Shortly after Pete Gerken was elected as a Lucas County Commissioner, we were all at a meeting with other elected officials and members of the private sector. Comm. Gerken made a comment that was a blatant lie. I objected, stating that what he said was not true and we shouldn't base our decision on the false statement. The body decided otherwise.
A few days later I had a conversation with one of the private sector members of the group. I asked why they'd all voted to support a lie - didn't they realize it was lie? The response was that of course they all knew it was a lie - that "Pete Gerken lies a lot which is why he had the nickname of 'Pinocchio Pete.'" In disbelief, I asked why, if everyone knows he lies, they allow him to get away with it. The response was that 'he controls two votes' (meaning his and Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak's on the BCC).
This exchange was something I've always remembered, and it came back to me in startling clarity with the recent events of the LCIC (background here and here), in which Executive Director Shawn Ferguson resigned following a Blade article about a questionable contract with Rictor International and what was, imho, unfounded criticism by Comm. Ben Konop. That Ferguson was only doing as his board had directed (through a unanimous vote with no comment or discussion) and considering the fact that Gerken had supported Ferguson's performance up until this point, it's clear that the issue wasn't with Ferguson but with 'protecting' Gerken.
A caller to Eye on Toledo last week asked if, in light of Gerken's culpability, I thought he should step down. I said no. But not because I think he's innocent in all this - but because he's not solely to blame. His fellow commissioners and LCIC board members are as much at fault, if not more so, because they have allowed Gerken to get away with such acts for a long time now.
Gerken pushed an $18,000 contract with a company of questionable credentials. And shame on him for doing so in the first place and for thinking his act of patronage would go unnoticed or that he wouldn't be held accountable for it. But the reason he was able to get away with such patronage was because everyone let him. According to the minutes of the LCIC executive committee, there was no discussion about the company or the contract. No one questioned their qualifications, expected outcome, performance measurements or even if any other company might be more qualified considering the subject area. In fact, there was no discussion whether or not such 'contacts' fit into the overall plan for recruitment and retention of companies.
The failure of these fellow LCIC executive members - and the failure of fellow BCC members Ben Konop and Tina Skeldon Wozniak to read their minutes and ask pertinent questions - is what allowed this patronage contract to go through.
The Blade is to be commended for following up on this news story, but I can't help but wonder if they, too, have contributed to the web of deceit by allowing the focus to be on getting rid of Ferguson rather on the actual process and assumptions which allowed such a contract in the first place. And the Blade, with its recent fascination with all things China, would certainly have reason to 'object' to Ferguson's philosophy about trade delegations from China (see the letter on this issue from Ferguson's brother, Kevin, here).
So why is it that Gerken was allowed to push through a patronage contract without any evaluation? Are there other instances where this has happened - perhaps in other agencies? Why is it that we're building a downtown arena without documented sources of revenue to support the construction and the operation? Why is it that Gerken, and other elected officials, continue to do these kinds of things?
The answer is because we let them. We object to the priorities they set for our community and then we re-elect them anyway. We object when they hire family, friends and campaign workers outside the normal vetting processes and then we re-elect them anyway. We learn that they're threatening the withdrawal of public contracts if a company publicly disagrees with a decision they make and we re-elect them anyway.
Companies get pressured all the time to go along with decisions in exchange for not being black-listed but they refuse, sometimes for valid business reasons, to publicly announce such pressure - and in doing so fail to realize that shining the light on such tactics makes them impossible to implement.
Rumors abound about a group a private investors who wanted to do an ice arena and I've talked with two individuals personally involved - but they won't speak in public for fear of retaliation, despite my pleas otherwise. According to them, their companies were threatened with loss of current or no future public contracts. Even explaining to them that announcing such a threat would negate the ability of elected officials to follow through, wasn't enough to overcome the fear, especially when they believe that 1) no one would cover any such announcement, 2) any loss of business would be blamed on other factors not attributable to this issue and 3) that considering 1 and 2, the elected officials would get away with it.
Numerous times throughout my four years as a commissioner, people would come to me and say, 'you need to know what's going on.' But when I explained that 'knowing' didn't do any good without 'proof' or without them standing with me because of their personal knowledge of the facts, they'd suddenly develop amnesia, citing potential loss of a job, an income, a contract, or other such 'retaliation.'
The point is this ... such activities will continue - to the detriment of our community - only for as long as we let them.