I asked former Mayor Donna Owens how she thought Mayor Mike Collins had handled the water crisis. Her answer surprised me because I know she thought highly of former Mayor Mike Bell. She said: “Actually, I think he did an admirable job ... calm, cool, collected, and precise.” I asked her what concerns her about the water crisis, going forward. She said two things, one small-bore and one large scale: the location of the intake point. And years of procrastination on updating our water facility and controlling the pollution of Lake Erie. “Look at the map,” she said, “that intake location just seems problematic.” As for the procrastination, she said: “Politicians take too long to move on issues. They tend to overthink and overtalk.”
I asked former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner how he thinks Mayor Collins has done. He said: “I cannot see anything to criticize in Mike’s handling of the crisis.” But then he said an interesting thing. He said that’s not really the test. He said the test is how the mayor handles the water problem going forward. Mr. Finkbeiner’s not convinced the answer is more money. He told me the city has spent “$400 million buckos” to improve the water treatment facility, and it didn’t prevent this fiasco. Mr. Finkbeiner said that he would want to do two things were he in Mr. Collins’ shoes: One, he would want to see all the logs from the water plant for the last 90 days. What did we know and when did we know it? A water supply is not compromised overnight. Second, he would want to bring in some new blood: young, bright engineers from cities that do “best practices” with water. Maybe Indianapolis, maybe Grand Rapids, maybe cities in the East. He said our city lacks fresh thinking, and it is short of engineering know-how.
Finally, I asked Mayor Collins how he thought he did in the crisis. He turned the question to how his team and the citizenry did. And his answer was: Well, exceptionally well. His team, top to bottom, he said, gave untold hours and was utterly dedicated. He said his chemist at the water plant refused to go home and rest when he told her to. He said the entire staff at the water plant performed with total professionalism. No one out there messed up, he insisted. On the contrary, their vigilance spotted this problem early and saved a lot of people from getting sick. He was also moved by the spirit of neighborliness throughout the city. He took the governor to the Central Catholic distribution point, and felt the governor saw “the real Toledo.” He said this crisis “made us stronger.”
I think that’s only true if we don’t forget, learn, and change.
I sat for an hour with the mayor and his chief of staff, Bob Reinbolt, and top aide and spokesman, Lisa Ward. They told me Oregon has no secret formula or procedure that we don’t and that the algae bloom could have happened in Oregon or Cleveland. It could also happen to us again. Ms. Ward said that it was she and public utilities director Edward Moore who made the initial call to shut the water supply down.
The mayor said two good things came of the crisis: One is that there is now one agreed upon scientific protocol for testing the water. Another is that the health of Lake Erie will now get some attention. “Up until now, it’s been mostly symbolic.” He said the citizens must rise up and pressure the legislature and the Congress to save the lake. He added that we need a group like Mothers Against Drunk Driving — that uncompromising — to establish zero tolerance of pesticides and dumping of animal waste. He’d like to see a conference on saving the lake at UT to galvanize the community.
I also saw the mayor Sunday, outside the emergency command center. I said to him, “You have been tested.” He said, “You are right about that.” But so has his team. Together they have weathered the winter, the death of two firefighters, and now an ecological disaster, or near disaster — and a PR and marketing hit that will set us back a decade. We had one big thing to offer the world: fresh water.
And while crisis has bonded the mayor and his team, there is also the danger that it will blind them and insulate them. I hope they will reach out to former Toledo mayors, other mayors of the region, and business leaders in the coming days and months. Let’s all stay on this. Save the lake. Save Toledo’s good name.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.