Some journalists reflexively dislike politicians. They think few are trustworthy and none can give a straight answer. Others are positively sycophantic toward politicians. I think both positions are dangerous. I think the right position is to assume good faith, but to always remain skeptical and clinical. Trust, but verify, as Ronald Reagan said in another context. And try, always, to draw the politician back to the question of the public good.
This column began with intensive coverage of the mayor’s race last year. I got to know both former Mayor Mike Bell and current Mayor Mike Collins a little and really like and admire both men. I thought we were lucky to have the choice. To me, Mike Bell was a natural leader, a competent executive, and a good salesman for the city. But he had forgotten the neighborhoods and the poor folk of the city. I liked that Mr. Collins was a champion of the underdog. I agreed with the great Bobby Kaplan that Mr. Collins is “utterly incorruptible.” It was exciting that he ran on a platform of neighborhoods first. I also agreed with another Collins admirer who told me, “The problem is, he likes the weeds. We will have to pull him out of the weeds from time to time.” I think that has proven true. Mr. Collins has a lively mind and he sometimes goes after every topic and issue that floats by.
I have been critical of Mayor Collins of late because he has had trouble focusing, especially on his central campaign promise: helping ordinary people in working class and poor neighborhoods — like the people on Collins Park Avenue in the Birmingham section of East Toledo. Tell me what raises for city administrators or a smoking ban do for them. Tell me what the feisty Councilman Mike Collins would have said about bulldozing homes on that street, with little notice and in the face of a city promise to preserve as many homes as possible and keep people in the neighborhood in the loop.
The old Mike Collins would have railed. I want to hear from that guy again.
The city gave the people of Collins Park the shaft.
It put a hole in their neighborhood.
The mayor failed to protect them.
I wrote a column on this last Sunday and I hit the mayor hard. I hit him hard because I think he failed to protect here. I hit him hard because I know him to be a man of conscience and a policeman and soldier, to his core, who will correct when he fails to protect. I didn’t give him a “heads-up,” which people of privilege and power always feel they are entitled to because I wanted this to be about the people of Birmingham, not the mayor, and I wanted him to be as outraged as any reader. I had the Birmingham Development Corporation’s correspondence with the city (the documentation) and I had stood before the wreckage and seen the grief. I talk to the mayor and his people a lot, and I had talked to the mayor in the past about these homes. He had bragged to me that he wrote the ordinance that stopped the city from buying up more homes.
But the initial reaction to that column from the mayor was the classic defensive one of an office holder who has not been true to himself. In a letter to the editor printed in The Blade Wednesday he said, in summary: We know best, we did nothing wrong, and it’s all Mike Bell’s fault. Besides, Burris has his facts wrong.
He offered no reassurances to the Birmingham neighborhood.
And instead of dealing with facts, he headed for the weeds.
1) The mayor, in his letter, says the six homes torn down were beyond repair. Some residents of Collins Park strongly dispute that. But they point out, rightly, that if the homes were in ill repair, the fault lies with the owner — the city of Toledo.
2) These same residents say that the city made a commitment not to tear the homes down unless it absolutely had to, that the city would care for the homes meanwhile, and that if demolition did come to pass, the need would be fully explained to residents of the street.
3) The mayor says in his letter that “no one should be surprised that the homes were demolished.” Well, most people were surprised. Because of the aforementioned promise, residents of Collins Park say they were indeed stunned at the homes being bulldozed, and, in fact, now feel totally betrayed by the city. They also say three days’ demolition notice was not adequate.
4) The mayor says Birmingham Development Corp. leaders canceled a meeting with him. They say they gave the mayor’s office ample notice of the need to reschedule a meeting but that someone in the mayor’s office forgot or misplaced the notice. An assistant to the mayor told me that it was not possible that she made such a mistake. It is amazing that a few months in office can grant mere mortals the power of infallibility. But, in any case, rescheduling a meeting is a big fat so what? It hardly justifies cutting the chief stakeholders out of the process.
5) Nothing in the mayor’s letter addresses the sense of betrayal and fear now present in the Birmingham neighborhood. I got an email from a man who said: “They will not be satisfied until they take the whole street and then they will take the golf course.” Past experience with governmental agencies working on building projects tells me this is not paranoia but wisdom.
What I’d love to see is for Mayor Collins to go to Birmingham, alone, meet with the residents and solemnly promise them: We will build the water plant expansion but we will also preserve your neighborhood.
After six months in office, any mayor loses his right to blame his predecessor for actions he has taken. The people of Collins Park are asking a mayor who campaigned in their neighborhood on a platform of neighborhoods first to communicate with them, respect them, and protect their street from destruction by federal and local government administration — in short, to put a neighborhood first.
That seems right and just to me. Everything else is the weeds.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.