The journalism business is driven — sometimes too much — by our attention to anniversaries. This year, we’re writing about the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The time frame is often much shorter: We routinely feel compelled to evaluate the initial 100 days or six months of a new elected official’s administration.
At the risk of engaging in such an artificial exercise, I’ll offer my assessment of D. Michael Collins’ first six months as mayor of Toledo: Mostly good, and getting better.
Of course, a half-year — just one-eighth of the mayor’s term — isn’t long enough to draw firm conclusions about his performance or even to assess fully his potential. But it is long enough to provide a snapshot of how Mayor Collins defines his job, and how he deals with his myriad constituencies. And while he is still learning, the curve is flattening out.
The mayor didn’t inherit the kind of budget crisis that greeted his predecessor, Mike Bell, when he took office four years ago. But Mr. Collins still didn’t get much of a honeymoon. The past brutal winter included three top-level snow emergencies in Toledo, taxing municipal services to the max — but not overwhelming them — and creating a new crop of potholes to be filled.
Within weeks of starting his term, the mayor, and the rest of us, had to cope with the civic and personal tragedy of two Toledo firefighters killed in the line of duty. Mr. Collins effectively, and at times eloquently, spoke for the city and its people in expressing our collective grief.
More recently, The Blade has been reporting on blight in Toledo and offering potential solutions. Mayor Collins didn’t create this problem, and he can’t solve it by himself. The thousands of abandoned and derelict properties that plague the city largely reflect the foreclosure crisis that gripped Ohio and much of the nation during the Great Recession, as well as longer-term population and capital flight.
But there are things the mayor can do, and is doing, such as tougher enforcement of the housing code and a necessary appeal for community participation in cleaning up the city. These need to be his focus, rather than blaming his predecessors or squabbling with Toledo Municipal Court.
Leaders of ONE Village Council, one of Toledo’s most effective community groups, complain that the mayor has passed the buck back to them for taking responsibility for blight cleanup. They say he brushed off their proposal, similar to a successful effort in Youngstown, that the city require banks to bond foreclosed properties against blight and abandonment.
“We’re not seeing any action from him,” Dawn Comstock, the council’s president, told me last week. “He needs to talk to the people in the neighborhoods who see this every day. He needs to be collaborative and find common ground. And then he needs to offer a plan of action.”
Mayor Collins is in the best position to break down the walls that separate the local agencies that deal with blight, and to head an effort to develop a coordinated strategy: completing a census of vacant buildings in the city, preparing for sale the ones that can be renovated, and finding the money to tear down the ones that can’t. That will test his leadership skills, but it’s hard to imagine a better use of his time and resources.
At other times, Mayor Collins has undermined his sound policy proposals by failing to lay a firm enough foundation for them. A good example is his proposed executive order to prohibit the city from hiring nicotine users, which he outlined last month in a meeting with Blade editors and reporters.
The order also would require city employees who use tobacco to pay more for their health insurance, but would expand their access to stop-smoking programs. It’s the right thing to do, as an issue of fiscal responsibility and promotion of public health. But his failure to explain his proposal fully enabled libertarian loudmouths and critics on City Council to seize control of the debate even before he could introduce the plan.
Similarly, it’s understandable that the mayor is frustrated with the lack of development in the Marina District. So is everyone else. But unless he has a better immediate alternative, assailing the investors who own the property does little good. Better to concentrate on plans with stronger odds for success, such as ProMedica’s new riverfront headquarters and the Mud Hens’ proposed downtown entertainment district.
When the mayor took office, I — and a lot of other Toledoans — worried that he would give away the store to the unions that largely got him elected; Mr. Collins once headed the municipal police officers’ union. But the city’s recent contract deal with its largest civilian union pays appropriate attention to taxpayers’ concerns. The big test will come, of course, when the mayor bargains with police and firefighters.
On other budget issues, the mayor and council continue to make policy more in response to immediate spending issues than as part of a long-term strategy for fiscal stability. It’s good that Mr. Collins is moving away from the risky practice of shifting money from the capital budget to pay for day-to-day operating expenses.
But he still needs to talk candidly with Toledoans about the city’s needs and the resources to pay for them. That means a frank discussion of (gasp!) taxes.
I’d also like to hear Mayor Collins speak out assertively for better public transportation. The slow-motion dissolution of the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority (TARTA) promoted by two-bit suburban politicians will hurt Toledoans most of all.
I’d like to see him walk the walk more on his advocacy of the arts as an engine of urban, and especially downtown, renewal. I’d like him to take greater control of Toledo’s fragmented homelessness bureaucracy.
The mayor’s administration, like the man who heads it, needs to show a greater sense of discipline and priority-setting, and a more systematic, less scattershot, approach to urgent city issues. Mr. Collins has to communicate better with Toledo’s business community, with the city’s legislative delegation in Columbus, and with other local elected and educational leaders. These things will come with time and experience.
The openness he generally has displayed so far is a refreshing contrast to his predecessor’s penchant for secrecy. It’s also important that Mr. Collins understands how toxic algae blooms in Lake Erie pose a direct threat to Toledoans, and how good public schools are essential to the city’s economic growth.
Mayor Collins’ term has a long way to run; a hot — and potentially — violent summer is now at hand. But Toledoans should not doubt that their mayor has a big heart, and that it’s in the right place. Six months in, that’s the best cause for optimism.
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.