County auditor skips mask rules for indoor budget meeting

Screenshot from the Portage County Budget Commission
The Portage County Budget Commission meeting from March 30 included testy language and a violation of public health guidance.

Portage County Auditor Janet Esposito flouted pandemic safety guidance and traded expletives with another county official during a routine budget commission meeting, according to a livestream posted to the county’s YouTube channel.

Esposito did not wear a mask for the duration of the March 30 meeting, even though it was indoors and she shared a small table with other county leaders. County Commissioner Tony Badalamenti, who has been criticized for refusing to wear a mask during commission meetings, attended the budget conference and wore a mask the entire time.

Early in the meeting, the group had technical difficulties connecting to audio with Portage County Treasurer Brad Cromes. Esposito seemed to express irritation that Cromes chose to attend remotely via Zoom.

“Tell him we’ll move, and he needs to come up here,” she said. 

Apparently knowing the group could not hear him, Cromes replied with expletives that he would not attend in person. Though the others in the meeting could not hear him, the comments were audible to listeners of the livestream.

Esposito and Cromes then spoke by phone to try to clarify the connection issues. Esposito told him someone is working on it. Cromes seemed to ask her to refrain from talking about him. She replied, “No, I don’t care, you were home,” and then slammed the phone. “Stupid bastard,” she said.

The monthly county budget commission meetings are typically uneventful affairs where members Esposito, Cromes and Prosecutor Victor Vigluicci certify budget amendments. This one lasted about 30 minutes. Badalamenti and acting Finance Director David Lair, both new to Portage County government, attended as observers.

Esposito initially didn’t seem to recall not wearing a mask at the meeting. “I am aware that it’s an airborne disease, and my mask was on and pulled down at that minute no doubt,” she told The Portager in an email.

Presented with video evidence to the contrary, she said, “I believe you and I’ll do better.”

Esposito said she has had two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine. While this gives her significant protection against infection and illness, scientists still do not know whether vaccinated individuals can spread the disease.

Portage County Health Commissioner Joseph Diorio has previously told county officials they should be wearing masks at meetings. As an airborne disease, Covid-19 is transmitted through respiratory droplets, which are more easily spread in enclosed spaces, such as a meeting room.

“Well, I’ve had my shots, and a lot of people in this room have, too,” Esposito told Cromes during the meeting, after they established the audio feed.

“That’s good, but we’re still under health order, though, so I’m going to be cautious,” Cromes said.

As for the cursing, Esposito said, “Brad and I get along fine,” she said. “It’s all in the family.”

“Janet and I have spoken since, and have a fine working relationship,” Cromes said. “This was simply a moment of frustration with technology and the pandemic, which is something I think we’re all familiar with.”

He added, “I believe strongly in transparency and public access — even when it’s uncomfortable. That’s not going to change, and I’m going to keep advocating for it wherever I can (though I will be making an effort to keep my language a little less colorful going forward).”