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Published: Sunday, 5/31/2009

Is Toledo primed for Question Time?

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER
Tony Blair, at the microphone in 2004,  is credited with giving the weekly session before Parliament its current form. Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said Mr. Blair performed  maginificently,  but his successor, Gordon Brown,  right, is not as impressive. Tony Blair, at the microphone in 2004, is credited with giving the weekly session before Parliament its current form. Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner said Mr. Blair performed maginificently, but his successor, Gordon Brown, right, is not as impressive.
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We speak the English language, eat English muffins, and pour gallons of refined British Petroleum into our gas tanks here in Toledo. Why not also expropriate the British practice of Prime Minister s Question Time?

Ben Konop, a Democratic candidate for mayor of Toledo, wants Toledo to adapt the custom of having the British prime minister answer questions from members of Parliament every week.

With the breakdown in communication among Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, City Council, and city unions an almost daily headline, Mr. Konop said that if elected he would institute a formal weekly Q&A between the mayor and council.

There are some legitimate complaints that the mayor has not been open enough with City Council, engaged in a dialogue, has not answered their questions directly, Mr. Konop said.

His pledge to allow himself to be grilled weekly in public by council was made during his appearance in last week s virtual town-hall mayoral debate sponsored by The Blade and WTOL-TV, Channel 11.

Ben Konop, a Democrat, said his proposal is for a session that would be separate from regular council meetings. Ben Konop, a Democrat, said his proposal is for a session that would be separate from regular council meetings.
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Although other mayoral candidates have highlighted the need for more communication and cooperation, Mr. Konop appears to be the first to propose a weekly 45-minute question-and-answer period.

A vigorous debate

The House of Commons weekly question time with the prime minister is a relatively recent innovation, taking its current shape in 1997 under former Prime Minister Tony Blair and made known in the United States through C-SPAN.

According to a BBC documentary, What makes prime minister s questions so exciting is a vigorous debate between the prime minister and the opposition leader, who s entitled to ask six questions of the prime minister.

In a typical Question Time, the opposition leader levels blistering rhetorical questions at the prime minister while other opposition members cheer him on.

The prime minister then gives it back to the opposition in the same fashion, with his own supporters backing him up.

Keith Wilkowski, also a Democrat, says provisions are already in place for communication with council. Keith Wilkowski, also a Democrat, says provisions are already in place for communication with council.
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Mr. Konop said he witnessed one of these debates live during his year of study at Oxford University during the 1996-1997 academic year.

It was an interesting way to make the debates a little more public and open and put the prime minister on the hot seat, which you don t see in our democracy very often, said Mr. Konop, who currently is a Lucas County commissioner. I kind of filed it away as an interesting experience.

The weekly give and take, open to the public, may be televised, may in the long run produce better government for the citizens of Toledo. And modeling after what they do in Parliament may be the right way to go, Mr. Konop said.

Other candidates

Mr. Konop s three major rivals in the Sept. 15 primary election said they agree better communication between council and mayor is needed, although none immediately embraced his commitment to politics English-style.

It s already provided for in our system of government, said Keith Wilkowski, another Democrat contender.

Mike Bell, running as an independent, says a better idea is for the mayor and council members to work as a team. Mike Bell, running as an independent, says a better idea is for the mayor and council members to work as a team.
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Mr. Wilkowski said he ll attend council meetings frequently and sit at the space reserved for the mayor.

The important thing is having a leadership style that is open and welcoming of contrary views, and that is the kind of leadership style I will have, he said.

Mr. Wilkowski said he would be available to council members 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Mr. Konop s proposal is for a session that would occur separately from council s biweekly meeting.

Mike Bell, an independent, said, A better idea is to have an open-door policy with your council members.

We should be a team. We have to be able to talk and meet and be able to support ourselves together, Mr. Bell said.

Jim Moody, the only Republican in the race, says a question time with the mayor should be a decision made by council. Jim Moody, the only Republican in the race, says a question time with the mayor should be a decision made by council.
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I see myself occupying that seat a lot more often than the current mayor has occupied that seat, he said of the mayor s place on the council dais.

Jim Moody, the lone Republican in the race, also agreed on the need for more communication but said it should be up to council whether to have the mayor in for question time.

I don t understand why it is necessary to set aside taxpayer-funded time when a presence is not requested and the time can be better spent solving other problems, Mr. Moody said.

I will make myself available whenever council deems appropriate.

Britain s Question Time can be viewed live at 7 a.m. every Wednesday on CSPAN2, Buckeye CableSystem Channel 73, or in repeat at 9 p.m. every Sunday on CSPAN Channel 72.

Showboating concerns

One of Question Time s devotees is none other than Mayor Finkbeiner, who has been roundly criticized for failing to communicate with council and has attending council meetings rarely.

He said Friday it s not the proper role of a strong mayor to attend council meetings when there s a council president, as Toledo City Council has.

Mr. Finkbeiner said that although Mr. Konop has many good ideas, he may regret this one if he is elected mayor.

I do watch the House of Commons, and I frankly find that at times to be debasing and insulting, basically to the prime minister, Mr. Finkbeiner said. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair performed magnificently, the mayor said, but current Prime Minister Gordon Brown does not do nearly as well.

Electronic media create a whole lot of showboating, he said. And putting the mayor in front of 12 elected councilmen won t lead to thoughtful discussions of policy, he said.

Not with the degree of showboating and demagoguing that Mike Collins produces, the mayor said, singling out the politically independent District 2 councilman. Mike Collins is basically a demagogue on any and every subject possible.

Mr. Collins responded that even one of Mr. Konop s question-and-answer sessions would be 45 minutes more than the mayor has ever given council since Mr. Collins has been on council.

I think it s absolutely critical that we have communication. The communication has to be honest and there has to be trust within the communication. And neither honesty nor any ability to trust anything that comes out of the mayor s office has been my experience, Mr. Collins said.

A British view

British journalist Simon Heffer, who writes for the British newspaper The Telegraph and whose columns circulate in the United States, told The Blade that the practice can be misused but helps promote understanding during periods between elections.

He said many of the questions from the opposition are meant to embarrass and humiliate the prime minister and most of the questions from the side supporting the government are aimed at ingratiating the questioner with the regime.

I think it s a slightly artificial process, Mr. Heffer said. Actually, I think the press is more effective in getting answers out of politicians than are other politicians.

He said if the mayor is going to face questions from the general public, then I think it s quite a good idea.

But in any democracy and we do have that in common any opportunity given to the public in between elections to ask questions is a good idea.

Mr. Konop said he plans, if elected mayor, to provide a weekly opportunity for the public to ask him questions.

Councilman Frank Szollosi said he d welcome the chance to pitch questions to the mayor.

The more debate and the more engagement we have, the better. The city wouldn t be in the shape we re in if we d had more debate between mayor and council, Mr. Szollosi said.

Contact Tom Troy at:tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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