With scathing words for members of city council, Toledo Mayor Mike Bell Wednesday wielded full veto power for the first time since taking office in 2010, torpedoing legislation to extend health-care benefits to the domestic partners of city employees -- an ordinance he had proposed himself.
In a strongly worded, four-page letter to city councilmen, the mayor characterized the veto as a defensive act against attempts by council to encroach on his administration's executive authority. He said a full veto of the legislation was necessary to discourage such incursions in the future.
On Tuesday, council voted 8-4 to amend the mayor's original benefits proposal by including a clause allowing Toledo's main firefighters' union to reopen negotiations on its health-care contract with the city. That provision, Mayor Bell and city Law Director Adam Loukx argued, went beyond council's legal powers as defined in Toledo's charter. The council then approved the domestic partner legislation, 9-3.
"Council's unprecedented attempt to meddle in the basic operations of the administration represents a dangerous threat to the city's existing form of government," Mr. Bell declared in the letter. "Decisions as to when, where, or if to negotiate are administrative functions that are only within the purview of the mayor."
He chastised "certain members of council," accusing them of trying to court the interests of organized labor for their own gain at the expense of the city as a whole. He took aim specifically at Councilman D. Michael Collins, who introduced the amendment, calling his actions an irresponsible attempt to usurp power.
The mayor promised to reintroduce the original ordinance for council's consideration at its next agenda-review meeting Tuesday. The ordinance would extend health, dental, vision, and life insurance to domestic partners of city employees in same-sex or unmarried heterosexual relationships.
Council needs at least nine votes to override the mayor's veto and keep the amendment intact.
Although Mayor Bell warned council Tuesday of his intent to veto the bill, his actions still took some members by surprise. In particular, some expressed shock at the tone of the mayor's accompanying statement.
"The language is over the top, excessive, unrestrained, and Carty-esque," said council President Joe McNamara, referring to the perceived notoriously abrasive style of previous Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. "I think the city of Toledo works much better when the branches of government are less caustic in their interactions. … That would mean, in this example, not being heavy-handed with the veto and not being so personal in the veto message against members of council."
A more prudent response, said Mr. McNamara and other councilmen who supported the amendment, would have been for the mayor to veto only the portion of the ordinance he found offensive.
"Considering there was only one clause that was added, all he had to do was take that out," Steven Steel said. "It begs the question as to why he would have done that. It doesn't make sense."
Mayoral spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei said the veto's purpose was to avoid exactly that scenario. Council cannot be allowed to continue voting on amendments deemed illegal under city law, she said.
"It sets the precedent that anytime council passes something that doesn't pass legal muster, they can just depend on the mayor to line-item veto it," she said. "The law director expressly advised them that this would violate that provision of the charter. Eight members voted to amend it anyway with the intention of forcing his hand."
Mayor Bell, who was traveling to New York on Wednesday for a meeting about the city's bond rating, was unavailable for comment.
Mr. Collins, meanwhile, rejected the mayor's assertion that he is trying to curry union favor. His concern, the councilman maintained, is that the city's firefighters not be harmed by the legislation.
Local 92's leadership has expressed concerns that, because the union manages its own health-care fund, extending health benefits to more people could put a strain on its finances.
"My issue has nothing to do with pandering to union interests," said Mr. Collins, who in the 1990s headed the city's patrolman's union. "My position has been and has consistently been … to ask [the administration] to sit with [Local] 92 and discuss the impact [the legislation] potentially has on their health and welfare trust fund."
Other unions said they too now want to renegotiate their health-care contracts with the city.
Don Czerniak, president of service workers union AFSCME Local 7, said extending benefits to domestic partners will end up costing the city money, and he doesn't want that expense to be used against his members in contract negotiations.
"If I take these new people on, when I go to negotiations in 2014 I don't want the city telling me, 'You've got to make concessions because this legislation passed and the cost of health care went up,' " he said.
For councilmen opposed to the legislation in the first place, Mayor Bell's veto came as a blessing.
George Sarantou and Rob Ludeman, two of the three councilmen who voted against the ordinance Tuesday, said the current disagreement exemplifies their argument that the unions should have been involved in discussing the benefit extension all along. They said they would likely resurrect an overturned amendment to restrict the extra benefits to same-sex couples only.
Tom Waniewski, who also opposed the legislation, said he believes any changes in health care should be postponed until the next round of labor negotiations. He said he's concerned the extension of benefits will cost too much money.
"Why are we now throwing more expenditures into the mix?" he asked. "If it wasn't budgeted, I'm not approving anything."
David Mann, president of Equality Toledo Community Action, which drafted and lobbied for the legislation, said he is still confident the benefit extension will be approved.
"The mayor has assured us from Day One up to yesterday that he fully supports domestic partner benefits," Mr. Mann said. "The legislative process can be frustrating, but we expect this to pass and we will keep working to make sure it does."
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272.