A majority of Toledo City Council agreed with Tom Waniewski that they should spend $50,000 of taxpayer money for expanding a text-alert crime monitoring program — now used in West Toledo’s Old Orchard neighborhood — to citywide.
But when Mr. Waniewski abstained from the vote Tuesday night it raised eyebrows. What other councilmen didn’t know until hours later was that Mr. Waniewski has a financial stake in the company given the no-bid contract they had just approved.
Mr. Waniewski spent Wednesday doing damage control, and he agreed with City Law Director Adam Loukx’s recommendation for a mayoral veto.
“I was so busy trying to avoid any impropriety, my head wound up in a place it shouldn't have been,” he said.
Mr. Waniewski said he owns 1 percent of Tele-Home LLC, the company he named in the council legislation he wrote for approval Tuesday. The district councilman from West Toledo unveiled the text alert program in September, 2012, as a pilot program for only the Old Orchard neighborhood.
Mr. Waniewski, a technology enthusiast, said he spearheaded development of the program called Eye Citizen. People signed up at www.eyecitizen.org to get information sent to their cell phones regarding neighborhood police activity, much like a physical Block Watch would provide.
The pilot program cost the city just $500 for the Northwest Ohio Regional Information System to develop programming, he said.
The program takes coded information that dispatchers put into the police communications system, filters it for location and content, and sends it out to individual phones.
Only crimes such as burglaries, break-ins, and shootings prompt an alert, and they have to occur within the Old Orchard neighborhood.
Mr. Waniewski said a tech-savvy friend and former business partner, Dave Bonitati, helped develop the program.
Mr. Waniewski said Mr. Bonitati told him it would cost up to $100,000 to expand citywide.
In April, Mr. Waniewski wrote to the Ohio Ethics Commission seeking guidance.
“I am involved in a business partnership with a couple of guys. We successfully ran a start-up Internet company from 1996 to 2001 before our business was sold,” the email said. “I remain involved with my partners on other ventures. One day, after reading a story of a contentious Block Watch meeting that I hosted in my city council district, one of my partners offered a suggestion that has taken hold and which appears to be a product highly sought by the community.”
In the email, he admits to voting for the 2013 general fund budget, which included an amendment to pay for the citywide expansion.
“When payments will be made [and my partners haven’t billed the city yet for programming], it’s likely to go to the company in which I am a shareholder,” he wrote. “I am NOT receiving any payments as a result, but, it could be argued that the success of the company will benefit me, as we are doing other kinds of Internet programming, primarily in the real estate arena.”
Mr. Waniewski said he never got a reply. A spokesman for the commission could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Now, Mr. Waniewski said he has no problem with a mayoral veto and seeking competitive bids.
At the same time, Mr. Waniewski said it was his and Mr. Bonitati’s idea so no one else could have briefed the rest of council on the project.
Mr. Loukx still said a veto would be appropriate but it is ultimately Mayor Mike Bell’s choice.
“It is just to make sure that council and the administration have a better chance to look at it in light of all the knowledge we have and that there hasn’t been any impropriety in light of the selection process,” Mr. Loukx said. “At this time there are too many questions.”
Councilman Mike Craig said he thinks Eye Citizen could be a good service citywide but he didn’t know Mr. Waniewski was involved financially.
“Tom should have known and he did discuss it, and when he did that I thought he was just promoting it because it was just a good idea,” Mr. Craig said.
Councilmen Steven Steel and Lindsay Webb cast the only no votes for the $50,000 expenditure.
Ms. Webb said the concept “seemed solid” but preferred that the contract was competitively bid. She also was unaware until after the meeting that Mr. Waniewski has a financial stake in Tele-Home.
Council President Paula Hicks-Hudson said she too was unaware.
“It is a good tool,” she said. “I am however concerned about the appearance of impropriety.”
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