Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Keith Burris

COMMENTARY

One test of leadership

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In the amazing, depressing, and degrading in all senses of the word and for all parties involved in the standoff between the fire chief and the firefighters union, we now have a more amazing development.

The mediator brought in by the mayor to seek peace — retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Andy Douglas — has spoken with stark clarity.

He said: “Ultimately, it comes down to who’s going to run the fire department.”

That’s an astonishing statement because it is simply the cold, hard truth. And not a lot of truth has been spoken about this controversy.

Chief Luis Santiago is not a controversial sort of guy. Or a flamboyant one. He has not sought to deepen the rift. On the contrary, he has sought to heal it. He’s been willing to meet, to compromise, to submit to mediation.

But he has been a strong chief. He does expect to command the department. And, as Justice Douglas said, that is, after all, what he has been appointed to do.

For Mr. Douglas, who is a Toledo political legend with strong ties to organized labor, to speak so bluntly is really an indictment of Local 92.

The other mind-boggling thing is that Local 92 President Jeff Romstadt has apparently refused to meet further with Mr. Douglas, or to meet together with Mr. Douglas and the chief. That will make mediation pretty tough.

The union’s position is that the chief must go. No compromise. It has made two accusations against the chief that are scurrilous and have been thoroughly discredited: that he endangered firefighters, and that he withheld a threatening letter. These charges wound up besmirching the union more than the chief.

The real beef is the chief’s style — he can be bullheaded and autocratic, which he has said he will work on — and what Mr. Douglas said: He wants to run the department and so does the union.

Many old hands in the city say this dispute should never have gotten this far or this public. There was a failure of leadership on the 22nd Floor. If so, what now? That would be a test of mayoral leadership, wouldn’t it?

So I asked the six major, declared candidates.

● Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson says she’ll form a labor-management citizens committee to address this and other disputes. She says this is a “community problem” and requires a community solution.

The mayor is a lovely person and I truly like and respect her. But that’s pathetic.

● Former Mayor Mike Bell thought so too. He said: “This is a community issue, but more importantly it’s a leadership issue and needs to be handled that way. As mayor, I will sit down with both of these men and we can work it out. I’ve been on every side of this thing. I understand it, and can handle it. I won’t ask the community to step up and fill the city’s leadership void.”

I asked his press aide for absolute clarity: So firing the chief is not an option Mayor Bell would consider?

“Correct,” he said.

OK.

● Former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner praised Mr. Douglas, then said:

“Rather than outsource this to another third party, those who have the responsibility for leadership and accountability for results must step up to make a difference — the mayor, the safety director, the chief, and the union leadership — to embrace and hold the interests of our citizens as the highest priority. They deserve much better than this political infighting.

“This is not a time for power plays, posturing, or passivity. It is a time to do what is right for the people of Toledo. That’s the calling of leadership. Either step up to the plate to do what is right or be held accountable for failing to heed the call to serve.”

Noble words, but mostly unresponsive blather, I fear.

● Sandy Drabik Collins said: “This is not a community problem but rather a city governance problem, which appears to be negatively affecting the morale of the work force. This is a responsibility of the mayor. If elected, I will sit down with the parties and hear them out on the issues. I will make a decision, and move forward.”

● Mike Ferner told me he’d investigate the whole thing from scratch, personally, as mayor, then make a firm decision: He stays or he goes. Mr. Ferner is a former, longtime labor organizer. So that seems like a fair response from him, though I don’t think there is anything about this case that has not been made public — the facts are out there.

I’d ask him and Mrs. Collins what more they think they could possibly learn by starting from the beginning. The chief has done nothing wrong, and much right. By most objective measures, he has continued to improve the excellence of the fire service.

● Sandy Spang gave what I thought was the best response: “I would retain Chief Santiago, and I would take an active role in this dispute ... Changes have been made in the administrative structure of the department in response to the demands of Local 92, and discussion can continue about future improvements. This dispute, however, has gone far beyond the point of productive discourse and threatens to harm our community.”

Ms. Spang said it straight. Props to her.

Sometimes the much vaunted “leadership” is the gumption to say something specific. Like: He stays. He goes. Or, “Enough already. Everyone go back to work.”

Judge for yourself. To me, on this issue, Ms. Spang and Mr. Bell are the leaders.

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

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