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Glass City reflections

By Hasan Dudar
On January 10, 2011

Ben Konop's advice on Toledo politics goes something this: Welcome to local government, don't forget to bring your bat.

That is part of a metaphor for what the former Lucas County Commissioner describes as the "alleyway" that is Toledo politics.

"Sometimes I describe it as going to work every day with a baseball bat and going out to the alley and just seeing who gets out of there walking by the end of the day. It's pretty rough. It's rough -rougher than I had anticipated, actually," he said.

Elected in 2006 by an overwhelming majority, the 34-year-old Democrat soon found himself in the minority - even on a board of all-Democratic commissioners.

Konop said he tried to introduce transformative change to the region through consensus building in his first year as commissioner, and he didn't cast a single "no" vote against his fellow commissioners, Pete Gerken and Tina Skeldon Wozniak. He learned quickly that particular approach wouldn't bring about the region-wide change he was looking for.

The shift in strategy and his growing political independence meant he would stand alone on many issues at the county level, and he soon found himself outvoted 2-1 on a majority of proposals brought forward at county hearings.

The self-described progressive ascribes the resistance of his former colleagues to a lack of political will power that pervades local leadership circles - an attitude he hadn't expected.

"In order to really change things around here - whether it be the economy, whether it be ways to keep young people here, whether it be any important function of government - you have to be willing to change something," Konop said. "And I think the mentality of a lot of politicians is this ‘go-along-to-get-along' mentality."

However, Skeldon Wozniak said she believes there has been substantial change made in the region, citing the Huntington Center in downtown Toledo and downsizing the county by $20 million as examples where the county made progress. Commissioner Gerken was unavailable for comment.

A Toledo-area native, Konop was familiar with local politics but was surprised by how quickly many of his ideas were dismissed. His biggest bruise: an $80 million college scholarship program that was shot down without debate.

After months of researching similar programs in other cities such as Kalamazoo, Mich., and after providing the other commissioners with empirical evidence, Konop and his staff expected a different response - not necessarily a welcome embrace, but at least some deliberation.

"It was like turf battles. It was putting politics over progress basically," Konop said. "And the short-term, they may have won politically, but the long-term, they're not going to win politically and the community suffers."

Inward-looking politics

For someone who has lived, worked and studied in places such as Oxford, England, Washington, D.C. and Atlanta, Ga., the city of Toledo is lacking a political frame of reference based on other communities - something that keeps it from catching up to other cities in terms of economic development.

According to Konop, the majority of politicians involved in local politics have not lived outside the Toledo area, and that trend perpetuates an inward-looking mindset.

Konop said, unlike his former colleagues, his experiences in other cities exposed him to new ideas on governance and many of his proposals were based on his knowledge of other urban communities.

"Part of it is that I have a different perspective from that, and not many of these people in office have that perspective," he said. "They're waiting for things to come in their laps, and they don't have the background of living elsewhere also."

For Konop, four years of working at One Government Center, a high-rise office building in downtown Toledo that houses many municipal departments, made it apparent to him that Toledo's problems stem from a systematic lack of urgency among local politicians. And that complacence, according to Konop, does nothing to steer the city away from the edge of economic devastation.

"The problem is we're so far behind other communities in the country, we need to make up ground. Not only do we have to be defensive and not lose things, but we have to actually be on the offensive. And there's just so little of that going on, and it's just so shocking to me."

Trapped in the 20th century

In Konop's opinion, Toledo is stuck in the 1950s. Not the Pleasantville, Elvis and 15-cent hamburger 1950s, but more of the factory-town, one-industry economy 1950s.

Konop said the idea that Toledo's economic vibrancy rests in attracting one or two factories that bring upwards of 10,000 manufacturing jobs is incongruous to the realities of the global economy.

"The idea that you can just walk out of high school now and have a solid middle class existence is not accurate -it's just not realistic anymore," he said. "I don't think we've evolved in terms of leadership in the community - I don't think we've evolved out of that mindset."

Konop is quick to assure he is a firm believer in manufacturing, but he thinks it's time Toledo shifts its focus to developing a knowledge-based economy.

According to 2007 U.S. Census reports, Toledo's manufacturing-to-education ratio in terms of business done is 339 to 1, whereas Columbus, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Mich., record 137-to-1 and 123-to-1 ratios, respectively, in the same category.

Though he thinks a strong manufacturing sector is part of the solution to Toledo's economic woes, Konop said closing the gap on educational attainment in the area is where he would start -and where he has tried to start.

"You want to make sure people have avenues to pursue education, where it's affordable and encouraged," he said. "But I don't think anyone in government is going to come up with some amazing project that's going to employ 20,000 people and raise the standard of living for all Toledoans."123

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