Bell, Collins square off in mayor’s race

Incumbent defends record; challenger says Toledo heading in wrong direction

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and challenger D. Michael Collins, a city councilman shake hands after taking part in a candidate forum. Both are running as independents.
Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and challenger D. Michael Collins, a city councilman shake hands after taking part in a candidate forum. Both are running as independents.

Incumbent Mayor Michael P. Bell, who boasts that he put the city on sound financial footing, is facing a tough re-election challenge on Tuesday from City Councilman D. Michael Collins, who contends the city is in decline under the current administration.

In addition to both being veterans of the city’s safety forces — Mr. Bell as fire chief, Mr. Collins as a police detective — both are political independents. This year’s mayoral contest is the first in modern memory in which neither candidate claims a political party — though both political parties are indirectly involved.

Two strong Democratic candidates who ran in the Sept. 10 primary election — Lucas County Auditor Anita Lopez and City Councilman Joe McNamara — split the Democratic vote, allowing Mr. Collins to move forward and join Mr. Bell as the nominees of the nonpartisan primary process.

The primary had a low turnout, with about 15 percent of Toledo registered voters participating. Many predict a low turnout in Tuesday’s election also.

Mayor Bell, 58, said he has maintained current services and avoided a tax increase, while creating a pro-business environment that is beginning to bear fruit. The mayor points to a rise in employment in Toledo from when he took office in 2010 to now as evidence that his approach is working.

“Because we were able to make some hard decisions that did make some of our employees mad and some of them are still mad, and I understand that ... it does not change what we had to do,” Mr. Bell said. “Now we have a city that has a balanced budget. We actually have a rainy-day fund. We’re able to hire police officers, we’re able to hire firefighters."

Mr. Collins, 69, contends that city government could be run more effectively and that Mr. Bell exaggerated the seriousness of the city’s 2010 fiscal plight. Mr. Collins has an extensive platform that would leave no city department untouched, especially neighborhoods, police, and economic development, and he even advocates a voluntary city clean-up campaign called “Tidy Towns.”

“This administration is totally dysfunctional,” Mr. Collins said at a recent forum. His platform calls for the introduction of “beat integrity” — a restoration of stable beats for police officers — and the hiring of enough additional officers to result in a net gain of 60 officers by his term’s end.

At the same time, Mr. Collins has proposed putting a question on the ballot to make the city’s “temporary” 0.75-percent income tax permanent. As an incentive to voters, he’d lower the total tax from 2.25 percent to 2.2 percent, which would cost the city $3.6 million a year based on current collections — a vow that Mr. Bell said would force cuts in city staff and services.

Mr. Bell, a native of Louisiana who came to Toledo with his family when he was 5, graduated from Woodward High School and the University of Toledo with a degree in education and joined the Toledo Fire Department in 1980.

His promotion to chief in 1990 made Toledo the first large city in Ohio with a black fire chief. Mr. Bell held the job for nearly 17 years until he retired in 2007 and was then appointed state fire marshal by Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat.

Though he was backed in the 2009 election by the city’s police and firefighters, Mayor Bell drew their wrath with his “exigent circumstances” ordinance of 2010 — a policy approved by City Council over Mr. Collins’ no vote that gave the mayor the power to impose cuts on city union pay and benefits to help ease the city through a threatened $48 million deficit. Mr. Bell said the unions wanted him to lay off employees — 271, by his count — rather than accept concessions.

In 2011, Mr. Bell widened the political gulf between himself and city unions by siding with Republican Gov. John Kasich in support of Issue 2, a ballot question that, if passed, would have undermined collective-bargaining rights by public employee unions in Ohio.

The mayor has hired 190 police officers and 192 firefighters.

This was after only 30 police officers and 15 firefighters were hired in the previous six years — and none during the two years that Mr. Collins was a councilman before the Bell term began, the mayor points out. While crime spiked in 2012, Mr. Bell points to crime figures that show total crime down almost 24 percent from the previous year.

Mayor Bell’s administration says it has spent $153 million on roadway projects and demolished 1,571 abandoned houses.

The mayor’s business trips to China, as well as India, Japan, and Germany, have earned him scorn from city unions who say his travels have not resulted in economic growth. They complain that his sale of the 69-acre Marina District on the East Toledo waterfront to Chinese investors in 2011 deprived Toledoans of a valuable resource and left its development stalled.

Mr. Bell says the sale to private owners earned the city $3.8 million at a critical time and made the Marina District a property tax-paying entity. According to Mr. Bell, the Chinese investors — Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. — will develop the property when the market allows, just like any other private owner of commercial property.

Mr. Collins, the son of an Irish immigrant, went into the Marine Corps after graduating from Libbey High School and then six years later applied for and was accepted in the Toledo Police Department.

He received a bachelor’s degree at UT and served 27 years in the police department, rising to the rank of detective; he retired in 1999. He was president of the Toledo Police Patrolman’s Association union his last 10 years on the department.

By the time he retired, Mr. Collins had completed a master’s in business administration at the University of Toledo. He became an instructor of criminal justice at UT in 1999 and was director of the Ohio Police Corps at the University of Toledo.

Mr. Collins first was elected in 2007 as an independent in South Toledo District 2. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2009, coming in fourth out of six.

Mr. Collins has been a dogged investigator of questionable policies by both the Finkbeiner and Bell administrations.

Among his targets — the dumping of treated city sludge on an artificial island in Lake Erie, the former Finkbeiner administration’s attempts to hide spending on the Erie Street Market, and the Bell administration’s purchase of an SUV for the use of the mayor under the budget heading of “street sweeper.”

Mr. Collins has gained the support of the Ohio Democratic Party because of his pro-union stances, while Mr. Bell has received the unsolicited backing of the Lucas County Republican Party and the unofficial backing of Governor Kasich.

The annual salary for mayor is $122,400.

Contact Tom Troy: tomtroy@theblade.com, 419-724-6058, or on Twitter @TomFTroy.