The criminal case involving former Austintown Township Trustee Steve Kent and his ultimate removal from office has been disturbing, to say the least.
Kent, a former Poland police officer indicted in April 2022 on three counts of sexual battery and one count of tampering with evidence, faced trial earlier this month. He was accused of having improper sexual relations with a student at Poland Seminary High School, where Kent worked as a school resource officer.
A jury acquitted Kent on the sex charges but convicted him on the felony charge of tampering with evidence. He has not been sentenced yet and remains free on bond.
After his felony conviction, Kent was removed swiftly from his elected office, based on the recommendation of the Mahoning County Prosecutor’s Office.
In light of the well-publicized investigation that touched off in June 2021 and in the months leading up to his trial, Austintown residents were not shy about expressing anger that he remained in office on the public payroll and led petition drives attempting to remove him from office.
While we understood their concern — and we suspect his fellow trustees did, too — we used this space to remind readers that, here in America, defendants are innocent until proven guilty.
Still, while the case was developing, and while Kent was under indictment but awaiting trial, Kent’s fellow trustees, Monica Deavers and Robert Santos, handled the situation with great professionalism, remaining above the fray and allowing justice to play out in their colleague’s criminal case. They reminded constituents they had no ability to expel their duly elected colleague from office and remained silent on the public’s attempt to remove him from office.
We applaud the trustees’ ability to remain stoic in the public eye and mum. Even in the early hours after Kent’s conviction, Deavers said, “Out of respect for the American justice system and all involved, we will wait for sentencing and subsequent appeals before making statements.”
Santos said township officials are “committed to … Austintown’s growth and betterment of Austintown. We look forward now to ending this and moving on and doing what is right for the residents.”
At the end of the day, Deavers and Santos were correct in their decision neither to support nor oppose removal attempts. We applaud them for taking that appropriate stand and for not buckling under pressure from constituents.
Almost immediately after his conviction, the county prosecutor’s office acted to remove Kent from office and, within a day, trustees called a special meeting in which they voted to appoint former longtime township administrator Michael Dockry to fill Kent’s post as interim trustee. Again, we were pleased to see the swift action and the good decision to select someone with such a clear commitment to the township and a wealth of knowledge of township affairs.
Further, because Dockry is not seeking election to the permanent post, his temporary appointment does not give an unfair advantage to any one candidate — of which there are five in the upcoming November election. In his first meeting as trustee, Dockry said this: “I expect now we’ll be able to put all this behind us and move forward with the business of the township.”
Bravo to trustees for the amount of consideration that likely went into this decision.
To be clear, we did question when the discussion was held about Dockry’s appointment — clearly a topic that must be discussed in either a public meeting or legally called executive session. We have no reason to presume the discussion was improper. In fact, a review of several months of Austintown trustees meeting minutes indicates more than one occasion in recent weeks when trustees adjourned into executive session “to consider the appointment, employment, discipline or compensation of public employees,” an exemption under Ohio’s open meetings laws that could apply not only to public employees, but also to public officials.
There is no further explanation in the minutes on the topic of those discussions, and when asked, current township Administrator Mark D’Apolito said he could not divulge anything that happened in executive sessions. He added, however, that a trustee appointment would be an eligible topic.
At least one of those closed-door discussions occurred during a meeting when Kent was absent.
While we would be remiss if we didn’t consistently remind our elected bodies of the critical importance of following the letter of the law when it comes to public business transparency, we give Austintown trustees the benefit of the doubt in this matter.
Kudos to trustees for their handling of this situation in a professional and swift manner.