Former Port board member pays back benefits

LISBON – A former Columbiana County Port Authority board member has reportedly agreed to pay back to the board $17,100 in retirement benefits he unfairly collected over a nearly two-year period.

According to Executive Director Tracy Drake, Stephen W. Cooper notified the Ohio Public Employees Retirement System he was retiring from the board in March 2011 and being rehired. However, Cooper reportedly did not go through the process of notifying the port authority board or the public of his intention to retire and be rehired. The reappointment was never brought before the Columbiana County commissioners as it would be required.

Drake said after Monday’s meeting that Cooper just retired on his own without notifying other board members. He was collecting retirement as of March 2011 and no longer officially on the board.

Besides approving the agreement with Cooper, the board also voted to ratify all resolutions, contracts and other actions approved by the board of directors in both 2011 and 2012, the time he was there and voting, but not officially a board member.

Drake said it was a matter of making sure everyone has a “comfort level” with the board’s actions over that time period. After the meeting, Drake pointed out in corporate law “parent authority” would allow someone acting as a board member to act on behalf of a company and he likened this situation to that.

The decision to handle the situation this way was reportedly after consulting with the state auditor’s office, which determined Cooper was officially a non-hire and he should repay the money he collected from the board during that period.

According to documents sent to the board by the OPERS, Cooper was required to wait two months after his retirement date before collecting on his retirement benefits and health care coverage because he failed to wait two months between the time of his retirement and rehire. Additionally, he noted health care coverage would not be available to him when he was rehired, yet members of the board of directors are eligible for health insurance.

Board member Penny Traina announced the auditor’s office is now finished with the audit and it should be released to the board members, possibly by the end of the week. Additionally, Traina applauded the efforts of Sandy Steele, port authority manager of administration and finance, in handling the matter with the Cooper issue.

“She’s been a stellar employee throughout all this,” Traina said.

Following all the action of the board, an executive session was called to discuss personnel matters.