Thursday, Mar 22, 2018
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Keith Burris


The way forward



It has been the week that was for Toledo — shocking, jarring, and sobering. Water is our primary asset. It has been compromised. Now we must steel our resolve and move forward.


I asked current council member and former Mayor Jack Ford. He said, “I guess it might sound corny, but it’s like life: we have to turn a blow into a blessing.” Lemons into lemonade.

All clichés are true on some level, the writer Russell Baker once said, that’s why they are clichés. What hasn’t killed any of us, or even made too many of us sick, must be a means to build and strengthen the city.

Three ideas:

First, we make ourselves a model of self-examination and self-improvement. We go through a rigorous fact-finding and diagnostic analysis of what went right and what went wrong — with the lake and with water treatment system and plant — going back not just a week, but a decade or more. We show the world how a city learns from its mistakes and corrects its course — not just in how we treat water but how we do politics and make environmental public policy. I think this process needs to be led by a lawyer or academic or former judge — from out of town. Or maybe a three person commission — all from out of town, and jointly appointed by the governor and the mayor.

There are different ways to construct the process. But we need to go through a process — a rigorous process — that shows the rest of the country what we are made of.

How did we get here? Isn’t part of the problem the old-boy network? No matter who is mayor, the same people seem to play musical chairs with the top administrative posts in town and this same cast of characters rotate in and out of government. But when out they “consult” with government, at high prices. The “revolving door” is generally pernicious because it leads to waste and corruption. But in Toledo, it seems no one new ever comes though the door in either direction. We desperately need new blood and technical know-how. Mike Collins, as a candidate for mayor, deplored the good-old boy network. But his administration has become a haven for the good-old boys. We have to have a full investigation, but I suspect that it will be found that the Toledo Water Department is replete with political hacks and sorely lacking in chemists and microbiologists. The last time a mayor sought new blood for a major administrative post was when Carty Finkbeiner hired a police chief from California. We need more new talent and less inbreeding.

Another question for our diagnostic commission — where did the money go? Over the last 15 years, some $400 million was to have been spent on improving water quality in Toledo. The federal government wanted this, then-Mayor Ford agreed, and, at his urging, the citizens approved it. That’s a lot of money. Yet our water quality is compromised and our treatment plant, we are told, is hopelessly outdated. Where did the money go?

So that’s step one, a tough-fact finder and diagnostician, or small commission, to help us figure out how we arrived at this point. This process should be totally transparent, as it proceeds.

Second, we must set out to be, and actually become, the most ecologically enlightened water city in America: We celebrate and protect our water. We adopt best practices. We champion and fund Great Lakes research. We hold a week-long water festival every year. We make Toledo THE water conservation city.

I can think of two great people to lead this effort, ideally together: Randy Oostra of ProMedica and County Commissioner Carol Contrada.

Mr. Oostra told me we need to focus on two things now, infrastructure and Lake Erie itself. He said the danger is that this event will drop out of people's consciousness soon and that we need to “keep banging the drum” and “not lose sight of the action piece.” He said “people need to convene” to form an action plan. Then, we need to “commit resources.” And, finally, we must “assign accountability.”

The third way forward is regionalism. Commissioner Contrada has been quietly leading on this issue. She told me that this crisis is “a wake-up call and shame on us if we don't respond.”

The commissioner agrees with Mr. Oostra that we must tackle the two major problems — infrastructure and the lake — simultaneously. To that end, the county commissioners, in full accord with each other, have prepared three resolutions to address the water crisis. One would include implementing the “balanced diet for Lake Erie” which mandates sixteen specific steps. “Hard steps,” she said. But, “we cleaned up Lake Erie once before, we can do it again,” said the commissioner. Meanwhile she sees us moving forward on the infrastructure issues as a region because Toledo “really can't go it alone.”

Before he left office, Mike Bell was working on a regional approach to water. It made sense then, it makes even more sense now.

Ms. Contrada referenced the Tuesday night meeting at the University of Toledo on the health of the lake. She said solid information empowers the public and diffuses fear and uncertainty. “People really want to know how the science works,” she said. Indeed they want to know exactly how the water plant works.That hunger is something we can build on.

A fact-finding process, becoming the premier water city, and regionalism — these are three ways forward.

Here is what we don’t need: amnesia, heads in the sand, short attention spans, wallowing in self-pity, paralysis by analysis, letting the status quo stand, allowing our city to become a national joke.

We have to make a positive out of a negative. We need to move forward. There is more than one way forward, and there are more than three ways. But the key thing is: forward. Not stalled. Not backward. Forward.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: or 419-724-6266.

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