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Published: 11/10/2013 - Updated: 5 months ago

COMMENTARY

A talk with the first couple reveals a solid marriage, a focused leader

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

Along with The Blade’s City Hall reporter, Ignazio Messina, I visited with Mayor-elect Michael Collins and his wife, Sandy Drabik, on Friday in their home.

I came away from the meeting with the impression of a man very comfortable in his own skin and of a couple very comfortable with each other. They told us they’ve never really had a serious argument, never gone to bed angry with each other, never yelled. “Not our style,” Sandy said.

For almost two hours, we talked of many things, but three stand out: unions and Mr. Collins’ relationship with them; his approach to staffing the new administration; and what Mrs. Collins’ role will be.

RELATED STORY: Collins makes no secret: He and his wife are a team

First of all, Mr. Collins truly does not believe that Mayor Mike Bell turned the city around. He thinks that job is yet to be done. He thinks the turnaround will happen when we reverse blight in the neighborhoods, improve city services, and repair the city’s relationships with municipal unions.

Does that mean that the new mayor, a former police union president, will “give away the store” to the unions?

Mr. Collins, who was in a very amiable mood, showed a small flash of Irish irritation, if not anger, here. People who say that, he told us, don’t know much about unions. No one says no to union members, he said, as much as a union president.

He said he will have one standard and only one standard in his decision making: “What is good for the people?” He said he’s not going to think about re-election, or eight years in office, but will concentrate on doing the right thing for four.

And he described the form of union negotiation he wants to bring to Toledo. It is founded on the principle that both sides come to the table as equals and leave the table better understanding each other, and with mutual respect. It is cooperative and consensual, rather than confrontational. It is based on opening the employer’s books and on fiscal transparency. It has been successfully employed by the UAW, he said. And it is because of the UAW, Mr. Collins believes, that Toledo was saved from being another Detroit.

So, can he say no to unions? “It’s the way you say no that makes the difference,” Mr. Collins said.

I think two things have formed Mike Collins as a leader. Neither factor has to do with political ideology.

The first was being a union rep and then president. That experience leads him to approach conflict and issues with a problem-solving mind-set: How can we find middle ground and at least a temporary resolution?

Thanks to this background, Mr. Collins has no problem working across party lines and he can set aside past differences.

The second thing that has formed Mr. Collins as a leader is his experience as a district councilman, doing what is called “case work” — helping people with their problems. Again, this has reinforced his pragmatism. It has also focused him, maybe too much at times, on small problems. It means he can sometimes get bogged down in minutiae. It also could make him a very human mayor, focused on real people and concrete local problems.

Mr. Collins acknowledges that he will have to alter his focus. “I like to do things myself. ... But I will have to change; I will have to discipline myself.”

It is a wise politician (man) who knows his own weakness.

But yes, Mr. Collins will have to work on keeping the big picture in mind and on delegating. He will need good and strong people around him.

He already has one. Nobody could be a greater asset than Mike Collins’ wife, Sandy, who, he freely admits, has more government experience than he has and who, he has told me, is “much smarter than I am.” She hopes to work on Tidy Towns, support her husband, and freely give advice when asked. “Does Sandy challenge me?” Mr. Collins asks rhetorically. Of course, he answers. He says he would be a fool not to use her as a sounding board.

Mr. Collins will also need a strong chief of staff — someone who is tough and smart and has some independent standing in the community. He should not box himself on this appointment but look for someone who, like Mrs. Collins, will challenge him.

The new mayor has an interesting notion of how to balance old blood (which he needs) and new blood (which he wants) in his administration. He hopes to set up a mentor system: An old veteran of city government would be paired with a new, young recruit to the city. The apprentice would be taught his role over a six-month to one-year period of time. The teacher would then go back into retirement.

What about transparency and openness?

Mr. Collins is a kind of poster boy, for he is wide open by nature. Open to the press; open to people; open about public meetings and public access. He tells us that he thought the city’s withholding of its gang map from The Blade was “outrageous.” He tells us he will undoubtedly get into trouble at some point because of his lack of “spin” skills. When Mr. Messina asks if he might see Mr. Collins’ honorable discharge from the Marines at some point, Mr. Collins says, “I’ll get it for you right now.” A few minutes later he returns with it, along with a picture of his Marine Corps graduating class. Looking at the picture, he realizes how many men from that class died in Vietnam. His eyes begin to fill with tears. But our interview is over now. It has already gone on too long. We are moving out the door, with thanks from Sandy.

Mike Collins is a tough, old cop, a man who researches legal cases for fun, an Irish storyteller, a very good retail politician, an amazingly unguarded politician, a man with a cold eye and a big heart.

His wife tells us he does most of the cooking in their home and that he is a very good cook. But his shopping takes forever, because he “likes to talk to people” and he knows most people he meets at the supermarket. This will be an interesting four years.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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



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