Candidates for Toledo mayor debated right-to-work, regional water policy, and other topics in a forum Monday night at the downtown branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.
Mayor Mike Bell declined to say whether he supports a right-to-work law, and advised keeping an open mind based on the effect such a law would have on the community. Right-to-work laws restrict the ability of workplace unions to collect fees from nonmembers.
PHOTO GALLERY: mayoral candidates' high spirited debate
That put him at odds with his leading opponents, Democrats Anita Lopez and Joe McNamara, and Independent Councilman D. Michael Collins, in the Sept. 10 primary for mayor. The two top vote-getters in the nonpartisan primary will face off in November.
“Where I come down is, I’m going to do whatever is right for citizens. We’re going to do whatever is necessary to keep jobs here. We have to keep an open mind to what is going on so you can be extremely competitive as a city,” Mr. Bell said, citing the potential competition with Michigan, which now has a right-to-work law.
Ms. Lopez, the Lucas County auditor, said, “I will do anything in my power to defeat the effort to bring right-to-work to Ohio and any public official who supports it or can’t stand against it.”
She said, "Right-to-work is an attack on employees and their salaries and benefits. Unions have been wrongfully blamed for the problems in this community.”
Mr. Collins said the auto industry in Toledo was saved in part thanks to the willingness of the United Auto Workers to negotiate difficult concessions to save jobs.
“Right-to-work is, in my opinion, not the solution because the union is not the problem,” Mr. Collins said.
Mr. McNamara said, “Unions have raised the standard of living for workers. Right-to-work laws are really an attack on labor.” He said he is “firmly opposed” to such legislation.
The 90-minute forum was organized by the Tea Party group Northwest Ohio Conservative Coalition and moderated by Michael Miller, editor-in-chief of the Toledo Free Press, and Jim Blue, anchor and news director of WNWO-TV, Channel 24. It was held in the library’s McMaster Family Center and drew a crowd of about 100, who seemed to be allied predominantly with either Ms. Lopez or the Tea Party.
Republican Opal Covey and Libertarian Michael Konwinski endorsed right-to-work legislation. Alan Cox, an Independent and the president of a city employee union, AFSCME Local 2058, said he supports the right of people not to be in unions and said unions should not have to represent people who choose not to associate with them, refusing to answer yes or no because he had not seen specific legislation.
Democrats and unions in Ohio have accused Republican Gov. John Kasich of planning to pursue a so-called right-to-work bill if he is re-elected in 2014, but the governor so far has not taken a position.
The candidates also took varying stances on regionalizing the city’s water distribution system, an issue that came up in response to a question about whether Toledo is a bully to its neighbors.
Mr. Bell said he has met with mayors and township trustees for three years to discuss water regionalization. He said the effort is legitimate and that if it were not, the mayors and trustees would have stopped attending. It is not known how often the meetings have been held or who has been in attendance.
“We are currently probably less than a month or so from having a [request for proposals] to figure out how to regionalize our water system. We have actually put it into action. We've been doing this for a couple years,” Mr. Bell said. “Before, Toledo was looked at as the city that bullied people. We're not looked at that way anymore. There is a trust factor.” He said the city's collaboration on firefighting with Ottawa Hills proves the city's ability to work with neighboring entities.
Mr. Collins credited the mayor with reaching out, but also criticized the administration for refusing to accept a performance audit of itself.
“That is typical of the failure to provide transparency,” Mr. Collins said.
Ms. Lopez said she’s developed a solid relationship with township trustees in her role as auditor since 2007, but she resisted establishing a regional utility.
“We should proceed with caution. We need to get control over our own water department first. We need to treat our businesses and citizens with respect and dignity and stop increasing the cost of water to Toledoans,” Ms. Lopez said.
Mr. McNamara said that as mayor he would promote “nonpoaching agreement” to minimize competing over economic development by offering the best tax incentives. He predicted that growing water scarcity will send businesses to the Toledo area in the future.