Toledo Mayor Mike Bell pushed back Monday against criticism from two former mayors that he mishandled the firings of two top officials in the city's scandal-plagued neighborhoods department.
"I am not a status-quo mayor," Mr. Bell said. He later added, "If you lose faith in what a director is doing, you've got to make a change."
His statements were made just moments after two former mayors -- Jack Ford and Carty Finkbeiner -- defended two officials whom Mr. Bell fired last week from top positions within the Department of Neighborhoods: Kattie Bond, the department's former director, and Mike Badik, former housing commissioner. Both had served during Mr. Ford's and Mr. Finkbeiner's administrations. They were fired amid an ongoing city investigation into alleged bid-rigging, favoritism, and poor oversight in the neighborhoods department.
The ex-mayors accused Mayor Bell of using the two as scapegoats to diffuse media attention.
"I've never known either of them to have a dishonest bone in their body," Mr. Ford said during a Monday morning news conference inside city hall. "I could not remain silent without giving my view, two cents, on the issue."
"It's time for Mike to be a man and start doing his job and taking responsibility," said Mr. Finkbeiner, who was succeeded by Mr. Bell as mayor in 2010.
Mr. Finkbeiner said he has known Mr. Badik for 40 years and Ms. Bond for 20 and they had always been conscientious and honest. He said they should not have been fired because the alleged wrongdoing is thought to have been conducted by lower-level employees. He further criticized Mayor Bell for keeping former Housing Manager Jody Prude and Rehab Specialist Toni Thomas on the city payroll, even though the two employees have been more directly implicated in allegations of misdeeds. Ms. Prude and Ms. Thomas have been suspended without pay for 10 days and demoted to positions in the Department of Public Service.
Mayor Bell's actions could affect morale among city employees, Mr. Finkbeiner said.
"How do you build spirit ... if you're trying to make a scapegoat of individuals whose integrity you do not question?" Mr. Finkbeiner said.
In response, Mayor Bell defended his choice to fire Ms. Bond and Mr. Badik, and said he did it to move the department forward and avoid risking the loss of federal housing funds.
"Although I like Kattie Bond and I like Mike Badik, I felt we needed new leadership," he said. "Kicking the can down the road is not an acceptable practice for this administration. I dealt with it."
The mayor said he does not begrudge Mr. Ford and Mr. Finkbeiner their opinions, but ultimately it is he who makes the decisions.
"The bottom line is I make the call here, and I'm prepared to make that call," Mr. Bell said. "At the end of the day it's going to be what I decide because I'm the mayor."
He also defended his decision to suspend and demote Ms. Prude and Ms. Thomas, who agreed to their punishment last week just prior to an administrative disciplinary hearing. Mr. Bell said he did what he thought was in the best interest of the city, and that his decision was based on the advice of legal counsel.
The Blade first reported in November that federally funded contracts awarded by the department to rehabilitate houses sometimes did not go to the lowest bidder, that sealed bids were opened without city officials present, and that contract documents were changed after they were opened. Contractors alleged cronyism, bid-rigging, and improper sharing of sealed bid data.
Ms. Prude was responsible for approving most of those questionable bids.
Following that story, Toledo City Council held a hearing and the Bell administration proposed changes to bid procedures and a 45-day review of the neighborhoods department.
Then Ms. Thomas, who had been accused by a contractor of steering him to a subcontractor but telling him not to list him on city paperwork, left a voice-mail message for the contractor telling him that Ms. Bond wanted him to recant his statements to The Blade.
That voice-mail message prompted the city to begin a formal investigation. The city has acknowledged that the FBI and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are conducting their own probes.
More recently, The Blade reported that an unlicensed contractor with a long criminal history -- Gregory M. Harris -- continued to receive work on city rehab projects even after his daughter, who was vice president of the company, was arrested in 2009 at a house being renovated by his company, Harris Builders. Police found 55 pounds of marijuana in the bed of the daughter's company truck.
Today, Harris Builders is no longer on the city's list of contractors eligible to work on federally funded rehab projects. But a new company, GM Harris Builders, is on the list. The firm is owned by Gregory Harris's son of the same name and Gregory Harris, Sr.'s business partner, Nick Batt, according to city documents and filings with the Ohio secretary of state's office.
Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 419-724-6272.