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Published: 2/23/2008

City hires counsel for bias case

BY JOE VARDON
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The city of Toledo has hired outside legal counsel for representation before the Ohio Civil Rights Commission against charges of discrimination in the dismissal of three black employees.

The city recently acquired the services of attorneys Fritz Byers and Samuel Kaplan - and will pay their legal fees with taxpayer dollars - for defense against the commission's finding of "probable cause" that Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's administration engaged in an "unlawful discriminatory practice" when it fired or laid off those three employees last year.

Mr. Byers, former general counsel for Block Communications Inc., The Blade's parent company, will act as lead counsel for the city and be paid $225 per hour. Mr. Kaplan will be paid $135 per hour.

Rather than use the city's law department of more than 20 attorneys for representation, Mr. Finkbeiner and other Toledo officials said Mr. Byers was retained as lead counsel because of his vast experience arguing cases before the civil rights commission.

A First Amendment attorney, Mr. Byers represents The Blade newsroom on legal matters. He handled all of Block Communications' matters for 15 years.

"We want to do the best job we can of presenting the city's position on these issues," Mr. Finkbeiner said yesterday.

Toledo Law Director John Madigan said his department is deferring to Mr. Byers because the city's team of lawyers does not have Mr. Byers' experience in civil rights cases.

The commission agreed that Perlean Griffin, the former director of Affirmative Action/Contract Compliance, was demoted - which led to her being fired - because of her advocacy of a city employee who had claimed race discrimination in being denied a promotion.

The commission said the other two complainants - Dwayne Morehead, the former co-executive director of the Youth Commission, and Gary Daugherty, a former manager of environmental services - were retaliated against because of their association with Mrs. Griffin.

The commission referred all three cases to conciliation.

A lengthy process lies ahead in which the city could appear before the commission for a hearing and could separately be sued in federal court.

Mr. Madigan said that the circumstances surrounding the case - and the consequences of findings against the city's position - warranted looking outside the law department for help.

"There are financial consequences if we lose, so, yeah, I think it's a good idea," Mr. Madigan said.

The mayor does not need Toledo City Council's approval for expenditures of less than $10,000.

But if the legal fees in this matter exceed that amount, council would need to sign off on a separate agreement among the city, Mr. Byers, and Mr. Kaplan.

Toledo City Council President Mark Sobczak and Councilman Frank Szollosi both said that they weren't sure if council would grant approval to pay for outside legal counsel in this instance.

Mr. Sobczak said Mr. Finkbeiner was acting within his rights to spend $9,999 in legal fees but added: "He's the one who got us into this, so he's the one who has to get us out of it."

In light of the city's highly publicized budget woes, Mr. Szollosi wants to know where the money is going to come from to pay Mr. Byers and Mr. Kaplan.

"This is money that could go toward putting another policeman on the streets," Mr. Szollosi said.

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



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