There are mayoral forums, or debates, virtually every other night in Toledo now. And that’s a good thing.
In fact, it’s another thing Toledoans should be proud of. Many cities this size have a moribund civic life: The candidates are not great and there are virtually no debates. We have two good, experienced, intelligent men running for mayor, and we have lively and virtually constant debates. The best ones have included the candidates for city council and allowed plenty of time for public participation.
The one at Walbridge Park even included school board candidates. I wish all of them did. When I attend these debates, and I have attended a raft of them and will attend many more, I feel very proud of the country and very happy to live in this city. I feel that, in spite of the demagogues and nihilists in Congress, democracy is alive and is a tangible thing.
This past week, Mayor Mike Bell and Councilman Mike Collins brought their “A-Game.” Mr. Collins got back on his platform and back on the positive message — the best form of attack. The candidates who didn’t make the cut in the primary, remember, went negative and destroyed each other. There is a message there about Toledo voters too. And maybe another thing to be proud of.
I mark the phenomenon of a forum a day as good.
On Monday night, I also saw the ugly. The public and the press were banned from individual sessions with Mr. Bell and Mr. Collins sponsored by a fledgling group called the African-American Leadership Forum, at the Mott Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. We were locked out. It is an ugly thing to see in a democracy and in this case was done in an ugly, indeed thuggish, way.
Three Blade staffers arrived well into Mr. Bell’s interview with the group. We’d been at another mayoral forum in East Toledo, which Mr. Bell skipped. We were aggressively informed that we were not welcome.
We protested that an election is a public event concerned with the public good and we were in a public library. The group’s leader, one Keith Mitchell, was fetched. He didn’t want to discuss it. He was keeping the meeting closed.
We went to the library manager. She agreed with us. We put in a call to the library’s central office. Mr. Mitchell was given the phone. The mayor, who, from what I could see from the door windows where I planted myself and managed to hear a good deal, had engaged in a spirited discussion. He now emerged. Did he know we’d been barred? Kind of. He shrugged and said he had his own problems. I like to think he would have invited us in if we’d been there at the start and he knew how strongly we felt.
Next Mr. Collins arrived. He had welcomed the press contingent to this meeting when we saw him at the previous forum. He was disturbed at the closed rule and seriously considered leaving. But Mr. Collins is the subject of an underground slander campaign calling him a racist. He felt he could not walk out of the meeting without being accused of insulting the African-American community.
Part II of the closed meeting began.
I looked for Mr. Mitchell, who had vanished with the librarian’s cell phone and found him. He told me that Rhonda Sewell of the Main Library staff had told him to go ahead with the closed meeting. I know Rhonda. I could not believe that was true. It wasn’t.
I opened the door to the meeting and again asked to come in. I said “this meeting is illegal.” Mr. Mitchell came over to close the door. I told him he ought to be ashamed of himself. He said he was. I don’t think that was true either. He closed the door in my face.
Ms. Sewell later reached me and told me that she told Mr. Mitchell he had to let us in. She told me library policy is that all meetings held there are open to all the public and that anyone who holds a meeting at a public library signs a contract promising to keep the meeting open to the public. The library recognizes the press as not only a part of the public, but representative of the public.
Here’s a kicker: Mr. Mitchell is an attorney, an officer of the court.
I did not see it, but I was told members of the public were also barred. One mother supposedly brought her little boy to meet the mayor.
Like I said, ugly thuggery.
The opposite of democracy.
But what was worse, what was beyond ugly and just plain sad, was the attitude I saw in two young members of the group. One was a young woman, and one was a young man. The young woman was very angry at us and saw us as disrespectful and disruptive. When a colleague tried to talk to a little boy there about what was happening, and the Constitution — for, after all, the right to assemble includes the right to be part of the assembly, and freedom of the press is part of the “first freedom” — she was excoriated by the young woman for drawing a child into our “dirty work.” Reporting on the people’s business was, to her, nefarious.
The young man made me even sadder. He was a fine young guy, thoroughly decent and likable. But he saw no problem with what went on. He said they wanted to keep dissent and troublemakers out. I value politeness. But I value democracy more. Democracy is about letting the troublemakers in.
So, just when I was feeling pretty good about our democracy, I saw some appalling ignorance.
And we all failed to make it a teachable moment — me, the mayor, and Mr. Collins. I should have simply planted myself in a chair in that meeting and told Attorney Mitchell to call the cops if he wanted me out. Both candidates should have refused to participate until the doors were opened to all.
What’s the big deal? Mr. Collins’ young campaign aide, Steve Leggett, summed it up nicely: “When people want to do their business in secret, in the dark, there is always something wrong happening or something wrong about to happen.” He then said an even more remarkable thing: He said that if he were an elected official or public employee, he’d be happy to have a camera in his office and have his every workday streamed for public access. Why not, he asked? Except for criminal and personnel matters, why shouldn’t the public have total openness and total transparency?
“The Internet generation,” said an astonished associate. Right on.
So, next to confused minds, a remarkably clear one. And a teachable moment after all.
Good things grow in the light. Darkness breeds parasites and deceit. Without the First Amendment, there is no democracy. Maybe next time, all of us can do a better job of defending it.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: email@example.com or 419-724-6266.
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