Two Contested Primaries for Belmont County Commission

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Six people are campaigning in hopes of securing a seat on the Belmont County Board of Commissioners.

Four candidates are in the running for the Democrat nomination in the May 8 primary election, with three people challenging the incumbent in the May 8 race. Meanwhile, two Republicans are facing off for that party’s nomination.

DEMOCRATS

Michael Bianconi, 60, said his long-term commitment to the taxpayers of Belmont County sets him apart from the other candidates in the race. He previously served as commissioner from 1993-2000 and is presently a Pease Township trustee. He is a regular visitor at the commission’s weekly meetings.

“I don’t shy away from problems, and I voice concerns about how the county’s tax dollars are spent,” Bianconi said.

One of his biggest objections came when commissioners approved the purchase of The Health Plan buildings in St. Clairsville for use as a concolidated court site. He said as landlord of The Health Plan building, the county will lose revenue from property taxes the site generated. He estimated that loss at about $65,000 a year, or more than $1 million over 20 years. He also criticized the plan because the buildings won’t be available if a developer wants to bring jobs to the county.

The resident of Brookside is retired from the former Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel.

Angela Hatfield, 61, of St. Clairsville is the only woman in the six-person field of candidates. She has some college education and received a degree from a technical school to become a laboratory technician. This is her second time running for county commissioner. She has not held any other elected positions.

Hatfield worked for UPS for 23 years. She served as community services manager and oversaw the philanthropy for the UPS Foundation for three states. She also was a lobbyist for the company in Washington, D.C.

She served as director of the Belmont County Animal Shelter and now is executive director of the Belmont County Humane Society, which is not affiliated with the county commission.

Hatfield said she believes in full disclosure regarding county business.

“It’s extremely important to seek input and to listen to the constituents,” she said.

Chuck Probst is a resident of Colerain and, like Bianconi, previously served on the commission.

“My decision to return to office is to bring proven leadership to the county,” the 60-year-old candidate said. “Under my leadership, Belmont County will find fiscal conservatism, economic prosperity and growth.”

Among his accomplishments during past terms, Probst cites: Founding the Ohio Valley Oil and Gas Expo, completion of Fox Commerce Park, helping to acquire $1.2 million for the Barnesville Hospital Expansion Project, completion of the county Emergency Management Agency building, providing more than $18 million in water and sewer expansion to numerous areas of the county, expanding the county jail and securing funds for the ongoing Mall Road interchange project.

Probst is a lifelong resident of Belmont County and held a commission seat from 1999-2013. He also served as a Colerain Township trustee. Probst has been a fireman and honorary member of the Martins Ferry Volunteer Fire Department and Emergency Squad and head volleyball coach at twol high.

Probst and wife Karen reside in Colerain. They have two daughters, Ashley and Jessie, and a grandson and granddaughter.

Mark Thomas, 58, is the incumbent in the race and is in his fourth term as a county commissioner. He served 2001-09 and from 2013 to present. Prior to being elected to the commission seat, the St. Clairsville resident served on St. Clairsville City Council and was the city’s law director. He has a bachelor’s degree in business from Kent State University and a juris doctorate from Ohio Northern University. He practiced law from 1987 to 2015 and has been in the restaurant business since 1999.

“I feel that my work history, educational background and long tenure on the commission set me apart from the other qualified candidates,” Thomas said. “This is a very positive yet formidable time for Belmont County, and it needs leadership from someone who has a good grasp on not only how county government operates but is fully committed to its future success.”

Thomas stressed that he believes government should be responsive and transparent. And he believes the biggest challenge for Belmont County is ensuring fiscal responsibility.

REPUBLICANS

Jerry Echemann, 59, is a resident of Martins Ferry and has been on the ballot two previous times. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ohio University and spent 28 years as a reporter for WTRF 7 news. He retired Dec. 31 after seven years as the announcer at Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack. Throughout his career as a reporter, Echemann got to know the people and communities of Belmont County and beyond, and he hopes those connections will help him if he is elected as a county commissioner.

Echemann said he believes in government transparency and that his background as a reporter taught him communication is key. Echemann thinks the future of Belmont County hinges on attracting jobs to the area, along with tourism dollars.

“I’m not a stranger in any part of the county,” he said. “I just want people to place their trust in me so I can go in and make the big decisions.”

Christopher Gagin is the current chairman of the Belmont County Republican Party. The 50-year-old lawyer is in private practice with the Wheeling-based law firm of McCamic, Sacco & McCoid PLLC. He is licensed to practice law in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

He and his wife, Katherine Kelich, live in Richland Township with their 2-year old daughter, Gabriella.

Gagin is a 1990 graduate of the University of Michigan, as well as a 1993 graduate of the University of Akron School of Law. He is a past president of the Belmont County Bar Association and the current solicitor for the village of Flushing. Previously, he served as acting magistrate within the Belmont County Court of Common Pleas, Juvenile and Domestic Relations Divisions, and he served Jefferson and Harrison counties as an assistant prosecutor. Prior to switching parties in 2013, Gagin was district director and staff attorney for former U.S. Rep. Charlie Wilson, D-Ohio.

“Every election is about the future of our community, and 2018 is no different. This year, Belmont County voters will determine whether the county continues to move forward with new faces, new ideas and the new sense of openness brought about by the 2016 election results,” Gagin said. “Belmont County is now a driving force within Ohio’s economic future. The challenge is to ensure we properly manage this opportunity. We must further invest in our infrastructure to support future growth and improve the quality of life throughout the county. We must also help local businesses find ways to expand.”

The winner in the GOP race will face the Democrat nominee in the Nov. 6 general election. Thomas is currently the only Democrat on the board. In 2016, Republicans J.P. Dutton and Josh Meyer campaigned successfully to capture the other two commission seats which, at that time, were held by Democrats.

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