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Thursday, July 24, 2014
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Published: Thursday, 6/19/2014 - Updated: 1 month ago

COMMENTARY

Mayor Collins can, and must, reset on blight

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

I had a friend who used to tell the story of his daughter’s first words. They were: “Don’t push me.” My friend and his daughter were Irish.

Mayor Mike Collins is Irish.

I interpret his initial reaction to The Blade’s series on blight — “The Ugly Truth About Toledo” — as a reaction, not a response.

The mayor has his own ideas on blight. He has been preparing to unveil an initiative on blight. He’s thought long and hard about it. The Blade and Councilman Jack Ford are pushing him.

Mr. Collins wants to attack the blight problem when he is ready, in his own way. And he wants to make it clear that he, and not Mr. Ford, is mayor of Toledo.

There is that subtext here. Mr. Ford — as a former mayor, state legislator, and Democratic leader in the legislature — looms.

I understand that. I understand the mayor’s feelings. But I hope he will get past them and back to the issue that really matters here, and that was the basis of his campaign and election: Rebuilding our neighborhoods. That starts with cleaning the city up. It starts with blight.

The reality is that The Blade and Mr. Ford are doing the city an enormous service. This newspaper, as Mr. Ford said in a news conference Monday, has made it impossible to ignore a problem that festered and worsened for too long.

That puts both the newspaper and Mr. Ford on the mayor’s side. And as an independent, he can use every friend and ally he can get. Friends sometimes push.

The mayor objected to the word “ugly.” But the blight in the city is ugly and unacceptable, as he has said many times in other words.

He said the Blade stories are comparable to the postings of EconCat88, an anonymous blogger and YouTube critic of the city. I think it is obvious that The Blade’s stories are more positive, professional, and accountable than EconCat88.

But the bottom line — whether the source is this newspaper, bloggers, or other politicians — is this: Does Toledo have a significant blight problem, and is the city government doing enough about it?

The answers are manifest:

Yes, we do.

No, it isn’t.

Mr. Ford’s point was that while there are long-range and structural things that can and must be done to address the causes of blight, the immediate problem of cleaning up litter, cutting grass, getting old furniture off curbs, and citing slumlords is a matter of city administration and blight enforcement, and this can be tackled now. He’s right.

Look, I understand that the mayor does not want a former mayor looking over his shoulder. But as a good golf pro once told me: Don’t let your ego hijack your practice. If we can do better and do so right way, let’s focus on that, not ego and turf.

I have heard all the anti-Ford rants: He’s running for higher office; he always has another agenda; he’s the ultimate deal maker; he doesn’t always follow through on his grand ideas.

All that looks pretty irrelevant next to one simple fact: He’s the one leading on this issue. He has a plan. It has some specifics.

Mr. Ford has made a splash here because of the weight of his thought, arguments, and experience. There is nothing to stop anyone else from diving in.

Indeed, it is imperative, as Mr. Ford said Monday, that the mayor dive in.

Tidy Towns is a concept. Identifying “wild houses” and cleaning them up takes the direct, personal involvement of the mayor and his chief blight enforcement officer, whom the mayor says is up to the job, but whom Mr. Ford finds too passive and accepting of the problem. Yet the mayor criticizes the performance of the Housing Court and Municipal Judge C. Allen McConnell.

If the city can do a better job cleaning up blight, and it can, then it must. And stepping up its game must include matters of personnel. Maybe we need more inspectors. Maybe we need a second judge at the housing court. And maybe we need for those charged with cleaning up Toledo to have a greater sense of mission and urgency.

It is widely agreed that former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner did a good job policing blight. I asked him about The Blade series, and he said what Mr. Ford said: It is a vital wake-up call.

He also agrees with Mr. Ford that the mayor will take action soon because he must. He believes that Mr. Collins “gets it” and will do a fine job policing blight, once he tackles it, because he was such a conscientious district councilman. “Basically, we are all on the same page,” the mayor told me Wednesday.

“Give any mayor 72 hours to a week to see the light,” Mr. Finkbeiner said.

I don’t think Mr. Collins will take that long.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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



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