Monday, Mar 19, 2018
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Martin brings personal touch to cabinet post

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    John Martin, head of the state s developmental disabilities agency, visits therapist Lakisha Warr, left, and resident Stephanie Pollack at the Northwest Ohio Developmental Center.

    The Blade/Lori King
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    The Blade/Lori King
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The Blade/Lori King
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It's not the big numbers that worry John Martin most about his new position as Gov. Ted Strickland's appointee to head the Ohio Department of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

Not the idea of having some responsibility for nearly 78,000 people who are served by Ohio disabilities programs.

Nor the thought of more than 3,800 employees across the state - or managing a $1.2 billion annual budget.

To be sure, it's all a big change from Sunshine Inc. of Northwest Ohio in Monclova Township, where until this winter, Mr. Martin was in charge of 500 employees serving 1,000 people on a $23 million annual budget.

But it's the little number that's the stickler. That would be the one son who Mr. Martin will either need to move from Sunshine Children's Home in Monclova Township or not see as often when the family relocates from Toledo to Columbus to be close to the state offices.

"That's going to be a very difficult decision that we've kind of been avoiding, to be honest," said Mr. Martin, who plans to move to Columbus next year, after his youngest son, Seth, graduates from Rogers High School. "That's the hardest part of this whole process."

His older son, Joel, who's 23, uses a wheelchair, doesn't talk, and has many medical issues because of his mental retardation and cerebral palsy. But Mr. Martin says his son's eyes and body language make it easy to see that he is happy at Sunshine.


John Martin, head of the state s developmental disabilities agency, visits therapist Lakisha Warr, left, and resident Stephanie Pollack at the Northwest Ohio Developmental Center.

The Blade/Lori King
Enlarge | Buy This Image

And Mr. Martin, who's 54, is comfortable with him there.

The Martin family has spent almost every Sunday with Joel since he moved to Sunshine a few years ago. The Martins pick up Joel in the morning, take him to services at Toledo Mennonite Church, and spend the afternoon going for walks with the family dog, watching videos, or - one of Joel's favorite activities - driving through the Toledo car dealerships to see all the vehicles.

Joel doesn't appear to have fully comprehended that his father is no longer at Sunshine. When his mother, Sue, visits him on weekdays, Joel still wants her to take him to his father's office, which has always been a part of her visits.

But for Mr. Martin, his love of his son and his firsthand understanding of what families of disabled people are going through undoubtedly will make him a better leader of the state's disabilities programs, many say.

Joel came up in the first meeting that Mr. Strickland and Mr. Martin had in the governor's transition headquarters, when ironically, even Mr. Martin's political affiliation did not come up.

The two men had not known each other, and Mr. Strickland said he assumed Mr. Martin was a Democrat (he is), although Mr. Strickland never asked. Political considerations, the governor said, were not on his agenda when he chose his cabinet.

"I was free to look for the very best people I could find," he said.

With Mr. Martin, the governor succeeded in that goal, said John Trunk, superintendent of the Lucas County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

"I'm not sure I've met anyone as ethical, as honest, as focused on helping people with disabilities move ahead in life," Mr. Trunk said.

And Mr. Martin is smart, creative, and has a good sense of humor to boot, said Mary Hays, director of residential services at Sunshine, who worked with him throughout his decades there.

The cabinet-level job Mr. Martin has set out to do will take all of those qualities.

First on his list is providing services with less complexity and "fair and logical payment systems" - a lofty goal for the disabilities system, which is known even in government circles for its complex rules and regulations.

Good stewardship of limited resources is his second goal and one that Mr. Strickland points out will be an ever-present challenge.

Mr. Martin wants to make sure that disabled people and their families have as many choices as possible in deciding which services and which organizations providing those services best meet their needs.

And he wants to do all of that in a way that draws together what has sometimes been a fractured community of organizations involved in caring for disabled Ohioans.

"There has been a significant amount of conflict in this field," Mr. Martin said. "I think part of it is we have a lot of passion. It's a field where people care and they have passion."

Rolling such passions into a sense of cooperation and shared purpose is high on Mr. Strickland's to-do list for Mr. Martin.

It's a tall task for Mr. Martin, whose previous involvement in politics consisted of testifying before state legislators about disabilities issues during state budget talks, serving on the state disabilities agency's family advisory committee, and working on a community oversight committee for Toledo Public Schools' building project.

He has never been a player in local political circles, which Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner pointed out recently when addressing the issue of the number of area residents that Mr. Strickland appointed to his cabinet. The mayor said he didn't previously know Mr. Martin, who is just one of two northwest Ohioans among the 22 people Mr. Strickland has appointed to his cabinet.The other is Dr. Alvin Jackson of Fremont, who is to direct the state health department starting next month.

In disabilities circles, however, Mr. Martin is quite well known.

"I think he will bring a lot of togetherness to our system," said Maureen Corcoran, president of the Ohio Provider Resource Association, a trade association of organizations such as Sunshine that serve disabled people. Mr. Martin has been a board member of the association for years.

"He's very experienced," Ms. Corcoran said. "He worked in the field before he had his own son."

After graduating from Illinois State University in 1975 with a special education degree, Mr. Martin taught junior high and high school for two years in northeastern Indiana's Fremont. Then he and his wife were house parents in a group home with eight mentally retarded people.

Later, he received his master's degree in community psychology from Temple University and was employed with the Community Foundation for Human Development in Sellersville, Pa., developing group homes in a three-county area before he took the top position at Sunshine.

And somewhere along the way he picked up some ever-so-valuable skills.

"He has a way of getting to the core of an issue that really puts things in context in a way that brings people together rather than dividing them," Ms. Hays said. "He's just able to boil things down in a way that makes you see them in a different light. And in seeing them in a different light you're able to see a way forward."

Ms. Hays has seen that at Sunshine.

Now she's hoping to see similar results across the state.

"It kind of restores my faith in government to see a good man appointed," Ms. Hays said.

Contact Jane Schmucker at:

or 419-337-7780.

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