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Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Published: Saturday, 8/9/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

COMMENTARY

Toledo Mayor Collins needs to change — and quickly

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

The Blade’s uncovering of a June 9 letter to Mayor Mike Collins warning that our water system could fail is a huge blow to the mayor’s credibility and to public confidence.

That letter was stern, urgent. And it was kept secret. The mayor now says he took it as confrontational. But the letter was simply just. The system did fail. It wasn’t only the algae blooms that shut us down. It was also a dysfunctional, nonperforming system. The mayor had warnings from Ohio EPA, of possible imminent failure, going back to March 31.

What I cannot understand is why the mayor did not share these warnings with City Council, and indeed with the larger public.

If he had done so, the work that needs to be done to upgrade our water system — now $300 million on top of a previous $400 million – would have presumably been accelerated.

More important, the public would have had warning — the heads-up it deserved.

Instead of going into emergency and crisis mode, we could have gone onto simple logistics mode — dealing with a non-life threatening situation everyone was prepared for.

Mind you, poor water quality and the flawed water system are not the fault of this mayor.

The crisis of Lake Erie is real and worthy of the word crisis. We could lose a Great Lake, which would be a national as well as game changing local disaster. This reality has been in front of our eyes for a decade. Mike Collins didn’t create that problem. All of us in northwest Ohio did.

The infrastructure problem didn’t happen yesterday either. Just as much as the algae bloom caused the city to lose drinking water one week ago, the infrastructure did. It failed while Oregon’s and other lake communities did not. Despite spending a boatload of money on the problem over the last 15 years, Ohio EPA says we have a dangerously antiquated system. I suspect we are also short of expert technical personnel. That didn’t happen in January or March or June of this year either.

By why, why in the world, did the mayor not get on this and bring the rest of us along with him?

Why didn’t he simply tell us? Why not say to the council and the community at large: “Folks, we have a very great problem here and it requires an immediate and dramatic response?”

That would have been so much better than the sudden shutdown.

And once the worst happened, why not come clean and tell us the whole story then — going back to the March and June EPA warning letters?

Mayor Mike Bell tried to warn us, to his credit.

Mr. Collins should have also, but more loudly and urgently.

And honestly.

Mr. Collins promised total transparency when he ran for mayor. With the Ohio EPA letter we had a total lack of transparency — on a matter that the whole city needed to know about. It was a moment for a Roosevelt-style fireside chat, not Nixonlike secrecy.

I cannot understand the secrecy. I cannot understand whom the mayor or his staff thought it served or how they thought the secrecy could be sustained. Was he in denial? Does he not trust the city council? Does he not think the public can handle the truth?

But how do you not disclose something like the June 9 EPA letter? It’s like a man shopping for a dream home with his wife and he fails to mention that the boss sacked him last week.

A couple days back, with the help of some people who know their stuff, I tried to walk through, in this space, best practices for communicating with the public in extreme situations. There are good and bad ways to manage public relations when a community has no water. The point is this: the flow of information about what is going on can be as important as the actual management of what is going on.

In public life and affairs management really does matter, though politicians are not typically managers, or even people who highly value management. But the ability to communicate always matters. That’s really the essence of the politician’s job. A mayor manages mostly by hiring good managers. But he must be able to communicate — to tell the people honestly and clearly what is going on.

Mr. Collins is more Jimmy Carter than Ronald Reagan right now — a very decent and honest man who has a very real management problem and an acute communication problem. If Jimmy Carter had gotten better at managing and communicating, he would have been re-elected and the country would have been spared “trickle down economics.”

Mr. Collins needs to bring in some smart outside help to make very quick progress on the water infrastructure problem. He also needs to totally re-tool his communications operation. Start by being straight with us, and telling us the whole story. The mayor needs transparency and professionalism. He needs to change or he will fail.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

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



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