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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

No new members of 'strong mayor club'?

As the only people to be mayor under Toledo's strong-mayor form of government, Jack Ford and Carty Finkbeiner are members of an exclusive club. Based on last week's state of the city speech delivered by Mr. Ford at the Valentine Theatre, it appears he thinks the club will be welcoming no new members for at least the next four years.

His "frantic ravings" shot at Mr. Finkbeiner's management style ignored all other possible challengers to his re-election effort this year, even though there are others who are toying with the idea of a campaign. Republican councilmen Rob Ludeman and George Sarantou say they are thinking about it, but neither has been terribly vocal in opposition to the Ford administration, and neither has any experience raising the kind of money that would be required to compete with Mr. Ford.

Campaign finance records show Mr. Ford has raised more than $660,000 over the past three years. If he had managed to keep most of that in the account, he'd be invincible. Instead, he has spent more than half of it, doling out $352,000 - which is almost as much as his entire campaign cost just four years ago. At the end of the year, he reported just under $310,000 cash left on hand.

That's still a lot of money, and makes him very tough to beat. It means that, of the serious candidates, Mr. Finkbeiner is the only one with both name recognition and a history of raising big money for political campaigns. And we do not yet know if Mr. Finkbeiner is really interested in entering the race.

It is true that another candidate could surface, and could conceivably win against Mr. Ford. Our most recent example of a well-known incumbent getting bumped off comes from Republican Maggie Thurber's 2002 upset of Democrat Sandy Isenberg for county commissioner, but that race included alleged improprieties by the incumbent. There are no such allegations against the 22nd floor of Government Center.

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Mr. Ford's shots at Mr. Finkbeiner aside, his speech really resembled the annual speeches delivered by Mr. Finkbeiner during his years in office. Lots of numbers about trees trimmed and potholes filled (do we really have someone on the city payroll to count up all those things?). Missing was a long-term vision for the city. Missing was some inspiration.

What to do with our proximity to the largest reserve of fresh water in the world? What of our location at the transportation crossroads of the region? What will we do with our airport? What of the city's role, if any, in the University of Toledo/Medical College of Ohio effort to build a high-tech corridor linking the schools? Where will Toledo be in 50 years, and what will we do in the next four years to get us moving toward that end?

Mr. Ford came close to offering a vision when he talked about a downtown amphitheater, but will that get locals gabbing and out-of-towners filling the hotels? It's doubtful it would be another Wolftrap, and who will be in charge of entertainment? Citifest can't afford to book a summer full of Friday nights as it is.

We don't know what to think about a new amphitheater because the mayor gave us nothing to work with. No couples munching snacks on a grassy, sun-splashed hillside, sipping wine as pleasing music washed away the cares of another week. No high school thespians bringing smiles to friends and family on an outdoor stage. No tourists gazing wistfully at sailboats on the glistening Maumee River, thinking "Man, it'd be great to live in Toledo."

All the mayor gave us was a pile of dirt.

In the end, Mr. Ford's big presentation fell victim to the news cycle. Just 24 hours after he finished, an angry employee opened fire at the Jeep plant and blew away any residual talk of the mayor's annual address. Now, a week later, his remarks are all but forgotten. Now, with two dead and many others traumatized, no one is paying attention to the number of trees trimmed.

Who knows if a visionary speech would have overcome the shootings, and would have started a small fire of inspiration in the hearts of Toledoans that could be stoked throughout the year. Who knows if an outline of all the possibilities on Toledo's doorstep would lift our heads out of the funk caused by reports of improper retirement payments to the county sheriff's underlings. Who knows if, in the wake of the Kest and Telb controversies, we could have been elevated to a new, fresh perspective of a local government working for the betterment of the electors, not the elected and their cronies.

The answer is, no one knows. That speech was never delivered.



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