Toledo Mayor Jack Ford and two key Lucas County leaders have agreed to merge economic development departments, an accord reached after private discussions that successfully skirted a state law against creating public policy in secret.
Mr. Ford, county Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak, and county Commissioner-elect Pete Gerken, all Democrats, have agreed in principle to merge the city and county departments, potentially marshaling up to $4.5 million in resources to create and attract new jobs to the county, Mr. Ford said.
Under the proposal, the Regional Growth Partnership, an independent agency that receives $1.35 million a year from the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, also would move into the new organization.
"It's time we get to a one-voice, big-picture look," Mr. Ford said yesterday.
The new governing board that would oversee the merged departments would not be controlled by Toledo's mayor, which once was a key demand from Mr. Ford and a stumbling block for county leaders.
The new board could even be headed by a "private-sector person," Mr. Ford said.
"I would want to serve as a member. I see this as more of a giant step toward the issue of regionalism," the mayor said.
"This is more of a compromise or hybrid between an all-private and an all-public entity."
As it stands now, Lucas County and most area cities have individual job-creation efforts that are essentially in competition.
The port authority, for its part, collects $2.5 million in port authority levy money and gives the growth partnership $1.35 million of it to attract jobs to the northwest Ohio region.
The port authority operates Toledo Express and Metcalf airports, the train station, and the Port of Toledo. It also earns income running a bond program for the state.
The merger would follow a suggestion from a recent consultant's report that criticized economic development efforts as scattered and ineffective.
Several port board members, who are upset by Toledo's dismal ranking in a recent Milken Institute study that placed Toledo 195 out of 200 major metropolitan areas in job creation, want changes.
County Commissioner Maggie Thurber, a Republican, objected to the forming of county policy out of the public eye.
But because Mr. Gerken has not yet taken office, he and Ms. Wozniak can meet to discuss county policy without triggering a state Sunshine Law that requires the public be informed ahead of time that a majority of commissioners plan to meet.
"They've been making decisions that impact [the public]," Ms. Thurber said. "They are doing this now [before Mr. Gerken is sworn in] to avoid the Sunshine laws. It concerns me."
Already, the two have put into motion a major change in county government by replacing John Alexander as the county administrator.
He was told he'll lose his job when the new board forms in January.
Mr. Gerken, who is currently a Toledo councilman and who defeated Commissioner Harry Barlos in November, said Michael Beazley, the clerk of Toledo City Council, will be named the new administrator.
Tom Palmer, chairman of the port authority's board of directors, said he likes the proposed economic development merger idea.
"The mayor's laid out an idea that deserves serious consideration," he said.
Mr. Palmer said that part of the plan would be to allow the growth partnership to become mostly privately funded and also allow it to continue attracting new technology companies to the region.
The 0.4-mill port authority levy, which currently pays for the growth partnership, was passed by voters Nov. 2 with the promise from various leaders that job-creation efforts would be improved and that most of the $1.35 million the growth partnership uses would be spent in Lucas County.
The port board meets tomorrow to discuss how the $2.5 million the port authority levy raises will be spent and how the growth partnership might look in the new year.
The port board created the growth partnership to market the region more than 10 years ago, and city and county would need port board support to incorporate it into a new merged department.
Port board members, campaigning for the levy's renewal Nov. 2, promised voters that most of the port authority levy dollars would be spent in Lucas County, instead of sprinkled across the region. Only Lucas County property owners pay the levy.
Mr. Gerken ran for county commissioner saying job creation efforts had to be improved.
"[Merger] starts sending the message to businesses that jobs don't need to hopscotch around political lines," Mr. Gerken said. "Just because there's a border between Oregon and Toledo, it's still a job in Lucas County."
Mr. Ford yesterday cited Mr. Gerken's defeat of Mr. Barlos as a reason he agreed to merge the departments without insisting on the Toledo mayor's control.
Ms. Thurber said she is not convinced there is a duplication of efforts in economic development, but she agreed reform is needed.
She stressed that all the political entities in the county needed to be included in any merger.
"Our obligations are to the county as a whole," she said.
"How do we assure that the interest of the county as a whole is not put behind Toledo's?"
Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick