The power behind the Authority; Critics challenge port board to change image

By Joshua Benton and Michael D. Sallah
Blade Staff Writers

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Every time you fly out of Toledo Express Airport without passing through dark, dingy hallways, you can thank them.

Every time you see the Libbey-Owens-Ford world headquarters in downtown Toledo, you see their work.

Every time you watch a freighter pushing slowly past downtown’s skyscrapers, you see their fingerprints.

Is this the work of city officials? The Lucas County commissioners?

No, it’s the work of one of the most obscure and powerful groups in Northwest Ohio, the group most responsible for bringing new jobs to the area: the directors of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.

Few people know who they are, and fewer understand what they do.

They’re an intensely private group of businessmen who have found success without needing the approval of the public or the press.

They don’t live in the city of Toledo, preferring the privacy of the suburbs. They meet in a boardroom away from the centers of government power, with almost no room for the public, then go home to some of the area’s most exclusive neighborhoods. They are, with few exceptions, white, male, and rich.

And by next year, they will face a task unusual for a group so used to running things in private: going before the people to ask for more money.

Their actions have come under great scru tiny in the last year from the media, the public, and the FBI. And now, they’re fighting back.

“There’s too much negativity out there” focused at the port authority, said Dr. Richard Ruppert, a board member for more than a decade and a former chairman.

The bulk of the port authority’s operating budget, which was $10.4 million in 1997, comes from revenue generated at Toledo Express Airport from landing fees and other charges, and from fees generated from the Port of Toledo.

In November, Lucas County voters may decide whether the port authority should continue to receive $2.2 million a year in property taxes to attract businesses and jobs to Northwest Ohio.

Its 0.4-mill levy expires at the end of this year, and agency officials are weighing asking voters to renew it this fall. Even if the levy is not renewed, proceeds from it would continue to flow to the agency through the end of 1999.

It will be a tough fight.

The agency stands accused of lavish spending, sloppy record keeping, and breaking state open records laws. And for an agency little known to the public, the bad publicity could be fatal to its levy campaign, perhaps leading officials to postpone it altogether, until next year.

A poll of 685 likely voters in April by Louis Harris and Associates of New York City found that more than 80 per cent considered the port’s spending patterns a serious concern. And at least one former board member, former Lucas County Democratic Party Chairman Bill Boyle, has said any chance of passing the levy is “already dead.”

“Right now, they need to build up their credibility,” said Sandy Isenberg, president of the county commissioners, who appoint half of the board.

She said she would have “serious concerns” about the levy’s chances of success.

If the levy fails, it could cripple what is arguably the port’s most critical mission: economic development and jobs. For the past nine years, the port authority has been the region’s lead agency for job creation, and it has numerous success stories to its credit: taking the lead in restoring Central Union Terminal, helping to lure a new steel mill to Delta, and record profits and passenger levels at the airport.

“There has been some terrific progress recently,” said board member Ed Shultz.

Board members are gearing up for the fight by hiring PR firms and buying promotional ads. The port authority’s president returned last month from a seminar he decided to attend, entitled “Dealing With An Angry Public,” at a cost of more than $1,000.

It will cost taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars more, they say, to polish the port’s image for a levy fight, but port board members say it’s necessary for job creation to continue in this area.

Four years ago, the port board created the Regional Growth Partnership as its economic development arm, with 66 per cent of the levy money dedicated to that mission.

“It’s very important,” said Dr. Ruppert. “Most of the money goes to the partnership to create jobs.”

On the port board, disagreements are rare.

Since July, 1997, there has been only one “no” vote cast on any issue at a port board meeting. And at monthly meetings from November, 1997, to April, yeas have outnumbered nays 730-0. (Minutes for May’s meeting are not yet available.)

Debra Schaefer, a former port board member who left office in July, 1997, was surprised to hear of the string of yes votes.

“I sure as heck remember more no votes going on in my tenure,” she said. “I have to scratch my head.”

The rubber-stamping and lack of any spirited debate led Mr. Boyle to abruptly walk out in the middle of a meeting, resign his post, and declare his colleagues a “good fellowship society.”

Board members defend their actions, saying they don’t want to be distracted by politicking and backbiting.

“It’s a highly educated board, and there are highly successful people on that board,” said board chairman Jim Poure. “They’re not dummies. They’re not lackeys.”

But others say continuous unanimous votes are a sign of a troubling lack of diversity, in opinion and background.

“Thirteen-to-nothing votes over and over by a bunch of powerful, mostly white guys is a throwback to another era, let’s face it,” said Dr. John Chamberlin, interim dean at the school of public policy at the University of Michigan.

The 12 current members – there is one open seat – have never held elected office and have precious little campaign experience. Their style is more corporate than populist:

* They rarely debate issues openly or with the give-and-take the world associates with the democratic system.

* They shut out members of the press trying to cover their meetings, according to a pending lawsuit filed against the port by The Blade.

* The city and county officials who appoint them have complained regularly that board members keep them in the dark about important issues, preferring to keep decisions within their inner circle.

And, despite the fact that 70 per cent of the people they serve live in the city of Toledo, not one of the port board members lives there. Several are millionaires, having built their fortunes as entrepreneurs.

Founded in 1955, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority was the first port authority in Ohio. Its initial role was to manage the bustling seaport, then the only deep-water seaport on the Great Lakes and the world’s largest source of coal shipping.

Over the last 43 years, the port authority has accumulated great powers and greater responsibilities. In 1973, it took control of Toledo Express Airport, the first airport built without federal funds after World War II. And in 1989, during an economic recession, the port authority became the lead development agency in Northwest Ohio, charged with creating jobs.

The agency has become a major economic force in the area, with an operating budget topping $10 million a year and more than $6 million in construction contracts issued last year.

“They have far more responsibilities today than they had years ago,” said Ms. Isenberg.

But with the additional power has not come a higher profile.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” said Rochelle Davis, 39, a TARTA bus driver, when asked if she knew who the directors of the port board are. But does she know who Carty Finkbeiner and Sandy Isenberg are? “Sure, who doesn’t?”

“Unless you read the paper, you probably don’t know who they are,” said Candy Postlewaite, 54, an Owens-Illinois employee, who said most of her information about the port came from a Blade story in February on the spending habits of port staff.

The board was in the spotlight again two weeks ago when members voted to give a $10,000 raise to port president James Hartung, as well as a contract that is automatically renewed each year without a vote – a highly unusual deal for a public official.

On Thursday, Ms. Isenberg sent a letter to Mr. Poure, who was appointed to the board by Mayor Finkbeiner, saying she was “very disappointed” at his lack of communication with her office about the contract extension.

She called the matter “troubling,” noting that she learned about the pay raise by reading about it in the newspaper.

“It becomes difficult to coordinate, evaluate, and implement programs when a leading agency, such as the Port Authority, fails to timely communicate with the Commissioners,” she wrote in a letter signed by all three commissioners.

She said it may become necessary to assign senior county administrators the task of keeping in regular contact with the port. The matter was all the more “disconcerting,” she wrote, because an April 20 letter from the commissioners to Mr. Poure had specifically asked for the commissioners to be kept abreast of port affairs.

Board members said the extension and raise were votes of confidence for Mr. Hartung, in the face of a year of investigations by The Blade.

During that time, the newspaper has reported the results of its investigations into the port authority, including:

* Evidence that funds from federal drug seizures were used to buy a $2,200 desk for Mr. Hartung, $20,000 for exercise equipment for airport police officers’ use, and a $26,500 Ford Explorer, all ostensibly for drug-fighting. The sport-utility vehicle was used by airport director Mark VanLoh. He gave up the vehicle after the news stories were published. The FBI is investigating the port’s drug fund spending.

* High levels of spending on country club memberships, green fees, filet mignon and cognac – topping more than $100,000 per year. Staff members went on trips around the world, including the Swiss Alps, Rio de Janeiro, and other exotic locales. Mr. Hartung took his wife on three of those trips: to Canada, Mexico, and Arizona, billing the public for her stays.

* Sloppy record keeping, including a failure to pay the pro forma $1-per-year lease it must pay the city of Toledo for Toledo Express Airport.

Port officials have reacted strongly to the negative publicity: They have refused to answer reporters’ questions unless they are submitted in writing. And Mr. Poure has asked board members not to speak to the press unless their comments are cleared through him and Mr. Hartung.

All this comes as no surprise to Dr. Thomas Dye, director of the Lincoln Center for Public Service in Tallahassee, Fla., and the author of the most popular college textbook on local politics, Politics in States and Local Communities.

“Successful business people are private people, and typically they take the greatest umbrage at the press,” Dr. Dye said.

Believing that The Blade is biased, the port board has taken to purchasing promotional advertisements in other publications, including Business Ventures, a local magazine published by a former longtime port authority seaport director, Frank Miller. He has penned several articles critical of John Robinson Block, co-publisher and editor-in-chief of The Blade and a former member of the port board. The port authority has taken out several color, full-page ads in each issue of the magazine.

Several members said the paper’s aggressive reporting has been spurred by a dispute Mr. Block had in June, 1997, with the rest of the board over Grand Aire Express’s insistence on fueling and repairing airplanes at Toledo Express. Mr. Block voted against the proposal, which passed 9-1, because he said it would threaten other businesses already providing that service.

Others say the port is using The Blade to mask its own problems.

“The port authority has had an image of arrogance for years – many years before The Blade ever wrote about them,” said attorney David Zoll, who represents a group of homeowners who live near the airport. They are suing the port and other agencies over the noise created by noisy cargo jets flying over their homes.

Others feel the criticism is unjustified.

“I don’t think that The Blade should be hammering on them like that,” said Don Monroe, director of River East Economic Revitalization Corp., which has cooperated with the port authority on numerous projects.

But he cautioned that the “criticism comes with the territory,” and that if staff members have erred in their jobs, they should face rebuke from the press.

The port board, filled as it is with businessmen from society’s upper strata, has had to face accusations of being out-of-touch for years.

In 1993, then-port board chairman William Boeschenstein resigned after a Blade article revealed he was living in Florida every winter and running port affairs over phone and fax.

Board members have second homes in Florida, Michigan, and Ottawa County. G. Ray Medlin spends most of his time in Washington, where he is the executive director of the Carpenters Health and Safety Fund of North America. He has been absent for four of the last nine board meetings. Mr. Poure has a $465,000 condo on exclusive Marco Island on Florida’s west coast. Outgoing member Mr. Boyle split times between homes in Florida, Michigan, and Toledo.

The port board has also faced regular criticism from airport tenants and neighbors.

Tenants have accused port officials of breaking contracts for short-term economic gain. In 1992, National Flight Services, Inc., which refuels planes at the airport, successfully sued the port for leasing space to a competitor next door to their facility. National Flight settled for $400,000 because the port’s contract with the company specifically prohibited such a move, attorneys said at the time.

Then there’s the case of Susan Dittes, who in 1991 went to a port board meeting and personally invited all the members to her home near the airport to hear the thundering jet engines roaring over her roof early every morning. Only one board member, Bruce Douglas, bothered to respond to her plea, she complained.

“He’s the first human being who actually seems to understand our problems, and who seems to care about the people living out here,” she said at the time of Mr. Douglas, who ran for Ohio governor for a time this year, before pulling out of the race for the Democratic nomination.

“It is an extremely arrogant agency that has never reached out to the people who live there,” Mr. Zoll said.

Because the port board is appointed, not elected, the politicians who could face trouble at the polls as a result of their actions are Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, members of city council, and the Lucas County commissioners. The mayor appoints six members, with council’s approval; the commissioners appoint six; one board member is a joint city-county appointment.

Of the seven current board members Mayor Finkbeiner appointed, none live in the city.

Even though most of her constituents live in Toledo, Ms. Isenberg defended her lack of city appointments. “It’s not a criteria that they live in the city of Toledo,” she said.

Academics say the only way the public can influence the port board’s composition is by putting pressure on the elected leaders who select them.

“The question is how can you get the city and the county, who make the appointments, to get the agency to become more responsible,” said Dr. Herb Asher, professor of political science at Ohio State University.

“The only way you can bring change is by pressuring the city and the county,” said Dr. Chamberlin of the University of Michigan.

The board’s makeup will change this summer, when the four-year terms of David Boston, Thomas Brady, and Timothy Mohler all expire on July 31. A replacement has still not been named for Mr. Boyle, who resigned on April 23. Two of those seats will be filled by the city and two by the county. The three out-going members may seek reappointment.

The new port board team will be in charge of convincing the public they should vote to renew the agency’s 0.4-mill property tax.

At stake is the port authority’s ability to create jobs, and the poor image they say they don’t deserve.

Blade staff writer Chris Osher contributed to this report.