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Life does go on after time in the legislature

We all know a lot about what state and federal lawmakers are doing during their elected terms, but what about after they leave office?

I had the chance to find out recently during a couple of pleasant and interesting conversations with former state representative Jack Cera.

The Democrat from Bellaire left the General Assembly at the end of 2020 due to term limits. First elected in 1982, he represented the local area at the state level for 23 years in all — 14 years during his first stint in office and another nine years after he was appointed in 2011 to replace Lou Gentile, who had been appointed to the state Senate.

Upon leaving the legislature, he said he was most proud of the ways his office had been able to help individual constituents and local communities deal with state government. He gave much of the credit for that success to Pam Wilson, who worked as his legislative aide for 19 years.

“She did more to help the people of this district than I did,” Cera said. “Pam was not from here, she was from Washington Courthouse and lived in Columbus, but she left no stone unturned to help you.”

He also recalled that the first bill he was able to get passed was a mine safety bill that updated those laws to protect more people from harm on the job. He also was proud of legislation he worked on to create the Ohio Coal Development Office, which oversees research and invests in developments to make Ohio’s coal a more economically viable and environmentally sound fuel source.

Emergency response was also a top priority for him during his more than two decades as a lawmaker. He said the 1990 Shadyside Flood demonstrated “how lacking we were as a state in a number of areas when it came to emergency response.” His work in that area helped put rain gauges and warning systems in place and also increased funding for emergency management agencies.

But what is Jack up to now that he is no longer a state legislator? He is still working to represent and improve the quality of life for people in Appalachian Ohio.

Cera has begun working with Sunday Creek Horizons, an Athens-based firm that “provides issue advocacy and strategic communication, and business development services to a broad range of clients,” according to its website. Its mission is simple: “to improve the lives of Appalachian Ohioans.” It works with groups such as the Appalachian Children Coalition, the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies, Ohio University College of Health Sciences and Professions, the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia and several other diverse clients.

Cera said he is working specifically with the Outdoor Recreation Council of Appalachia, based in Athens County.

“They are building a really exciting project,” he told me.

The project is a top-notch mountain bike trail system in the Wayne National Forest. So far, about 20 miles of trail have been built, but the group hopes to construct a total of around 80 miles. He said the existing portion already has attracted about 1,000 people to the area of communities such as Nelsonville and Chauncey. He said those small villages are seeing “all kinds of activity and business growth” as a result.

In addition, Cera said the Sunday Creek Horizons groups is working with the Washington County Board of Commissioners and the Scioto Valley Piketon Area Council of Governments. The latter effort involves seeking justice for Scioto River Valley residents and students in the wake of contamination from the PORTS nuclear enrichment facility.

Cera said his work with the firm so far has been on a part-time basis, largely done via virtual meeting platforms and phone calls. He said he has talked with current legislators on behalf of some organizations and has advised those organizations on budget and legislative issues. “What we are trying to do beyond anything is be a voice for the region,” Cera said, noting the firm sometimes performs pro bono work.

While Cera has always believed Appalachian Ohio deserves a seat at the table when it comes to plans for government spending and regulation, he now believes a new approach is needed to make southeastern Ohio thrive.

“We’ve got to take a different view of things,” he said. “We have a lot of natural beauty we’re not taking advantage of. … We need to be more creative and forward in our thinking.”

He also stressed that quality of life is an important issue for Appalachian Ohioans. He knows that people need good jobs, but said perhaps those jobs don’t need to come from the types of industries that have traditionally located here.

“We have a lot of opportunities, but we have to be more creative in our thinking,” he said. “It doesn’t always have be a plant or the things we traditionally think about.”

Cera noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the concept of working remotely to the forefront of many conversations. Now that a lot of companies have discovered they don’t need to have their employees in an office building, he said more people may choose to live in rural or remote areas. In order to do that, though, they will need access to broadband service to work effectively from a remote location. Broadband also is key to providing telehealth and mental health services, including making those available through our schools.

In addition to his work with the firm, headed up by another former lawmaker, Zack Space, Cera has agreed to serve on the board of the Appalachian Children’s Coalition. As a volunteer with that group, Cera said he is working to obtain state grant funds to supplement a federal grant it already received. He said the funds will help expand services to more counties. Cera said this organization works to persuade mental health providers, especially new college graduates, to stay in the Appalachian region and provide services within area schools.

Cera, who is in his mid-60s, said he still isn’t sure what the future holds for him. He said he has not yet made a long-term commitment to Sunday Creek Horizons. And he has promised his wife he won’t get involved in too many things that will take time away from his family.

He said his last year in the legislature was a tough one given the pandemic and a scandal involving the speaker of the House. He was disappointed by the “politicizing of the pandemic.” “What we really needed was strong leadership of elected officials … to take action early on. … The way politicians handled it caused divisiveness over something we should have all been together on, fighting as we always do as Ohioans,” he said.

Now, he hopes lawmakers can set their partisanship aside and work together for the good of Ohio. Some priorities he hopes are addressed include: the school funding system, which was declared unconstitutional in 1990 but was never changed under the law; broadband access, which he said leaves whole parts of the state at a disadvantage in terms of education and the economy; gas and oil concerns, including property ownership issues, dormant mineral rights, leases and more.

“Our communities need help, our schools need help and our people need help,” he said.

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