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Published: Thursday, 1/31/2008

Transparency of Toledo city panel is questioned; council makeup under review

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER
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Proposals for changing the size and election process for Toledo City Council are quietly taking shape on the Toledo Charter Revision Committee - so quietly that one councilman says the committee is skirting the open meetings law.

The revision committee will meet at 5 p.m. today on the 22nd floor of Government Center to discuss four proposals to trim council's membership from 12 seats to either nine or six.

Also on the committee's agenda is a discussion on abolishing council primary elections in nonmayoral election years.

John Irish, chairman of the revision committee, said he doesn't expect the 15-member revision committee to take action on any of the proposals today.

"We'll see what people think about these [propos-als]," Mr. Irish said. "My guess is the consensus will be to hold public hearings on these issues and bring many voices into the discussion."

Councilman Joe McNamara, who is opposed to trimming council seats and has questions about eliminating primaries for council races, questioned the legality of how the revision committee arrived at the proposals.

A subcommittee of the revision committee met two weeks ago in Government Center to discuss the topics, but didn't provide public notice for that meeting.

Mr. McNamara, who has accused the revision committee of holding meetings without public notice in the past, said the subcommittee's private meeting violates Ohio's Sunshine Law.

"It's highly ironic to me that the city's charter revision committee doesn't follow the city charter," Mr. McNamara said.

Mr. Irish said he was told by Clerk of Council Jerry Dendinger that a public notice was not needed for the subcommittee.

Public access to today's meeting may be difficult. The conference room is behind closed doors in the mayor's suite, and the mayor's reception area is not normally staffed or open to the public after 5 p.m.

Brian Schwartz, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's spokesman, said he did not know if any arrangements had been made, but he would make sure the public has access to the meeting.

Altering the makeup of council and discontinuing primary elections for some council seats would require amending the city charter.

Putting a proposed charter amendment on the ballot requires either a two-thirds vote of council or a citizen's initiative petition.

Such a petition would need at least 9,500 signatures - 12 percent of the total votes cast for mayor in the most recent election.

Last summer, Mayor Finkbeiner proposed that council membership be trimmed from 12 seats to 8.

Mr. Irish said the first two proposals would abolish either the six at-large council seats or the six district seats.

A third proposal would keep the six district seats and reduce the number of at-large councilmen from six to three.

The fourth configuration would leave the six district seats in place and create three "super-district" seats. Each super-district councilman would represent two districts.

District 2 Councilman D. Michael Collins, who was elected in November after coming in second in the Sept. 11 primary, said he doesn't support abolishing the primary. If the primary had been the final vote, Democrat Molly McHugh Branyan would be representing the district.

"There were 10 candidates in our contest and without having a primary it really wouldn't be fair to the process," he said.

Mr. Irish said doing away with primary races in nonmayoral years would save money.

According to the Lucas County Board of Elections, $118,914 was spent on the 2007 primaries for council Districts 2, 4, and 6 - the only contested council primaries last year. Participation averaged about 7.3 percent of registered voters.

"That's something we'll take a look at," Mr. Irish said. "Is that a good idea or a bad idea? I don't know."

When reminded that the proposal would make it so primaries still would be needed for seats contested during mayoral elections, Mr. Irish said, "That's one reason to sit down and discuss this."

"We might come to the conclusion that it doesn't seem right for there to be primaries for council seats during mayoral years and not have them in off years," Mr. Irish said.

Staff writer Tom Troy contributed to this report.

Contact Joe Vardon at: jvardon@theblade.com or 419-410-5055.



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