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Former Toledo councilman Steve Steel to become city council's chief of staff

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Toledo City Council soon will have a new staff member, and he’s no stranger to council headquarters on One Government Center’s 21st floor.

But some council members on Wednesday expressed reservations about how former council President Steve Steel was hired as the elected body’s new chief of staff — a position for which he’ll be paid almost $78,000 a year.

Those concerns came out after council President Matt Cherry, a Democrat, announced the hire Wednesday in a letter to his colleagues obtained by The Blade. He wrote that he is “confident that Steve is the right person for this work.”

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Former Toledo city councilman Steve Steel stands at the podium in the Toledo Council Chambers in January.

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Some of Mr. Cherry’s colleagues, including Councilman Rob Ludeman, questioned the move, which Mr. Ludeman described as “pretty unilateral” on the part of Mr. Cherry.

“Apparently the other 11 of us don’t have a say in it,” he said of the decision.

Mr. Cherry said the legislative body was in need of “strategic staff development and better staff management” to improve constituent services, work with the Kapszukiewicz administration on policy development, and coordinate with other governmental entities.

“Steve has intimate knowledge of the City budget, has worked with most members of Council and staff, as well as multiple City administrations, and has a thorough understanding of the City and the policy challenges we face,” his letter reads.

Mr. Steel, a Democrat, was elected to the Toledo Public Schools board in 2005 and in 2009 was appointed to city council. He won re-election in 2009 and again in 2013 but term limits prevented him from running again in 2017.

He served on council during a financially trying time for the city and said he is most proud of being able to pass balanced budgets. He was the Lucas County Democratic Party chairman from June, 2014, to March, 2015.

He graduated from University of Toledo’s law school while in office and took a job with Widman & Franklin LLC, a labor and employment law firm in Toledo. He said he’ll leave his job as an attorney Friday to start his new job with the city on Tuesday, though he’ll maintain his law license.

“It’s tough leaving the firm. It’s a great firm with great people and doing work I like to do,” Mr. Steel said. “But I think that there’s a need to make sure city council runs efficiently and make sure the day-to-day operations run smoothly, and I think I’d be a good person for the job and can make use of some of my experiences.”

City spokesman Ignazio Messina said he believes Mr. Steel will be paid a salary of $77,917. It’s a new position for city council, but the money had already been set aside from the general fund as part of three additional staff members budgeted for council this year. It’ll now have a clerk, assistant clerk, four legislative aides, two administrative assistants, a policy manager, someone who keeps track of legislation, and chief of staff.

Mr. Ludeman, a Republican, said he is concerned about how the public will perceive Mr. Cherry’s decision to hire Mr. Steel, from both a financial and political standpoint.

“The position has to be nonpolitical,” he said.

Councilmen Yvonne Harper, Larry Sykes, Peter Ujvagi, all Democrats, and Sandy Spang, an Independent, also expressed concerns about the new hire Wednesday either to a Blade reporter or in emails to Mr. Cherry.

Several councilmen said they liked or respected Mr. Steel but believed the chief of staff position should have been advertised so they could bring in candidates to interview and make a decision together.

Ms. Spang questioned the validity of Mr. Cherry’s decision, citing a council rule that says officers and employees of council should be appointed by a council majority. Mr. Ujvagi and Mr. Sykes both said they would have liked minority candidates to have been considered for the job.

“We don’t have a staff that reflects the city’s diversity,” Mr. Sykes said.

Mark Wagoner, Jr., the Lucas County Republican Party chairman, said council members should have had a say in the decision.

"Any appointment of this significance certainly warrants a vote of the entire Toledo City Council,” Mr. Wagoner said.

Tom Waniewski, a Republican councilman, said he wholeheartedly supports Mr. Cherry’s hiring decision. He helped draft a job description and goals for the new position and said Mr. Steel will bring much-needed direction and coordination to the existing staff on the 21st floor.

“We really thought this out. We need a boss up here,” he said. “The chief of staff is intended to have organization, and that means organizing our staff, that means organizing our services, and that means organizing our legislation.”

He acknowledged the concerns of other councilmen but stood by Mr. Steel as the best person for the job.

“If I had to look at all of the political ramifications of every decision I make, we’d never get anything done. Steve’s a smart guy, he knows this floor, he knows the personalities, he knows legislation,” Mr. Waniewski said. “I know that there’s going to be a byproduct that may be a little sour, but I’m willing to swallow because I think he’ll get some stuff done.”

Mr. Cherry did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Contact Sarah Elms at selms@theblade.com419-724-6103, or on Twitter @BySarahElms.

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