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Published: Sunday, 2/28/2010

Mayor Bell gets lessons in Politics 101

"I'd say what's going to happen to you would be a lesson to you. Only you're going to need more than one lesson. And you'll get more than one lesson."

- 'Citizen Kane'

IN THE classic American film, newspaper tycoon and neophyte candidate Charles Foster Kane learns about politics the hard way from a blackmailing party boss. As Toledo Mayor Mike Bell seeks to avert a fiscal crisis in his city, he is getting his own lessons in bare-knuckled, albeit aboveboard, politics.

The new mayor continues to follow the correct path to erase the city's massive deficit and balance its budget. But the road hazards he confronts are growing in size and peril.

Mayor Bell took office last month with a solid three-point plan for returning the city to solvency. Part One: Cut city spending without damaging essential services by finding efficiencies in the budget. Part Two: Negotiate pay and benefit concessions with municipal unions, then impose those givebacks on all city employees.

Part Three: Only after he can show progress on the first two steps, ask voters for new taxes. The overriding theme: Everybody gives up something.

Yet just two months into his term, the mayor already has had to sacrifice major elements of his plan in concessions to political reality. First, he decided not to pursue a proposal on the May ballot that would have asked Toledo voters temporarily to increase the city income tax rate from 2.25 percent to 2.5 percent.

Instead, he has opted for an alternative that would eliminate the city income tax credit for Toledo residents who work and pay taxes in other communities. That proposal would not require voter approval. But it also would be less fair than the tax-increase measure, since it would place the burden of new revenue on a far smaller number of taxpayers.

Mr. Bell insists that his assessment of the ballot measure's prospects for approval did not influence his decision to pull it. He deserves to be taken at his word.

But he had to have known that the tax question would have been a tough sell among voters, especially amid a stubbornly deep recession. And that's assuming that a timid City Council even would have agreed to place the issue on the ballot, in a year in which a third of Council members are running for other offices.

A loss for the mayor at either stage would have been a tough defeat so early in his term. So he preempted that prospect by killing his own initial tax plan. Political Lesson Number One.

At the same time, the mayor withdrew his demand that city employees accept a 10-percent pay cut as part of the concessions package he sought. Even though no one expected that Mr. Bell would get everything he wanted from the city's unions, giving up on the pay cut was a huge unilateral move.

But if the mayor expected a public gesture of reciprocity from the unions, he's been disappointed. They remain as intransigent as ever, at least in their public statements, about reopening their contracts and negotiating pension and health-care concessions. Mayor Bell's decision to take the pay cut off the table may even have stiffened their resolve. Political Lesson Number Two.

Finally, the mayor and his administration have sought to focus taxpayers' attention on the city's strenuous efforts to cut costs and operate more efficiently. But those efforts have been overshadowed by reports that Mr. Bell gave big pay raises to some high-ranking city executives, and that his predecessor bypassed the city's law department and paid outside attorneys nearly $100,000 of public money to handle sensitive legal matters.

Mayor Bell has made impeccably defensible and rational cases for both approving the pay raises and for settling two of the lawsuits at issue out of court. But it didn't matter.

All that many skeptical voters and city employees saw was that some highly paid people were getting more money from the city for their jobs, while some lower-level employees such as trash collectors were losing their jobs. At the same time, the mayor was asking city taxpayers and workers to give even more.

That sort of symbolism was enough to cause a lot of folks to oppose the mayor's larger program, despite its overall merits. Political Lesson Number Three.

Much of Mayor Bell's considerable appeal derives from his insistence that he isn't a politician - or at least not the kind of politician Toledoans have become accustomed to seeing. That assertion is a bit disingenuous; he could not have won a tough campaign last year against a credible opponent without a large complement of political skills.

Still, the mayor is learning that politics as usual can supersede even the best policy. He's getting more than one lesson, and so are we.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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