Toledo council goes on the attack; Additional staffers needed to better control agenda, members say

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 25

Toledo council is sick of being force-fed a legislative agenda by the mayor’s office, and its members have begun planning their attack.

“The last four years have been, to put it mildly, challenging,” Councilman Peter Ujvagi said yesterday during a council retreat at One Maritime Plaza. “This is the start of a new era.”

The discussions were the de facto start of Mr. Ujvagi’s term as council president. While an official vote won’t be taken until Jan. 2, he has enough support from council members to elect him to the post, and he was clearly in charge of the meeting of next year’s council.

“I thank you all for the trust you have put in me,” he said.

This fall, outgoing council president Gene Cook created a task force – members C. Allen McConnell, Edna Brown, Gene Zmuda, and Jeanine Perry – to study how council could restructure its staff and internal rules to better control its agenda. Members of the task force traveled to Columbus last month to examine how its council worked.

What they saw surprised them.

“It was a real eye-opener,” Mr. Ujvagi said. “I saw a lot of effectiveness, a lot of efficiency. Their council made informed decisions.”

That efficiency is caused by the relative ease by which council members can receive information about proposed legislation before meetings, he said. Meetings of Toledo’s council, in contrast, are filled with council members’ requests for additional information from administration officials – and that information is often not forthcoming, they said.

“Sometimes it can take weeks to get an answer to a simple question,” Mr. Zmuda said.

With the switch to a strong-mayor form of government in 1993, council did not adjust itself to new political realities, members said. With a strong mayor, the administration can dictate what information is released and effectively control what bills council considers.

“We’ve been living for the last four years as council did under the city manager form of government,” Mr. Zmuda said. “If the administration did not want to see a piece of legislation reach us, it did not get done.”

The task force’s conclusion: Council’s authority can be increased only if it has additional staff to research issues independently of the mayor’s office.

Members point to Columbus as an example. Columbus’s seven council members each have a legislative aide. An independent legislative research office has a director and five staffers, and the clerk of council’s office has about 13 employees, according to Sue Duckworth, deputy council clerk.

In contrast, Toledo’s council clerk’s office has only six staffers. There is no legislative staff, either for council or individual members. Councilmen often have difficulty finding staffers to do basic secretarial work, much less the complex legislative research needed to be a strong council, they said.

“We simply can’t do the job we’ve been charged to do,” Mr. Ujvagi said.

Without staffers to research bills before they reach council, members “spend too much time reacting, and not being proactive,” he said, sometimes making council look uninformed. “To be honest, it’s not putting the best image out to the public.”

Council has asked that money for additional hires be included in the city’s 1998 budget. The task force recommended hiring a full-time legislative director, a staffer to coordinate constituent concerns through city government, a secretary, and a series of graduate student interns from the University of Toledo for research tasks.

Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s preliminary 1998 budget does not include that money. But Mr. Ujvagi said it might be added in budget negotiations in coming months.

“I think the mayor will work with us,” he said. “He and the administration have been cooperative so far.”

The push to reinvent council comes as its most experienced leaders are leaving office. Along with Mr. Cook, council clerk Larry Brewer is leaving office Jan. 2, taking vacation time for the rest of the month. He began working in the clerk’s office in 1966.

The office received another blow yesterday when Mr. Brewer’s expected successor, Ms. Duckworth, announced her own retirement.

Ms. Duckworth, 51, a former manager of Toledo’s environmental services division, was brought to the clerk’s office in September and was being groomed to take over the clerk’s job.

She said the task force’s recommendations will change the clerk’s job to a much more public, high-profile position, taking much more responsibility for dealing with legislation.

“This is a whole different direction,” she told council members, several of them visibly shocked. “I don’t think I’m the person to take you into this direction.”

Had she been brought into the task force’s work earlier, Ms. Duckworth said, she would have either influenced her job description enough to allow her to stay or, at least, been able to let council know of her resignation earlier.

“I was just introduced to the process by Peter [Ujvagi] about two weeks ago,” she said.

She said she could leave office as soon as next month, but she promised council she would remain on the job long enough to provide for a “seamless” transition. She completed her 30th year in Toledo city government in June.

Throughout the meeting, Mr. Ujvagi emphasized that the vote for president was still weeks off. In 1985 and 1987, he expected to be appointed the city’s vice mayor after being the city’s leading vote-getter, but failed both times.