D. Michael Collins, center, and Mayor Mike Bell answer questions during ONE Village Council's mayoral candidate forum at the Chester Zablocki Senior Center.
THE BLADE/LORI KING
Councilman D. Michael Collins kept up his attacks on Mayor Mike Bell, his opponent in the Nov. 5 mayoral election, in two forums Tuesday, accusing him of allowing gender bias in the fire department when Mr. Bell was the city fire chief and of “giving” his niece $1 million to renovate houses.
Mr. Collins, a retired police officer and city councilman since 2008, used the forums with the Toledo Board of Realtors and North Toledo’s ONE Village Council to stay on the offensive in his effort to dislodge the mayor from office. Speaking before about 25 Realtors, a group that has endorsed Mr. Bell, Mr. Collins hammered the mayor on a lawsuit filed by three female employees who accused the Toledo Fire Department of gender discrimination while Mr. Bell was the chief.
Capt. Carla Stachura and firefighters Judi Imhoff and Geraldine McCalland filed the suit in November, 2005, accusing the city and three fire department officials of gender discrimination and creating a hostile work environment for women. All three claimed department officials failed to take action after co-workers subjected them to verbal abuse and sexually demeaning language.
The three officials named in the suit — Mr. Bell and former Deputy Chiefs John Coleman and Robert Metzger — all since have left the fire department. The city is in the 6th District Court of Appeals appealing a decision in favor of the three firefighters.
“What is the number to resolve that case? I don’t know, but I do know those cases can be extremely, extremely costly,” Mr. Collins said.
Mr. Bell addressed the lawsuit filed by the three firefighters, saying he was named only because he led the department.
“It is about something that happened at a fire station, not with the fire chief,” Mayor Bell said. “You are the chief, you take the hits on everything.”
Speaking to the ONE Village Council inside the Chester Zablocki Senior Center on Lagrange Street on Tuesday night to an audience of about 100, Mr. Collins brought up the $1 million construction contracts that were given to a firm formed by Mayor Bell’s niece, Shayla Bell, in 2010 and 2011.
He said the city’s Department of Neighborhoods gave $1 million to “a niece who has never had any experience whatsoever in reconstruction or remodeling of houses because she’s your niece.”
The comment came during a question about negative campaigning, and in which Mr. Collins renewed his commitment to the Clean Campaign Pledge that he would not “engage in negative campaigning either on the airwaves or in tonight’s discussion.”
Mr. Bell ignored the reference. In the past, he has said he and his niece complied with ethics laws, that he did not intervene for her, and that she personally received about $30,000 on the contracts for renovating houses under a federal program to counter the effects of the foreclosure crisis.
Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat, who was with him Tuesday night, said Ms. Bell’s participation in a firm with two men to build houses with federal funds was cleared for ethical compliance by the law department.
According to a Blade investigation in 2011, Ms. Bell was to have received about $70,000 in fees on contracts awarded in 2010 and pending in September, 2011.
Despite those points of sharp contention, the two candidates gave identical yes or no answers to seven policy questions asked by the ONE Village Council. They promised to pay attention to the village council’s requests, such as to remove overgrown trees, plow snow promptly, pave streets, and attend semiannual meetings.
But they both refused to back a passage of vacant housing ordinance such as the one adopted earlier this year by Youngstown. The ordinance is aimed at banks that own abandoned houses and requires them to post a $10,000 bond to pay for repairs, maintenance, and demolition, if need be, of vacant and abandoned houses.
Mr. Bell and Mr. Collins said Toledo’s vacant housing registry, which has a $200 annual registration fee, is working well in conjunction with the Lucas County Land Bank and other providers.
“We’ve tried to be user-friendly in how we motivate people to take care of properties,” Mr. Bell said. “We have a large stock of houses we’re trying to deal with. We’re getting to them as quickly as we can.”
Mr. Collins said Youngstown was facing a more desperate situation than Toledo.
“It’s not the same set of circumstances. Youngstown went through a severe problem. There’s neighborhoods [in Youngstown] completely eradicated from needing sewers, water supply, everything,” Mr. Collins said.
In response to a question, the two men disputed again over the crisis that faced Toledo in 2010.
Mayor Bell said he used the leverage of “exigent circumstances” — the power to make unilateral cuts in negotiated contracts — to force city unions to bargain and to avoid laying off 271 employees and to stave off a $48 million deficit.
“Guess what, it worked. I took a beating but it worked, and it didn’t cost you any extra money,” Mr. Bell said. “I was told, Mayor Bell, do not raise our taxes, and give us the same standard of service. It was about protecting your bottom line.”
Mr. Collins stuck to his point, despite an investigation by The Blade verifying the $48 million deficit, that the legal deficit facing the city in 2010 was $8.6 million, and that the Bell administration ended 2010 with a $9.6 million deficit.
“We can talk about deficits till doomsday. I don’t think there’s anything productive about worrying about [it]. What I worry about is where we’re going to be in 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. I want to know where the city’s going to be four years after either the incumbent or the new mayor takes office,” Mr. Collins said.
Staff writer Ignazio Messina contributed to this report.