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Published: Tuesday, 12/10/2002

Taft aide named to head turnpike commission

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

BEREA, Ohio - Four months after allegations of misconduct forced the resignation of its executive director, the Ohio Turnpike Commission yesterday hired a member of Gov. Bob Taft's cabinet as its new leader.

The five-member commission unanimously appointed Gary Suhadolnik, director of the state Department of Commerce, to succeed Gino Zomparelli, who resigned Aug. 8 under pressure from Mr. Taft.

Mr. Zomparelli's resignation came two days after a report from the state's inspector general and Ethics Commission. The report documented 170 instances in which Mr. Zomparelli and at least 30 other high-ranking turnpike employees accepted free meals, gifts, golf outings, and pro sports tickets from 18 companies doing business with the Turnpike Commission from 1999 to 2001.

Although 200 people applied for the executive director's job, the turnpike commission's search did not go very far after Mr. Taft made it clear last month that he wanted Mr. Suhadolnik for the job.

“I have run a clean agency at Commerce for four years,” said Mr. Suhadolnik, a former Republican state senator. “I am hoping those folks at the turnpike who need a change are ready for a change, and those who play by the rules will continue to do so.”

Besides putting a trusted lieutenant in charge of the turnpike, the move enables Mr. Taft to appoint his lieutenant governor-elect, Jennette Bradley, to replace Mr. Suhadolnik as director of the state Department of Commerce.

Mr. Suhadolnik plans to start his new job on Jan. 2. His annual salary will be $115,000 - $9,565 more than what he earns as Commerce Department director. At the time of his resignation, Mr. Zomparelli was paid $150,230 a year.

Mr. Suhadolnik's new job also will enable him to return to his home in the Cleveland suburb of Strongsville. His wife, Nancy, is promotions manager for the Cleveland-based Ohio Lottery Commission.

Mr. Suhadolnik said yesterday he did not know if he would replace high-ranking turnpike officials, several of whom were recently disciplined for accepting gratuities from contractors that do business with the Turnpike Commission.

Tom Charles, the state's inspector general, was executive director of the Office of Legislative Inspector General when Mr. Suhadolnik served in the state Senate.

“He has been good for this office to work with as Commerce director. Whenever we have questions or issues, he has been very cooperative. I think he will do a great job at the turnpike,” he said.

Mr. Suhadolnik, 52, will be the 11th executive director in the turnpike's 50-year history.

In his application for the job, Mr. Suhadolnik wrote that he had gained some experience with transportation issues as a state senator.

“These assignments resulted in the enactment of legislation addressing the transportation of hazardous wastes, as well as transportation issues surrounding emergency cleanups and underground storage tanks,” he wrote.

Several transportation and lobbying groups praised Mr. Suhadolnik's hiring.

Larry Davis, president of the Ohio Trucking Association, described Mr. Suhadolnik as “very fair and open-minded and willing to listen to both sides of an issue.”

Michael Farley, a spokesman for the Ohio Concrete Construction Association, predicted that Mr. Suhadolnik will bring “much-needed change” to the Turnpike Commission.

“For quite some time, the turnpike decision-making process has been dominated by the asphalt lobby. The concrete industry is eager for a level playing field at the commission,” Mr. Farley said.

Truman “Tim” Greenwood, a Toledo attorney who chairs the Turnpike Commission, has acknowledged that he learned from reporters - not the governor's office - that Mr. Suhadolnik was Mr. Taft's choice to become the new executive director.

After the vote to appoint Mr. Suhadolnik, Mr. Greenwood then offered to step down as commission chairman and made a motion to elect Stephen Strnisha the new chairman, effective Jan. 3. Mr. Greenwood prefaced his proposal by noting his initial reluctance to accept appointment to the commission three years ago.

No one seconded the motion, however, and Mr. Greenwood then withdrew it. He declined to talk to reporters afterward.

Mr. Strnisha said he was “not interested in being chairman” and had not discussed the matter with Mr. Greenwood before the meeting yesterday.

“He told me he was going to do that as we were walking in” to the meeting room, Mr. Strnisha said.

During the meeting, Mr. Greenwood had characterized Mr. Suhadolnik as a late applicant for the turnpike job, and William Wilkins, a member of the commission's search committee, confirmed that Mr. Suhadolnik was the only person interviewed for the position.

“We conducted a national search, but we were lucky enough to find the ideal candidate living right down the road in Strongsville,” he said.

Also during the meeting, the Turnpike Commission approved 4 percent pay increases for all nonunion managers except for senior managers, with a decision on executive future pay left to Mr. Suhadolnik's discretion. Mr. Greenwood dissented from the 4-1 vote in favor.

Blade reporter David Patch contributed to this report.



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