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Published: Wednesday, 9/15/2010

Bell's secret trip

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell got elected last year largely because of his promises of transparency and team-building. Today, though, the team consists of private-sector entrepreneurs and the transparency is that provided by a one-way mirror.

The mayor is in China today, leading a small delegation that is trying to drum up investment in northwest Ohio. That's a good idea; if a Chinese business creates jobs in Toledo, no one will begrudge the few thousand tax dollars the trip costs.

But keeping the trip secret - even from members of City Council - until the mayor was on his way to the airport was not a good idea. It raises troubling questions about his management style.

Candidate Bell claimed he wasn't a politician and pledged to conduct city business differently from the way it had been done. Toledo voters responded to his candor and openness by giving him the keys to the 22nd floor of One Government Center. Those qualities served him well during last winter's city budget crisis.

Mayor Bell hasn't done anything to put his reputation as a nonpolitician in jeopardy. But he's either been getting bad advice recently or hasn't been listening to good advice, especially about transparency.

The China trip is a case in point.

Traveling with the mayor are Dean Monske, the deputy mayor for external affairs, and four area businessmen, including trip organizer Scott Prephan, a real estate developer. Mr. Bell apparently consulted the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority about three sites available for development.

Otherwise, the mayor's office kept everyone in the dark about the trip except City Council President Wilma Brown, who says she didn't mention it to her colleagues because she thought they already knew.

They should have known. Why Mayor Bell chose not to consult council members Rob Ludeman and Joe McNamara is especially mysterious: As chairman and vice chairman of council's economic development committee, they could have provided valuable insights. The mayor's failure to seek their input is more likely to drive a wedge between him and council than to encourage teamwork.

It also would have been useful to consult experts at the state level who regularly plan and take part in economic development expeditions overseas. The Ohio Department of Development led a trip to China in June that the city could have taken part in but didn't - another team-building opportunity wasted.

Who benefits from the secrecy in which this trip was shrouded? Not the city. Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat's suggestion that the administration chose "not to toot our own horn" by announcing the trip beforehand insults Toledoans' intelligence.

Absent more-solid information, citizens could conclude that the chief beneficiaries are the businessmen who arranged the trip, are accompanying Mayor Bell, and are paying part of his tab.

Businessmen prefer to work in the shadows; that gives them a competitive advantage. But public officials are supposed to do the public's business in the light, where everyone can see.

Mayor Bell needs to remember Candidate Bell's promises, and come back into the light. An elected official who forgets his promises risks losing the public trust, without which he cannot govern.



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