Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Another 'story behind the story'

It appears that the 'story behind the story' theme is going to be a recurring item in my posts, simply because so much goes on behind the scenes in our county and our city that never gets reported or is intentionally overlooked.

The recent dust-up (Blade article) over the LCIC between Commissioner Ben Konop and the LCIC Director, Shawn Ferguson, is one such circumstance that cries out for 'context.'

First, some background: The Lucas County Improvement Corporation has had significant changes in its structure, composition and membership since 2005. Prior to that, it was a little-known organization that served as a 'private' entity for purchasing/selling land on behalf of its public members (county, cities, townships) and was the administrator of certain government loan programs.

That changed in 2005-06, when two commissioners wanted to re-make the organization and designate it as the county's economic development entity. It is now a non-profit corporation with a 27-member board consisting of several private business representatives, elected officials from the county, cities and townships, and several city of Toledo staff.

At the time, I was opposed to turning over the responsibility for economic development to an independent corporation that would report to a board and not directly to the commissioners. I was also opposed to putting county employees under the direction of the LCIC because I believed that employees should not have two bosses - the LCIC and the Commissioners.

I was also concerned that there were no plans for financial stability for the organization, predicting that it would become a drain on the county budget. And, in light of this resolution to spend $108,000 in economic development grant funds for the 'operation' of the LCIC, in addition to the county's existing budget for their economic development project, it appears I was right.

(There's also the question of whether or not these grant funds, which are designed to be used for businesses locating or expanding in the area, should be used for 'operational' costs of this agency - but that's another question for another time.)

The organization is in the news these days because Konop has decided he's not happy with the performance of the executive director.

Here's the story behind the story:

1) According to this Blade article, Konop didn't think that Ferguson or the LCIC was doing enough to monitor companies who'd gotten tax abatements. Ferguson was appropriately discrete in his public responses, attributing Konop's comments to a lack of understanding and a 'new commissioner learning curve.'

What no one actually reported was that the County has had a review committee for years, specifically tasked with this duty. This committee included, among others, the county's directors of economic development and office of management and budget. Each year, they'd sit down with companies who'd gotten loans and abatements to track their compliance with the various criteria associated with their public monies. An extremely detailed report for the commissioners was compiled and presented. The report indicated the status of compliance, with the committee making recommendations for correction of any issues.

When the county established the LCIC as its economic development entity, it did not transfer this committee's responsibility, but maintained that authority within the board of commissioners.

The legitimacy of Konop's concern about monitoring notwithstanding, it was not the responsibility of the LCIC nor Shawn Ferguson. But you didn't know that, until now.

2) At Tuesday's commissioners' meeting, Konop "took issue with what he said was Mr. Ferguson's "lack of vision" to bring new jobs to the county."

I'm not going to debate Ferguson's vision, it's not relevant. The more important fact to point out is that it is not the responsibility of an executive director to provide 'vision.' That duty lies squarely on the shoulders of an organization's board members. The director is supposed to carry out said vision.

So, if Konop thinks the organization lacks 'vision,' he should be directing this concern to himself and his fellow board members. But no one pointed out this error, until now.

3) Ferguson does not work for the County Commissioners. His employer is the LCIC and he is responsible only to his board. While the three commissioners are members of that board, it is inappropriate, and certainly unprofessional, to expect Ferguson to cater to the needs of these three over the other 24 members and the municipalities and organizations they represent.

4) And then there is this, from the article:

"And Commissioner Pete Gerken said he understood why Mr. Konop was upset.

Mr. Gerken, who worked to create the LCIC and sits on its nine-member executive board, said Mr. Ferguson has refused to complete tasks given to him by Mr. Konop on multiple occasions."

Now we're getting to the core of the issue. If you read between the lines, it appears Konop has given direct instruction to Ferguson and he's mad that the tasks weren't done - and he's taking out his anger on Ferguson publicly.

My first question would be this: has this 'instruction' from Konop gone through the board?

While an LCIC board member can certainly make requests of the director, s/he has no authority to instruct completion of specific tasks outside the line of command - which would be the LCIC's executive committee. And Konop does not sit on that committee.

Second question: did any of the 'tasks' that Konop assigned conflict with other tasks assigned by the board or fall outside the scope of Ferguson's duties?

Third question: were any of these 'tasks' associated with Konop's individual initiatives - initiatives that the LCIC has not adopted?

These are the questions that should have been asked when reporting on the public exchange between the Konop and Ferguson. And Konop's fellow commissioners should have also pointed out these things - but that may be too much to ask of Gerken and commission president Tina Skeldon Wozniak.

5) Part of this exchange has to do with the relationship between the Commissioners and the LCIC. Transferring economic development responsibilities to the LCIC allows the commissioners to have a scapegoat for any lack - or perceived lack - of performance when it comes to economic development. This was one of my major concerns and it now seems that concern was justified. Nowhere is it reported that the Commissioner are taking responsibility, but you're beginning to see plenty of accusations leveled...and I expect more.

6) Commissioners represent 11% of the board, yet they provide the significant majority of funding for the LCIC. So, while they should have only equal representation and influence, controlling the purse strings gives them greater implied control over the organization. This was a major concern of the townships when the LCIC was reorganized. This financial hammer over the organization is what makes Konop think he can give assignments directly to Ferguson without going through the board or the executive committee.

But Konop is not alone in thinking this way.

""There happens to be a disconnect between Shawn and Ben, and it's Shawn's responsibility to make sure one of his major investors feels better about his job performance," Mr. Gerken said."

Gerken is wrong on two fronts. One, it's not Ferguson's responsibility to cater to a single board member. Ferguson is responsible to the entire LCIC board and Gerken should know that and explain this fact to Konop.

Two, Konop is not "one of his major investors." The citizens of Lucas County are. As such, Konop and Gerken should be cognizant of this distinction and should not expect that, simply because they cast the votes on the money, they have 'special privileges' that entitle them some sort of special treatment from the director.

7) Finally, you have Wozniak saying that the LCIC's executive board should come to the commissioners' chambers for further discussion on job creation in Lucas County. Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of further discussions on job creation in Lucas County - heaven knows we need more of it. But Wozniak is wrong to expect that such discussions should take place in the commissioners' chambers with three commissioners sitting up on a dais looking down on the executive board.

And make no mistake - this will not be a discussion. It will be the BCC giving this group of individuals 'instruction' and conducting their own political posturing while providing enough public evidence that the BCC 'tried to hold the LCIC accountable' for their performance.

The proper place for such discussions is in the full board meetings of the LCIC - or with Wozniak, as a member of the full board, addressing the LCIC executive committee at their meeting - perhaps with a public notice.

The LCIC is a separate organization and it does not report to the Board of County Commissioners, nor does it owe the BCC any special attention or deference. Any decisions about what direction economic development in the area is going to take should involve ALL the LCIC board members and not be determined by the three commissioners making demands thinly disguised as 'suggestions.'

Some may say that, because the county is the major funder, the commissioners have an obligation to ensure such tax dollars are generating results. This is always the 'reasoning' for granting elected officials power over outside organizations ... and it's also part of the philosophy associated, by some, with the uni-gov concept.

If, however, the main purpose is to ensure the commissioners have control over the county tax dollars expended in such efforts, then one of two things should have occurred:

a) either the commissioners should never have transferred their economic development responsibilities to the LCIC, ensuring their authority to control and direct such efforts stayed solely within the BCC, or

b) they shouldn't be subsidizing this organization's operational costs, as they are, using such subsidies to exert control that the organization would not normally grant to them.

These are the stories behind the stories - the facts (and some of my opinions) that you need to know in order to truly understand what is happening and why.

Let me know if you have questions...

UPDATE: In checking the actual expenditure of $108,000 referenced above, I found the following information:

The commissioners voted to give the LCIC up to $108,000 for their operational costs. The source of funding for this money is the Economic Development Grant fund - the fund the commissioners use for grants to companies looking to move here or expand their existing operations.

Interestingly, according to the appropriated budget that the county published, they only budgeted $50,000 into this account. Now, they may have had some carryover monies in this account...but why are we spending money which can be used directly for specific economic development to fund the LCIC operational expenses?

6 comments:

Christopher said...

Thank you for the heads up, Maggie.

I am such a skeptic of Konop and his overblown media machine that is just picking up more and more steam every day, that what you are saying fits right in to his scheme.

I routinely follow Konop in the news and post when I find something particularly egregious in his behavior.

I would appreciate your insight when I get it wrong or just lack knowledge of the story behind the story.

I think you and I see eye-to-eye when it comes to little Ben.

Christopher said...

Sorry, that last comment had incorrect identification.

The link to my blog is http://blog.buckeyepayroll.com

Maggie Thurber said...

Christopher - I didn't address the validity of Konop's issues or concerns, except to say that his 'discontent' seems to be more related to Ferguson's lack of jumping on command.

If, as stated in today's follow-up Blade story, he's already taken his concerns to the LCIC Board, I'd have to ask WHY the board doesn't agree? Is it because Ben's ideas of 'tasks' are not shared by the other board members? Is it because Ben wants Ferguson to work on specific things that would prevent Ferguson from working on tasks the Board, as a whole, has given him?

Why won't anyone, except me, ask these questions?

Ferguson has been working extensively on the arena project per the direction of the LCIC AND the commissioners, including Ben.

Is Ben correct that the LCIC can be doing more? He may be...but, failing to convince his fellow board members to support his wants, he's gone public. Unfortunately, he's blaming the wrong person. His issue isn't with the employee of the LCIC, his issue is with the LCIC...but that would mean criticizing his fellow Dems and we all know that's not allowed.

kateb said...

Great post Maggie. To be honest, the Blade got me on this one. I read it in a restaurant while waiting for my food. I thought 'gee that Konop may not be such a stinker after all' after reading the editorial. Yes, meant to say editorial b/c it was influenced by a private agenda and opinion.

Ferguson was kind to show up for the Commission meeting. Konop does not understand the chain of command.

I am surely not surprised to hear that Pete Gerken thinks the BCC money is their own money. Not surprised at all.

Hooda Thunkit said...

Maggie,

Thank you for posting what goes on behind the scenes (and behind the headlines); it was quite impressive!

Jo said...

I regularly attend Commissioner meeting. Mr. Konop is constantly doing something on his cell/blackberry or whatever he has. He rarly pays attention.

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