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Published: Sunday, 12/22/2013 - Updated: 8 months ago

COMMENTARY

Collins’ odyssey: The White House, Harvard — and back to Toledo

The mayor-elect said he aimed for substance over form in making his staff appointments

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR
Dave Kushma Dave Kushma
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These are heady times for D. Michael Collins.

This month, Toledo’s mayor-elect sat with President Obama at a White House meeting of 16 new mayors. The week before, he was an invited participant in a seminar on municipal governance at Harvard University.

And in recent days, Toledoans have scrutinized his list of top appointees as if we were Cold War-era Kremlinologists, looking for clues in a photo of Soviet leaders at the May Day parade.

Mr. Collins took time out last week from his move to a new house to talk about his transition from City Council member to underdog mayoral candidate to the city’s next chief executive. He insisted he’s eager to get started once he is sworn in next week, but conceded the changes he faces have overwhelmed him at times.

He described an epiphany at last month’s Toledo holiday parade, the week after his election.

“I looked at the High Level Bridge, at the Veterans’ Bridge,” he told me. “All of a sudden, I thought: You’re the mayor of this city. Almost a third of a million people are looking to you to run this city. You’ve got a big responsibility.

Toledo Mayor-elect D. Michael Collins said the scope of his new job struck him at the city’s holiday parade last month. Toledo Mayor-elect D. Michael Collins said the scope of his new job struck him at the city’s holiday parade last month.
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“It was an emotional experience,” he said. “Actually, it was like a bolt of lightning hitting you in the head. I can’t say it’s been easy.”

Mr. Collins called his meeting with the President and other new mayors a “remarkable” event, preceded by a phone call from the White House that swore him to secrecy until it happened. He said he bonded at the session with Detroit’s mayor-elect, Mike Duggan, who confronts an even more formidable agenda as that city goes through bankruptcy.

He described with amusement how the President gently but firmly resisted the efforts of such “big hitters” as New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Los Angeles’ new mayor, Eric Garcetti, to dominate the discussion. But the mood of the meeting turned suddenly somber when an aide handed Mr. Obama a note informing him of a shooting that day at a Colorado high school.

“I watched his body language,” Mr. Collins said. “He read the note, looked down, swallowed hard, adjusted his breathing, raised his head up, and told us. You could see the emotion building up.”

Mr. Collins said he raised three priorities with the President: cleaning up Toledo’s “brownfields” — former industrial sites — and preparing them for redevelopment, scrubbing the blooms of toxic blue-green algae in Lake Erie’s western basin, and improving urban education to fight poverty. He said Mr. Obama “seemed very receptive” to helping Toledo with all three items.

“To have Toledo recognized as being worthy of coming to Washington, meeting with the President, communicating our community’s issues — it was really a great honor, not just for me, but for the city,” he said.

At the Harvard seminar, Mr. Collins said, the emphasis was not on high-flown theories of political science. Rather, the discussion leaders focused on such — literally — nuts-and-bolts issues as how to repair sewers without ripping them up, and the value of adding conduits for fiber-optic communications cable when a city fixes its roads or water lines.

“They stressed that there’s a significant difference between running for office and holding office,” he said. “They’re completely different skill sets.”

Mr. Collins’ success in exercising his own managerial skills as mayor will depend largely on the quality of the executives he named last week. Despite complaints that his administration appears to be less diverse than that of outgoing Mayor Mike Bell, the mayor-elect said he aimed for what he called substance over form in making his appointments. He offered a bakery metaphor.

“You can see the most beautifully designed cake in the world, but it’s still a box with frosting,” he said. “Do I want to create a position just because it looks good?

“Or do I look for substance in all of our directors — people with a wealth of experience and talent who will turn the city around, run our departments as businesses, rebuild our neighborhoods, and make our strong-mayor government run the way it should run? I’m homing in on substance.”

He noted that his choice to head the city’s public utilities department, Robin Whitney, is the first woman to hold that post. But he quickly noted that Ms. Whitney is an engineer who has an advanced degree in business administration. “If it had been Robert Whitney, it’s still more credentials than have ever been there,” he said.

Mr. Collins expressed his desire to make it at least as easy — and as natural — for Toledoans to communicate with One Government Center and other municipal offices via social media, text messages, and email as by phone calls, letters, and visits.

“We have a tremendous opportunity to move this city in a totally different direction,” he said. “Bringing everybody in — that’s my vision.”

I asked Toledo’s mayor-elect whether he had holiday greetings for his constituents.

“I wish for everyone to have a safe and blessed holiday, with love and family,” he said. “And a new year of renewed hope — it’s going to take all of us to get through 2014.

“I’m going to do all I can to see that our city has a pathway to progress,” Mr. Collins added. “I want us to see ourselves as better people, and our city as one that has developed in a very positive way.”

Second the motion. Happy holidays, everyone.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com or on Twitter @dkushma1



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