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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

Mayor, commissioners forge new alliance

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

While no outright hostility has erupted between the Lucas County commissioners and Mayor Jack Ford in the last few years, it's safe to say the relationship has been strained at times.

Not so anymore.

Now that Pete Gerken has joined fellow former Toledo city councilman Tina Skeldon Wozniak on the board of commissioners, Mr. Ford has two strong Democratic allies in the commissioners office.

"We were accustomed to working on problems together," Mr. Ford said. "There's a certain give and take that goes on between the mayor and council, and after a while a certain amount of trust grows from that. I think that's what's fruitful now: I trust them."

Apart from increased conversations between the commissioners and Mr. Ford, the closer ties are manifesting themselves in city/county projects. One example is the planned merger of the city and county economic development offices. Another is talk by the commissioners - at least by Mr. Gerken and Ms. Wozniak - about having an increased role in the Marina District project, which the last two board configurations resisted.

"The county ought to be more involved in things like the Marina District," Mr. Gerken said. "There's an opportunity to develop some commercial retail opportunities to develop sales tax. Obviously, sales tax should interest any county commissioner. There's a natural alignment for the city and county in that project."

Mr. Ford and Ms. Wozniak, who became a commissioner in 2002, have had a good working relationship, perhaps helped by a shared social-work background. The mayor does not have a close relationship, though, with Commissioner Maggie Thurber - the board's lone Republican. Nor did he with Harry Barlos, whom Mr. Gerken defeated last year.

Ms. Thurber said the previous board tried to develop a working relationship with Mr. Ford. But she said he resisted closer ties.

"There's not new cooperation, because the board didn't try before. There's more cooperation, because Jack Ford feels he can cooperate now," she said. "We tried before and were rebuffed."

Mr. Barlos said a sore point that predates the Ford administration is the perception that the city often taps the county for money. "I think there's always been friction as to who was the strongest of governments," he said. "It seems like whenever projects flowed to the surface, the [mayor's office] always looked to the [commissioner's office] for economic assistance."

Ms. Wozniak said she wants the county to help the city when possible, and barriers should be broken down. Aiding the region should be the aim, she said.

As president of the board of commissioners, she plans weekly meetings with the mayor, which hasn't been done before.

"For me, I'm looking at the bigger picture," she said. "How can we do things smarter, how can we be more efficient, how can we be more productive?"

While Ms. Wozniak sees the upside to a closer relationship, others worry about the developing ties and the fact that all three commissioners are Toledoans. Oregon Mayor Marge Brown said she and other suburban mayors have concerns about the board being too focused on Toledo.

"In private, we all talk about it," she said. "Is it going to be a Toledo-run commissioners? I hope not. I hope they look out for the interests of all of us, because the voters in Lucas County put them there."

Sylvania Mayor Craig Stough is more hopeful. He thinks having two ex-councilmen on the board might lead to more consolidated services and will give the suburbs more sway. "I believe the county commissioners may now better recognize the needs of the municipalities and represent us rather than leaning toward the townships," he said.

Mr. Gerken said regional thinking can help all parts of the county. "What this says to me is that everybody wins," he said. "I think there may be the feeling with suburban folks that, 'Oh no, this will only benefit Toledo.' But I think they're starting to realize that what's good for Toledo is good for the region."

Mr. Ford, who is finishing the last year of his first term as mayor, calls cooperation between the city and county "crucial." With Mr. Gerken and Ms. Wozniak as allies, a better working relationship is possible, he said.

"I think this kind of sustained cooperation has been missing for some years in Toledo," the mayor said. "Those days are gone. I think you're going to see a unified front."

Contact Dale Emch at: daleemch@theblade.com or 419-724-6061.



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