Senate passes bill revamping port authorities

By Joshua Benton and Jack Baessler
Blade Staff Writers

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COLUMBUS — By a 31-2 vote, the state Senate approved a bill supporters say will modernize and reform the way port authorities in Ohio are set up.

One provision, potentially affecting the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, will allow port board members to live and work outside the authority’s area of jurisdiction. At least twice in the last six years, Toledo’s mayor has tried to appoint a non-Lucas County resident to the board, only to withdraw the nomination under advice the move would be illegal.

One of the two “no” votes on the broad Senate bill came from Sen. Linda Furney (D., Toledo), who said it gives port authorities more power unnecessarily.

“I think this is a very, very bad piece of public policy,” she said.

She said port authorities have too many powers, including the ability to enter into no-bid contracts and use eminent domain power to acquire land. “We need to be certain their powers are closely watched,” she said.

The bill, which will head to the House next week, includes a provision allowing port authorities to use eminent domain in areas outside their boundaries for public purposes, such as expanding airport runways or for economic development.

“I suspect the day will come when your county commissioners, your township trustees, your municipal representatives will be in complaining about an adjacent county taking their property,” she said.

However, sponsoring Sen. Scott Oelslager (R., Canton) said law covering port authorities gives eminent domain powers to them.

“This law is not changing that whatsoever,” he said.

But Senator Furney said the authorities have too much power and sometimes abuse it.

“I recognize port authorities as a necessary evil,” she said. “They border on being private businesses, with all the perks of private businesses, on the public dollar.”

The bill would:

* Enable port authorities to exempt financial records provided by companies, including “trade secrets,” from Ohio’s open records law.

* Allow a port board to oust a member if he or she misses at least three consecutive meetings. A board member now can be removed only for wrongdoing.

* Preserve the port authority’s eminent domain power. Originally, the bill would have removed its use in cities from port boards.

* Require only a majority of a port board’s members to live or work within the boundaries of the authority for at least three years before being appointed. Currently, the residency requirement covers all board members.

That requirement has been a bugaboo for area leaders before. The 13 members of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority board are appointed by the county commissioners and the mayor of Toledo: six by the county, six by the city, and one joint appointment.

In 1992, then-Mayor John McHugh tried to appoint Mary Lou Fox, a Perrysburg businesswoman, to the board, but withdrew the nomination after the city’s law department ruled she could not be legally appointed.

In 1995, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner nominated Gerald Huber, a Jeep plant manager, to the port board, only to withdraw the nomination after learning Mr. Huber, a Lambertville resident, faced the same situation.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he would not decide his opinion of the bill before the House takes action next week, but said it “probably provides a little additional flexibility, and that’s probably good.” He pointed out that several Wood County residents have served on the board in the past and were allowed to do so because they maintained businesses in Lucas County.

Sandy Isenberg, president of the county commissioners, could not be reached for comment last night.

Jim Hartung, the president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, said he would welcome outside board members, if Mr. Finkbeiner or the commissioners chose to appoint them.

“Certainly, the port authority is regional in its scope, its responsibility, and its impact,” he said. “A broader profile of representation may give people a sense of its regional nature.”

Jim Poure, the president of the port board, said he was not familiar with the bill, but said he did not oppose the residency change.

“We’ve been trying to expand our vision of northwest Ohio,” he said. “I don’t have any problem in the expanding participation of people or the wider base of talent.”

Ms. Furney said she opposed the provision, advocating local control of the state’s 22 port boards.

“We are taking one more creep away from local elected officials’ accountability,” she said.

Mr. Oelslager said the bill is needed to revamp existing laws covering port authorities in Ohio. Those laws have seen significant change since 1955, when the state first passed legislation enabling the creation of port authorities, after decades of debate. Support from The Blade was a key factor in its passage. The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority was the first authority created under that law.

Revised legislation, passed in 1982, broadened the definition of what entity could create a port authority to include areas without an actual seaport, among other changes. But those changes only applied to port authorities created after 1982, not those created under the original law.

The Senate bill will put authorities founded before and after 1982 under the same rules.

“What we are trying to do is make the transition from a time when port authorities were simply maritime operations into the new world of aviation and the other issues of economic development that port authorities have begun to get into…to help people prosper in this state,” Mr. Oelslager said.

The bill helps port authorities and other political subdivisions to cooperate with one another on economic objectives and more clearly spells out the duties of port authority police, he said.

Mr. Hartung said he did not know all the details of the legislation, but said he liked what he knew. “Essentially, it’s designed to clean up and bring the rules up to date, to create greater effectiveness,” Mr. Hartung said.