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Published: Wednesday, 4/20/2005

Court puts brakes on merger of job efforts

BY DALE EMcH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

About the time Toledo and Lucas County officials were giving enthusiastic endorsements to their plans to merge their economic development departments, the move was being blocked at least temporarily in Lucas County Common Pleas Court.

Judge James D. Bates issued an order yesterday that stops the amendment of the bylaws of an organization that was to act as the new home for the merged departments until a formal meeting is held or until a preliminary injunction hearing is conducted May 4.

The merger being pushed by Mayor Jack Ford and Commissioners Pete Gerken and Tina Wozniak has the support of key community players, such as Jim Hartung of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority and Dan Johnson, president of the University of Toledo.

"This boils down to one issue: jobs," Ms. Wozniak said during a news conference at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Plaza. "The days of senseless competition between one another should no longer prevail."

After supporters of the move to merge the departments under the umbrella of the Lucas County Improvement Corp. touted the plan, Commissioner Maggie Thurber and a group of township trustees held their own impromptu news conference to push for an open meeting and more inclusiveness.

While calling the process to amend the LCIC by laws unfair, Ms. Thurber managed to inflame the situation by criticizing Mr. Ford, Mr. Gerken, and Ms. Wozniak's economic development activities with the city and saying her fellow commissioners either broke the state's open meeting laws or lied about saying the board of commissioners decided to merge its economic development department with the city's.

She said the board only acts through resolution, and no resolution has been passed to place the department under the LCIC umbrella.

"The point is, you don't put your biggest economic failures in control of economic development for the jurisdictions in Lucas County," Ms. Thurber said of the economic development efforts in Toledo by Mr. Ford, Mr. Gerken, and Ms. Wozniak.

Those comments didn't sit well with the mayor and Ms. Thurber's fellow commissioners. Mr. Ford said Ms. Thurber has obstructed a process that could aid in regional economic development because she doesn't want to see a Democratic-led initiative succeed.

"You need to look at what is best really for the region, and the things that will work in Oregon, work in Toledo, and work in the townships," Mr. Ford said. "Those things will come much easier if we have a unified voice.

"Today's action by [Ms. Thurber] was very spiteful. The words she used were malicious. She accused her fellow members of lying, and she was very denigrating to me. All we're trying to do is come together."

Mr. Gerken pointed to the new Jeep plant, the Jeep expansion project, and the accompanying supplier businesses as a few of the major successes that have taken place in the city.

"I don't mind running on a record because I have one," he said. "In the two years Commissioner Thurber has been in office, I can't really tell you one substantive initiative she put forth."

The city could put up to $1.8 million in staff salaries and other contributions into merged departments, while the county plans to put in $635,000. Given that the city and county are putting in the money, they have an obvious stake in how the organization works, Mr. Gerken said.

Behind the political jabs, the point of contention was a move by city and county officials to amend the LCIC's bylaws by written assent of the board members rather than having a public meeting.

A two-thirds majority to change the bylaws was obtained, according to city and county officials. Had the changes been made at a public meeting, only a simple majority would have been needed.

The proposed change in the bylaws would give control of the LCIC's executive board to five private sector members, the mayor of Toledo, a county commissioner, one suburban mayor, and a township trustee.

The temporary restraining order motion, filed on behalf of Springfield Township, contends under state law, the trustees need only pass a resolution to join the LCIC, which the township has done. The city and county officials said the process isn't that simple. They say the LCIC also needs to prepare an economic development plan for the trustees, which the trustees would then have to approve.

The problem from the trustees' perspective is that by the time an economic development plan is prepared for them by the LCIC, the organization's bylaws already will have been changed without their input.

Springfield Township is being represented by Truman "Tim" Greenwood and James P. Silk, Jr., attorneys with the Toledo law firm of Spengler Nathanson.

Nearly lost in the commotion of the political struggle about who will sit on the newly empowered LCIC board and, more important, who will control it, is that the merger idea has considerable support.

Mr. Johnson endorsed the plan through a written statement. Mr. Hartung, Tom Palmer, chairman of the port authority board, and Dennis Boyle, chairman of the Sylvania Township trustees, also back the merger.

"This is clearly an issue of structure," Mr. Hartung said of the controversy. "There's general consensus that LCIC is the vehicle through which cooperative economic development can occur."

Contact Dale Emch at:

daleemch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6061.



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