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Published: Thursday, 1/27/2011

Webb broke Toledo City Council rule by leaving unannounced

Toledo councilman Lindsay Webb broke a rule by leaving chambers in the middle of a vote without notifying the council president or the clerk of council.

So far no one has suggested a censure vote of Ms. Webb, whose move on Tuesday was aimed at stalling a decision on a water-rate hike, but her action is likely to be commented on by Council President Wilma Brown when council next meets.

"I'm going to read that rule to them -- that you let the clerk know if you're leaving a meeting," Ms. Brown said Wednesday.

During the vote on whether to approve a 9 percent increase in city water rates, Ms. Webb left chambers to go to the restroom. The voted ended up being six "no" votes to five "yes" votes. She explained later that if she had voted "yes," that it would have created a 6-6 tie that could have been broken by Mayor Mike Bell.

"I fundamentally object to the mayor being able to make an important decision like this," Ms. Webb said.

No rule prohibits Ms. Webb from absenting herself from a portion of a council meeting, nor is there a precedent that would require council's sergeant-at-arms to fetch an absent councilman, according to Clerk of Council Jerry Dendinger.

The city charter requires a councilman who misses a council meeting to be docked 2 percent of his or her annual salary, unless the councilman's absence is excused by a two-thirds vote of the panel.

Council routinely ends each meeting by voting on excuses for a list of councilmen who missed recent council and committee meetings. By a longstanding unwritten rule, a councilman is credited with attendance if he or she makes even the briefest appearance, Mr. Dendinger said.

One rule that is written down is that no member of council shall leave council during regular session without notifying the presiding officer or clerk. Mr. Dendinger said Ms. Webb didn't explain her sudden departure Tuesday to him or Ms. Brown.

Ms. Brown said she would like to change the rule to record the vote of a council member who leaves while a vote is under way as a "no" vote. If that can't be done, she plans to remind members of the rule when council meets again.

"I know what the rule is, but nobody does it," Ms. Brown said. "I would just hope it wouldn't happen again. The mayor has a right to break a tie vote, whether we like it or not."

Ms. Brown said council needs to enact the rate increases.

"What I'm trying to do is get something done before there's something catastrophic because we have [water] lines breaking every day," Ms. Brown said. "I hope before the second [of February] we work something out. We've got to make some decisions."

Councilman Joe McNamara said Ms. Webb had committed to vote for the 9 percent water rate increase and broke that commitment.

"One member of council walked out on her own compromise," Mr. McNamara said. He said Ms. Webb had agreed to most of the elements of the compromise that was up for a vote, and could have voted for those parts she supported.

"How can a legislative body function when people run away from a vote or do the opposite?" Mr. McNamara asked.

Mr. McNamara said it was the second time Ms. Webb had broken a commitment in a vote on council. He said he was referring to her first major vote as a council member, after she was elected in 2007, which was for council president.

In that instance, Ms. Webb voted for Democrat Mark Sobczak instead of Democrat Michael Ashford, whom she had promised to support. Council split 6-6 and then-Mayor Carty Finkbeiner broke the tie in favor of Mr. Sobczak.

"How do I negotiate a compromise with her when she tells me she's going to vote for something and then walks out on it?" Mr. McNamara asked.

He said that by holding out for nine votes, Ms. Webb is looking for "political cover" on a controversial issue, rather than doing the right thing.

Ms. Webb said she agrees on the need for higher rates to upgrade and maintain the city's worn water and sewer systems, but thought the proposal from the Bell administration was too high.

She said her goal is a compromise that has the support of at least nine members of council, which also is the number required to overcome a mayoral veto.

She said that the 2008 vote for council president is ancient history, and that it's Mr. McNamara who is looking for political cover.

"He wants to push through the water rate hikes and not have his name attached," Ms. Webb said.

She said the vote for water rates is of greater importance to the citizens than was the vote for council president. She also said her thinking about the role of the mayor in council's deliberations has changed, and noted her support for the failed effort in 2009 to replace council's even-numbered membership with an odd number, nine, that would eliminate the potential for a tie vote.

Ms. Webb said Mr. McNamara and the Bell administration insisted on referring to the rate package as the "Webb compromise," even though it no longer contained the levels she had proposed.

"I specifically requested that that not be called the 'Webb compromise,'" Ms. Webb said. She also said that Mr. McNamara told her there were seven yes votes, including hers, when there were actually only six.

She speculated that Mr. McNamara might offer a resolution to chastise her for failing to notify the clerk of council or the council president when she left chambers.

In that case, she predicted, her colleagues would probably vote the same way they did on the water rate resolution, leading to a 6-6 vote.

"And the mayor would break the tie," Ms. Webb said. "So maybe Joe McNamara could get the mayor to punish me."

Ms. Webb is not the first to leave council chambers to avoid a tie vote. "It's not unheard of," she noted.

She ducked out through the door directly behind council's table, without everyone noticing her departure. Decades ago, a council member would have to pass in front of the crowd, causing more attention.

The city charter requires a councilman to attend every meeting possible and to vote on every issue when they're present, said Andy Douglas, a retired Ohio Supreme Court justice who was on City Council for 19 years, ending in 1980. He said that he was hard-nosed on councilmen not skipping votes, just as he believed justices shouldn't miss controversial votes on the bench, noting that he was not passing judgment on Ms. Webb.

"My feeling is that you're elected, you're hired on council to make decisions, popular as well as unpopular," Mr. Douglas said.

The proposed increases would have raised water rates by 9 percent, sanitary sewer rates by 6.75 percent plus an additional fixed amount, and storm water rates by 7.5 percent annually over the next four years for Toledo and suburban users.

Council will meet at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday as the committee of the whole to see if members can settle their differences.

Contract Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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