Mayor Mike Bell speaks during a press conference at the new solar field at the Collins Park water treatment plant in East Toledo, which treats water for the entire city on August 10, 2011.
THE BLADE/AMY E. VOIGT
Facing fierce resistance from organized labor as he wrestles to bring Toledo's budget under control, Mayor Mike Bell on Wednesday became Ohio's first major city mayor to officially voice support for a state law limiting the bargaining rights of public employees.
Mayor Bell, a former Ohio fire marshal and Toledo fire chief, made the announcement during a meeting with The Blade's editorial board in which he discussed frustration with the recent reaction of some city employees to a proposed wage freeze and benefit cuts.
"We followed the process, and by following the process we got a protest," Mayor Bell said. "I'm the administrator of a city that is financially-strapped and I need to be able to have the tools in the box [to balance the budget]."
The law to limit bargaining power, commonly referred to as Senate Bill 5 and championed by Republican Gov. John Kasich, passed in the spring without a single Democratic vote and is currently on the Nov. 8 ballot for a referendum on whether it should be recalled.
The mayor's open support for Senate Bill 5 stands as an anomaly in this traditionally Democratic city where the support of labor unions has been critical for many politicians seeking office. For union supporters, Mayor Bell's former standing as a Toledo firefighter and fire chief made his open embrace of Senate Bill 5 particularly hard to swallow. The mayor ran for office as an independent.
"For the mayor of all people to support SB5 is an example of hypocrisy. He sits there with a pension that wouldn't even come close to what it is today without having public-sector bargaining throughout his career as a firefighter," said Toledo councilman D. Michael Collins, himself a retired police officer. "It's a clear example of an individual who has completely forgotten his roots."
But for outsiders who championed the bill, Mayor Bell's position represented an honest and refreshing stand from a top city official who faces realities on the ground.
"Mayor Bell is awfully brave," said Jason Mauk, spokesman for Building a Better Ohio, the largely business and Republican-backed organization defending the law. "There's been tremendous pressure put on public officials across the state by labor and partisan interests. He's willing to stand up to both to say that he's doing this because it's the right thing to do."
For months Mr. Bell has straddled the fence on Senate Bill 5.
He has generally voiced support for provisions of the law and the need for the process to take into consideration a city's ability to pay the terms of a contract. He even appeared in a Republican-produced video to say as much when the legislation was under consideration last spring.
But he has also voiced general support for collective bargaining, a process he once engaged in as a city firefighter.
"I would be hard-pressed to think of someone who has more credibility," Mr. Mauk said. "He's not only responsible for managing a city, but he previously was a firefighter. He knows from personal experience why this is necessary. Ohioans are looking for real world experience and credibility, and he brings that to the table on a variety of levels.
"He is uniquely qualified to make this argument because he's lived all sides of this debate," Mr. Mauk said. "This is one of those rare public officials who doesn't care about a partisan label and isn't weighed down by someone else's political opinion. He's a true independent who wants to put his city and taxpayers first."
A campaign role?
Mr. Mauk said he could not say yet what role the mayor might play in the campaign or whether he might appear in TV ads touting the law.
Toledo is the largest Ohio city whose mayor has endorsed the bill outright. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson voiced support earlier this year for the concept of a merit pay system for teachers, but he stressed his support did not translate into general support for Senate Bill 5.
Melissa Fazekas, spokesman for the Senate Bill 5 opposition group We Are Ohio, was not as impressed by Mr. Bell's announced allegiance than Mr. Mauk. We Are Ohio is largely fueled by labor and Democratic organizations.
"He is one man," she said. "We have 1.3 million Ohioans who signed petitions to repeal Senate Bill 5. We have tens of thousands across the state working door-to-door and talking with friends and family. Municipalities passed resolutions as we were going through the legislative process that they didn't support the bill."
Among those municipalities was Toledo, whose City Council voted 9-3 for a resolution discouraging state legislators from supporting the bill.
Toledo councilman Adam Martinez, who voted in favor of the resolution in February, described Mayor Bell's announcement as disappointing.
"For me, I was born and raised by union labor and it's just really disheartening," said Mr. Martinez, whose father was an electrician and union member. "I wouldn't be where I'm at today if it wasn't for good wages and good health care. I was afforded many opportunities that my contemporaries may not have because of their income level."
Even Councilman Tom Waniewski, a staunch Republican who voted against the resolution, said he is now undecided on whether he supports the bill. However, he said he understands why Mayor Bell would favor limits on public employee unions, given the city's difficult financial situation.
Mr. Kasich has repeatedly cited Mr. Bell and the city as examples of who he claimed Senate Bill 5 was all about, particularly when it came to eliminating binding arbitration as the means of ending contract disputes involving police, firefighters, and other public safety employees.
"The governor has tremendous respect for Mayor Bell and what he's done for Toledo, and he is very proud to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the mayor as we seek to get Ohio back on track," said Kasich spokesman Rob Nichols.
While stressing that he can't speak on behalf of the Senate Bill 5 campaign, Mr. Nichols noted that the governor is "actively involved" with Senate President Tom Niehaus (R., New Richmond) and House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R., Medina) in working "to ensure this effort is successful."
GOP in favor
Toledo Republican Party Chairman Jon Stainbrook said he hoped Mayor Bell's announcement would push more officials from both parties to support the bill.
"His support for this issue makes the point that people can't keep paying higher taxes or having massive cuts in order to balance the budgets. Something's got to give," Mr. Stainbrook said. "This is a mayor who has been on the line and responsible both for police and fire, to keep citizens safe, at the same time protecting their wallets. ... We applaud this as a great sign that this is going to be both supported by Democrats and Republicans alike."
But Democratic Party Chairman Ron Rothenbuhler said Mayor's Bell's outspokenness could well result in a backlash.
"I think it's going to work in reverse. [Voters] are wondering why a mayor from Toledo, Ohio, obviously getting a pension from the firefighters and [the state government pension system] based on his previous employment ... is taking this stance that collective bargaining is not good," Mr. Rothenbuhler said. "I feel very positive that all working people are up in arms over the disregard for their right to collectively bargain and negotiate their employment terms and conditions."
The far-reaching Senate Bill 5, among other things, prohibits all public employees from striking, limits the subjects of negotiation at the bargaining table, requires employees to pay at least 15 percent of their health insurance, and prohibits the automatic deduction of "fair-share" fees in lieu of dues from the paychecks of employees who refuse to join the workplace union.
Mr. Bell is currently locked in a dispute with the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 7, the city's largest public employee union. The union on Tuesday voted 659-52 to reject a fact finder's report, some of which directly touches on issues addressed in Senate Bill 5.
Mr. Bell said Wednesday that his administration will seek to implement the wage freezes and benefit cuts on the union.
Among other things, the fact finder recommended increasing employee contributions for health coverage from the current 5 percent to as much as 15 percent, the minimum level mandated under the law.
The fact finder also advised the city to reduce over two years the portion it pays toward an employee's share of pension contributions from 10 percent to 3 percent. Senate Bill 5 would prohibit local governments from picking up any portion of an employee's share of his contributions.
A Quinnipiac Poll released last month showed that 56 percent of voters were prepared to reject Senate Bill 5 as a package on Nov. 8. The same poll, however, showed that they like some portions of the law, including the provisions requiring greater employee contributions for their own health care and pensions.
Staff writer Nolan Rosenkrans contributed to this report.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6272; Jim Provance at: email@example.com or 614-221-0496.