Port board sessions energized by conflict

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A1

News Analysis

When the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority was under intense public scrutiny in 1998, one of the most damaging perceptions about its board was that it operated like an “old boys club,” with few disputes and debates over issues.

For example, during one six-month stretch in 1997 and 1998, the number of “yes” votes cast by board members outnumbered the “nos” 730 to zero.

But no matter how accurate that perception was then, it’s false now. The new port board, fresh off its levy victory earlier this month, is now home to sometimes angry disputes over policies and personalities.

“The openness and interaction is invigorating,” said Opie Rollison, the board’s newest member. “We’re putting everything on the table. I think the dynamics of the board have changed, and the disagreements are getting aired out.”

At the center of the latest dispute is board member Jerry Chabler, once one of the board’s most vocal critics.

As the agency determines how to begin a formal evaluation of the way it does business, Mr. Chabler is arguing with other board members over how thorough the evaluation should be.

Mr. Chabler says he is fighting for the taxpayers of Lucas County, who he says demand change.

“It’s their money being spent, and they should have someone to defend their interests and see that their money is being used as efficiently as possible,” he said. “I’m afraid that some of the other board members may have tried to hoodwink the voters and make them think that real change is on the way.”

But some of his fellow board members, including the board’s chairman and vice chairman, think he is a publicity hound with a political agenda and a vendetta against some of the port’s staff.

“It’s great for people to have diverse opinions and for there to be debate, and if Chabler did that I would welcome it,” said J. Patrick Nicholson, the board’s vice chairman. “But he needs to stop grandstanding and complaining when there’s no rational reason to complain.”

Much of the tension on the board has played out through the relationship between Mr. Chabler and G. Ray Medlin, Jr., the board’s chairman.

That they’re on the same board at all is remarkable, considering they were political enemies at the start of 1999. Mr. Medlin, then the newly elected port board chairman, was trying to improve the public face of the agency two months after voters soundly rejected a 0.4-mill port authority levy renewal. Mr. Chabler had been one of the levy’s biggest opponents who helped lead the campaign against it.

But, in part to improve perceptions of the agency, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner appointed Mr. Chabler to the port board in July.

At the time, the mayor said it is “important that the majority of voters opposed to the levy last time feel that some of their concerns will be addressed by someone who also opposed the levy.”

Once on the port board, Mr. Chabler worked to get the levy passed, an effort that proved successful when voters approved it overwhelmingly on Nov. 2.

Friday’s port board meeting was the first after the levy victory, and after a few self-congratulations, the board got to one of the most important issues it will deal with: the creation of a strategic plan to lead the agency into the next century.

Mr. Chabler asked Mr. Medlin a series of pointed questions aimed at implying that the chairman was trying to limit the scope of the review. Specifically, Mr. Chabler wants to hire an outside consulting firm to evaluate the performance of current port staff members, which he thinks has been poor.

Mr. Medlin was clearly upset at the suggestion that he would limit the review’s scope. He said he believes reviewing staff performance is the job of port President James Hartung, but that if the board wanted such a review, he would not block it. “We all want what’s best for the port,” he said. “I have the right to an opinion, and sometimes I don’t think you think I have that right.”

When asked about Mr. Chabler’s statements after the port board meeting, Mr. Medlin used a common expletive to respond: “I don’t want to dignify Chabler’s [comments] with a response, and you can quote me on that.”

Mr. Medlin said he welcomes constructive criticism from Mr. Chabler, but “he is being needlessly divisive, and that’s not helpful.”

Mr. Chabler said that he is concerned that some of the board’s members may not be fully committed to changing the port’s ways.

“I’m getting concerned that the voters might have been fooled,” he said. “I think some people on the board are reading the levy’s passing as a vote of confidence. It wasn’t a vote of confidence. It was a mandate for change, and I think some people might not get that.”

“Show me one person on this board who isn’t committed to making the changes needed to make this the best port authority in the country, and I’ll eat my hat,” Mr. Nicholson said.

Mr. Nicholson said the dispute isn’t between Mr. Chabler and Mr. Medlin: “It’s between Chabler and the whole board.”

But several board members said that they were not troubled by Mr. Chabler’s activities.

“This kind of debate is the best way to flush things out, and it doesn’t bother me,” Mr. Rollison said. “Everything’s out there for discussion.” He said that he would like to see an external staff review as long as “it doesn’t become a witch hunt.”

Jim White, Jr., who leads the committee that will decide how the review will take place, said that Mr. Chabler’s comments were not objectionable. “He has his style and I have my style,” he said. “We’re all adults, we’re all mature, and we all have the same goal in mind. I don’t mind if he wants to air out his views.”