1/21/08

Teamster wins City Council presidency

In his distinctive raspy voice, Mark Sobczak professes optimism for Toledo and City Council - despite schisms among its members that played out during his election as council president.

Now, he views the first step of his presidency is to foster unity among the 12 members as they continue deliberating major issues, including the city's 2008 budget.

Mr. Sobczak - vice president of Teamsters Local 20 and the son of a retired Toledo police officer - took City Council's helm Jan. 2 when Mayor Carty Finkbeiner broke a 6-6 tie vote between him and former president Michael Ashford.

His critics say he's aligned too closely to the mayor.

"Well, let's put it like this: Of you talk about leadership, his leadership should be to the citizens we serve, and that's where we split," Mr. Ashford said. "He is a total supporter for the mayor. … He supported everything from the $10,000 shower to the $40,000 Christmas lights in front of One Government Center."

Mr. Sobczak brushes those criticisms aside.

"People try to say I am some kind of Carty sycophant and that's not true," he said. "The mayor and I have been at odds plenty of times."

He added: "Carty and I share a vision for what we need for a community, and that's pro-jobs and pro-growth."

Mr. Sobczak grew up in West Toledo on Densmore Drive, attended the all-male St. John's Jesuit High School, went to the University of Toledo, and now lives near Toledo Hospital.

"I grew up with civil service around the dinner table and the city, politics, and how things went on," Mr. Sobczak said.

"It just kind of sat in the back of my mind and I never really aspired to this type of work," he said.

He says politics was never a lifelong goal, and sidesteps questions about the local hype he will someday run for mayor himself.

"It's civil service and if people say, 'We need you to do this,' it has to be driven by people," Mr. Sobczak said.

"It has to be driven by people. It shouldn't be driven by power or ego. That's how I answer that question."

Mr. Sobczak got a job at UPS as a sorter while in college, and in 1981 he was recruited into the Teamsters' ranks by Bill Lichtenwald, who was then a business agent and is now president of Teamsters Local 20.

Mr. Sobczak said his union experience helps him on council.

"It's basically the same thing," he said. "You are dealing with people's needs, wages, and benefits."

In January, 2000, he was strike coordinator after a union walkout at the giant trucking firm Overnite Transportation.

Mr. Sobczak is now the top aide to Mr. Lichtenwald, who played a part in establishing Sandy Isenberg as the Democratic Party's chairman in the spring of 2004.

At the suggestion of Ms. Isenberg, a former county commissioner, Mr. Sobczak screened with the Lucas County Democratic Party's executive committee for Pete Gerken's seat on council, which was vacated after his November, 2004, election to county commissioner.

The following January, the Democratic-controlled City Council voted 7-4 to appoint Laborers Local 500 official Phillip Copeland to the vacancy, rebuffing the county party organization, which had endorsed Mr. Sobczak.

Mr. Sobczak was supported for the appointment by one other Democrat, Bob McCloskey, and three Republicans, Rob Ludeman, Betty Shultz, and George Sarantou.

Mr. Sobczak was also backed by the so-called "B Team" Democrats who took over control of the party in 2004. Mayor Finkbeiner, a Democrat, is also a B-teamer.

"I am not one for labels and I wish that label thing would go away because I think it's divisive," Mr. Sobczak said.

"And I've said before, there is no Republican way to fill a pothole or Democratic way to pave a street."

Both Mr. Copeland and Mr. Sobczak were elected in November, 2006, for at-large seats on council.

Today, Mr. Sobczak still sees support from his Republican colleagues on council, and that has been ammunition for criticism from some of his detractors.

"I think he has been divisive since he's been on council by playing Republicans against Democrats," said Democratic councilman Frank Szollosi, an A-Team player along with councilmen Joe McNamara, Mike Craig, and Mr. Ashford.

"It's almost like he should be assistant to the mayor," Mr. Szollosi said.

"I think he misunderstands the role."

Mr. Szollosi, a critic of the mayor and his new council leader, said the legitimacy of Mr. Sobczak's presidency "was dealt a pretty severe blow by the dishonest way he was put there."

Democratic Councilman Lindsay Webb cast the sixth vote to elect Mr. Sobczak. Her vote shocked fellow Democrats and Mr. Ashford, to whom she had pledged support 90 minutes earlier.

Mrs. Shultz painted a different picture of Mr. Sobczak.

"Leadership, honesty, integrity, attitude, and he tries to work things out," she said of the council president.

"I think he's attempting to close the gap now."

Both sides agree that the president can wield a lot of power.

Under the city's charter, the leader of council sets its agenda, presides over the meetings, and meets with the mayor.

Mr. Sobczak sided with the mayor on his controversial "trash tax," a $5.50 monthly fee enacted last year and proposed to be permanent in the 2008 budget.

Council is expected to divide again over that issue.

Mr. Sobczak says he sides with the mayor on redevelopment plans for Southwyck Shopping Center, development of the Marina District in East Toledo, and the future of the city-owned Erie Street Market near downtown, back in city hands after CitiFest, Inc., ran out of money last autumn.

They differed back in 2006 on a waiver for the living-wage ordinance for wholesale giant Costco at Westgate Village Shopping Center.

The mayor was against it while Mr. Sobczak sided with seven other councilmen in approving the measure.

Then in June, 2007, council voted 9-2 to override Mayor Finkbeiner's veto to allow Imagine Schools to buy 1517 Madison Ave., the home of the Zenobia Shrine since 1949, and convert it to a charter school.

Mr. Sobczak, who had previously opposed the permit, voted for it, providing the ninth and needed vote to override the mayoral veto.

"I've been steamed a time or two over something Mark has done," Mr. Finkbeiner said. "There are issues we disagree on, but we always have respect for each other."

But generally, the mayor supports the Teamsters' official and favored him over Mr. Ashford.

"Mark is very conscientious about what he does," Mr. Finkbeiner said. "He is a strong person in that he has come through the challenges of the Teamsters' leadership and he doesn't play games."

(toledoblade.com)

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