Mayor Healy apologized to the board that funds the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab over the recent hiring and then resignation of director Rick Perez.
A day after asking the city’s pick for crime lab director to resign, Mayor William J. Healy II apologized to the lab’s funding board and agreed to give it more oversight in the hiring process.
Michele Foster, a 25-year employee at the Canton-Stark County Crime Lab, was offered the job of interim director while the city and countywide board conduct an open search for the position.
Rick Perez, a former chief deputy at the Stark County Sheriff’s Office, resigned Monday at the urging of Healy after it was revealed that the city lowered the job qualifications of the position and handpicked Perez without advertising the job first.
Stark Council of Governments Chairman Tom Bernabei said the hiring debacle damaged the crime lab and SCOG. He said the city failed to communicate to an agency that owns nearly all of the crime lab equipment and is responsible for a majority of lab funding.
“Everything that has occurred in the last week, and to some extent the last 18 months, has negatively affected public and governmental perception of this agency,” he said.
Bernabei called for the more-stringent job qualification requirements to be restored, for a panel of SCOG and city of Canton officials to conduct a national search and for SCOG to have say in who is hired.
“SCOG needs to have hiring authority over this position,” he said.
Healy said the hiring of Perez was not handled appropriately. After apologizing to all SCOG members for their lack of participation, Healy asked that board members review the job description and make recommendations on changes to it.
“(We) need to make sure the hiring process is done by committee, rather than individuals, so we make sure we have multiple viewpoints on it,” he said.
Bernabei initially proposed appointing former director Robert Budgake as interim director, but Healy asked for a closed-door session to discuss personnel issues, specifically pending legal issues surrounding Budgake and 29 other city employees who were dismissed a year ago for retiring to collect a state pension, but not being properly rehired. The retire-rehire process is legal in Ohio, but some employees did not follow the proper procedures, including having a break in service or being rehired by their appointing authority.
Bernabei said he spoke with Budgake about returning. A second closed-door session was held to interview Foster, who said she was approached by the city earlier in the day.
Foster, 48, has a bachelor’s degree in forensic chemistry from Ohio University and completed Ohio Peace Officers Basic Training in 1987.
Prior to becoming the lab’s quality-assurance manager, Foster worked as a DNA analyst. She will earn the annual pay rate of $70,848, the same wage Perez was making in the position.
Page 2 of 3 - Foster said she does not know if she will apply for the job.
“All of this is very unexpected,” she said.
Bernabei noted that Foster’s credentials qualify her for the position under the more-stringent job description, written by Budgake in 1993. He wants the city and SCOG to return to the higher standards, but also update the description to properly reflect the profession of forensics today.
Healy said that Director of Personnel Andrea Perry and Ream updated the job description. Stripped from the old job description were requirements that the director “exhibit skills in at least three areas of forensic science,” and have knowledge of “analytical organic and inorganic chemistry,” as well as hold a degree in forensic science, chemistry or related field. The new job description, dated Jan. 14, allowed for someone with experience equivalent to a degree in business management to be accepted.
Perez does not have a college degree.
Healy said he did not feel that dramatic changes had been made to the job description.
“The changes in this are not significant,” he said, “but the outcome of the changes were definitely significant. Before we move forward with filling the position I would like to have a recommended job description by this body.”
Six crime lab employees, including Foster, attended Tuesday’s meeting of the SCOG board. Jay Spencer, a criminalist with the lab since 1987, said employees have been “managing” for the last year under interim directors. The last week has been chaotic, he said.
“The lab needs someone on the order of (Budgake),” he said. “Someone who has a better understanding of forensic science. Someone who has the ability to manage, obviously, but also the ability to communicate with the county.”
Spencer said he disagreed that the credibility of the lab had been damaged, noting that he and his colleagues still were performing at the level they always have, regardless of leadership.
“But I’d like to see us gain some stability going forward,” he said, noting upcoming changes in the accreditation process. “We’ve got a lot coming up in the next few years that we need to take care of.”
CHANGE OF HEART
Marlboro Township Police Chief Ron Devies, who Friday asked for evidence from about a dozen criminal cases be returned from the lab because he objected to Perez’s hiring, said he since has changed course.
“I’ve been thinking about it all day,” he said. “At this point in time, we’ll just wait and see. I told them (lab) ‘hold up on the rush on that’ until a final decision is made. But we’re very closely going to monitor the situation.
Page 3 of 3 - “I have the utmost respect of the criminalists at the crime lab,” he said, “but it’s going to come down to the qualifications of whoever is running the show.”