Editorials

For mayor: Collins

The challenger offers Toledo voters more hope than the incumbent for a new direction and needed change

10/20/2013
Collins.
Collins.

Toledoans deserve better leadership than they’ve been getting from the mayor’s office. In the mayoral election, The Blade recommends D. MICHAEL COLLINS as the candidate who is more likely to pursue the changes Toledo will need over the next four years.

When he took office in January, 2010, incumbent Mike Bell displayed effective, determined leadership to resolve an immediate fiscal crisis caused by the Great Recession. That was a huge achievement, and quibbles over the size of the budget gap Mayor Bell inherited seem little more than attempts to change the subject.

Mr. Bell stood up to bullying leaders of municipal unions — especially the police officers’ union — who sought to obstruct his efforts to balance the budget without a general tax increase, deep cuts in essential services, or mass layoffs. By contrast, Mr. Collins — a former police union president — was among a Toledo City Council minority that opposed Mr. Bell’s successful effort to compel unions to negotiate economic concessions.

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If the rest of Mayor Bell’s term had been as impressive as his first few months in office, his bid for re-election would be no contest. Sadly, that isn’t the case.

Although both candidates are running as independents, Mayor Bell has the support of business lobbies and prominent Republicans, while Mr. Collins is backed by labor unions and state Democratic officials. That seems appropriate, because the mayor’s efforts to improve Toledo’s economy have caused his administration to show excessive deference to moneyed interests and business demands.

That’s especially true of would-be developers who have promised Toledoans far more than they have delivered. More than two years after its sale to Chinese investors, the valuable Marina District remains a vacant lot; neither the mayor nor the investors will discuss its status with taxpayers who subsidized the site’s preparation.

The lack of information about that project reflects the mayor’s broader penchant for autocratic secrecy, even when such opacity works against the city’s interests. He has resisted valid inquiries about private investors’ identities and sources of funds, and even about his own official travels in search of foreign investment.

The Blade had to sue the city to allow Toledoans access to the police department’s map of criminal-gang territories — an obvious matter of public concern. The issue became moot when the newspaper independently obtained and published the police map, but the mayor remained intransigent to the end.

Neighborhoods debacle

At times Mayor Bell seems to lack knowledge of, or interest in, what his own administration is doing. The city neighborhoods department remains a disaster; Mr. Collins’ pledge to The Blade’s editorial board that he would “sterilize” the department hierarchy as one of his first acts as mayor is appropriate.

Early in Mr. Bell’s term, the neighborhoods department was the center of operating and contracting scandals. More recently, the department and mayor’s office have battled city homeless shelters over vital funding. The administration’s approach is unnecessarily punitive; the mayor’s assertion that he is only doing what federal regulators require seems dubious and poorly informed.

Mr. Bell took his principled stand against unreasonable municipal union leaders and followed it out the window, when he later supported a state law aimed at gutting the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Although voters properly repealed that law, the mayor now says he would consider supporting an effort to make Ohio a “right to work” state. Both positions have been needlessly provocative and divisive.

Mayor Bell has properly pursued regional approaches to some public services, as in the merger he brokered of the Toledo and Ottawa Hills fire departments and his efforts to upgrade the city’s aging water system. Yet he has done little to address an urgent regional issue in metropolitan Toledo: strengthening public transit. Nor has the mayor used his influence as effectively as he could to help improve the city’s public schools.

There is no reason to expect any of these things to change during a second, lame-duck Bell term. That argues for voters taking a chance on Mr. Collins, his experience in city government, and the vision he articulates for Toledo, even if his leadership and administrative skills are so far somewhat more asserted than proven.

Mr. Bell remains a dynamic and charismatic figure; he looks the part of a successful elected official. Yet the mayor’s office requires greater substance, even at the expense of a loss of style.

Mr. Collins generates less excitement among voters. He has less of a record to run on, for better and worse, as a city councilman than Mr. Bell does as mayor. But he has worked hard to master complicated issues of city government; that has often included posing uncomfortable questions to city officials.

His platform includes a slight cut in the city income tax rate, a greater focus on neighborhood policing, a 30-percent staff reduction in the mayor’s office, increased emphasis on promoting small businesses, and faster, more effective responses by city offices to customer inquiries. All are worthwhile goals.

Genuine concern

Mr. Collins’ evident compassion for average folks in the city’s hard-pressed neighborhoods is genuine, not merely a campaign slogan. His useful participation in efforts to find a humane, workable solution to the homeless-shelter dispute indicates the depth of his concern.

Mr. Collins promises to run a transparent and inclusive administration; then again, so did Mr. Bell four years ago. But Mr. Collins’ earnest, sincere temperament suggests that his commitment to openness deserves voters’ trust.

During his campaign, Mr. Collins stumbled when he asserted that the Toledo Police Department has not engaged in racial profiling; he later walked that statement back. As a former police officer, though, he has a street-level understanding of law enforcement that would usefully inform his decision-making.

Our greatest concern about Mr. Collins relates to his close ties to local union leaders. Before Election Day, we challenge him to declare forthrightly that when Toledo taxpayers’ interests conflict with those of city bargaining units — as they inevitably will — Mayor Collins’ allegiance will be to the public interest and to the voters who elected him, not to the interest groups backing his campaign.

Mr. Collins offers an effective critique of the Bell administration. He needs to continue to discuss in greater detail, on issues such as economic development, not only what Mr. Bell has done wrong, but also what he will do better. It isn’t too early for him to identify the types of people he will hire in his administration.

Those who underestimate Mr. Collins’ political skills do so at their peril. He has populated his campaign staff with bright, tech-savvy young people.

During the primary campaign, he effectively identified and mobilized his supporters, defeating two high-profile and better-financed Democrats. He came within about 500 votes of finishing ahead of Mayor Bell, who after four years in office could attract just 27 percent of the primary vote in a low-turnout election.

We wish the choice was clearer; our recommendation is rooted more in hope than in absolute confidence. But on balance, D. MICHAEL COLLINS appears better equipped than the incumbent to provide a new direction and the engaged, transparent leadership Toledoans will need from their mayor in the next term.