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Published: Tuesday, 6/17/2014 - Updated: 1 month ago

COMMENTARY

Big story, big reaction, big chance

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

City Councilman Jack Ford called a news conference on short notice Monday on the subject of The Blade’s blight stories. I went not expecting much. I know Mr. Ford feels deeply about this issue, but what more could there be to say?

I was wrong. Mr. Ford came loaded for bear.

Mr. Ford is a longtime teacher, and he had a lesson to teach this day. He said: The Blade has done the city an enormous service. It has placed this issue front and center. And in a way that cannot be ignored.

The photos, as well as the reporting, are compelling. You may be assured these articles have already been read by every mayor in every major city in the state and by the governor and major legislators.

Therefore, he said, we have two things here: an issue that can no longer be deferred and a unique opportunity for action.

Mr. Ford said the wind is at the back of those who want to act on blight, and he said the issue would not and could not wait.

So what does he want to do?

Well, he presented an 11-point action plan.

He will begin with drafting legislation to create a Blight Authority for the city. Its mission will be simple: clean up trash, overgrown grass, illegal dumping, and boarded and unsecured homes.

Clean up the mess.

We don’t need to debate this.

And we have the capacity to do it.

Speaking with more passion and precision than I have ever heard from him, Mr. Ford emphasized that this cleanup is not a difficult or complex mission for city administration. He said it mostly takes will. Not much money. A modicum of management. But mostly will. Mr. Ford expressed no small amount of frustration that there is a lack of will in city government at the moment with regard to blight. He said the director of the department of inspection should be transferred out and that council, as a united front, should push the mayor on this.

Mayor Mike Collins, said Mr. Ford, has had a very challenging first few months. But now it is time to get going on blight. Mr. Ford said he had never seen so much ugliness and desecration of the city. He said it is unacceptable.

In light of The Blade stories, he believes the mayor will have to act.

“This,” said Mr. Ford, “is a big deal.”

He said high grass and illegal dumping are problems that are relatively easily dealt with — “low-hanging fruit.”

He said we could find the money for more blight inspectors.

He said we could cross-train other city employees to do inspections.

He said that he was confident the Youth Entrepreneur Program could be quickly and inexpensively revived.

He said he had also talked to a judge about assigning youths in trouble to blight removal and that the judge had reacted favorably.

He also said we need a foundation presence to help us with this, as is being done in Detroit, and he had already taken soundings and found there would be support.

He conceded that moving from a tear-down model to a restoration and rehabilitation model for damaged homes and other buildings would take some time, some lobbying, and some new thinking — on the local, county, and state level. Mr. Ford believes Terry Glazer at United North and Stanley Lowe at Pathways, who did this work in Pittsburgh, could guide the city on renovation.

But, said, Mr. Ford, we can do good blight enforcement now.

He said the mayor could turn the blight situation around in two weeks.

Mr. Ford brought fellow council members Theresa M. Gabriel, Mike Craig, and Tyrone Riley with him to the presser. Mr. Craig said we should no longer have a blight policy that is complaint-based. It has to be proactive. Miss Gabriel said the whole city has a blight problem — not just one or two parts of it. Mr. Riley basically said we ought to be ashamed. We should have taken action on this long ago.

Mr. Ford emphasized that the blight issue is bigger than Mr. Ford, and he hopes that the council will act as one voice but that other members will jump in with their own legislative and oversight ideas. He had already contacted the president of council and other colleagues, and he said the votes are there for change. Most of all, he hopes The Blade stories launch executive action by the mayor.

Back to the lesson: There are moments when public attention is focused, the desire for action is overwhelming, and quick, decisive action becomes possible. Lyndon Johnson realized after John F. Kennedy’s death that the great civil rights legislation could be passed. And he did it. After the mass shootings of children in Newtown, Conn., last year, the nation was ready for reasonable gun control. But Congress bogged down in fear and pettiness. Toledo has a big chance here — to clean up its act. Mr. Ford is saying we should grab it.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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



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