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Published: 7/18/2003

Debate grows ugly

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In an agency that's seen its share of political infighting, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority's overseeing board is navigating a new war over perhaps its most visible issue: where to call home.

Two board members - Dan Smith and David Boston - are accusing each other of playing politics in the debate over whether the public agency should remain in its leased riverfront offices or move to the train station it owns.

The pension fund of Mr. Smith's union, American Maritime Officers, financed the 19-year-old building. The port authority pays $121,000 a year to lease about 7,700 square feet on the top floor. The lease expires in March.

Mr. Boston has suggested the agency save money by moving its offices to empty space in the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Plaza, the train station's formal name. Mr. Smith has countered that a move could hurt downtown.

Mr. Smith, the union's regional head, this week traced the controversy to comments made by an ally of Mr. Boston, Jerry Chabler, on June 3. After the discovery of the third mix-up of Toledo Express Airport tax bills in 31/2 months, Mr. Chablersaid “maybe it's time we start thinking about” the city taking over the airport, which it owns.

In a June 20 letter to the board, Mr. Smith called the suggestion “unconscionable” and asked Mr. Chabler to “strongly consider” resigning. Mr. Chabler countered that he has a right and duty to ask questions.

On July 2, Mr. Boston sent a letter to the agency's staff and board suggesting the agency plan to move to the train station. He said any refurbishment costs of the new offices would be more than offset by avoiding rent.

On Wednesday, Mr. Smith responded with a letter calling Mr. Boston's suggestion a “dismaying and transparent” punishment for him criticizing Mr. Chabler: “The [Boston] letter seems nothing less than an attempt to intimidate me because of that criticism.”

Mr. Boston countered that he has been suggesting a move for a year and wanted a decision. He called Mr. Smith's claims “dismaying and transparent” because “he obviously would like to see the port authority remain in its existing space.”

Mr. Smith has not returned telephone calls to elaborate or explain his union's financial relationship to the trust that owns the building.

He has the support of some board members.

“I'm sure that Dan would like us to stay,” Tom Schlachter said.

“But I'm equally sure, from what I know of Dan, that if it's clearly in the best interest of the port authority [to move], he would vote accordingly.”

And Mark Zyndorf said he also questions Mr. Boston's motives, considering a board committee already was studying the idea.

“The [Boston] letter was sent because Jerry wanted it sent to slap Dan,” Mr. Zyndorf said.

But Mr. Boston and Mr. Chabler insisted that the timing of Mr. Boston's letter had nothing to do with Mr. Smith.

“It's time for us to make some decisions on where we should be located,” Mr. Boston said.

Other agency board members declined to take sides.

“It's an unproductive distraction,” said board Chairman Tom Palmer. “I want us to focus on the policy issues.”

So far, Mr. Chabler and Mr. Boston say they'd vote to move to save taxpayers' money. Nobody has said they'd vote against it, including Mr. Smith.

In his last letter, Mr. Smith didn't offer a formal position, although he complained that one arm of his union is “demonstrating their commitment” to downtown with a new, $10 million structure - the largest completely private investment in downtown in decades.

“I don't see how demanding the removal of the port authority from downtown squares with [Mr. Boston's] supposed commitment, as a board member, to downtown Toledo,” Mr. Smith wrote.

Board member Ken Dobson commended the union for the building, but said a decision should be based on what's best for the agency, the downtown, and redeveloping the area near the train station.

For now, agency administrators are waiting to hear the best offer from One Maritime Plaza's management to keep the agency there. Agency spokesman Brian Schwartz said the agency expects a response by July 31.



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