New Hamilton Co. Veterans Service Commission executive director faces criticism

New Hamilton Co. Veterans Service Commission executive director faces criticism

CINCINNATI — The new executive director for the Hamilton County Veterans Service Commission ran his first meeting Wednesday.

Orlando Sonza was appointed last month, after the longtime executive director, William Boettcher, retired from the position in February. Boettcher was in that position since the early 1990s.

But Sonza’s first meeting in his new position wasn’t exactly a fresh start.

Before Sonza could lead his first meeting, there were veterans and members of the Hamilton County Democratic Party outside of the meeting, criticizing Sonza for taking the job. Sonza is running for Congress as a Republican against Congressman Greg Landsman, D-Cincinnati. Some argue Sonza can’t be the new leader of the Hamilton County VSC, which is a full-time job, while also running for Congress full-time.

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“This is an honor to serve on this commission,” said Sonza, addressing the Hamilton County VSC for the first time in his new role. “I am here to serve yes this board, yes this office, but ultimately the veterans in Hamilton County.”

Sonza, a graduate of West Point, mentioned meeting his wife Jessica at the academy and moving to Cincinnati to raise their family. He outlined his goals as the commission’s new leader.

“I know I am tasked mainly to enact your vision,” said Sonza, addressing the VSC. “How do we get transportation… how do we get dental services like other surrounding counties… how do we bring financial literacy services to our veterans in Hamilton County.”

Orlando Sonza

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Outside of Sonza’s first meeting, members of the Hamilton County Democratic Party — along with some veterans — spoke against his appointment.

“Serving veterans is not a side gig,” said Connie Pillich, candidate for Hamilton County Prosecutor. “The (Hamilton County) Veterans Service Commission deserves a committed full-time leader… not a secondary commitment, or a personal side gig.”

“I don’t think he can adequately service what the veterans need in Hamilton County,” said John Plahovinsak, retired Lt. Col. U.S. Army.

Plahonvinsak said he doesn’t have any qualms about Sonza remaining as director as long as he stays in the role full-time and not just part-time.

“We see somebody serving himself over the individuals who deserve it most,” said Todd Hogan, U.S. Marine veteran.

Bill Tipton, U.S. Navy veteran, said Sonza should pick between the two.

Hamilton County Democrats and veterans

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We asked Sonza about some of the criticism he’s facing.

“Whatever happens out there, they’re fully entitled to, while I’m in this office, as the capacity as executive director, I am not talking anything political, anything campaigning until I am off the clock,” Sonza said.

Sonza said he is “full committed” to the job.

“I think in the same way that anyone else that has a lot on their plate can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Sonza said. “This office is apolitical, it must remain apolitical, so if there’s any bringing of politics, know that it’s not coming from within, it’s coming from outside and that’s where it needs to stay.”

Sonza also stressed that board members sought him out to be the next executive director, and they knew that he was running for Congress before they offered him the position.

“I can have those two tracks in my mind, running at the same time, the board knows that, all I know is that there’s a lot of work to do just in these next six months and I am the guy that’s committed to bring this board where it is now to where it’s going to be in six months,” Sonza said. “It’s about quality right, not quantity so just because someone and my understanding there were applicants that told this board definitively I can be here for X amount of years, but they may have brought a different skill set.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Sonza mentioned the retirement of Boettcher after Craig McKee’s Homefront Investigation exposed that over a five-year period the commission left some $31 million in the general fund instead of using it on services for veterans. That money stayed in the county’s general fund, to be used on other non-veteran related projects.

Steve Staniford, a Hamilton County VSC board member, told us the board’s hope is “the new executive director will further [their] vision and move it forward for as long as he’s here.”

He did admit that he does have concerns about longevity in the role — something he says he’s been vocal about.

“My hope is he can balance it and even if he is part time I mean this board especially me as dedicated as I am to it, is not going to stop making the changes necessary no matter who is here or who’s not,” Staniford said. “I don’t care about the outside noise, every day that I do this is to help a veteran.”

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