JEFFERSON — Changes are underway at the Ashtabula County Port Authority as a new executive director takes the helm of one of the county’s economic development arms.

The port’s board members voted Wednesday to accept the resignation of Sean Ratican, who is now employed as an assistant professor at the Kent State University Trumbull County campus where he is teaching business classes.

Ratican, who earned a doctorate in philosophy in May from the University of the Cumberlands in Kentucky with a specialization in organizational leadership and business, had been employed part-time since August 2018 with KSU and he was hired on full time two weeks ago.

Ratican gave the Port Authority a 30-day notice at an Aug. 16 meeting, although board members said he never told them where he was going and they were unaware that he had already been working for Kent State University on a part-time basis. 

Mark Winchell, formerly of the Ashtabula County 503 Corporation, was named as Ratican’s replacement. The board did not conduct a public search for the new executive director. 

Winchell, who will earn $93,000 annually, will be paid more per year than Ratican was as executive director

Winchell said he was motivated to accept the position with the Port Authority because it was a good opportunity. He worked for more than four years with the 503 Corporation and before that for 12 years with the Ashtabula County Visitor’s Bureau.

“I’ve been involved in private nonprofit county business for my entire professional career,” Winchell said. “It’s a great opportunity to continue to make a difference.”

A change in leadership at the Port Authority coincides with a change in who will occupy the building. Work is underway to house not only the Port Authority under the roof, but also the 503 Corporation and Ashtabula County Growth Partnership, with the building being renamed as the Ashtabula County Center for Economic Development.

“We currently collaborate but having all three here will add to that collaboration just by being near one another,” Winchell said.

Ratican’s resignation did not come without some questions by the board regarding public records. While Board President Rob Schimmelpfennig and board member Jerome Brockway said Ratican did a great job during his time as executive director, the board also approved hiring a forensic data specialist to retrieve public records and electronic data believed to still be in his possession.

Schimmelpfennig said when Ratican turned in his building keys and county-owned cell phone Tuesday this week, the phone had been wiped of all of its data. All data on publicly-provided phones is public record subject to retention laws.

Ratican was also the only person with access and passwords to Port Authority emails and the port’s website, Schimmelpfennig said.

“We have no access to anything right now,” Schimmelpfennig said.

Brockway, who said he and others don’t currently have passwords to access certain port data, said the Port Authority is responsible for maintaining all public records pertaining to its activities.

The hiring of a forensic data specialist is just a “precautionary measure,” Brockway said, adding that he wishes Ratican well in his future endeavors at KSU.

“We are responsible for any and all data and public records,” Brockway said. “We aren’t saying that he has it or doesn’t have it. We’re just engaging someone to make sure we have everything.”

Ratican said he does not have any of the Port Authority’s data or records, and he realizes the board is likely upset about his departure. Ratican said he did everything he thought was ethically responsible and he tried to stay and assist with the transition process, yet the board chose to go in a different direction.

“I left my computer and phone as they wished,” Ratican said. “I was given a phone and I removed my personal data off of that phone. All my email was left on the computer that I left there.”

Ratican said he enjoyed his time with the board and the various multi-million economic development projects he worked on. Yet working on a doctorate and taking a job at Kent was the best decision for his family.

Ratican added that he is proud to have led the port in a positive direction during his nine years working there and he wishes Winchell and the board the best moving forward.

“When I took the port job there were significant financial struggles,” Ratican said. “We relied on county commissioner assistance to balance our budget each year.”

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