When a water crisis struck the city of Toledo, it was not someone with a string of degrees and history of high-level jobs who headed up the communications effort that drew the attention of the whole nation.
It was Lisa Ward, a former blogger with a certificate in secretarial science, who serves as chief executive officer and public information officer to Mayor D. Michael Collins.
And during the week that preceded the Aug. 2 water crisis, Ms. Ward — who once spent an evening in jail after being picked up on a bench warrant over a bounced check charge — held the title of “acting safety director” while her immediate supervisor, Chief of Staff Robert Reinbolt, was out of town on vacation.
She was still carrying the “safety director” badge and radio the night of Aug. 1 when city and state water officials were scrambling over whether to issue a warning about the presence of the toxin microcystin in the city’s water following an algae bloom in Lake Erie. Ms. Ward said Mr. Reinbolt was already handling the emergency by phone and she returned the radio and badge to him the next morning. Ms. Ward said she was the one who issued the news release advising the public not to drink the water, but did so after being so ordered by the mayor.
Ms. Ward’s salary of $77,000 and a big office on the 22nd floor of Government Center is a contrast to her early years that were marked by raising five children as a sometimes single mom and someone who was struggling to pay bills.
“There have been struggles. I want to get to the point of having savings because we never had a savings account. It was always paycheck to paycheck,” Ms. Ward said.
Ms. Ward was the council aide to then-Councilman Collins for three years, developing a relationship with him that prompted him to bring her with him to the mayor’s office when he was sworn in on Jan. 2.
The administration has drawn some criticism for spotty communications during the three-day water crisis, and now the mayor is planning to split the two jobs and hire a new public information officer.
“We didn’t do as good as we should have. Can we do better, yes, and one way to do that is not to have people stretched so thin,” Mr. Reinbolt said.
Mr. Reinbolt said the administration is living with the commitment Mr. Collins made to trim the size of the mayor’s office, but that the need for a full-time PIO has become more pressing, given all the emergencies the Collins administration has faced in just its first eight months.
“I’m probably going to look for someone who has more the traditional PIO background,” Ms. Ward said.
Ms. Ward’s salary will not be reduced because she is picking up some responsibilities of an administrative assistant position that is being eliminated. The range for an executive assistant is $60,500 to $92,500, while the range for the public information officer is $48,500 to $68,000. She said the elimination of a position will mean the PIO appointment should cost no more than an additional $5,000 or $10,000.
“That is more in line with what my skill is as well, being a liaison possibly to council, working with the legislative process referrals,” Ms. Ward said. She and Mr. Reinbolt said the PIO would improve the response to media information requests and also have more time to hound directors for responses to reporters’ questions.
“I think everyone knows I wear a lot of hats,” Ms. Ward said. “I don’t want the next person to go through what I went through and get burned out. There were times I felt that way. Look at all the things we’ve been through. This isn’t what I envisioned the first seven months to be like.”
She also updates the city’s Web site and the city’s social media presence, which includes daily posting of a random scenic snapshot of the city on Twitter.
Several council members complained that they received little direct information from the mayor’s office during the three days when an advisory not to drink the city’s water created a run on bottled water and made national news. And some journalists have admitted privately to finding Ms. Ward not as quick to return telephone calls as they were used to with a previous spokesman.
But Ms. Ward said she was swamped during the water crisis with requests from the local and national media, and was often in meetings in which she was unable to pick up the phone.
Ms. Ward stepped into the role as the mayor’s PIO after someone who was already a trained public relations professional, Jen Sorgenfrei, held the job under former Mayor Mike Bell.
Another of Ms. Ward’s predecessors was Brian Schwartz, who served for two years under Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. Mr. Schwartz came to the mayor’s office with six years of PIO experience with the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, a tenure that included the 2001 terrorist attacks and a regional power outage.
Mr. Schwartz said he doesn’t know if Ms. Ward gave advice that was not taken, but said, “I was disappointed in the level and quality of communications coming out of the mayor’s office. I thought the updates should have been more regular, and I really thought the administration missed the opportunity to educate the public about the water crisis.”
Mark Luetke, president of FLS marketing firm, said most mayoral PIOs have been people who brought professional qualifications along with them, “which I think is a good thing.”
Because he was out of Toledo during the crisis, he declined to comment on the communications performance of the mayor’s office.
The unflappable Ms. Ward, who can sometimes be seen grabbing a smoke outside Government Center downtown, said she is a perfectionist, and puts a lot of hours into her job, starting from home about 6 a.m. and finishing at 10 or 11 p.m., again at home.
Ms. Ward, 54, grew up in South Toledo, attending Bowsher High School and graduating from Maumee High School. In 1979, she earned a certificate of secretarial science from the former Southwyck Business College, a precursor to Stautzenberger College.
She worked for six years for the Zepf Center as a receptionist, ending as executive secretary after about six years. Divorced from her first husband, she quit to take care of her family, earning money from jobs she did at home and babysitting.
At one point in her life, she, her husband, and children were evicted from a mobile home in Holland.
“I arranged for the kids to stay at other places until we could find another place, which we did. We weren’t homeless that long, about a week or two,” Ms. Ward said, a story she related at last year’s Tent City gathering for the homeless.
She acknowledged a series of bounced check charges and debt judgments from 1987 through the early 2000s, and even spent one night in jail.
“A lot of it’s related to medical bills” she said of the court judgments.
In 1989, Ms. Ward pleaded guilty to petty theft, a first-degree misdemeanor, that she said was a reduced charge from a bounced check. After she admitted to the court that she had tried to make money by buying lottery tickets, the judge made her attend gamblers anonymous classes.
“I moved on from there. It was another learning experience. You can’t wish your way out of problems,” Ms. Ward said she learned. “I’m finally at the point where I can say I’m stable.”
Mayor Collins said Ms. Ward divulged her court record to him when he interviewed her for the council job in 2011. He said everyone deserves a second chance and that Ms. Ward has never made him regret his trust in her.
He said “no task has ever been requested that was not completed soundly and on time.”
“I have the utmost confidence in her ability,” the mayor said. “I find she is a very intelligent and compassionate individual and very dedicated.”
He said Ms. Ward works 70 hours a week.
She and Miguel Roman, her husband of 15 years, in 2009 bought a house at 420 Baden St. in hopes of being urban homesteaders. Though they acquired it for nothing, they owed back taxes on it, and they were unable to get ahead of the repeated burglaries.
“The house needed a lot more than we could do,” Ms. Ward said. When they showed up one day and found a beautiful wood divider and bookcase taken from the first floor, they walked away.
“We learned that urban homesteading is not quite as easy as you think it would be,” she said.
Ms. Ward’s evolution into a respected member of the Toledo political and media establishment began when she got a job with the Convergys call center in 1999. That exposed her to the Internet and political message boards.
She created the political blog Glass City Jungle, which didn’t earn her much money, but she began to make appearances on local public affairs TV shows.
“I never considered myself a journalist. I considered myself a citizen-journalist because I didn’t have any formal background,” Ms. Ward said. “A mom with a blog.”
She also became a source of information to local political candidates.
“She was one of my closest advisers,” said Aji Green, who was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Toledo Board of Education in 2009. “She knew the community, she studied the issues. She knew what the people were concerned about.”
Ms. Ward worked part-time for the Toledo Free Press as a copy editor and occasional writer from December, 2008, until she was hired by council in 2011, according to Editor in Chief Michael Miller. She remains on the masthead as “Staff Writer Emeritus.”
Ms. Ward beat out some 300 other people in winning the council aide job, which paid $21.52 per hour.
She reported to Councilmen Lindsay Webb, George Sarantou, and Mr. Collins. Her job was to return constituent calls, research topics, and staff committee meetings and council meetings.
“I had no issue with her. I’d say she came in ready to go,” Clerk of Council Jerry Dendinger said.