The cloud that often obscures the activities of Toledo’s government is not an accident but a modus operandi — and it starts at the top with Mayor Mike Bell.
But why? What does the administration expect to gain when it conceals basic workings of government from local residents and even Toledo City Council?
Last week, Mayor Bell, Deputy Mayor Tom Crothers, administration spokesman Jen Sorgenfrei, and four local businessmen traveled to Fort Worth, Texas, to inspect a commercial transportation hub. The project reflects ideas that have been floated for a Toledo “aerotropolis.”
But the mayor failed to let people outside his inner circle — even City Council members — know about the trip until after it was over. By his own admission, he skirted public-records rules by not writing down his travel plans.
He also declined to identify the businessmen who accompanied him. And he declared that he might do the same thing again. “Some of this stuff I don’t believe I have to explain,” he said.
Is Mr. Bell concerned that other mayors might monitor his schedule to try to gain an economic advantage? He says that letting Toledo residents know what he’s doing before plans are completed — when citizens still could have input in them — amounts to “flash.”
“I’m going to be judged by how much I get done, not by how much I announce,” the mayor says. But that’s wrong. Process counts. And secrecy for the sake of secrecy obstructs rather than enhances effective policy making.
This is a recurring problem with broad ramifications for city government. Unnecessary secrecy surrounded Mayor Bell’s early dealings with Chinese investors in the Marina District. It needlessly complicated the city’s good plan to absorb the Ottawa Hills Fire Department.
Many of the abuses uncovered in the city’s Neighborhoods Department can be traced to a lack of transparency. The just-trust-me attitude suggests that the administration believes citizens are not to be trusted. It runs counter to the interests of good government.
The mayor is not alone in expressing this attitude. It’s common for big businesses and their political backers to say, cut regulations and trust us to take care of the environment and create jobs. It’s reflected in the attitude of religious and political leaders who tell women: Trust us to tell you what to do with your body.
As journalist Bill Moyers noted: “Secrecy is the freedom tyrants dream of.” Openness and transparency protect citizens from an overweening government. People have a right to know what their leaders are up to at all levels of government, including the City of Toledo.