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Published: Wednesday, 3/23/2005

Council hires firm for arena despite conflict allegation

Toledo City Council yesterday voted to contract with Pizzuti Cos. of Columbus to plan a sports and concert arena despite criticism of a potential conflict of interest involving Mayor Jack Ford's former arena project manager.

Steven Best, who recently resigned as real estate commissioner and Marina District project manager, had an undisclosed family connection with SSOE Inc., one of the arena and Marina District contractors.

Council voted 12-0 to approve an arena agreement with Pizzuti, which is also developing the 125-acre Marina District.

Pizzuti is expected to complete a market study by June 1 that will recommend a location, size, and financing of a replacement for the aging Toledo Sports Arena.

Five acres have been set aside in the Marina District, on the east side of the Maumee River between the Martin Luther King, Jr. and I-280 bridges, as a possible site, but other locations will be considered, officials said.

Pizzuti/Garfield Traub LLC will run the arena project with Lathrop Co. Inc. of Maumee; SSOE of Toledo, and national arena operator SMG of Philadelphia.

Garfield Traub Development, of Dallas, specializes in financing arrangements, said Stephen Klepper, Lathrop vice president.

"Their role is to work with the city, and the county if it gets involved, to guide them through the means of financing" and the bonding process, he said.

Councilman George Sarantou said he was bothered that Mr. Best had a family connection with SSOE that the mayor's chief of staff, Jay Black, Jr., didn't know about. Mr. Best's wife, Eileen Best, is the sister of Barbara Weaver, vice president of SSOE and director of SSOE's Alpha project. Alpha is SSOE's process for designing a multi-use arena.

William Carroll, the city's director of economic and community development and Mr. Best's boss until March 15, said he did not know about the family connection. He said it wouldn't have made a difference in SSOE's selection.

"I'm outraged with this," Mr. Sarantou said. He said he didn't try to hold up the arena development deal because nothing could be done unless an investigation reveals wrongdoing.

Rick Kerger, an attorney representing Mr. Best, said Mr. Best informed his former boss, Steven Seaton, that Mrs. Weaver was his sister-in-law.

Tony Damon, president and chief executive officer of SSOE, said Mrs. Weaver informed her company and business partners about the family connection.

"SSOE's involvement and Barb's involvement [in the Marina District] predates Steve Best coming on board" with the city, Mr. Damon said.

Mr. Best resigned March 15 after the city began an ethics inquiry into his referral of city-related real estate deals totaling $1.7 million to a firm that employs him and his wife as agents.

Mr. Best said he got no commissions on the two deals.City Law Director Barb Herring has referred information about the Best case to the Ohio Ethics Commission. Mr. Sarantou said Ms. Herring told him she is reviewing the city's real estate deals for the past five years.

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