Saunders rips council, resigns as finance head

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 17

The long-standing battle between Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s administration and city council has flared up again, and this time it’s claimed a victim.

Don Saunders, the city’s finance director for nearly three years, has resigned his post – and blamed city council for it.

Mr. Saunders did not return telephone calls seeking comment, but in a statement he said: “The continued inability to gain respect and support for our efforts from city council has been a major frustration.”

For council members – still reeling from a bloody budget process in which they accused Mr. Saunders of withholding financial data – that was taken as an insult.

“That’s absolutely ludicrous,” said Councilman C. Allen McConnell, chairman of council’s finance committee. “I’m just baffled that we’re the bad guys because we ask for information.”

Mr. Saunders’s resignation was submitted immediately before the council’s meeting Tuesday, at which the city’s budget was passed. Council members complained that they were not given information needed to make informed decisions. While the controversy’s particulars involve sometimes arcane budget numbers, they boil down to a single issue: how much control the council will have over the city’s purse strings.

“We’ve got administrators slamming doors and walking out of meetings,” Councilman Louis Escobar said. “If Mr. Saunders has problems with our asking the questions we have to ask to be responsible with the city’s money, then maybe he shouldn’t be the finance director.”

Mayor Finkbeiner, in Honduras on a relief mission, said in his own statement that the council’s repeated questioning of Mr. Saunders and other city officials was inappropriate.

“I am deeply disappointed that Don has been forced over and over again to defend the accuracy and integrity of his financial data,” the mayor wrote. “Clearly the city council maneuverings of the past 72 hours are related to Don’s resignation as finance director.”

Council members said that sort of questioning and request for information is part of their jobs.

“We’re not elected to just rubber-stamp whatever the mayor sends us,” council President Peter Ujvagi said.

In the end, the council made only a few small changes to the city’s budget before passage. They add up to less than one-third of one per cent of the entire operating budget – about half a million dollars.

The most notable council change was a proposal from Councilman Wade Kapszukiewicz to double the size of this year’s police class from 15 to 30. About 30 officers are expected to retire this year. The larger class size will cost an additional $127,000.

The council and the mayor reached a consensus on all other proposed council changes. But Mr. Finkbeiner said that the council’s changes are a threat to the city’s economic future.

“I am dismayed and disgusted that members of city council continue to work to undercut the fiscal integrity of the city’s budget.”

Council members called that absurd.

“If the mayor is so out of touch with the budget that he thinks those changes affected the `fiscal integrity of the budget,’ then maybe he should be spending more time in Toledo and less time doing peace-keeping and goodwill missions out of the country,” said Councilman Gene Zmuda.

“If council was not there as a balancing force, you wouldn’t have any `fiscal integrity’ in the city,” Mr. McConnell said. “The council has integrity and is ready to ask the important questions, if only the proper information is available.”

Mr. McConnell said Mr. Saunders, 63, had been talking about retiring for several months, and may only have been blaming the council on the way out of his job.

Under the leadership of Mr. Ujvagi, the council has been more aggressive about playing a larger role in policy making. In 1993, voters switched from a city manager to a strong mayor form of government, leaving council’s role somewhat undefined.

Under the city charter, city employees answer directly to the mayor, not to the council. Council members have regularly complained that they have not been given information they request from administration officials.

Mr. Finkbeiner presented the city’s preliminary operating budget in November. For the last two months, the council has been analyzing the mayor’s proposal.

Throughout the process, council members said they needed several pieces of information, including how much money is in city accounts and what vacant employee positions the administration plans to eliminate. In each case, council members say, they were denied the information.

They still do not know how much money is left in city accounts from last year. And most members only learned what positions would be cut on Monday, the day before the budget’s passage; city administrators say Mr. Ujvagi was informed about position cuts on March 2.

He said he never received a memo administration officials contend they sent to him.

State law requires that the city pass its budget by March 31. In December, the council set a goal of passing this year’s budget by March 2, but Mr. Ujvagi said members had to push that goal back two weeks because of the lack of financial information.

Mr. Saunders became the city’s finance director in 1996 after retiring from a 37-year career at Toledo Edison. From 1990 to 1993, he was the utility’s president.