Bowing to the inevitable, Mayor Mike Bell’s administration has dropped its appeal of a court order that required the city to give The Blade a copy of the Police Department’s map of criminal gang territories in Toledo. The dispute became moot this week when the newspaper independently got the map and published it.
At the least, city taxpayers will be spared the expense of a costly, needless legal challenge. But it’s to be hoped that this episode will prompt the mayor and his aides to review their opaque approach to public information in general, especially as Mr. Bell seeks a second term.
The Blade had sought the map for more than a year, asserting that its release would give Toledoans vital information about public safety. It would have helped enable citizens to determine how well the city is using public resources to combat gang activity, we argued. The newspaper responded to the city’s intransigence by creating its own gang map.
Yet city officials still refused to provide the police map, calling it a “confidential law enforcement investigatory record” that was not covered by Ohio’s Freedom of Information law. Release of the map, they claimed, would jeopardize investigations and disclose police techniques.
Last month, a state appeals court panel disagreed and ordered the city to turn over the map. The court majority noted that the police detective who compiled the map testified that it did not “reveal a particular investigative technique,” “any source of information,” or “any location that the Toledo Police Department is surveilling.” But the city appealed that ruling to the Ohio Supreme Court before this week’s developments.
The mayor’s apologists and the newspaper’s chronic antagonists have portrayed this matter merely as a dispute between the Bell administration and The Blade. It’s much more than that.
At issue is Toledoans’ ability to feel assured that their city government will give them information they need to know — as residents, taxpayers, and voters — on a broad range of issues. Too often, this administration has fallen short of fulfilling that duty, despite the mayor’s pledge to operate a transparent and accountable administration when he first ran four years ago.
The gang map is a clear example of this penchant for secrecy, but there are others. They include such things as information about sources of foreign investment in city development projects and about the mayor’s own official travels.
Mayor Bell has held office long enough to have developed a better sense of what information he should and must share with his constituents. If voters are to entrust him with a second term this November, he needs to show them than he trusts them equally.