Sunday, July 20, 2014

TFP Column: Politicians, Blame and Credit

(Contrary to all logic and reason, I have decided to put new material up on this blog, but only in the form of the columns that I have done for the Toledo Free Press.  This is done for the benefit of those with time to waste, who likewise do not spend their time reading the website of this award winning weekly newspaper, and I will go back and add efforts that were published earlier this year.)

This particular effort was published on 07/19/2014.
Politicians and political parties in power are usually concerned with taking credit for anything that improves under their watch — even if they have nothing to do with it, or if that improvement amounts to nothing more than a better way to spin the story than has previously existed. Their political enemies, meanwhile, often see it as their mission in life to discover any deterioration in order to raise the specter of fear with regard to such failure, and to assign blame (political and otherwise) for its occurrence.

Blight, however, is not so much a periodic occurrence as it is a constant condition that ebbs and flows with the economic tide. It exists every single day, and on a bipartisan basis. The party in power may carry the responsibility for how much attention it ultimately garners (or doesn’t), but those in the minority bear an comparable responsibility (if not complicity) for attempting to ignore it for as long as they’re able to.

As for the daily newspaper whose recent efforts have brought so much attention to a subject always there, but often obscured, one cannot help but note a few things. First, that while the issue is an enduring one, the inadequacy of prior coverage on this issue is equally long-standing.   Second, that target identification in this case has been followed by little in the way of proposed solutions. Third, and perhaps more telling (if not self-serving), that interest in drawing attention to the city’s lost prestige seemed important only when its own reputation seemed to be going down faster than the Titanic.

It would be easy therefore (and maybe even a little fun) as someone far from the power base wielded by the current administration, to blame Mayor D. Michael Collins and the current City Council for the blight that exists in Toledo. It would, however, be completely wrong to do so. One might find equally misguided amusement in blaming the previous administrations of  Mike Bell, Carty Finkbeiner, Jack Ford and the often lackluster City Councils for a blight issue that’s been around far longer than any of them have served in office.

Just as local political leaders are not the cause of blight in a city, seldom are their actions likely to provide its solution. Overreacting to any temporary media attention that such stories garner, their traditional ham-fisted methods of over-funded studies and emergency regulations are far more likely to leave the city dealing with the long-term unintended consequences of their ill-conceived notions. Such efforts are in fact more likely to prove themselves a greater affliction than the blight they propose to resolve.

So it is (as Toledo Free Press Publisher Tom Pounds recently pointed out) up to local residents and businesses that the city must look to if any long term change can be hoped for. His  “My Toledo, Buy Toledo” initiative may seem a simple thing and, as he says, “a small start”, but as the saying goes: “Every oak tree started out as a couple of nuts who decided to stand their ground.”

Mr. Pounds is therefore to be applauded for this effort, not for its grand scope and scale and comprehensive nature, but in fact for being just the opposite. Not only is such a small grassroots effort, without benefit of taxpayer funding, far more likely to succeed, but not having an attention span tied to a news cycle (or an election cycle), it’s far more likely to be sustainable.

This is not to say that elected officials can or should have no part in this effort, and I would certainly hope that all of them will step forward at some point to show their support for what Mr. Pounds has begun. Whether already business leaders in the community or not, there are roles for them to play as simple as that of looking at the City Charter and removing or waiving any regulations that inhibit direct citizen participation in keeping their own neighborhoods up. Really ambitious ones might even show support by participating in such upkeep efforts, especially in their own districts.

Such an effort, even if it initially appears to be largely symbolic in nature, is about to begin in the private sector. Mr. Pounds rightly points out that there is likely “a very long way to go,” even to begin achieving their goals, but as Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

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