Ujvagi has votes to be president, colleagues say; Caucus shows backing for him to lead council

By Joshua Benton and Tom Jewell
Blade Staff Writers

Page 13

Peter Ujvagi has assembled enough pledges of support – if they stand – to elect him president of Toledo’s next council, some of his fellow council members revealed last night.

The disclosure was made after a private caucus of seven members of next year’s council and two Lucas County Democratic Party operatives Thursday at party headquarters.

“Everyone there was supportive of Mr. Ujvagi,” said District 5 council member Tina Skeldon Wozniak, one of the participants.

With those seven votes – along with the support of District 3 Councilman Bob McCloskey, who did not attend the meeting – Mr. Ujvagi would tally enough ballots to win the presidency of the 12-member council on Jan. 2.

Six council members are elected from districts and six serve at-large.

“Between the people there and others I’ve talked to, I think the votes are shaping up for Peter Ujvagi,” said Paula Ross, the party’s executive director, who was at the meeting.

“I’m going to continue to work and to talk to the other council members and hopefully garner their support,” Mr. Ujvagi said last night.

“I learned long ago not to count your votes until they’re in.”

Also at the 1 1/2-hour session were current at-large council members Peter Gerken, C. Allen McConnell, and Mr. Ujvagi; District 6 council member Jeanine Perry; newcomers Wilma Brown, of District 1, and at-large member Louis Escobar, both elect ed to their first terms on Nov. 4, and George Davis, Jr., the party’s vice chairman.

The meeting was called to flesh out the role of council president, a job that is second in the city only to the mayor’s.

The position was created with the city’s charter changes in 1993, and has been held by only two people – at-large Councilman Gene Cook, who is retiring from the legislative body, and state Rep. Jack Ford (D., Toledo).

“We needed to discuss the definition of the president’s responsibilities, what his role would be,” Mr. Escobar said.

Under the city charter, the president sets the council agenda, selects chairmen for committees, and decides who is allowed to speak at council’s bi-weekly meetings.

Should Mayor Carty Finkbeiner not be able to finish his four-year term, the council president automatically assumes the mayor’s post.

About midway through the meeting, members were polled informally about their choices for the presidency, according to Mr. Escobar, and each said Mr. Ujvagi had their vote.

Mr. Ujvagi, who won more votes than any other Toledo candidate in the November election, runs E&C Manufacturing, a small East Toledo business.

Some of his opponents for the president’s position had questioned whether he would have time to be council president while running a small company.

Members attending Thursday’s meeting said they were confident Mr. Ujvagi would have the time necessary for the job.

“We were looking for someone who could make a commitment to the time needed,” Mr. Escobar said.

“There will be certain days that he’ll be available, and he’ll be available for two or three hours before each council meeting,” he said.

Mr. McConnell, who along with Mr. Gerken had been considered Mr. Ujvagi’s main competition for the post, said one of the reasons he attended the meeting was to assess his support.

If at least seven other council members are planning to vote for Mr. Ujvagi, Mr. McConnell said, “There is no way I could be council president.”

Mr. Gerken could not be reached for comment last night.

Republicans Rob Ludeman, who represents District 2, and at-large Councilman Gene Zmuda, along with Democrat Betty Shultz, an at-large council member, all had expressed interest in the council presidency.

Mrs. Shultz was invited to Thursday’s meeting but did not attend.

Mr. McCloskey said he was never invited directly but noted that was because he “made it clear up front that I am going to support Peter Ujvagi.”

District 4 council member Edna Brown, a registered Democrat, was not invited because the party considers her an Independent, she said.

The two outgoing Democrats on council – June Boyd, who lost to Wilma Brown in this month’s election, and Mr. Cook – did not attend the meeting.

Neither did either of the council’s two Republicans.

“If they wanted to discuss the vice mayor, it would be appropriate to include all councilmen,” Mr. Zmuda said.

“I hope it doesn’t foreshadow that the council will become more partisan.”

Before the 1993 charter change, there was no president of council but rather a vice mayor, a mostly ceremonial post.

Ohio’s open meetings laws prevent a majority of a city’s council members – in Toledo’s case, seven of 12 – from gathering in private to discuss or take action on council issues.

But at Thursday’s meeting, only five council members were present.

Mr. Escobar and Ms. Brown will not take office until Jan. 2, so the seven total councilmen-elect were not in violation of the law, Ms. Ross said.

“The things we are generally careful about are having actual majorities and decision making,” she said.

“We’re very careful about those.”

Mrs. Perry said the meeting followed both the letter and the intent of the law.

“I’m comfortable that the discussion we were having did not violate the spirit of the law,” she said.

Mr. McConnell, a lawyer, said he checked with the city’s law department a few weeks ago and was told a meeting like Thursday’s would not violate the state’s open meetings laws.

Ms. Ross said no decisions were made at the meeting, but Mr. Escobar said the group settled on the length of Mr. Ujvagi’s term of office.

“We decided that it would be a two-year term, and then Peter would be up for election again if he didn’t do a good job,” Mr. Escobar said.

Mayor Finkbeiner, a Democrat, said he looks forward to working with Mr. Ujvagi.

“I think Peter Ujvagi will be an excellent council president,” he said.

“I’ve known Peter since we sat together as freshman councilmen in 1980, and I admire his knowledge of neighborhood, grass-roots politics,” Mayor Finkbeiner said. “He has an excellent vision of what Toledo needs to do to move forward.”

Mr. Ujvagi declined to discuss the meeting in detail.

“There were some people who met, some of the Democrats who have been re-elected to council,” he said. “These people have been talking to each other about where council should go, how council will work.”

In 1985 and 1987, Mr. Ujvagi was the top vote-getter when all councilmen were elected on an at-large basis.

But he was denied the vice mayor’s job both times.

Ms. Ross noted that Mr. Ujvagi’s support could change between now and the vote.

“It isn’t a done deal until January,” she said.