Like Joe McNamara, who addressed this august assembly last week, Mike Bell knows his audience.
(The previous week, Councilman McNamara came out and informed the crowd – in each of whose hand was a beer – “I’m a big fan of beer.” Everyone knows Bell likes social beverages, but he’s been at it longer than McNamara.)
Bell's turn on the darkened stage of the Ottawa Tavern (makes it tough for the opposition video trackers) in the weekly “Political Party” series came Tuesday night. He wasted no time addressing an issue that obviously is on a lot of minds – why did he impose exigent circumstances on Toledo’s public employee unions, and why did he back Senate Bill 5?
Bell, a political independent, is running for re-election. The primary, in which seven are competing plus one write-in, is Sept. 10.
The mayor started by taking us back to the start of his term, early 2010, saying he assembled the city union presidents along with area business leaders with the intent of brainstorming a solution to the city’s looming $48 million deficit.
According to Bell, he was told by the unions, “the way you do this, you lay people off.”
“I said, ‘how does that help the people.’”
“They said, ‘it’s your problem. It’s your problem.’”
As a firefighter who was hired in 1980 and then laid off in a financial crisis a few months later, Bell didn’t like the mass layoff solution. Anyway, he knew he’d get blamed and attacked either way.
“I was a firefighter that was laid off for five months. There’s no dignity in a pink slip.”
Bell said "exigent circumstances" and Senate Bill 5 helped him leverage concessionary contracts out of nine city unions, enabling the city to keep providing basically the same services with no layoffs and no new taxes.
Toledo is "still fragile," he said, even though annual tax revenues have rebounded by $20 million. Revenues are still not where they were in 2007.
Bell - whose father, Norm Bell, sat a front table - went on to say that he supported Senate Bill 5 (which would have severely weakened the public employee unions) because it initially was the same as “exigent circumstances.”
(Exigent circumstances was a one-time opportunity, because Toledo was facing economic crisis, to rewrite union contracts. Senate Bill 5 rewrote state law to permanently reduce the bargaining power of the unions. Bell says that was “piling on,” and he didn’t like it, but he had already endorsed Senate Bill 5 and he didn’t want to change sides in the middle of the campaign.)
Bell says he faced a $48 million deficit because, “previous administrations should have understood there was a storm coming. They chose to ignore it. That’s why I got the storm.”
The mayor said he’s been having conversations with the suburban mayors with whom he is on a first-name basis to work out a regional water agreement. That was a news flash. Other mayors would not have kept it so quiet. "This thing is going to happen," he said.
Bell feels the crisis was not well understood.“The hardest part of getting my message across is not across the nation,” said the mayor, who’s been interviewed by Forbes and National Journal, and others. “It’s in Toledo. People can’t seem to get it. We were in a bad way.”
The mayor’s give and take with the Ottawa Tavern crowd, which has been described as a “hipster” group, was lively and knowing, and often broke out into laughs.
When one female questioner asked about Bell's stance on gangs, he noted the Blade's police reporter sitting next to her: "ask Taylor [Dungjen] if there's anything else she wants to know."
Topics covered included:
* the Marina District. Buying it back from Dashing Pacific in three years would be "pure stupidity."
* his willingness to resume a personal life. "If I thought another candidate could do this I'd step aside."
* his authenticity as a son of Toledo. "I'm a product of Toledo probably more than anybody that's running for mayor right now." (It would be interesting to see Bell and Anita Lopez and Mike Collins match their tough-neighborhood stories, Bell in Stickney, Lopez and Collins in Broadway.)
* the 17-percent increase in crime in 2012. Police strength had fallen. Bell says he's hired 182 officers. Now he says crime is down "year to date" by 17 percent.* future political plans. "When I'm done running for mayor I'm done running for anything the rest of my life."
Up next Tuesday (and last in the series) is Democrat Anita Lopez.
We suggested Anita’s campaign manager try to get the tavern to aim a spotlight at the stage.For running commentary by the Twitterati, check out @taylordungjen, @paigestrancar, @IgnazioMessina, @ForwardFalcon, @Nolan_Rosenkrans, @otavern, @the22ndfloor, @jadammaguire, @Sheena_OFA, @nicollej, @LornestoToledo, @brienstrancar, and me, @TomFTroy.