After reviewing a copy of the city charter kept on her nightstand, Toledo Councilman Betty Shultz reached a problematic interpretation for Democrats who last week removed a Republican from the council presidency.
The charter indicates that council is nonpartisan since ballots for election have no partisan identification.
So when the eight-person Democratic majority gathered last week to address internal party rancor, Mrs. Shultz concluded they held a clandestine session in violation of Ohio's open-meetings law.
"They still have to give the media 24 hours notice," Mrs. Shultz, an at-large Republican who used to be a Democrat, said yesterday. "And they must tell other councilmen and provide a reason for the meeting."
Mrs. Shultz referred her reading of the charter to the city law department. She intends to put her questions into writing and expects a response from the law department today.
At stake is the question of how councilmen can mesh their partisan loyalties with an elected body technically separated from the two-party system.
Unlike elections to Congress or the Ohio legislature, there are no partisan primaries for council nor for the mayor.
"The Constitution says there is freedom of assembly," Democratic Councilman Mike Craig said. "I think that trumps the city charter."
In response to months of intraparty turmoil, local Democrats have tried to reconcile their differences through steps such as the election of Democrat Michael Ashford as council president.
The healing process has involved several gatherings closed to the media.
Once the meeting of Democratic councilmen at the Clarion Westgate Hotel last Tuesday ended, participants said they decided in phone calls and individual conversations to replace council's then-president, Rob Ludeman, with Mr. Ashford.
They view those conversations as evidence of their sensitivity to "sunshine" laws, which mandate that discussions of public business be open to the public.
Councilman Mark Sobczak, the lone Democrat to support Mr. Ludeman, said Ohio Democratic Party Chairman Chris Redfern was the only person at the meeting to speak about the council presidency.
Mr. Redfern, who called the meeting, urged participants to settle the issue or stop all public infighting.
"I don't really agree that Democrats can't get together and talk about party stuff," Mr. Sobczak said. "I don't see it as a big deal. If we're in violation, someone will tell us and we'll go from there."
Mr. Ludeman, the ousted council president, said that Mrs. Shultz raises an interesting question.
He said that the Democratic majority should have met in two smaller groups if it was really concerned about any whiff of impropriety.
"It just doesn't seem like a smart thing to do," Mr. Ludeman said of the meeting.
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