Finkbeiner is 2007 Newsmaker of the YearWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
It is tempting to describe Toledo’s current economic development challenges as “growing pains,” but that implies expansion and progress. Competition from neighboring suburbs and uncertain city leadership, often questioned for its ability to collaborate with the private sector, have curbed the city’s population and corporate investment.
One of the benefits of the strong mayor system is blunt accountability. We expect vision, follow-through and leadership from our mayor; that does not mean perfection or a series of rainbows and pony rides, but it does imply an expectation of strong guidance, wisdom and forward thinking.
The Toledo Free Press inaugural recipient for Toledo Newsmaker of the Year, City of Toledo Mayor Carleton S. Finkbeiner, was a perpetual headline maker in 2007, a constant presence in media, blogs and water-cooler conversation. There were several people with demonstrable impact on our news and culture, but Finkbeiner set a tone for one step up, two steps back that personified many people’s frustrations with the city.
The slow evolution from manufacturing to green collar technology that represents our city’s best hope for salvation must be pushed and pulled by a champion effort, by someone of great passion and force of will. When voters put Finkbeiner back in office two years ago, he was the person many believed they were voting for. But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to the alternative energy forum; a series of Finkbeiner’s personal and professional blunders have distracted the conversation from strategy and action to a comedy of errors that arguably are paralyzing the mayor’s office from getting the results the city desperately needs. People are crying out for leadership and direction, an end to squabbling and petty squalls. Pieces of the economic development puzzle are scattered, requiring a lucid vision and strong hand. Are we discussing long-term plans and collaboration? Sometimes. But the litany of silliness and amateurish public relations bungles threatens to eclipse what progress has been made.
In choosing our first Newsmaker of the Year, we tear a page from Time magazine and its approach that this designation is not an endorsement, a good Samaritan award or even an honor. It is a step-back look at who played the biggest role in setting the tone for the city’s year; good and bad, positive and negative.
Finkbeiner’s dedication to Toledo is not in question; we know the man loves the city. But an examination of 2007 shows that while his heart beats with Toledo pride, his mind is operating on a wavelength that mystifies even his most ardent supporters.
When an amateur recall effort gains more than 15,000 (unverified) signatures, a radio station makes criticizing the mayor its major mission; polls show plummeting approval ratings, and a Web site (www.cafepress.com/cartysucks) sells clothing openly mocking the mayor, it’s time to take a breath and look at how Finkbeiner can effectively do his job during these next two crucial years. This is not a call for resignation or recall; it is a measured, respectful demand for practical and attainable change, a plea for the mayor to think about his work, his legacy and this proud city. We have potential, but to cash it in, we need a leader and champion, not a sitcom star.
WSPD-AM 1370 has waged the most open campaign against the mayor. While one might argue how entertaining or interesting the constant drumbeat is, it is short-sighted to blame the station’s primary voices, Fred LeFebvre and Brian Wilson, for firing round after round of shots at the mayor when Finkbeiner is the one handing them round after round of ammunition. WSPD’s choice (Wilson would call it responsibility) to shine a bright light on the mayor has led to some investigative breakthroughs and on-the-fly miscalculations. The zenith of its work was a relentless public discussion of the November levies, even if the ballot results ignored much of that conversation. The nadir was a WSPD reporter involved in a news event (being shut out of a mayoral press conference) self-reporting on the event in a news report and resorting to quoting Wikipedia in his defense.
That early-year incident set an uneasy tone for 2007. Finkbeiner’s spokesman, Brian Schwartz, illegally barred WSPD reporter Kevin Milliken from a Jan. 9 news conference because he and Finkbeiner considered the reporter to be a talk show host and not a member of the media. This act of “civil disobedience,” as the mayor’s office bizarrely described it, was repeated the next day when Milliken, with Wilson and LeFebvre, forced open the door to the mayor’s conference room as Schwartz tried to close it from the other side. WSPD sued the city and won access for Milliken, plus its court costs.
It was a monumental act of mayoral arrogance and defiance that wasted resources and proved nothing. That impulsiveness, apparently unchecked by anyone on the mayor’s staff, is what continually got Finkbeiner in trouble. In January, Finkbeiner wrote a letter that said he and his wife Amy were treated poorly by Ottawa County deputies during a prison visit to see an incarcerated relative. In his letter, Finkbeiner reportedly wrote, “Having been in public office for almost two decades, I recognize governmental arrogance when I see it,” but if that was true at the time, it seems Finkbeiner lost that recognition within weeks.
His year was marked with odd, grandstanding choices that gained little and cost immeasurable political capital. Finkbeiner pressured Toledo nightclub Gator’z Bar & Grill to cancel a Ying Yang Twins concert in an act of overt censorship and racism, apparently publicly invoking Chief of Police Mike Navarre’s involvement before he involved Navarre. Finkbeiner showed up at Hotel SeaGate May 9, media in tow, to cite the hotel as a “public nuisance” for plumbing problems and cleanliness issues. Neither of those moments contributed to a “business-friendly” atmosphere; neither did a subsequent grab for business from private ambulance services or a foolish call for a café to be built on the MLK drawbridge, which, as a drawbridge, is inherently inhospitable to stationary businesses.
In August, Finkbeiner unleashed the year’s biggest media flap when, on two consecutive business days, he locked his dog, Scout, in his car during hot weather, once in a handicapped spot. Getting caught going into the weekend was bad enough; getting caught again coming out of the weekend was a stunning act of disregard for law and humane treatment of his most loyal and true companion.
In July, Finkbeiner made news for a media-staged tantrum accusing Wood County officials of “poaching” and “pirating” business from Toledo.
The distractions took a toll. In September, a phone survey by Stan Odesky showed the mayor’s approval rating at 36.6 percent.
“He’s at the bottom of where he could be,” Odesky said.
Not so fast, Stan.
At the beginning of the year, COSI, CitiFest and the Erie Street Market were touchstones of the mayor’s agenda for Downtown entertainment. Today, two of the three are out of business and the market is reeling, desperate for support. The ongoing back-and-forth blame game between the mayor and CitiFest is another example of Finkbeiner’s inability to clearly and decisively communicate any accountability or admission of responsibility.
The mayor closed out the year with two “news releases” that will go into the “Foot-in-Mouth Hall of Fame.” After a deadly house fire killed a mother and three children, the mayor shot off an angry news release all but accusing Toledo Edison of murder and demanding an end to cold-weather turnoffs, despite the fact that the account in question was not turned off because of a delinquent payment. Within a week, he threatened “World War III” with Columbia Gas of Ohio if the company dared relocate outside of Toledo’s borders. Both missives were hot-headed, irrational and unprofessional, a trifecta of adjectives that describes much of the mayor’s 2007.
The world is watching
Ironically, as the internal confusion and distractions multiplied, the outside world took a look at Toledo and bestowed international honors. In the May 26 issue of The Economist, Toledo was included with high-tech success stories. Newsweek and Wall Street Journal ran similar stories. fDi Magazine, a publication of the Financial Times of London, called Toledo “The Most Business Friendly City” in North America and one of the “Top 10 Cities of the Future.”
America’s Promise named Toledo one of the “100 Best Communities for Young People” in February. In September, the National Conference of Mayors decided Toledo has one of the Top Five Best Tasting Drinking Waters in America. Most famously, the mayor and several local leaders flew to London for a competition that judged Toledo one of the world’s “Most Liveable Cities.”
Can Finkbeiner rein in his temper, and monarch approach to governing and help the city cash in on these accolades?
In naming Finkbeiner our 2007 Newsmaker of the Year, we remind the mayor of his duty to lead through wisdom, not coercion. We need calm, steady decisions and vision, not a constant comedy of errors that drowns out the most dramatic of accomplishments.
Finkbeiner has two years left in office to make news. Those 24 months are going to melt away like icicles on the crumbling infrastructure of the MLK drawbridge. This is a plea and challenge to the mayor to think about Toledo’s future and his legacy, and to start making headlines that grow jobs, develop the city and silence critics. For Toledo’s sake, let’s hope Finkbeiner’s 2008 offers more triumphs and fewer fiascoes.