EDITOR’S NOTE: Fresh off his “Collins Cares Celebration,” Toledo Mayor D. Michael (Mike) Collins sat down in his new office with City Paper to reflect on what he’s learned so far (60-plus days and counting) and what his ideas are to move the city forward. Mayor Collins discussed a range of issues, from communications and entrepreneurism to water quality. But like any good Irishman, he slipped in a story about the old sod and an Irish pub….
Trim, an Irish town northwest of Dublin, was visited some time ago by now Toledo Mayor D. Michael Collins and his wife, Sandy Drabik, while on a trip visiting his family in Ireland. A table of Trinity College students invited the mayor and his wife to join them. One young lady asked them, “‘Where are you from?’” (The mayor makes sure to pronounce it froam.) The South End native told her where. “‘You must live in one of the most remarkable cities in the United States. The way your city turned out for [Peter Paul] Rubens. Rubens only had two venues, Boston and Toledo. Boston was a failure and in Toledo it was smashing success. So that tells me something about Toledo…’”
The young woman was referring to the Toledo Museum of Art and its championing of Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens in a 1994 exhibition. This speaks to (a) the museum’s lasting international renown and (b) the city’s reception of an artist whose themes are anchored in the Counter-Reformation. Strange coincidence, perhaps, that a city accustomed to economic stagnation once welcomed a man whose commissioned works espouse a kind of ecclesiastical stagnation.
But, two months in, D. Michael Collins has already broken new ground in the mayoral office suite atop One Government Center. “I’m doing something that no mayor’s ever done in this city,” he said. “I have a computer in my office.” He savors our surprise. “I answer my own emails and I do my own work on it.”
Disconcerting as it may be, with this statement, Mayor Collins has already established himself as a relative paragon of progress at City Hall. Counter to the administrations preceding him, Collins grasps that efficient communication is a fundamental adhesive that binds a community.
“My generation has a concept of communication that’s not consistent today with the generations that will be creating what Toledo will be for the future,” he said. It’s reassuring that he realizes this.
Among his ideas to improve communication between the city and its residents is a 311 system to address various city departmental issues (non-emergencies, potholes and public utilities issues, for example) through a central operator after residents report problems.
There’s also the proposed “See It. Click It. Fix It.” smartphone, computer and Facebook app. “When there’s an issue, be it a pothole or whatever it might be … you see it, you snap it and you send it,” the mayor said. The app wires the picture message to the department charged with “fixing” the sender’s particular issue.
And while employing technology to address Toledo’s perennial pothole dilemma illustrates the man’s populist bravado, his insistence on reclaiming neighborhood thruways from eroding asphalt hints at just one prescription for remedying the city’s spate of blight. “We have to make sure that the infrastructure within a neighborhood is there,” he said. “Neighborhoods will never be safe until they’re clean.”
For Collins, a 27-year Toledo Police Department veteran, public safety and maintenance happens on a neighborhood level. His proposed division of the city into eight police patrol sectors focuses on facilitating communication and, ultimately, trust between police officers and residents.
“85 percent of what a police officer does is social work,” he said. “You communicate with the people that live in that neighborhood, the business people, the residents, the kids,” he went on. “For example, tickets were a means of communication. They were like IOUs. No ticket today, information tomorrow.”
He told a story from his days in uniform about a car that ran a red light at Bancroft and Franklin. Collins and his partner pulled over the car. The driver, admitting that he ran the light, blamed it on the car’s shoddy brakes. “I said, ‘OK, I’ll tell you what, if you promise me in front of your family that you’ll get your brakes fixed, you get no ticket,” Collins recalled. The man made the promise and Collins let him go. “By me letting him go that one time, it created a trust.”
A month or so later, the dispatcher radioed Collins and told him a guy on the line wanted to talk specifically to him. “So, I called and the guy on the other end of the phone says, ‘Before we start I just want to tell you I fixed my brakes.’” The man continued: “‘You had a homicide the other night. The guy that’s responsible, … this is where he’s at. I think he’s got the gun, too.’” A few officers, including Collins, went to the neighborhood and waited for the homicide suspect to hop in his car. “We make the arrest, we get the gun, and now we have basically solved a homicide. That’s what I consider police work,” Collins said.
His brand of police work’s hallmark – tactful vigilance – has, in varied senses, informed each of his different careers with the city. From his time enforcing the laws as a police officer to his nearly six-year stint making the laws as a City Council member, Collins’s eyes were always peeled, his ear, glued to the ground, and he’s demonstrated little reserve for asking questions. Now, as mayor, he’s in a prime position to deploy his ever-discerning eye.
Already, he’s trimmed his office staff from 11 to eight. He’s also eliminated former mayor Mike Bell’s four intern positions. His office will cost nearly $300,000 less to operate than his predecessor. At the same time, under Collins’s proposed 2014 budget, the mayor is paid less than the city’s economic development director, reflecting the importance he’s placed on that position.
Economic Green Light
Although Collins’s tenure as the city’s chief executive is just over two months old, his legacy is already taking shape. Just a month after taking office, ProMedica announced a plan to relocate its corporate headquarters downtown.
“You can be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I immediately gravitated [to the ProMedica deal]. I basically said, ‘Where do I sign up?’”
Collins even insisted he’ll welcome the health care conglomerate’s green neon trim, endemic to most of its buildings. “I told [ProMedica] I’d love [if they put up the green lighting]. I want it all over the place.”
And while a Pollyannaish attitude toward hastening Downtown Toledo’s rehabilitation is almost requisite for any newly elected mayor, the fact that 700 more people will work downtown gives his optimism a certain palpability.
“The market-rate apartments and lofts are going to fill rapidly because people are going to want to be closer to work,” Collins said, enthused at the notion. “This will provide an opportunity for other businesses to grow.”
“If we can fill that next piece,” he said, “and that’s going to be bringing in a food market, I don’t think that downtown Toledo will ever look the same.”
Of course, Downtown Toledo’s vitality also may hinge on whether the city can maintain the quality of its abundant freshwater supply.
“My number one concern is the quality of water that we have in the southwestern basin of Lake Erie with the algae blooms.” Collins attributed his concern about the city’s water quality to the City of Toledo “taking from our water treatment plant sanitary sewer sludge to the tune of 50,000 tons each year and dumping it over on that man-made island (in the Maumee Bay),” Facility 3.
He addressed the issue when he was still a councilman and “received nothing but resistance from the previous administration,” he said. “The University of Toledo offered to do [a study] for $7,000 and the previous administration said ‘no.’ They would not hear of it. I have been battling with the Ohio EPA and Marcy Kaptur’s office over this.”
And though Collins insists that the city’s waste isn’t the lone factor motivating his concern (citing lake-bound agricultural runoff transported by the Maumee), he’s “not convinced that we are not contributing to a part of that problem.”
A recently released report by the International Joint Commission validates the mayor’s concerns, though the report identifies agribusiness pollution as more culpable for southwestern Lake Erie’s ills than the City of Toledo’s sewage management practices.
“This is going to be a challenge for me because I have to deal with the body of government that I left,” Collins said, referring to city council. “When I was at council, I said I live in a village of 12, that village has but one leper and that leper just so happens to be me. I want no secrets and [Council] is not quite used to that. They’re feeling more comfortable, but they’re not totally used to it yet.”
While accepting duties as a new mayor is rarely without a little turbulence, an inauguration followed quickly by the deaths of two Toledo firefighters, the snowiest winter on record and a plethora of potholes, Collins’s first two months in office have been particularly trying. Thus far, he has handled the tribulations with aplomb. However, the most daunting challenge Collins faces – steering the city into a long-anticipated new age – is more of a riddle with no clear answer. At least he’s looking toward the horizon.
COLLINS ON THE RECORD:
Communication and improving public service:
“The communication with the City of Toledo and the community is extremely important. We are working very aggressively. Instead of calling city hall or the department of public utilities, I want to bring them together. I want to have one system. I want to start the 311 system, which will be capable of operating off of all the formats. You can use social media and, of course, the standard phone. It will [interface] with email, text message, Facebook and things of that nature. And that’s extremely important. I consider that, the communication factor, extremely important to reinforce the entrepreneurial concept.”
“When there’s an issue, be it a pothole or whatever it might be – you see it, you snap it and you send it. It gets routed to the direct area where it has to be. So the sender would then get an immediate message back: ‘We’ve got your issue. We will be addressing it and then it’s followed up.’”
On ProMedica’s move downtown:
“ProMedica invited me out to the corporate headquarters in December, and of course the confidentialities were all over the place. I immediately gravitated, ‘Where can I be in this venture to make sure that it works?’ I was not one to resist this opportunity, but there was some resistance before I was involved, I will tell you now. (Previously), the point was to entertain no discussions as to anything related to Promenade Park. It may not have been a deal-breaker in the end, I can’t tell you because I don’t have the ability to look into that. However, I can tell you that there was a very chilling reception to anything as it related to putting a parking garage in Promenade Park. When we discussed it would be a below ground [garage], I basically said, ‘Where do I sign up? We will make this work.’ I firmly believe that this influx of more than 700 new jobs downtown will be good.”
“None of these people supported me, you know that. I don’t have to spend a whole lot of time in the coat closet to figure some of these things out. But that was then, and this is now. And we’re going to move ahead. My enthusiasm was on the spot that day. I said, ‘I want this to happen. What do you need from the mayor’s office to make this happen? You don’t have to sell me. I’m in.’”
On the city’s revival:
“You’re seeing things going on in Toledo, very gradually, but they’re moving. You’re seeing a new energy going on. Ladies’ basketball at the University of Toledo. Go around the country and find out how many people go to ladies’ basketball at a college level and then tell me about Toledo. The NCAA is coming in March for the women’s tournament. You think they just hit a pinata and Toledo fell out? No, it’s because there are butts in the seats. The reality is that there’s a lot of energy here now.”
COLLINS AT A GLANCE
Political background: Sworn in as mayor Jan. 2, 2014. Earned 57 percent of the vote in defeating incumbent Mike Bell Nov. 5; Toledo City Councilman, 2008-2014
Former job: Toledo cop for 27 years
Family: Three daughters with wife Sandy Drabik. Eight grandchildren
Party: Ran as an independent; enjoyed heavy backing from unions in primary and general election
Education: Libbey High School (1962); B.S. 1975 (Human Resources Management and Natural Sciences), MBA 1998. Both degrees from the University of Toledo
Population: 287,208, 67th largest U.S. city. Take that, Newark (No. 68)!
Employees: 1,700 full-time equivalent workers
General fund budget: $245 million (2014 proposed)