Mayor Mike Bell insists he has “no regrets” about his refusal to make public a Police Department map of gang territories in Toledo — a stance that became moot last week when The Blade independently obtained the map and published it.
In his first extended public comments on the dispute over the map, Mayor Bell told me that The Blade’s series this spring on criminal gang activity in the city caused a group of investors to abandon its purchase of a Toledo building. He would not identify the would-be buyers, the building, the size of the deal, or the private real estate firm that he said was brokering it.
“That happened,” the mayor said. “They agreed on Friday to buy the building. By Monday [the day after the series began], they backed out. We tried to get them the information that crime was down 24 percent. None of that worked.”
In a wide-ranging interview late last week in his One Government Center office, Mr. Bell also discussed his re-election campaign, his first-term record, and his agenda for a second term, if city voters give him one this November.
The Blade sued the city last year to get the gang map, arguing it was a public record. The Bell administration called the map a confidential investigative tool, and said its release would impede the Police Department’s ability to combat gang activity.
Mr. Bell said his position was rooted in concern for protecting public safety as well as maintaining the city’s appeal to potential employers and investors. He repeated his claim that shootings in the city spiked the week The Blade published its series, which included a map of gang territories that the newspaper created from its own reporting.
After an Ohio Court of Appeals panel ruled for the newspaper last month, the city appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court. The city dropped its appeal when The Blade published the map. Had that not happened, the mayor said he would have pursued his appeal and thinks the city ultimately would have won.
“We’ll never know,” he said with a laugh. “I believe I was totally correct, but it’s water over the dam. I’m done with the gang map. Move on.”
Mr. Bell rejected the notion that the map controversy indicates a general lack of transparency in his administration. He said he did not expect the episode to lead to big changes in his approach to public information.
“I’m not as resistant as people think,” he said. “If I wasn’t transparent, you wouldn’t be reading my schedule online. I’m not the enemy.
“This has nothing to do with arrogance or my ego,” he added. “It isn’t about winning or losing. It’s about protection of people, and reaching out for investment, and competing with other cities, and coming out of the recession strongly. I’m clear about where I’m at.”
During the interview, the mayor said he expects either Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez or Toledo City Councilman Joe McNamara to emerge from next month’s primary to oppose him in the November general election. He wouldn’t say which candidate he considered the more likely challenger.
Mr. Bell dismissed as “a fallacy” suggestions that his support is waning among African-American voters. “That’s hilarious, because of where I came from, North Toledo,” he said. “My relationship is as good as, if not better than, anybody else in the running.
“I’m a guy who rides around on a motorcycle, in a cowboy hat,” he said. “I don’t act as if I’m beyond anyone. I’m just a regular cat who happens to be the mayor. I’m more social than the other people rolling in this campaign. They’re playing at it during the election. They’re not doing it every day.”
He added that his administration “is the most diverse the City of Toledo has ever had, at the highest level. It looks like this community.”
Mayor Bell said he doesn’t regret his support of Senate Bill 5, a state law that — before Ohio voters repealed it in a 2011 referendum — aimed to restrict greatly the collective-bargaining rights of state and local employees. Local labor unions, in the public and private sectors, vow to make the mayor pay at the polls this year for his advocacy of the measure.
But the mayor said the position he took on SB5 was consistent with his effort to impose economic concessions on municipal unions during the budget crisis he faced when he took office in 2010, as an alternative to raising taxes, slashing services, or laying off employees. He said most city unions not only spurned his plea to negotiate concessions, but also demanded pay raises for their members.
“I’m not a flip-flopper — I held my position,” he said. “SB5 was defeated, but we got nine concessionary contracts, and that wouldn’t have happened before SB5. I’m not anti-union, I’m pro-citizen. I work for the citizens.”
The mayor insisted he isn’t taking his re-election for granted. He touted his ability to balance the city budget without raising taxes, the number of police officers and firefighters he has hired, the miles of city streets repaired, the 1,100-plus abandoned houses demolished during his term. “Everything we said we were going to do, we have done,” he said.
In a second term, Mr. Bell said, he wants to work on creating an Interstate-75 economic corridor stretching from metropolitan Toledo to Detroit that could include commuter rail service between the two central cities. He said he has discussed the concept with Detroit’s new emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, as well as proposals for joint purchasing by the cities and other cost-saving ideas.
Mr. Bell said he would press his plan to regionalize Toledo’s water and sewer system, and maintain his emphasis on attracting foreign investment and employers to the city. He said he is laying a foundation with Toledo Public Schools’ new interim superintendent, Romules Durant, to use city government’s influence to help get TPS the resources it needs, but made clear he is not interested in a city takeover of the school system.
I asked Mr. Bell why he seeks another four years of the turmoil of the mayor’s office. He acknowledged he asks himself that question, but said: “The job’s only half done. I’m not leaving here until I complete the mission.”
Then he gestured to the heavens. “I know I’m not in charge of any of this — it’s the cat up there. If I’m scheduled to win, I’ll win. If I’m not, I won’t. But I’ll be OK either way.”
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dkushma1