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Published: Tuesday, 8/20/2013 - Updated: 1 year ago

Technocrat in a cloud

Civil servants can be as arrogant and myopic as politicians, but with less accountability

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF THE BLADE

A few days ago, Alan Cox came to The Blade for a candidate interview. It might come as a surprise to some Toledoans, but Mr. Cox is running for mayor. In fact this is his second run. He came in third out of five when he ran in 1997. He got 17 percent of the vote.

Will he do better this time? He probably shouldn't count on it.

Mr. Cox is a long-time city employee, a civil servant. And his platform is basically his biography: turn the city over to civil servants. Specifically, he wants to restore the city manager form of government.

That isn't going to happen. And it should not happen.

Here's why: Toledo tried it and it didn't work.

Civil servants can be as arrogant and myopic as politicians, but with less accountability.

Mr. Cox says his beef with Mayor Mike Bell, whom he supported four years ago, is that Mr. Bell does not run the city. Mr. Cox says Mr. Bell pretty much lets Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat act as a de facto city manager.

According to Mr. Cox's own diagnosis, Mr. Herwat is arrogant and aloof. How would stepping backward to the city manager system and formalizing Mr. Herwat's power make Toledo better?

One hundred years ago, the thrust of urban reform was on getting the politics out of local government. But eventually Americans figured out that politics isn't what's troubling our cities. The problems of cities are the problems themselves — specifics like poor housing, blight, transportation, schools, etc.

We also discovered that you can't take politics out of government, any more than you can take money out of politics, and it is a fool's errand to try.

What we need is better politics: Politicians who respond to the people and to particular needs and programs.

Mayor Bell can be scored on the issues: Is his economic development policy solid? How about his housing policy? What about our neighborhoods? The mayor is sometimes, seemingly, AWOL — a party unto himself alone. But Mr. Cox is AWOL politically. He has virtually nothing of relevance to say about any of these key issues.

Instead, he talks about “leadership” and books on management. The listener begins to feel he is in a cloud of dull and childish abstractions, and he longs for a good old-fashioned pol — a John Francis Fitzgerald (Honey-Fitz), or a David L. Lawrence, or a Richard C. Lee armed with charm and nuts and bolts knowledge.

No, politics and government cannot not be managed like a business. Even Ross Perot figured that out. And most businesses are mismanaged, anyway.

A city is not like a corporation, except in size and scope. It is more like a very large and complex family.

It has to be led, and it should be run. But it cannot be managed.

Mr. Cox seems like a decent and well-intentioned fellow and he advocates one worthy and doable reform: He would abolish rehiring retired employees into the same jobs they retired from. He would ask for the resignation of police Chief Derrick Diggs on that basis.

But his fundamental idea — that politics can be replaced by management — is wrong. It is historically and empirically wrong. No surprise then, that Mr. Cox's faith in himself as a technician who could better run the city than a politician is utterly unconvincing.

Keith C. Burris is associate editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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