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City Council discusses ethics reforms

Minutes after former Toledo City Councilman Bob McCloskey was convicted yesterday on a state bribery charge and hours after he pleaded guilty to two federal bribery charges, Councilman Frank Szollosi opened a committee hearing on ethics reform a block away in Government Center.

Mr. Szollosi insisted that the two-hour council committee-of-the-whole hearing was not a knee-jerk reaction to the day's events involving fellow Democrat McCloskey.

In fact, city records show that Mr. Szollosi put Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and other councilmen on notice in November about his plans to introduce legislation for ethics reform.

Mr. Szollosi, the council's committee-of-the-whole chairman, told The Blade yesterday he held off moving forward until yesterday only because the council had been preoccupied with budgetary matters.

The Szollosi plan calls for the 12-member council and its 13 nonunion employees to abide by the same ethics policy that applies to the mayor's office and the hundreds of other city employees. That policy is even tougher than the 22-page Ohio Ethics Law.

Mr. Szollosi said he also wants Toledo to follow the lead of Cincinnati and Columbus by creating a local ethics panel and a program to register lobbyists.

He said recent scandals over gifts and lobbying involving Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, and Jack Abramoff, a former Washington lobbyist involved in bribery scandals, motivated his three-pronged proposal.

Democrats still outnumber Republicans 7-4 on Toledo's 12-member council, even with McCloskey's resignation that went into effect May 2. But yesterday's hearing showed there are mixed feelings among council members about ethics reform.

Democrat Phil Copeland and Republican Betty Shultz did not attend, but councilmen from both parties who did said they were trying to figure out how they could hold themselves more accountable without creating redundant layers of bureaucracy. Some questioned the need for duplicating what is spelled out by the Ohio Ethics Law.

Mr. Szollosi said a local ethics policy in place since Nov. 18, 1988, was tightened by former Mayor Jack Ford on July 10, 2003. It forbids employees from accepting gifts other than ceremonial trinkets. State law allows gifts of up to $75.

The local policy puts a $50 cap on meals or other "edible items" that can be accepted from within the state, while the state allows up to $75. Local rules allow acceptance of meals or other food items valued at $100 or less while on out-of-state trips.

Some councilmen said that defining a "registered lobbyist" could create problems that discourage public participation in government. They also were unsure how much power, if any, to invest in an ethics panel.

"If you're gonna be a crook, you're gonna be a crook no matter how many pieces of paper you have," Councilman Wilma Brown said.

Councilman Mark Sobczak, a Democrat who expressed skepticism about the proposed changes, told The Blade after the meeting he felt like he was in a bind.

"Arguing against ethics is like arguing against apple pie and Chevrolet," he said. "You don't want to do that."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.

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