Port board panel to consider scope of review

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority wants to evaluate the way it does business, and yesterday its board chairman picked the people who will be in charge of the process – but not without some controversy over how thorough the evaluation will be.

Chairman G. Ray Medlin, Jr., named James F. White, Jr., head of the new strategic management plan committee. Mr. White and five other board members will be charged with figuring out how to evaluate the agency, including whether to bring in an outside consultant.

“We want an objective look at how we do things now, and a plan and a vision on how we can change in the next century,” Mr. Medlin said.

George Ballas was named the committee’s vice chairman. Others on the committee are J. Patrick Nicholson, Bruce Baumhower, Thomas Palmer, and Jerry Chabler.

Over the last several years, the port authority has been hit by allegations of mismanagement and lavish spending, criticism that contributed to the 1998 defeat of a 0.4-mill port authority levy renewal.

In the last year, port officials have made an effort to improve their public image and express a willingness to examine the authority’s methods of doing business. When the levy went before voters again on Nov. 2, it passed easily.

Over the next few months, the new committee will meet to determine if an outside review of the authority is necessary. The committee will report its findings back to the full board sometime next spring; the board will then decide what action to take.

Mr. White said he estimates the committee’s work will take three to four months. “I think we understand what our charge is and that we’ll be able to find a good process to look forward,” Mr. White said.

But heated talk arose at yesterday’s meeting when Mr. Chabler challenged Mr. Medlin over the scope of the potential outside review.

Mr. Chabler, who was appointed to the board in July after being a vocal critic of the agency, wants the review to include evaluations of the port authority’s senior staff.

“You need an external review if you want objectivity,” Mr. Chabler said. “If you have [port authority President Jim] Hartung reviewing his own employees, he wants to make them look good so he can look good.”

At the meeting, Mr. Chabler read a portion of a letter Mr. Medlin wrote to a Toledoan in response to a letter published in The Blade’s Readers Forum: “Among the principal responsibilities of the president is to … evaluate the effectiveness of the staff. For the board or its president to abrogate its responsibility would be an extraordinary contradiction to good business practice.”

Mr. Chabler asked the chairman if his statement meant he would not allow an outside staff evaluation. Somewhat angrily, Mr. Medlin said the committee would be able to make that decision on its own.

“I have the right to an opinion, and sometimes I don’t think you think I have that right,” Mr. Medlin said to Mr. Chabler sternly. “I think this is a matter for you to take up with the committee, not in this forum.”

“I don’t believe you answered my question,” Mr. Chabler parried.

Mr. Medlin previously has said that having consultants review the performances of senior staff could turn into a “witch hunt” based on vendettas against certain staff members, including Mr. Hartung.

After the meeting, Mr. Chabler said at least six members of the port authority’s senior staff make more than the $75,000 salary of Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, and that with salaries that high, staff members deserve external scrutiny.

Mr. White said the idea of an external staff review will be debated within the committee.

“As far as I’m concerned, everything is on the table,” Mr. White said. “There are no limits on the scope of our work.”

Among the topics Mr. Medlin said might be included in the review: the authority’s relationship with the Regional Growth Partnership and local governments, and the organization of port staff.

He said he would be willing to consider hiring an outside consulting firm – “the very best professionals, people who could not be influenced by anyone in this community or on this board.”

“Any operation has to understand that change is a part of everyday life,” he said. “We just need to separate change for the right reasons from change for change’s sake.”