D. Michael Collins’ comparison of this month’s water emergency in Toledo to the 9/11 tragedy has brought the online trolls and talk-radio gasbags to full sneer.
How dare the mayor connect what happened here to the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 Americans, they huff. Nobody died here; nobody was even hospitalized. Has he no sense of proportion?
Mr. Collins walked his statement back late last week, claiming he didn’t mean to suggest the two events were “equal in gravity,” even though both involved threats to public safety. But wait a minute.
Because I asked Mayor Collins the question that elicited his now-notorious response, I hope you’ll allow me to offer my interpretation. I might have phrased the remarks the mayor made a bit differently, but I won’t argue with his conclusions.
Last week, members of The Blade’s editorial board, along with our politics reporter, Tom Troy, visited Mr. Collins in his Government Center office. We discussed ways of creating a sense of public and political urgency about cleaning up the toxic algae pollution in Lake Erie that caused the water crisis, in the hope of preventing a recurrence — or something worse — in Toledo or anywhere else along the lake.
That’s when the mayor offered his 9/11 analogy.
“While we didn’t have a terrorist attack, we had an environmental attack,” Mr. Collins said. “I look at this as a wake-up call. It’s not just a Toledo problem or a Midwest problem, it’s a problem for the country and a worldwide problem.”
The mayor’s point, if less than artfully expressed, is that we need the same sort of all-hands-on-deck commitment and mobilization to heal Lake Erie that Americans — citizens and elected officials alike — provided to fight terrorism after Sept. 11, 2001.
Anyone want to argue with that? Other than the spineless politicians who duck tough decisions to curb environmental degradation because they might anger lobbyists dispensing campaign contributions? Or the second-guessers who think that typing an online insult amounts to social activism?
The time has passed for voluntary measures to reduce the amount of algae-feeding phosphorus — mostly from agricultural runoff of manure and fertilizer — that is getting into Lake Erie from the Maumee River and other tributaries, the mayor said. We need an action plan that includes tougher, but fair, regulation, he added, and we need it now.
“People say, give us time,” he said. “How much time do we have before we have no time?”
The mayor acknowledged that operations and facilities at the city’s 73-year-old Collins Park water treatment plant must improve. The upgrades in the five-year modernization program the plant is undergoing, largely financed by a water rate increase that took effect this year, will need to last for another 75 years, he said.
“This needs to be a real effort, not just a good-faith effort,” Mr. Collins said. “We’re spending $300 million [on the plant upgrade], and if it takes more, we’ll do more.”
We discussed topics other than water with the mayor. He wanted to make sure we were aware of a new study from the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a right-leaning think tank. It ranks Toledo 13th among the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas — just a hair behind Columbus — in how these communities are recovering from the Great Recession.
The study notes that the Toledo area has “enjoyed an especially big leap ... in earnings from durable-goods manufacturing. This is a sign that Toledo is making plenty of things — tradable goods — that people outside its modest-sized market want to buy.” The report warns, though, that Toledo’s economy, like Detroit’s and Cleveland’s, has shown recent signs of slowing again.
Mayor Collins said that city government, despite a $16.3 million loss in state aid caused by Columbus’ lopsided budget policies, isn’t lessening its commitment to development and renewal. He said he remains optimistic that the city will find a buyer soon for the old Southwyck mall site, “the most important economic development project I have on my desk.”
He noted that he has launched his “Tidy Towns” effort to fight blight, initially surveying residents in four city neighborhoods about their needs and concerns. The initiative includes towing abandoned cars, citing other code violations, and recruiting volunteers. The mayor added acerbically that his former colleagues on City Council, who voted recently to create a blight authority, have yet to visit these neighborhoods to inspect the cleanup efforts.
The most disappointing part of our dialogue with the mayor dealt with local public transportation. Rossford residents could vote this November to make their city the third community in recent years — after Perrysburg and Spencer Township — to secede from the Toledo Area Regional Transit Authority.
I asked Mr. Collins whether he plans to become a more-visible transit advocate, and whether he would support a proposed sales tax to pay for TARTA service, replacing its current, unpopular property tax. He said that trying to engage suburban voters might cause him to be cast as a “carpetbagger.” On the tax question, he asserted blandly that he’s for “whatever it takes” to improve local transit.
That isn’t good enough. The Toledo area — and especially its central city — need a strong transit system to get people to jobs and to promote economic opportunity. It won’t have one if leaders such as the mayor stay on the sidelines.
Mr. Collins noted that the water crisis, as well as his overall tenure as mayor, have subjected him to “a lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking.” He asserted: “No other mayor in the history of Toledo has had this windfall of challenges — has had to face everything I’ve had to face.”
So to conclude our discussion, I asked the mayor what grade he would give himself for his first eight months in office. He demurred, saying he would rather talk about his administration’s achievements.
“We’ve performed, given our challenges, in an acceptable range,” he said. “It’s not completely satisfactory — there’s room for improvement. But we’ve done the things we said we were going to do.”
When the city declared the water emergency in the wee hours of Aug. 2, he added, city officials and employees “came from everywhere: ‘How can I help? What do you need?’ It was remarkable.”
There’s a long-standing Internet adage: Whoever makes the first comparison to Hitler loses the argument. Perhaps allusions to 9/11 are similar debate-stoppers.
But we need to pay more attention to what Mayor Collins said than to how he said it. Nobody died during Toledo’s water emergency, to be sure. Do we want to roll the dice on a second crisis by failing to act now, and risk a more-deadly outcome?
“We cannot let this fade away,” the mayor said. “This will not go down in history as an event we took no action on. I’m not backing down.”
David Kushma is editor of The Blade.