The ancient elevator in The Blade building is out of service. So Toledo Mayor Mike Bell nimbly bounds up the two flights of stairs — 38 steps — to my office, leaving Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat and me trailing in his wake.
The mayor insists his re-election campaign is energizing him; he calls it a “blast.” His challenger, City Councilman D. Michael Collins, doesn’t look as if he’s having quite so much fun on the campaign trail, although he’s working just as hard.
Mr. Bell and Mr. Collins met separately last week with The Blade’s editorial board to discuss their campaigns; we plan to endorse a candidate soon. Barely three weeks before Election Day, each man has honed his message and readily articulates how he differs from his opponent.
The mayor repeats his familiar assertion that he has done what he told Toledoans he would do during his term: preserve essential services without raising taxes, hire police officers and firefighters, fix roads, tear down abandoned buildings, attract jobs, achieve a budget surplus, and improve the city’s credit rating.
“It’s been uncomfortable for some people, but we’ve done well under adverse circumstances,” Mr. Bell says. “To be able to do that much in four years is an unbelievable record.” He calls the choice between him and his challenger “real versus Memorex.”
Mr. Collins assails the mayor’s “lack of transparency” on such issues as the sale of Marina District property. He cites problems in the city’s Neighborhoods Department, reflected most recently in disputes over funding of city homeless shelters. He accuses the Bell administration and Police Department of distorting crime statistics to make their public-safety record look better.
“My leadership style will be totally different,” Mr. Collins says. “Secrecy in government is not healthy for the community — I’ll ask the questions and probe deeper. And if I ask others to sacrifice, I’ll exceed those sacrifices myself.”
The campaign debate has focused on the size of the budget gap Mayor Bell confronted when he took office in January, 2010. The mayor continues to insist he eliminated a projected deficit of $48 million, nearly one-fifth of the general fund budget he inherited.
Mr. Collins says that big a deficit would have been “impossible” to erase. He claims the true figure was more like $8 million — an estimate the mayor calls “horse malarkey.”
Each candidate uses numbers and definitions that support his argument, and it’s hard to sort out the conflicting claims. But the record is far more clear that Mayor Bell had to — and did — resolve a recession-induced budget crisis during the first months of his administration, with the city’s solvency at stake.
The mayor made the proper decision to bridge the budget gap primarily by seeking to cut the city’s labor costs rather than raising taxes, laying off large numbers of public employees, or slashing vital services. Municipal unions — especially the police officers’ union, one of Mr. Collins’ earliest and staunchest backers — resisted Mr. Bell’s pleas for economic concessions.
With the support of most council members (but not Mr. Collins, a former president of the police union), Mayor Bell declared a budget emergency and imposed changes in labor contracts. That forced unions to negotiate concessions, helping enable the city to balance its budget. It was a drastic move, but it was the right thing to do at the time.
City voters ought to keep that history in mind as Democratic Party and labor leaders seek to make the Toledo mayoral election a preview of next year’s campaign for governor of Ohio, even though neither the mayor nor Mr. Collins is running with a party label.
Mayor Bell is less persuasive when he claims that his support for Senate Bill 5 — the state law that aimed to gut the collective-bargaining rights of public employees across Ohio, which voters repealed — and his willingness to consider “right to work” legislation were inevitable outgrowths of his earlier confrontations with city unions.
There’s a difference between making tough fiscal decisions and union-busting. But on the budget issues he and his challenger are debating, the mayor has the better argument.
Councilman Collins is on firmer ground when he criticizes the secrecy with which the mayor too often has conducted public business, despite his campaign pledge to run an open administration. I won’t rehash the now-moot dispute between The Blade and the mayor’s office over access to the Police Department’s map of gang territories.
But the mayor justifies the chronic information blackout on the still-undeveloped Marina District by saying, in effect, that that’s how the buyers want it. And since they’re paying taxes on the property and haven’t asked for tax breaks, what’s the big deal?
Taxpayers were assessed $43 million to prepare the site for redevelopment. They are a party to this project as much as city government and the developers, and they deserve to know more than the mayor has told them about what kind of return they’re getting on their investment.
Similarly, it won’t do for the mayor to assert that city government is merely the prisoner of federal mandates in executing its homelessness policies. It’s wrong to impose greater demands on shelters while you’re cutting their funding. If federal regulations truly are promoting “rapid rehousing” at the expense of emergency services — and that seems a dubious assertion — then the city needs to challenge those rules.
All of these issues deserve more debate during the rest of the campaign. Each candidate also ought to discuss how he will use his influence as mayor to help improve Toledo’s public schools, expand regional mass transit, offer a voice to the city’s young people, elevate local race relations, and promote northwest Ohio across the country and around the world (Mr. Bell’s remarks on the use of art to redevelop the city are appealing).
At the end of our conversations, I invite each candidate to say something positive about his opponent. After a long pause, Mr. Collins calls Mayor Bell “very charismatic, a solid goodwill ambassador,” and compliments his parents. The mayor says that as a former police officer, Mr. Collins “was prepared to put his life on the line for the city he served.”
Not the warmest expressions of mutual regard. But it’s important that both candidates are giving Toledoans a (mostly) dignified, clean, and issue-oriented mayoral campaign. Let’s hope it stays that way.
And if it does, city voters can show their gratitude by going to the polls next month and exceeding their dismal 15-percent turnout for the September primary.
● As part of our editorial board meetings with the candidates, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jeff Gerritt conducted video interviews with Mayor Bell and Councilman Collins. You can watch them on the Blade’s Web site: toledoblade.com/videoplayer.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.