Election preview: Meet the local candidates on the Portage County ballots

Voters in Rootstown cast their ballots at the NEOMED polling location. Wyatt Loy/Kent State Collaborative NewsLab

This article includes interviews with candidates from local contested races on Portage County ballots. We conducted interviews during early fall and asked candidates the same basic questions while giving the candidates a chance to elaborate on other issues and respond to comments from their opponents if necessary. One candidate did not respond to requests for comment, and another declined to be interviewed.

Ohio House of Representatives, 72nd district

Democratic candidate Kathleen Clyde and Republican incumbent Gail Pavliga are running for state representative of the 72nd district.

The district includes Ravenna, Kent, Aurora, Streetsboro, Charlestown, Edinburg, Franklin, Freedom, Hiram Township, Village of Hiram, Mantua Township, Village of Mantua, Randolph precincts A and B, Ravenna Township, Rootstown, Shalersville, and Sugar Bush Knolls.

Kathleen Clyde

She grew up and attended public school in Garrettsville, graduating first in her high school class. After earning her law degree from Ohio State University, she served as an election official in the 2008 election and went on in 2011 to serve Portage County for four two-year terms in the Ohio House of Representatives.

In 2018, she was the Democratic nominee for Ohio Secretary of State, garnering over two million votes in her first run for statewide office.

Clyde was appointed Portage County Commissioner in December 2018 and served for two years. 

Clyde said she stands on her record of advocating for workers and their families, public schools, and women’s equality, including access to reproductive health care.

“I think that voters in the district support a woman’s choice to make her own reproductive healthcare decisions, including abortion and birth control,” Clyde said. “I do not support the current law in Ohio, which is a six-week ban with no exception in the cases of rape or incest, or to protect the health or in many cases, life of the mother. That is too extreme. I would work to reverse that and to restore women’s reproductive healthcare freedom.”

Clyde pointed out that Pavliga is on record as supporting a full abortion ban with no exceptions for rape or incest. (Pavliga, as noted below, refused to be interviewed for this election preview.)

“There’s a clear choice here for women who are concerned about this and for the people who love them,” Clyde said. 

With a possible recession on the horizon, Clyde said she will focus on “being an open door to any constituent in the district regardless of their political background or where they live. Everyone should have access to their elected leaders.”

Recognizing that the existing unemployment system “has a lot of problems,” Clyde pledged to be “a tenacious and aggressive advocate” to get her constituents needed support. Her record of advocacy, she said, is reflected in her four terms in the Ohio House.

The Portager asked Clyde about her opponent’s proposal to build an international airport in Shalersville, a bill that ultimately went nowhere. 

“I certainly wouldn’t propose a $10 to $15 billion airport project that no one wants,” Clyde said. “I think that is a very irresponsible idea in a time of rising costs on Portage County families and an economy that we have to really work together to help with everyone.  An airport that nobody wants and that nobody can document that we need, that would cost taxpayers $10 to $15 billion is a bad idea, and not the type of leadership we deserve in Portage County.”

Clyde said she is glad the bill did not advance in the statehouse.

“Generally bad ideas of that scale don’t get a lot of traction,” she said.

While Clyde recognizes that the economy and helping people deal with rising costs are critical issues for district voters, she said “fighting for good paying jobs with good benefits that people can raise a family on, making sure that we’re focused on educational opportunities for the young people in the district — whether that be a four-year college, a two-year community college program, an apprenticeship — whatever it is, helping our young people have the tools they need to succeed, stay here and build a family, are just critical.”

She said she attended the groundbreaking for the Intel plant that is being built near Columbus, and was proud that political leaders were on hand to see their legislative efforts create thousands of good-paying jobs at that plant and across Ohio.

“That is the kind of work that we, as elected leaders, need to be focused on, not extreme bills that attack women’s reproductive health care. Not bills that propose $10 to $15 billion taxpayer funded airports, but good-paying jobs with good benefits for Ohio workers and their families. That’s what I will be focused on,” Clyde said.

Gail Pavliga

Pavliga is serving her first term in the Ohio House of Representatives. In association with the Evangelical Christian Church, she has served as a Christian counselor and life coach at the Christian Counseling Alliance and Portage Counseling Centers for 15 years. She earned a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology from the University of Akron and has been a college professor since 1999.

Pavliga and her husband Frank have lived and worked in Portage County, where they raised their family, for 30 years.

Pavliga insisted that The Portager’s questions be submitted in writing to her press secretary before providing any response. The Portager’s policy is not to do so as it would be unfair to other candidates who are willing to answer unscripted questions. Pavliga later told The Portager to never again contact her directly for comment and to instead contact her press secretary.

“I want to talk about the accomplishments that I’ve had. I don’t want to get into controversial subjects because they are just divisive with people trying to do things. I just want to be given a fair shake,” she said. “I don’t want to hear ‘What’s this on abortion? What’s this Roe versus Wade?’ I’m just going to have a different take on it, and it’s going to be turned around and used against me.”

She went on to comment briefly about the airport project for the first time to The Portager.

“I don’t want to talk about the international airport. It was to have been a study of feasibility. It was absolutely taken out of context. There is no movement on that bill. It is dead.”

Ohio House of Representatives, 35th district

Democratic candidate Lori O’Neill and Republican Steve Demetriou are running for state representative of the 35th district.

The district includes Atwater, Brimfield, Garrettsville, Village of Mogadore, Nelson, Palmyra, Paris, Randolph precincts C and D, Suffield, Windham Township, Village of Windham, and parts of Summit and Geauga counties.

Lori O’Neill

O’Neill grew up in Newberry, Ohio, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Boston University. She now lives in Bainbridge, and is employed as a licensed realtor for Hanna Commercial Real Estate.

An unwilling candidate, O’Neill said she only agreed to run at the request of the Democratic Party, which did not want to see yet another unopposed race. In a district that she said is 57% Republican and 41% Democrat, she said there is little use maintaining a website, campaigning, or accepting donations of people’s hard-earned money.

The race’s outcome is predetermined, she argued. Republicans have gerrymandered districts so successfully that good people are simply not motivated to serve. Instead, she said, there are 18 statehouse districts where there is no Democratic candidate and 11 where there is no Republican.

“There should be an opportunity for candidates to run against each other and let the voters decide,” she said. “The voters aren’t getting a choice in this.”

To make matters worse, she sees Republican candidates refusing to debate their Democratic opponents or to even respond to the nonpartisan League of Women Voters’ requests for appearances or policy statements.

“When did it become OK for candidates to basically not earn the votes of the people they claim to represent?” she asked. “One of the ways you do that is you get on a debate stage. How does it serve voters when one candidate refuses to stand on a debate stage and make the case for why voters should vote for them?”

Answering her own question, O’Neill said, “If a district is drawn so heavily in your own favor, you don’t have to talk to all of the voters in that district.”

However, O’Neill is not about to let what she terms as the Republican Party’s “deliberate and cynical” strategy of hijacking America’s democratic system go down without a fight.

O’Neill said she has worked to alleviate gun violence for more than two decades. Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg presented a workshop she developed for citizens and elected officials to understand the roots of gun violence to the Obama administration. However, because the introduction was made toward the end of that administration, when the nation’s shift to the right was evident, the program did not gain traction, she said.

O’Neill is also proud that six years ago she and her brother developed and patented a nonlethal defense system, Safe Zone CM, for schools, churches, and business after the Sandy Hook massacre.

Inside a locked, wall-mounted steel cabinet is a pepper gel canister that will reach 20-25 feet, which a trained defender can deploy at a perpetrator, disrupting their intended attack long enough for innocent people to escape, O’Neill said.

Customers include Alaska’s largest school systems, she said.

Whether or not O’Neill gains the 35th district seat, she pledged to continue holding conversations about abortion rights with men and women, framing the issue as one of personal freedom and privacy that all Americans deserve.

“The same people who want government out of your life, want government in your life. Kind of ironic, isn’t it?” she said, referring to Republican-led legislation in Ohio and across the country.

Even so, O’Neill said she would support a limit on abortion after the fifth month unless there is a medical reason for the health of the mother or fetus.

“I think once a fetus is viable outside the womb, that you should see it through,” she said. 

O’Neill said she views the Dobbs decision as denying personal freedom to half of America’s population, regardless of political allegiance.

“If you look at just registered voters, I would like to believe that women understand this should not be a partisan issue. I believe there are plenty of women who may have faced that decision. I believe that women do understand, even those who may be of a certain party persuasion,” she said.

If there is a recession on the horizon — and O’Neill does not take that as a given — she sees it as one of degree. Well-schooled in the workings of bureaucracies, though, O’Neill said she recognizes that no one person, small group of people, or an elected official can singlehandedly avoid a recession.

“It’s a partisan game. People want someone to blame,” she said. “Maybe a little more scrutiny on corporations who profit from this would be a better use of time.”

Enacting policy measures that would force the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services to be more responsive to applicants must be a priority, she said.

Noting that her husband became unemployed during the Covid pandemic, O’Neill said it took three months for him to receive his first unemployment check. When application problems and subsequent denials appeared, she said the state’s online system made it impossible to actually talk to a human being. The couple’s frustration amplified into alarm when it became apparent that a dozen fraudulent claims using his name and their home address appeared.

Still the agency did nothing, even when the fraudsters opened bank accounts in her husband’s name, she said.

“We need to treat people with dignity and do what we can to make people believe they can be employed,” she said. “Most people want to work, but it’s incumbent on ODJFS to make that process simpler and more responsive. It really behooves all of us to help people who are in that situation get over that hump.”

O’Neill is also concerned about public education, which she said is “under assault.” Republicans have bought into a strategy of scaring parents that their children are somehow being “brainwashed by scary liberals,” but it’s just not true, she said.

“We need to trust that educators know how to educate our children,” she insisted.

Instead, she sees a concentrated effort to divert public funding to for-profit private companies whose charter schools often perform poorly when compared with public schools.

Public schools, the very system that made our country so successful, are under an attack that must stop, she said.

Steve Demetriou

Demetriou’s website presents him as a husband, father, Christian, West Point graduate, U.S. Army veteran and small-business owner.

“With so much at stake, at such an uncertain time in our history, we need servant leaders like Steve with honor, integrity, and respect to secure our children’s future,” a statement on the website reads.

Demetriou did not respond to multiple attempts to reach him by phone, email and colleagues.

Board of Portage County Commissioners

Two fresh faces are campaigning to replace Vicki Kline on the Board of Commissioners, a three-member legislative and executive panel that governs Portage County. Mike Tinlin, a Republican living in Brimfield, and Geraldine Hayes Nelson, a Democrat from Kent, will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Geraldine Hayes Nelson

Hayes Nelson earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, master’s degree in curriculum and instruction, and Ph.D. in Higher Ed Administration all from Kent State.

A committed activist, she was president of the Portage County NAACP for over a decade. In that capacity, she said she advocated for workforce readiness, jobs, environmental sustainability, and economic equity and civil rights.

Hayes Nelson worked for Kent State for nearly 30 years, retiring as the university’s executive director of Employee Engagement and Outreach for Human Resources in 2020. With more than 27 years of experience in executive management and leadership, Hayes Nelson says she is willing and able to move Portage County forward.

Hayes Nelson recalled submitting and rewriting federal grants for three Upward Bound programs. Her efforts led to Kent State being the only university in the country to have three programs: one with a STEM focus, one aimed at encouraging youth to consider math and science careers, and one to help low-income or first-generation youth prepare for post-secondary education. 

She also spearheaded a program aimed at assisting teen parents transition from high school into post-secondary programs.

Hayes Nelson also highlighted her creation of employee resource groups so that employees and staff alike could benefit from community and support systems, and enjoy a sense of belonging that is sometimes not evident in the workplace.

“I’ve been in an environment where I’ve worked as an associate dean, I’ve worked with students who are undecided,” Hayes Nelson said. “I’ve worked with students to find their why and pursue their dreams. Working across six different counties, I worked with rural, urban, and small-town communities. To be able to bring people from all walks of life, for those voices to be heard, makes for a piece of beautiful music.”

Hayes Nelson said she sees Portage County the same way. The skill sets she gained during her career are the same as the expertise county commissioners need, including the ability to work with federal and state budgets and understanding the intricacies of workforce development, she said.

“I know how to negotiate, and I am here. I’m not afraid to go out in the community. I think it’s important to go out and listen to people. The people have the ideas. I was just the facilitator. People are the resources for the county,” Hayes Nelson said.

One of those resources is the Portage County Airport, which owes the county debts it cannot repay. County commissioners recently commissioned a study which could result in the county taking over the facility.

“We need to unpack the funding issue,” Hayes Nelson said. “Yes, we’ve dumped money into that airport but until we find out what they are trying to do, why are they continuing to support it. What is it? How did we get where we are today with that airport? We need to unpack that. We need to sit down and bring the right people to the table so we can make an informed decision. We understand they’re in debt. What are the possibilities? What are the real challenges? What are we missing? I don’t think it’s been unpacked.”

Only when the right people, including county residents, are brought to the table, can commissioners make informed decisions, she said. And until the assessment is complete, she said she does not feel comfortable making an “uninformed decision.”

Thinking of the country’s — and the county’s — economic outlook, Hayes Nelson said county commissioners may not be able to prevent downturns but they can limit the impacts.

“It goes back to human resources,” Hayes Nelson said. “There are lots of jobs out there, but we do not have people with the skill sets. How do we retool our people for the jobs of today and the jobs of the future?”

Instead of an educational climate that prioritizes four-year degrees over trade schools or associate degrees, Nelson said it is time to focus on realities facing real-world youth. County leaders must support trade-based education and two-year degrees for students who are willing to gain the skill sets businesses need, and must work to attract those businesses, she said.

“It’s called workforce readiness. We have to retool,” she said.

Portage County’s two Common Pleas Court judges have petitioned county commissioners for more space, a third judge to handle their crushing caseload, and more staff. So far it hasn’t happened.

“We need to pause and do an assessment,” Hayes Nelson said. “We can’t continue to do the same thing we have been doing and get different results.”

Hayes Nelson said she would examine which programs are working, and which aren’t, and to identify state and federal funding that could ease the county’s burden.

Recognizing that it is a national problem, Hayes Nelson said Portage County needs more affordable housing for middle class working families. As county commissioner, she pledged to address the issue to keep ambitious young people in Portage County.

She agreed with her Republican opponent, Tinlin, that extending water and sewer service to townships that now rely heavily on wells and septic systems must also be on the commissioners’ radar.

Noting that malfunctioning well and sewer systems can negatively affect the environment, she pointed out that the financial fallout from repairing such systems is also considerable.

Hayes Nelson lives in Kent with her husband, and is a mother to three and grandmother to two. She has dealt with wells and malfunctioning septic systems.

Mike Tinlin

While still in high school, then Portage County Sheriff J.D. Wilkens recruited Tinlin to become the nation’s youngest police officer, setting him to work on undercover narcotics in county schools. Gov. Jim Rhoads signed his commission, which led to Tinlin eventually becoming a patrol commander with the Portage County Sheriff’s Office.

Tinlin was willing: His father having been injured, he said he was used to helping his mother pay the bills. He was already working with Community Ambulance Service in Garrettsville, and met Wilkens through another job at a funeral home.

When Tinlin turned 18, he became part owner and operator of Community Ambulance Service. The then township of Hudson hired him as a patrol officer, but he lived in Streetsboro, where he served as a city councilman and interim fire chief.

As a council member, Tinlin said he assisted in Streetsboro’s effort to build a new police station.

“They said it couldn’t be done, but I was in office for less than a year and we had a shovel in the ground. I was excited about that. It actually paid off last year, and I was even more excited about that,” he said.

As interim Streetsboro fire chief, Tinlin said he updated the department, transforming its medical providers from basic to full EMTs, and adding two ambulances and a fire truck.

“I showed up every day and gave it 100%. That’s what I’m going to do as commissioner.

I know how the county operates in pretty much every division. I have knowledge in safety and security, which is pretty much number one priority,” Tinlin said.

In 1987, Hudson city leaders promoted him to lieutenant, and when the township and village merged in 1994, Tinlin found himself assigned as captain/administrative assistant to Hudson’s police chief.

He attended the FBI National Academy in Quantico, Virginia, graduating with Class 205 in the year 2000. Tinlin later became Chief of Police for the City of Aurora, where he also served as a firefighter. He retired as Aurora’s police chief in 2003.

Tinlin served as an instructor for the Ohio Police Officers Training Academy for 20 years, and was also an instructor at the University of Akron’s criminal justice program.

“I don’t need this job, I want it. And by wanting it I’m the guy who’s going to help everybody,” Tinlin said. “I want to hear what people’s concerns are. I’m going to be here every day, and I have a total open door policy.”

Turning his attention to the Portage County Airport, Tinlin said he sees both possibilities and pitfalls.

“If the county wants economic development to bring business and industry here for jobs and to bring money to us, we need to take a real hard look at the airport. I think the county needs to look out for its spending, and to be very careful with their spending with the airport, but I don’t think we should turn our back to it, either,” he said.

Having toured other county airports, Tinlin said there is “a lot that can be done” with the Portage County facility, “but we need to study it and do it right.” He said he looks forward to reading the study county leaders commissioned in May.

“We need to look at it,” he said of the airport. “Is it a benefit for the county? If it’s a benefit for the county, we need to help it along, but if it’s not a benefit, we need to make other decisions.”

Portage County’s economic health and resilience hinges on “making sure we hire the right people that are going to stay and do the job for the county,” Tinlin said.

“Economic development is number one in this county. If you look at the 509 square miles of this county, there is a lot of empty space and a lot that we can develop industry-wise that will bring in economic development. I think we have to make sure when we hire directors we have to hire the proper ones that are going to look out for the residents,” he said, declining to name names.

Expressing concern for coming generations, Tinlin said he is fully aware of the tough road ahead. Without citing specifics, he said his goal is to make the hard decisions that will bring relief to everyone.

“I want to make this county great. I want people to say, ‘Portage County! That place is awesome!’ That means bringing in jobs,” Tinlin said.

Agreeing that Portage County Common Pleas Court judges face crushing caseloads, Tinlin said his key priority is to bring in a third Common Pleas Court judge. It will take a couple years, he said, because the state has a say in the matter.

“If we have to move a municipal court judge from Ravenna to Kent to make room for a new Common Pleas judge, that’s what we’ll have to do,” Tinlin said, adding that he does not know how funding would be handled.

Even though HOPE Court (Help, Opportunity, and Progress Through Education — a specialized drug court docket overseen by Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Becky Doherty) has helped, a third specialty court would not reduce caseloads, Tinlin said. A judge would still have to review each case, so as long as the Portage County sheriff keeps arresting people, the judges will remain busy, he said.

Tinlin is also focused on extending water and sewer service to townships that now rely heavily on wells and septic systems. Service and usage fees would eventually offset costs.

“It’s going to take time, but I feel it’s important to our environment,” he said.

He disagreed with Hayes Nelson’s assessment that there is a lack of affordable housing in the county.

“I see apartment buildings being built constantly. Go to Brimfield. Take a look,” he said.

Regarding her views on workforce readiness and employment, Tinlin said such a thing does not happen overnight. The commissioners, he said, are already on the job.

“I don’t see that there’s a problem,” he said. “I think they’re doing the best job they can with what they have. I just feel I have the qualifications to be the next county commissioner to move the country forward.”

After residing in Aurora for three decades, Tinlin now lives in Brimfield with wife, whom he married in 1983. The couple have three children and seven grandchildren, with another due in late November. Currently, he helps wife and son with their real estate business.

Portage County Auditor

With the retirement of Janet Esposito, two people are now running to serve as Portage County Auditor: one is former Mogadore Village Council Member Matt Kelly, a Republican. The other is current Portage County Treasurer Brad Cromes. 

Brad Cromes

After graduating from Hiram College, Democratic candidate Cromes earned a master’s degree in public policy and management at Ohio State University and a law degree from OSU’s Moritz College of law.

After school, Cromes and his wife Lindsey returned to Portage County, where he worked in 2011 to repeal Senate Bill 5 and was appointed as Deputy Director of the Portage County Board of Elections in 2012. He was appointed Portage County Treasurer in 2015, and was elected to serve in that role in 2016 and 2020.

“I am proud as county treasurer that we have modernized our office’s services to make them easier to use for the public, and offer more options to people to pay their taxes,” Cromes said. “I also am proud of the work that we have done in the financial literacy and financial wellness spaces, and our Financial Wellness Fair, which has won an award from the Treasurer of State’s office for being a strong educational program.

“My passion is all about making government more accessible and getting public service delivered directly to the people that we serve. I think we’ve been able to do those things and meet some needs in those spaces, and I’m very proud of that work.”

As auditor, Cromes said he will focus on helping people navigate the tax assessment and tax reduction programs, and ensure consistent and effective communication regarding what the auditor’s office does, and what residents’ options are for addressing their taxes.

“I feel like my background in local government, in Portage County specifically, sets me up on Day One to hit the ground running and be an effective auditor. I also have a certification in government financial management that I think sets me apart,” he said.

That certification is the Association of Government Accountants Certified Government Financial Manager certification, a professional certification that demonstrates competency in government accounting, auditing, financial reporting, internal controls, and budgeting at the federal, state, and local levels.

The certification, he said, is akin to a CPA but is specific to the public sector.

In Cromes’ role as county treasurer, he noted that he has become familiar with staff in the auditor’s office.

While he said he appreciates their work, “I also, because of those interactions, have ideas about areas where we might work to modernize some of that service delivery a little bit. I have a track record of having done that in the treasurer’s office, and I think that speaks to the sort of leader I would be as auditor, working collaboratively with staff and also working to implement a vision that helps people interact with us more effectively.”

If elected as county auditor, Cromes said his goal is to make the auditor’s office one that consistently delivers the highest level of service to county residents.

“My priorities are to preserve the elements of Janet’s leadership that have been so good, which is the open door policy and our performance on our state audits and our accounting performance. Those have all been really strong, and then to enhance those and make them more citizen-centric, and be more proactive about our outreach into the community,” he said.

Cromes said he is the right person to serve as county auditor because he has the right combination of experience and vision to capture what the auditor does well and to “move us forward in a way that serves our community well.”

Cromes lives in Ravenna with his wife and their two sons.

Matt Kelly

Kelly is currently employed as environmental health and safety manager with Goodyear’s racing division. He also owns FitCamp, a small Akron fitness business that offers a variety of fitness classes.

Kelly earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Walsh University in Canton, and was a Village of Mogadore councilman for over a dozen years. He and his wife moved to Suffield two years ago.

Kelly serves on Goodwill of Akron’s board of directors, which oversees operations in Summit, Portage, Medina and Richland counties. A member of the nonprofit’s real estate committee, he is involved with leases, renting and other transactions. The experience, he said, will serve him well since the auditor’s office also deals with taxes and business developments.

As a small business owner, Kelly said he is familiar with budgets and payroll. He pledged to learn what the citizens of Portage County want from the auditor’s office, and to do his best to fulfill their requests.

“I plan to continue Janet’s open door policy that is now the standard in the auditor’s office,” Kelly said. “My goal is to make whatever business you have in the auditor’s office very easy to do.”

A military veteran, Kelly said he served in Iraq twice and was also deployed as a first responder when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005.

“The military strengthened values I already had in me, which is service before self, and integrity in everything I do,” he said. “I have a strong work ethic. I’m a people person, and I consider myself a servant leader. I have a passion for public service and helping people. When the opportunity for auditor came up, I wanted to take advantage of that to fulfill my passion for public service and helping people.”

Kelly said he is the best person to choose for county auditor “because I listen to listen, I don’t listen to reply. I work well with teams, both leading and being a part of. I’m a servant leader. I have a passion for service, and I want to serve the people of Portage County. I am ready to show up and get to work.”

Kelly lives in Suffield Township with his wife of 25 years. They have two grown children, a son who is a police officer in Pittsburgh and a daughter who is a student at Kent State.

Judge of Portage County Court of Common Pleas (General Division)

Wesley Buchanan, a registered Republican, is challenging Judge Laurie Pittman, a registered Democrat, for her seat on the bench overseeing serious criminal cases, as well as civil and administrative cases.

Wesley Buchanan

After attending Heidelberg College, in 2012 Wesley Buchanan completed law school at the University of Akron. Two months after passing Ohio’s bar exam, he was named co-council for a felony OVI trial in Summit County. Buchanan said he’s been acting as defense counsel ever since.

Buchanan is qualified by the Ohio Supreme Court to act as co-council for indigent death penalty cases. National Trial Lawyers, an invitation-only organization composed of trial lawyers who meet stringent qualifications as civil plaintiff and/or criminal defense lawyers, has rated him as one of the top 100 trial lawyers for the past four years.

In 2017, Buchanan was one of 20 attorneys from across Ohio to be selected for the Ohio Bar Association leadership class of 2017. The opportunity allowed him to meet Supreme Court justices and other state court leaders. Buchanan is a member of the Portage bar grievance committee, which hears complaints against lawyers and determines if they should be prosecuted for an ethical rules violation.

Referring to Portage County’s HOPE (Help, Opportunity, and Progress Through Education — a specialized drug court docket overseen by Portage County Common Pleas Court Judge Becky Doherty), Buchanan alleged that his opponent “rarely, if ever” refers eligible drug offenses in that direction. (See Pittman’s response in her section below.)

“This means that if you are charged with a drug offense, and you were not assigned Judge Doherty, then you may not be eligible for services to help you battle your addiction. This means that some Portage County residents may receive different treatment than others. Period.”

Buchanan pledged to refer all eligible drug offenses to HOPE Court. He said he would analyze data from the Portage County Adult Probation Department to determine if there is a need for a specialized veterans court, human trafficking court or mental health court.

“My position is that for each judge in the courthouse there should be a specialized docket,” he said.

Arranging such dockets would be funded by federal and state grant monies, he said.

Though he agrees that Portage County’s judges do have heavy caseloads, Buchanan said the Ohio General Assembly determines how many judges a county has. If and when the GA approves a third judge, county leaders would then have to find the space.

“The court cannot reduce the number of cases it hears because the court has no control over it. I can’t tell who’s going to sue whom,” he said. “The court does not initiate the case. The parties do, both criminal and civil.”

Instead, Buchanan pledged to use efficiencies in the court to administer cases as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“Everybody deserves a fair shake and a fair administration of justice, so if you have to work over, you work over. My overtime’s free as a judge. There’s a lot of work a judge can do behind the scenes,” he said.

Buchanan lives in Brimfield and has identical twin daughters.

Laurie Pittman

A Ravenna native, Pittman completed her undergraduate at the University of Akron and then attended law school at Ohio Northern University. She joined Enlow and Stephens law firm in Ravenna, a position she held for more than a decade.

Pittman was sworn in as a Municipal Court judge in 1998, and started her tenure as a Common Pleas Court judge in 2005.

She said she has secured multiple grants for Portage County’s probation department and courts, including a community integration and socialization program, which helps people get their high school equivalency degrees and jobs. Another federal grant empowers judges to team up with unions and employers to get people jobs, she said.

Partnering with Maplewood Career Center, Pittman said she was able to help probationers obtain their high school equivalency degrees. She said she was also instrumental in obtaining a dual diagnostic grant, which identifies and serves people with mental illness and substance abuse issues.

“We have a counselor on staff that does group classes with these individuals,” she said.

Disagreeing with Buchanan’s assessment of HOPE Court, Pittman said very few defendants have expressed interest. Instead, she said, they request intervention, which sends them to a one-year probation program. Successful completion leaves the defendants with a clean record and the ability to get on with their lives, she said.

“I’m even surprised by how well it’s going. Most of these people are embarrassed that they have a felony. They are motivated to get on with their lives and get rid of that baggage hanging over their heads,” Pittman said.

Touting her record, Pittman said she has the highest criminal caseload in the State of Ohio.

“I have the experience. You have to have experience to dispose of caseloads fairly and justly,” she said.

Though Pittman acknowledged that she and Common Pleas Court Judge Becky Doherty handle more than 400 more cases than their colleagues across the state, she said the caseload is something both can handle. All courthouse staff are cross-trained to help with each other’s caseloads, she said.

“At some juncture we may be able to add a third judge, but quite frankly there’s no room,” she said.

Instead of “over-indicting people,” perhaps the county prosecutor’s office could streamline cases, examining them closely to see if they should be directed to the felony court or the municipal court, Pittman said.

Having crunched the numbers, Pittman said Portage County simply does not need a veteran’s court.

“Instead, we’re doing veterans programs. Most veteran’s courts only allow for people who were honorably discharged. A lot of the people we see weren’t honorable discharged. I want to do it through our probation department so we can include those who are dishonorably discharged,” she said.

Pittman said she sees an overlap between people with addiction, human trafficking victims, and people with PTSD from domestic abuse. County numbers do not support a specialty court docket for female victims of human trafficking, so Pittman said she uses resources through the county probation department and Portage Area Recovery Center (PARC), which she started about five years ago.

PARC, located in Ravenna, is a 23-bed recovery housing facility the women can enter once they complete their treatment programs. Residents stay for four months to a year while they benefit from counseling and assistance with housing and employment.

Men are directed to Ravenna’s Root House, which Portage County resident Valerie Root started more than a decade ago, Pittman said. While living there, men receive outpatient treatment, professional addiction counseling and community support.

She said she also offers an “intervention in lieu of conviction program,” which allows defendants with substance abuse, mental health or mental illness issues to be served by an intervention program.

Participants are overseen by the county adult probation department for one year, during which time they are subject to regular drug screenings and multiple additional benchmarks. If successful, their plea is erased, the case is closed, and the charges are expunged and sealed, Pittman said.

Intervention in lieu of conviction has a success rate of over 70%, “which is phenomenal for any program,” Pittman said, adding that if people stumble, she has them start over again from that date.

The key for probationers, Pittman said, is accountability.

“With day reporting, they never know when they will be drug tested, so the accountability issue encourages them to stay straight. It’s incredibly successful for bond clients, and now we’re using it for people who get out of recovery centers because it helps them be accountable and reacclimate to the real world,” she said.

Confronted with mental health and drug crises that she termed “off the charts,” Pittman said the only thing to do is to keep moving forward.

“I don’t know how we get a handle on it, but we are trying. I don’t know if we’ll ever solve it, but we’re helping a little bit each day,” she said.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.