Contaminated Water and a Mayor’s Gut Check

Contaminated Water and a Mayor’s Gut Check

Over the weekend, my father’s hometown gave the national press a short lesson in the unique role of municipal leaders.

My dad grew up outside of Toledo, Ohio, the fourth largest of Ohio’s large industrial metropolises. Toledo is known as the “Glass City” because of the large number of major glassworks located there. The industry developed, at least in part, because of the insatiable demand of the

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“Motor City” (60 miles to the north) for automotive glass in much of the 20th century.

Like a number of cities large and small, Toledo draws its drinking water from Lake Erie, the second smallest and second shallowest of the Great Lakes (after Lake Ontario). Over the weekend, that fact became the cause of a small-scale disaster.

The city issued a ban on the use of tap water after toxins that could cause serious gastro-intestinal problems and liver malfunction were found at unsafe levels in the city’s water plant. The toxin, microcystin, can be produced by algae, and city officials speculated that a massive algae bloom at the western end of Lake Erie (where Toledo is located) was the likely cause of the contamination.

Concerns about the microcystin contamination were serious enough that the 500,000 municipal water customers were advised not only not to drink the water, but not to use it in cooking, cleaning, and (for the very young, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems) for anything at all.

Floridians will understand the resulting scenario. Hundreds of thousands of people without access to water during the heat of the summer; sounds like one of the after effects of a hurricane. Fortunately, Toledo’s highs over the weekend were in the low eighties and, unlike Floridians, the lows were refreshingly cool (low sixties).

Understandably and appropriately, Ohio’s governor joined Toledo’s mayor in offering assurances to the public that the water system would be made pure. Governor John Kasich gave that assurance something of a personal touch at a Sunday afternoon press conference, saying “I want to make sure that I would be comfortable with my family – my daughters and my wife – drinking the water. When I’m comfortable with that, then I think we’re in a position where we can say to the people here in Toledo that we feel good about it, and we can move forward.”

One might note, however, that ultimately, this wasn’t going to be the governor’s call. Toledo’s mayor, D. Michael Collins, actually would have to be the one to decide whether and when the water was safe. If anything went wrong, it would be Mayor Collins who would take the blow to the gut, in many more ways than one.

Because, of course, Mayor Collins lives in Toledo. He has a wife, three daughters, and eight grandchildren, according to his official biography. I don’t know how many family members live in the city, but I can say with some confidence that Mayor Collins has a fair amount of skin in this game.

This is one of the fundamental things that separates municipal officials from our counterparts at the state and federal levels. We govern where we live. Our neighbors are our constituents. At least to some extent, every decision we make has an immediate and direct effect on us. And when things go wrong, we don’t need to get in a jet to see the devastation. It’s right outside our front door.

Which is why our choices in local elections matter so much (though they get so little attention from the press). It’s why, year after year, survey respondents say they trust their local officials more than their state or federal officials.

Because the “gut check” Mayor Collins did this morning, when he drank water from the city system to demonstrate it was safe again, wasn’t just for show. That was the same water he and his family would be using the rest of the day.