesn't agree with the reasoning behind allowing for the double pay, Professor Pollis said it is based on the idea that elected officials are not paid by the hour, or even the day, and that they report only to voters.

"That ability to respond through the polling booth...is deemed as a policy matter to be an adequate check on double-dipping," he said.

"So yes," Professor Pollis added, "there's a double standard. Yes, it's unfair, but the thought is we can address that, if it's important to us, at the polling place."

In addition to Mayor Clough, Mayor Trevor Elkins of Newburgh Heights, and Mayor Georgine Welo of South Euclid, also serve on the RTA Board.

Some public boards choose not to pay their members.

Major universities, such as Ohio State and Kent State, are two examples.

The Ohio Attorney General's Office says it's "doubtful" that a city's so-called "home-rule" provisions would be enough to authorize double payments.

It says there are provisions in Ohio's Constitution which "discourage this conduct, and the state constitution would take precedence over home rule provisions."

Again, it is legal for elected officials to be double-paid for their time spent working on a public board -- if the board chooses to pay them.

RTA is facing difficult financial circumstances, due in large part to state budget cuts.

Its board considered, and then decided against, asking voters for more tax money this November.

The head of the union that represents RTA's drivers says 10% of his membership, about 170 people, could be facing layoffs.

That would almost certainly lead to reduced service for riders as well.