Last week, a person intimately involved in the water shutoff told me he was very sure the negative test that resulted in no drinking water in Toledo was a “false positive.” The whole thing didn’t have to happen.
Why did it, then?
Mayor Mike Collins, this person told me, was railroaded by the Ohio EPA — an angry Ohio EPA. Officials there felt the Collins administration was not listening regarding water plant updates and other matters.
A week before, I spoke with that person, I talked with a veteran environmental lawyer who told me the same thing: The water quality problem wasn’t nothing. But it wasn’t Armageddon. We needed a “measured response,” not the neutron bomb.
The mayor says Ohio EPA demanded the shutoff. Ohio EPA says the mayor made the decision. The mayor says he had a gun to his head.
Regardless, if the city had worked with the EPA, the response on both sides might have been more “measured.” We could have avoided crisis mode.
Another person, in government and also close to the situation, told me the city simply failed to foresee and forestall. You could see the blooms coming, he said. They were worse last year. And the Ohio EPA was known to be restless. It was a time to be proactive.
Another wise old head, looking at the antagonistic Ohio EPA-city of Toledo face-off said, “I think we are talking about a governance problem.”
All agreed the mayor had not been well served by his staff, several of whom, to be fair, are working two jobs. The Collins administration is earnest and hard-working but, in the water crisis, lacked professionalism and poise.
All these people I spoke with are Mike Collins fans. As am I.
The mayor cut 22nd-floor staffing. But now he is in danger of being overwhelmed by events, and I think, given the hit the city has taken, we are all better served if he staffs back up.
If the whole water shutdown was unnecessary, if there was never a clear and present health threat from the water, which I believe to be likely, we need to look as how to get better at governance as well as water treatment and saving Lake Erie.
The big job is to save Lake Erie. That’s on the city, but also the region, the state, and the nation. But local governance is its own problem. The mayor needed staff who slowed the process down and who could work with and stand up to Ohio EPA. He needed, and needs, adults and pros around him.
Does that mean Chief of Staff Bob Reinbolt should be the fall guy? Not necessarily.
Mr. Reinbolt is a smart and experienced fellow. But maybe he, and the mayor, need more help. There is no shame in that. Great leaders reach out for help in extraordinary circumstances — think of Lincoln; think of FDR.
This was a huge, complex, and unprecedented event and, as one player told me, “There are so many layers.”
Moreover, Mr. Reinbolt is a lame duck. He came in on a one-year basis. Three-fourths of his term is up.
Why not bring in a deputy mayor now — someone of stature who could work on large policy questions and messaging?
I am thinking of people like Mike Beazley, the town administrator of Oregon, who could perhaps come on loan for a year.
Or Keith Wilkowski, the attorney and former county commissioner and candidate for mayor. Or Doni Miller, CEO of Neighborhood Health Association. Or John Alexander, ex-administrator of Perrysburg. Or — maybe the best option of all — someone from the outside who would stay just a couple of years and bring fresh blood, professionalism, and poise. Maybe the No. 2 or No. 3 administrator in Indianapolis, for example. Someone like that.
The mayor should also make his wife, Sandy Drabik, one of the smartest people in Toledo, and one of the most experienced public administrator’s in the state, “of counsel,” for $1 a year. Use her, as FDR used Eleanor.
These steps would not be a sign of weakness but of strength.
Remember when Jimmy Carter came down from the mountain and fired everyone?
That’s not quite the model we want here.
On the other hand, it was a brave recognition of reality.
Toledo we have a problem. Three actually. One is the Lake. Two is water treatment. Three is city governance. I think a dramatic act of change in city administration would calm a lot of nerves and begin to restore confidence.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.
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