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If the Toledo mayor and city council were a married couple, now would be a good time to call in a counselor.
The antagonism between Mayor Mike Bell and the 12-member council is so bad, some are nostalgic for Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.
“One advantage of working with Carty Finkbeiner is you’d be adamantly in opposition to each other and then once that issue was done, you’d be able to return to the table to talk about the next issue,” Democratic Councilman Lindsay Webb said Thursday, one day after Mayor Bell mayor refused to wait for council to act on a proposed $7 million Community Development Block Grant action plan.
“With the Bell administration, the reality is the dissatisfaction he experiences with council from time to time builds on top of itself and he hasn't really taken the time to let some of this stuff go so we can continue to work in the best interests of the citizens,” Ms. Webb said.
Mr. Bell walked out of a council meeting Tuesday after exchanging words with council leaders, who complained they were being kept in the dark and denied the opportunity to amend the city’s application for the block grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which provides money to community development corporations, homeless shelters, and soup kitchens in Toledo.
The mayor submitted the plan to HUD the next day, a day before council passed an ordinance making changes to the plan.
Whether the mayor accepts council’s changes when the block grant is released by HUD could prompt another power showdown.
It’s not the first time the mayor and council have fired shots across each other’s bow. It promises to get tenser as the mayoral election approaches.
According to the plain-speaking Mr. Bell, city council doesn’t fully understand its place in the governance of Toledo. He said the mayor’s job is to get things done, and council’s job is to approve the expenditures and approve the legislation to let that happen.
“All they can do is say yea or nay. They don’t have any ability to move anything around,” Mr. Bell said of the CDBG one-year action plan.
He said he left council chambers because he was told by council President Paula Hicks-Hudson to stop talking, a position he said he respects.
“That’s her wheelhouse. The council meeting is the council meeting. The mayor is a guest. I respect that portion of it,” Mr. Bell said. He noted that Mr. Finkbeiner almost never went to council meetings, and former Mayor Jack Ford went rarely.
Councilman Adam Martinez said the mayor’s go-it-alone style has gotten his administration in trouble. As examples, he cited proposals to develop the former Southwyck Shopping Center in South Toledo and the vacant Berdan Building in Toledo’s Warehouse District.
Both development proposals collapsed when the details emerged and council members and the public started raising objections.
“From a policy standpoint, we need to be a little more intentional,” Mr. Martinez said. “A lot of times, council feels bullied or cornered."
“It’s an ongoing issue,” Mr. Martinez said. “We understand it’s a strong-mayor form of government. It doesn’t have to be a strong-personality form of government. It comes down to communications on both sides.”
Toledo moved on from city-manager government in 1992 when city voters agreed to adopt a strong-mayor form of government.
When he ran for office, Mr. Bell said he would act in the same way that a chief executive officer behaves with a board of directors. Both the mayor and council say it hasn’t worked out that way. Council members say no chief executive officer would speak to its board as arrogantly as they believe the mayor and his staff have spoken to them. The mayor believes no corporate board of directors would give marching orders to its president and chief executive officer the way he believes council does to him.
Other examples of their recent disputes include:
● The administration closed the Northwest District Police station on Sylvania Avenue in 2012 over the objections of council, which turned around and inserted $100,000 in this year’s budget to open and staff the office. The mayor said the administration will continue to follow its own police-deployment plan and he will not use that money to reopen the office.
● Council, at the urging of District 1 Councilman Tyrone Riley, approved $62,000 to remove a series of brick pillars that surround the Roosevelt Pool. Mayor Bell said that’s a waste of scarce resources and said he plans to spend the money on programming for summer recreation.
Both incidents have left both council and the mayor fuming over perceived disrespect of their roles.
Ironically, one of the candidates in this year's race for mayor is calling for a return to city-manager government.
Alan Cox, a neighborhood development specialist and the president of one of Toledo’s eight city employee unions, said none of the strong mayors has shown the management expertise that a city manager would have to have, and said if he’s elected, he’ll launch a campaign to put a city-manager question on the next available ballot.
Former Mayor Finkbeiner acknowledged he didn’t go to council meetings the way Mr. Bell does. But he would listen in from his office on the 22nd floor of Government Center in case there was a need for a response from him. “There should be a divergence of opinion about how you can best provide a service for a given area,” Mr. Finkbeiner said. “There shouldn’t be 13 people saying ‘Right on, right on’ right down the line because there’s somebody then who’s simply not making much of a contribution in Toledo, Ohio.”
Council members say this mayor doesn’t seem to value collaboration with them. Others have accused Mr. Bell of not being transparent.
Councilman Joe McNamara said the mayor took off on a trip to China without telling council members he was going. “That didn’t sit well,” said Mr. McNamara, a Democrat who is running to replace Mr. Bell.
As a political independent, Mr. Bell finds himself in a politically adversarial position with Democrats who hold eight of the 12 council seats.
Council’s desire to weigh in on the mayor’s projects conflicts with Mr. Bell’s preference to keep economic development activities out of the limelight, as he believes businesses prefer.
“Whenever you’re out there trying to do things, not every business we’re involved with wants to go through that whole dog-and-pony show with everyone getting involved. You can run people off. All we’re trying to do is create energy. Whenever it’s appropriate for the council to come in, we’ve never fought that,” the mayor said.
Contact Tom Troy at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6058.