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Published: Monday, 4/14/2003

City group strives to restore its legitimacy

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

In a world of international tension, “sister cities” are intended to be olive branches of international friendship that stimulate commerce.

Toledo Sister Cities International, however, has been struggling with disagreement over the performance of its director and over complicated bylaws that don't treat all sister-city organizations equally. Last week, TSCI's 27-member board of directors admitted it had lost legitimacy because it waited too long to call an annual general membership meeting.

Sister Cities is supposed to promote international economic development for Toledo. The organization gets $65,000 a year from the city's Department of Economic and Community Development and occupies valuable 21st floor office space in Government Center - the same floor as City Council and one floor away from the mayor's office.

Toledo Sister Cities International was formed in 1992. At the time, the city had, on paper at least, relationships with Toledo, Spain; Londrina, Brazil; Qinhuangdao, China; Szeged, Hungary, and Poznan, Poland.

Of those, only Toledo, Szeged, and Poznan have active local committees today.

TSCI has helped usher in new relationships with Toyohashi, Japan; Tanga, Tanzania, and Delmenhorst, Germany, all of which are active.

Executive Director John Henry Fullen said TSCI is hampered by local, independent sister-city “committees” that maintain their own memberships, bank accounts, and international connections. Mr. Fullen backs a policy that would require them to be more closely allied with the central organization, including providing at least 50 dues-paying members to TSCI.

“We have this awkward situation where some are paid members and some are not. It's something that has to be resolved,” Mr. Fullen said. “The best programs in the country have created one organization. There's strength in unity.”

Members of those committees say they are the heart of the movement, and should be offered more assistance by the central office.

“I look at the role of the TSCI as a facilitator for existing groups,” said Susan Orosz, president of the Szeged committee. “Because we haven't gotten support in the past from the office, then as a committee we continue to do our functions. John Henry has not come to our meetings recently. We have repeatedly asked either for a newsletter or a way of communicating with the other committees.”

Mr. Fullen's leadership came under sharp criticism in a report written Sept. 9, 2002, by former board treasurer Christine Weisfelder after she was voted out as treasurer. Ms. Weisfelder cited what she called “irresponsible financial reporting” and inadequate fund-raising.

She charged that the organization is too dependent on the city of Toledo and Lucas County for its operating revenues, and that the organization hadn't developed enough grants and ongoing exchange programs.

Mr. Fullen called Ms. Weisfelder's memo “a discouraging and demoralizing means of encouraging professional and organizational development.” He said if the memo proves anything, it is that there is an “unreasonable burden” on him as executive director, and that he should be provided with a part-time financial manager.

Unable to agree on new bylaws that would set uniform membership rules for all sister city organizations, the board and Mr. Fullen had recently decided to hire a professional facilitator. But last week, City Council President Louis Escobar told them because no appointments had been made since April 5, 2001, all the board appointments had expired. Board memberships are two-year terms.

The board is made of up of two sets of directors - 14 “Class A” directors who are appointed by the mayor, and 13 “Class B” directors who are elected by the general membership. Under TSCI's bylaws, the mayor's 14 appointments must be made from a list of nominees supplied by the 13 Class B members.

On Thursday, the former board members met as private individuals and agreed to help start the process of picking a board. A general membership meeting is planned for next month.

Whether the current board members end up in charge remains to be seen.

Mayor Jack Ford told the board last week he doesn't want to be told who to appoint and he also advised the board to simplify its bylaws. He recommended the board draft a new job description for Mr. Fullen, give him some direction, and then evaluate his performance after six months.

Board members say they're chagrined by the turn of events.

“I am so tired of the accusations against the executive director when it's our job to give structure,” said Lisa Marie Kowalski, one of the newest board members. “Are we not adults?”



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