Conflicts and emergenciesWritten by Lisa Renee Ward | | firstname.lastname@example.org
When legislation is presented to Toledo City Council, the phrase “and declaring an emergency” is often included. The word “emergency” conjures up something urgent, requiring a call to 911 or some type of action that just cannot wait.
In government, their definition of “emergency” is more procedural than predicament, and the request is not always granted. An assignment of first reading or to a committee for further public input can take place instead.
At the Jan. 26 agenda review meeting, Mike Bell’s administration presented several pieces of legislation with the emergency clause. Permission to enter into a contract with Lott Industries Inc. for the purpose of providing seasonal employment opportunities was one of them. Council opted to list this as a first reading item instead of an emergency.
Two pieces of legislation on the discrimination settlement claims of Perlean Griffin and Dwayne Morehead also contained the emergency clause. After returning from executive session, which excludes the public and media, the meeting adjourned without council taking action. The three magic letters that would make this go before council as an emergency, “SEP,” were not heard.
According to Gerald Dendinger, Toledo clerk of council, SEP is defined as:
S = suspension of the requirement for two readings;
E = emergency measure, effective upon mayor’s signature;
P = final passage of the ordinance or resolution.
SEP was granted for several pieces of legislation on Jan. 26. One was for a month-to-month contract for biosolids recycling and disposal at the water reclamation facility until the formalized contract was in place. Funding for the Basement Flood Remediation Grant Program is another piece of legislation that was given SEP.
As the “E” in “SEP” indicates, if the legislation is approved at the next scheduled council meeting, it goes into effect as soon as the mayor signs it. Nonemergency legislation goes into effect 30 days after the mayor’s signature in most cases.
Even when the SEP is given, it takes more than a simple majority of council for it to be passed as an emergency; it requires two-thirds support on the roll call for emergency. At council meetings, the chair will say, “suspension” with a roll call of names by the assistant clerk of courts; “emergency” with the roll call and then “passage” with the actual voice vote from each member.
Not everything can be an emergency. The city charter states: “No measure making a grant, renewal, or extension of a franchise, or of a special privilege, or regulating rates to be charged for service by any public utility, shall ever be declared an emergency measure.”
Council members must vote at a council meeting, unless there is a conflict of interest in which they must abstain. Two possible conflicts of interest were voiced at the Jan. 26 agenda review meeting.
Councilman Rob Ludeman asked about a potential conflict of interest in his voting on the city’s selection of Fifth Third Bank and KeyBank for banking and custodial services, since he does business with both banks. Councilman D. Michael Collins said his wife being on the board of Lott Industries could be a conflict of interest in voting the proposed contract for seasonal workers.
Possible conflicts related to spouses and family members as well as other professional relationships can create gray areas. City Law Director Adam Loukx said he would speak to Ludeman in more detail to determine if a conflict exists.
The Ohio Ethics Commission has set rules in place; it also issues advisory opinions when a question exists that can not be answered by in-house legal counsel like Loukx.
The general principle sounds simple as cited by the ethics commission: “a public officer may not participate in matters that involve his own financial interests, or those of his family or business associates.”
The pages and pages of advisory opinions show how complicated it can be in determining what is a true conflict of interest.
Our desire for government transparency could be compared to parenting and teenage relationships. You want the door to the room left open. While you are not always going to watch every movement, the door being open lessens the chances of anyone messing around.
Lisa Renee Ward is Toledo Free Press fact checker and operator of the political blog Glass City Jungle.