Toledo Mayor Mike Bell is preparing to leave office on Jan. 2. He says he plans to travel, do some volunteering, and that he will ‘like being a normal person again.’
THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER
To the last day of his first, and only, term in public office, Mike Bell is unapologetic and unregretful.
And soon, he will be a liberated man.
Mayor Bell — a popular man who attained rock-star status with supporters who donned T-shirts bearing his face — confidently proclaimed on Election Night that he would win re-election. Instead, the political independent and former fire chief who drew the ire of Democrats and unions from almost day one in office is preparing to leave office on Jan 2.
Voters decided to instead give that office for the next four years to D. Michael Collins, a district councilman from South Toledo, former police officer, former union president, and former college professor.
“I can sit here on Nov. 14 and say we have a balanced budget from a $48 million deficit, we have a rainy-day fund, we have a surplus, so for me, mission accomplished,” Mayor Bell said last week from behind the desk in his 22nd floor office at Government Center. “I really don't have any regrets. None. I have had time to think about it and there are none, zero. In fact, I feel liberated.”
The mayor knows he could have avoided an avalanche of opposition if he had not made certain decisions — most notably, his 2011 support of Senate Bill 5, the legislation Ohio Gov. John Kasich backed that would have weakened public-employee bargaining rights but was defeated as Issue 2 in a statewide referendum.
“I don’t really care,” Mayor Bell said. “I did what I had to do to protect this city, so if it was just about me, I wouldn’t even have run for mayor.”
That opposition came with thousands of dollars’ worth of negative television advertising attacking a major focus during his term — the effort to attract foreign investment from places such as China, Japan, India, and Germany.
“I was looking to do what I had to do to fix the city, and we fixed it,” the mayor said. “Nine concessionary contracts that allowed us to hire police officers and firefighters, build roads, tear down vacant homes, and we didn’t lay anyone off.”
Mayor Bell said he was “aware of the political environment” he was wading in hip-deep but proclaimed four years ago that he was not a politician, and he still believes that.
“I really don’t care if it hurt me or not,” he said.
Mayor Bell also professes to care little about his term’s “legacy.”
“I think it is whatever they decide they want it to be,” he said. “I did not come here for a legacy. I just came here to fix a broken city and I think I have done a fairly decent job of doing that in a short period of time.”
Even critics have had a hard time arguing with Mayor Bell's accomplishments.
He pushed through a balanced budget to address a $48 million general-fund deficit, found investors to buy Marina District property that sat unused in the city’s possession for a dozen years, hired more police officers than the previous two mayors combined, razed 1,150 vacant houses, and paved a record lane-mileage of city streets this year.
Outwardly, the mayor said his campaign did a good job spreading that message and offered a clear platform for the next four years.
“We didn’t do anything wrong in the campaign,” Mayor Bell said. “People just made a decision that they either liked me or they didn’t like me. They liked what I did or they didn’t like what I did, and there is nothing I did that I would take back. So there was no way I could change their opinion, but I don’t blame my campaign at all for any of those issues.”
Bell campaign consultant Mark Luetke said the negative TV advertising against Mayor Bell and his unpopular decisions regarding unions swayed voters.
“I think part of the issue was that Mike Bell needed to make some tough decisions early in his term and in doing so, he made some people unhappy,” Mr. Luetke said. “As we polled, three things large numbers of people didn’t like were the [forced concessions in 2010 known as] exigent circumstances, his support of State Issue 2, and his outreach to China for economic development.”
Mr. Luetke said Mayor Bell did not get enough credit in the media for reaching out to voters.
“I think his message did resonate with some voters,” he said. “Others just couldn't get past the Senate Bill 5 participation.”
Former Mayor Jack Ford — the only other Toledo mayor to lose in a re-election effort since the city switched to a strong-mayor form of government in 1994 — said Mayor Bell’s legacy will develop over time.
“When you are an ex-mayor, it is a pretty small fraternity, so we see and do things other folks wouldn’t have a concept of,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s a tough job and demanding job, energy-wise and time-wise. I thought he put a lot of energy in it and he had a great style."
Mayor Bell was Toledo’s fire chief under Mayors Ford and Carty Finkbeiner. After he took office, he butted heads briefly with his two former bosses, but Mr. Ford said he admired Mayor Bell’s style leading Toledo.
“It was much more interesting than mine,” Mr. Ford said. “By comparison, I was probably pretty dull. I didn't agree with some of his decisions, but he also made some tough ones, and you do pay a price when you make tough decisions.”
The Marina District could be part of Mayor Bell’s legacy, he said.
“It may blossom and they may start building there in a couple of years and people may say, ‘That was a great thing Mike Bell did.’ But we have to wait and see,” Mr. Ford said.
Mayor Bell said Dashing Pacific Group, which in 2011 purchased The Docks restaurant complex for $2.15 million and 69 acres in the Marina District for $3.8 million, altered its timetable after The Blade published 21 months ago a three-day series about the Chinese investors who own the company.
“They were not prepared to readily invest at the pace that they were doing when we first got here because of the insults that were levied,” Mayor Bell said.
“If [The Blade] had done that to anyone else at that level, they would be doing exactly the same thing,” he said. “I am not saying they are out, but there is no sense of urgency to move any quicker than what they are moving. ... Toledo is a great place to live in, but if I have money, I can go anyplace in the world.”
Dashing Pacific Group Chairman Yuan Xiaohong — through a statement provided by Rudolph/Libbe Inc. spokesman June Remley — said the property would be developed.
“Dashing Pacific has no plans to sell the property back to the city,” Ms. Yuan said. “We are planning to develop the land under our own timetable.”
In its agreement with the city, Dashing Pacific gave the city “a conditional repurchase option” if the property has not been developed within five years after the sale.
Many in the Toledo business community are already sold on a positive Mike Bell legacy.
“He is one of the best ambassadors I have seen for the city of Toledo,” said Dean Monske, president and chief executive for the Regional Growth Partnership.
Wendy Gramza, executive vice president of the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce, said Mayor Bell looks at economic development as a regional effort, and he reached out globally to make it happen.
“What he did to a great extent was put Toledo on a map in an international way,” Ms. Gramza said. “I hope all the momentum that has been created will continue, that we don’t backslide as it relates to being part of the region.”
Mayor Bell said he has no vision for how Toledo is governed beyond 5:30 p.m. Jan. 2, when Mr. Collins takes over.
“Part of me is extremely liberated and I have ability to do anything I want to do,” he said. “I am single. I can stay in town or leave ... I anticipate volunteering with the Boys and Girls Club; I may go on a church mission to Honduras; I may get involved with disaster relief with the Red Cross, and I may look at other options that I think would be fun to do and where I can make a difference.”
The outgoing mayor said he plans to travel to Switzerland, which he did earlier this year before an economic development trip to Germany. He may also visit Florida and California soon.
Mayor Bell’s advice for the incoming mayor: “Just be true to your word. You say something, you do it. Don’t be wishy-washy and don’t be a backslider. And there is absolutely no way to make everyone happy, so don’t even try.”
Leaving the mayor’s office won’t be entirely easy for the man who repeatedly told people that he did not need the job and that he could do anything else.
“I'll miss dealing with young kids and motivating them,” he said. “I will miss the view. I like looking out this window and thinking about how do you change the city and move it in a good direction. Outside of that, not too much else. I won’t miss all the pomp and circumstance; I won’t miss the cameras everyplace I go, and I won’t miss the microphones. I'll like being a normal person again.”