While there were many successes in Freeport that helped pave a course for the city’s turnaround, the tenure of former City Manager Jeff Pynes will be defined by his misappropriation of city money.
Pynes pleaded guilty last week to four of eight counts of first-degree felony theft by public servant indictment handed up June 22, 2018. He pleaded no contest to the remaining count, a plea that acknowledges the facts are true without admitting guilt, according to the Ohio Bar Association.
The aggregated theft charge shows Pynes misappropriated more than $223,000 of city money, court documents state. He will be sentenced after a hearing before Judge Terri Holder in January and could receive up to 99 years in prison, though it likely will be much less.
Two accused accomplices, Christopher Wenz and Heath Beeman, are scheduled for trial the same day Pynes is due back in court. Each faces theft charges related to Pynes’ activities.
They are not the only ones who should be standing in a place of judgment, however.
Freeport’s elected leaders at the time share in the shame of the man they entrusted with running the city, failing in their primary responsibility of protecting residents and their hard-earned dollars. Just as a drug addict is the person ultimately responsible for his or her abuse, it is often the enablers surrounding them who create the environment for it to take place and escalate.
Pynes admits to being a thief, but the mayor and council members left the safe unlocked for him to stuff his pockets with cash. Pynes’ lawyer, Chip Lewis, said as much last week after the former city manager and police chief entered his plea.
Thousands of records and many interviews of people involved in the transactions described in the indictment showed that the city of Freeport lacked the proper protocols, procedures and guidance necessary for proper city governance in this day and age, Lewis said in the emailed statement.
While Pynes’ actions are a personal failure, they are more broadly a failure of elected leadership, people who violated the public trust not by what they did, but by what they did not.
Those in charge of the city, including now former Mayor Troy Brimage and City Manager Tim Kelty, have cleaned up the mess of past officials and put in place procedures intended to prevent a recurrence of the misdeeds and lax oversight of the Pynes era. But even two years later, the resulting black cloud of mistrust has only thinned and not fully dissipated.
“As a 20-year public servant, I understand that the ‘public trust’ is something to be guarded and nurtured, not abused,” Kelty said last week. “When it is betrayed, those of us remaining have to fight long and hard to earn it back.”
That journey is only beginning, but great strides have been made. Freeport is now better served by people who have demonstrated a focused, dedicated method of hands-on governance. They will allow the city to move on from its dark past, but until the enablers also admit to their responsibility for Pynes’ transgressions, the stain of mistrust will not completely vanish.