Toledo City Councilman Betty Shultz raised suspicions yesterday about whether a closed gathering that preceded the ouster of Republican Rob Ludeman as council president violated the state open-meetings law.
Council s eight-person Democratic majority met Tuesday morning at the Clarion Hotel Westgate, where Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern emphasized the value of partisan unity on council.
Participants said they avoided specific discussions about city business, but at a council session that afternoon Democratic Councilman Michael Ashford won election as the new president, prompting the curiosity of Ms. Shultz, a Republican, about the nature of the hotel meeting.
They certainly were in violation of the [law s] intent, said Ms. Shultz, who has several questions about the meeting for the city law director. They knew why they were there. It is city business.
State law defines a public meeting as whenever there is a prearranged discussion of the public business of the public body by a majority of its members.
Any formal action taken by a government body is invalid if the majority of members deliberated it outside of public view, the law says.
City Law Director John Madigan said he knew Ms. Shultz wanted him to research the legality of Tuesday night s vote, but was waiting for her to put her request in writing.
The controversy touches on the broader rivalries within a divided city government, where Democrats felt an urgency despite previous failed attempts to remove a lame-duck Republican who had about four months left as council president.
Since Mayor Carty Finkbeiner s 2005 election, competing factions of the Democratic Party on City Council have quarreled about policies, elections, and strippers at a party golf fund-raiser. Mr. Finkbeiner, a Democrat, gained a foothold on council through a bipartisan alliance with its four Republican members, making Mr. Ludeman president.
The tension only increased after Mr. Ludeman accused Councilmen Joe McNamara and Mike Craig of flouting ethics rules by mentioning District 2 council candidate Ed Cichy during a recent session.
As chairman of the state party, Mr. Redfern grew tired of the squabbling about the council presidency, a feeling he shared with councilmen at the hotel meeting.
If the members can t come to a conclusion by calling each other one-on-one, then they shouldn t fight about it for the next four months, Mr. Redfern recalled saying.
Mr. Redfern, also a state representative from Catawba Island Township, said he took precautions not to address specific city business, instead concentrating on how strong local parties can have a positive influence on statewide and national elections. With the Democratic Party in Toledo split over the council presidency, Mr. Redfern said the task of recruiting candidates and turning out voters became much more difficult.
I don t know if they got the memo, but I m chairman of the Democratic party, Mr. Redfern said. It s my job to get Democrats elected.
Councilmen Ellen Grachek, Mr. Ashford, and Mr. McNamara said they ended the meeting unsure of whether there would be a vote on the council presidency or who the preferred candidate would be. They settled those uncertainties afterward in phone calls and one-on-one conversations.
I d been feeling frustrated with communication between the administration and me, also that the council as an institution did not have someone who is going to defend it, Mr. McNamara said.
Mr. Ashford explained that matters of city governance also motivated the Democratic councilmen to compromise on who should be president.
Going into the fall, which is a huge time for preparing next year s budget, had us greatly concerned, he said. Right now is the planning stage for everything that happens in 2008.
Council voted 7-4 to make Mr. Ashford president. Councilman Mark Sobczak, a Democratic ally of the mayor, supported keeping Mr. Ludeman as president. Ms. Shultz was absent.
The outcome concerns Bob Reichert, chairman of the Lucas County Republican Party. He said council procedure as decided by Democrats could unfairly silence Republican voices.
The strong-armed bosses from Columbus had to come in and tell them what to do, Mr. Reichert said. It obviously didn t have anything to do with the best interests of Toledo. Rob put together a pro-business coalition that got dissolved.
Mr. Reichert suggested that general worries about whether Mr. Finkbeiner would serve a full term as mayor through 2009 provoked the removal of Mr. Ludeman as council president.
If he would have stepped down, under last week s regime, Rob would have become mayor, Mr. Reichert said. And I strongly believe the state Democratic Party didn t want that to happen. That s why they intervened.
Mr. Redfern was dismissive of the allegations that Democrats intentionally subverted the open-meetings law. He said Ms. Shultz should consider her own ethics, after helping the now-imprisoned GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe launder donations to President Bush s 2004 re-election.
One should question Betty Shultz s credibility every time she opens her mouth, Mr. Redfern said. When Tom Noe asked Betty Shultz to jump, she asked how high.
Staff writers Tom Troy and Steve Eder contributed to his report.
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