EAST PALESTINE -With the village manager and his administrative assistant nearly out of the picture, some residents believe now is the time to refocus priorities and invest in economic development.
Eighty-two-year-old Park Grim, who moved to East Palestine after marrying his wife 62 years ago, said he has seen a lot change during his lifetime.
"When I came here we had a really nice city, lots of businesses, and all of that stuff is gone. We didn't have the run down homes that we have now. Things were a lot better. The last 10 or 15 years there has been so many things that have gone wrong in this city," he said.
Gary Clark was hired as village manager 10 years ago, and he and his wife Cindy Clark announced their resignations this past week after several council discussions over their job performance.
Grim said he is disappointed with Gary Clark but didn't believe it was necessary for him and his wife to resign.
"He didn't have to resign if he thought he was right. He could have stuck it out ... I can't feel too sorry for him because he's going to have a very nice pension and so is she, so they are going to live happily ever after," he said.
Gary Clark and his wife both have more than 30 years' employment with the village, and prior to being hired as village manager he served as chief of police for 21 years.
Resident Alan Cohen, who has attended several council meetings, said the town is now at a standstill.
"We don't have a leader. This is the worst possible time for this to happen. We are in the middle of an annexation. A major business in the community is relocating. Council should do what they can to accommodate that move and find occupants for the six large buildings as a result of that move," he said.
Brittain Motors, the downtown Chevrolet car dealership owned by Tom Brittain, will be moving to a new site along state Route 14 within the next year or so. The dealership is currently operated out of six different buildings along East Martin Street.
Cohen said that it's important council work with Brittain to try to find occupants for the buildings.
Brittain said some interest has already been shown in the buildings that will become vacant after the move, but nothing is set in stone yet.
"I'm not ready at this time to do anything. We are going to maintain business here until the other new building is completed. There is some speculation on some things coming in. It is quite a large piece of property; it's like a whole city block," he said of the current location.
He hopes more businesses can set up shop in those buildings after he moves.
"If that happens it will be the greatest thing to happen in East Palestine," he said.
Cohen said council should also find ways to fill up a number of already existing empty properties in the village.
Resident and environmentalist John Herbert, whose wife works for the park, echoed the same thoughts.
"We should get on with the issues among the city. We need the jobs, and many of our houses are sitting vacant. Our streets need constant work," he said.
Economic development was also a theme of several comments left on the Morning Journal website. Readers said something should be done about "unkempt" properties and the condition of the streets. Attracting new businesses to the village was also discussed.
Comments also showed displeasure and favor toward Gary Clark and some on council.
Brittain said council should work together with the best interests of the village in mind as a goal and that it's "sad" the village is "changing coaches in the middle of the game," referring to Gary Clark.
Herbert said Gary Clark has "done an awful lot of good for the community," while Grim said he hasn't done enough and was especially upset when Gary Clark provided pictures to the newspaper of Councilman Don Elzer's properties.
"I thought that was not professional at all. If he would have taken pictures of those buildings before and after then he might have had some leg to stand on ... Mr. Elzer has done a lot of trying to fix things up in town. I'm in favor of what he's trying to do," Grim said.
Elzer had suggested in early March that council members go into executive session to discuss complaints about Gary Clark. The complaints were not discussed, and Elzer did not wish to reveal what they were after that meeting.
Gary Clark said then that he was aware some on council were seeking to have him fired and said in a letter distributed to council that someone who has sat on council two years has "left many promises unfulfilled" and "violates housing and business maintenance ordinances on a continuing basis."
Elzer was not named in the letter but Gary Clark provided 13 photographs of Elzer's properties to the Morning Journal after the meeting.
Cohen said the way the Clarks were treated by council was "despicable."
"They gave over 30 years of service to East Palestine, and to treat them that way was just deplorable. The dirty laundry was aired in public, and it should not have been. Everything that took place regarding the Clarks, Gary in particular, should have been conducted in executive session behind closed doors. There was no reason for the dirty laundry to be aired in public like that," he said.
Ohio open meetings laws, also known as Sunshine Laws, allow municipalities to enter into executive session to discuss hiring, firing, or complaints against an employee. The laws do not take precedence over the village's charter, however, which states that the manager shall attend all council meetings.
Clark had said he didn't oppose council entering into executive session to discuss him as long as he was present. The executive sessions were never held.
"The simple truth is they were discussing personnel issues, and that's a specific requirement in terms of going into executive session ... in effect what they had was a public lynching. They just hounded them out of a job," Cohen said.
He said the discussions were "very upsetting" and noted that there were never any specific charges or alleges of misconduct mentioned about the Clarks.
"When I say they shouldn't have taken place in public, I'm not saying that from the point of view of protecting the Clarks. I'm saying it was not in the community's interest to have it take place in an open council meeting. It made the community look bad. That's what upset me more than anything else, the community having all of it dragged out in the public and in the newspapers," he added.
But Grim said council wasn't necessarily in the wrong.
"That's why we have a council. They are supposed to do those kinds of things. If they think there is a problem they need to do what they think is necessary. He's not God, you know. I know he has an awful lot power as city manager, but if they see things that are wrong there is nothing wrong with bringing them up. If you can't stand the heat, you need to get out of the kitchen," he said.
Cohen said he had many "long discussions" with council members about what was taking place, and his general impression was that Gary Clark was good for East Palestine.
He said the council members sought him out for the discussions and declined to say who they were.
"I think to blame him for the population loss as some of the council members appeared to do was dead wrong. This town has been losing population since the 1970s. It has been a steady exodus from this town ... it's not his fault that people are leaving. The entire area, Columbiana County and Mahoning County and the state of Ohio has lost population. Why they think for some reason that Gary Clark is responsible is beyond me," he said.
Elzer said in March that the census correlates to Gary Clark's time in office.
Gary Clark did not immediately return a phone call on Saturday.