Mayor blasts report on Jeep; Finkbeiner says Blade story about cost overruns ‘silly’

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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In a furious, raging attack on a Blade article, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner insisted that the Jeep project’s huge cost overruns are a small price to pay to keep jobs in Toledo.

“I expect better from the daily newspaper, and shame on them,” the mayor said at a news conference yesterday.

The mayor’s ire was directed at a front-page article in Sunday’s Blade, written by staff writer Jeffrey Cohan. It reported that the city and state government’s out-of-pocket expenses on the project have ballooned from the original estimate of $30 million to at least $76 million.

Mr. Finkbeiner accused Mr. Cohan of emphasizing bad news, and not the good.

“Shame on him, and the editor who gave him permission to write that story,” the mayor said. “That silly question-mark story on Sunday should have been shit-canned. It didn’t belong on a front page on a Sunday morning.”

He called his use of a vulgarity at a mayoral news conference “a once-a-year slip.”

The money will be used to assist DaimlerChryler AG in its $1.2 billion investment into its two Toledo plants. The city and state’s expenses are part of a $278 million incentive package local governments assembled to attract the new investment. In return for the financial assistance, DaimlerChrysler will retain 4,900 of the 5,600 employees it had a year ago.

Blade Executive Editor Ron Royhab defended the article and Mr. Cohan, saying that the administration had “grossly underestimated” the cost of the Jeep project.

“Instead of criticizing the newspaper and staff writer Jeff Cohan for reporting this, the mayor should be addressing the problem,” Mr. Royhab said.

Mr. Finkbeiner, who was visibly enraged at times during the news conference, did say he thought the story was “as a whole” balanced.

But he said that negative material was put at the top of the article, while positive information was left at the bottom. He criticized the story’s headline, which read: “Accelerating costs of a new auto plant beg the question: Can Toledo afford to keep Jeep?”

“The real question is, what is wrong with The Blade’s reporter, Jeff Cohan, and the headline writer who allowed this negative article to be on Sunday’s front page?”

Mr. Royhab noted that Mr. Cohan was honored this year by the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists as the best government reporter in the state.

He pointed out that prior to joining The Blade two years ago, Mr. Cohan was the lead city hall reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, where he covered the administration of Mayor Jan Jones.

“His work meets the highest standards of our profession,” Mr. Royhab said. “The Blade stands by the story and encourages the mayor to work on solving the problem rather than attacking the messenger.”

At the news conference, Mr. Finkbeiner was surrounded by about 60 Jeep project supporters, including representatives of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority and the United Auto Workers.

The mayor said the article quoted “cynical guys like Terry Lodge who think they know it all, sitting in their oak-paneled offices … Brother, get a new life.”

Mr. Lodge is the attorney representing some of the city residents who live on the future plant site. They are suing the city to prevent their homes from being torn down.

Mr. Lodge was not quoted in the article. All 11 people quoted in the story are city, county, or state government officials, with the exception of DaimlerChrysler spokes person Curtrice Garner.

Mr. Finkbeiner did not dispute the article’s financial information, which said that the cost to Toledo taxpayers has skyrocketed in the last year because of unexpected expenses.

Mr. Finkbeiner’s major complaint was that the tone of the article was not positive enough, considering that the city’s investment in the project meant that thousands of good-paying jobs would be protected.

He said the cost overruns are mostly because of higher-than-expected costs in relocating 16 companies whose properties will be used for the expansion of the Stickney Avenue Jeep plant. Fifteen of those companies will stay in the city of Toledo.

“I stepped up and saved Jeep, and I stepped up with this team and saved 15 of 16 companies,” the mayor said.

The mayor accused the newspaper of a “flip-flop” because its editorial pages had promoted the Keep Jeep effort for years.

Behind the mayor at the news conference were poster-sized copies of a Blade editorial from January, 1997, supporting the Keep Jeep campaign, and an article from November, 1998, reporting that property values in the North Toledo industrial corridor have gone up since the Jeep deal.

The mayor singled out a member of city council, Louis Escobar, for criticism over a quotation in the article.

Mr. Escobar was quoted as saying: “My sense is, nobody has a clear picture of what it’s going to cost us and how we are going to pay for it. That’s dangerous, because we have to adopt a budget.”

Mr. Finkbeiner said yesterday, “If he doesn’t know, that’s a pretty uninformed councilman, and shame on him.”

Mr. Escobar responded: “I don’t think we’re all uninformed. We’re just not getting the response we want from the administration. We’ve been asking the questions about how much this will cost, and no one will give us a definitive answer, saying, `this is the bottom line,’ not `I think it may be,’ or `it should be.”‘

“We’re relying on the generosity of corporate America,” Mr. Escobar said, “and how many people want to take that to the bank?”

Other council members said last night that they thought the article was fair, but could have had more background to put the situation in better context.

“The article provided the facts as we know them accurately,” said council President Peter Ujvagi. “`There was nothing I disagreed with in the article.”

Still, he said, “more could have been said about the situation the city was in when these decisions were made.”

Councilman Gene Zmuda said the mayor’s reaction was “typical Carty Finkbeiner reaction, quite frankly, which is if you don’t agree with him, he tries to paint you as the devil incarnate. What he doesn’t understand is that you can be supportive of the project and still be critical of the specifics.”

Councilwoman Edna Brown called the article “more or less fair,” but said it did not do enough to show the difficulty of the situation the city was in – facing the loss of its largest employer.

“We felt our backs were against the wall,” she said. “We did what we felt we had to do.”

Other council members said the mayor’s focus on a two-day-old article could be a waste of energy.

“I think it is inappropriate to attack anything other than the problems in front of us,” said Councilman Peter Gerken. “The efforts spent on looking back could be better used in looking forward.” He added that he thought the article “reported things on balance.”

Republican Councilman Rob Ludeman said the public has a right to know about cost overruns. “It’s more expensive than we thought,” he said. “We’ll get it done and it will be so positive, not only the Jeep project, but all the projects behind it. Just because you don’t agree with something, why would you think it’s not fair? The public has the right to know.”

Democrat Tina Skeldon Wozniak agreed. She said she took the article’s headline “as an honest question … not as a negative.”

“We all have to ask hard questions and be committed to the project,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a negative to examine the costs on a regular basis.”

Councilwoman Betty Shultz said she continued to support the administration despite the overruns. “I don’t think anyone knew what the cost would be. Hindsight is always 20-20.

“The Blade has the job of reporting the news as they see it,” she said. “Perhaps I don’t share the view that this is negative.

“I’m not going to criticize The Blade or the mayor or Jeff’s reporting ability,” Mrs. Shultz said.

Blade staff writer Mark Zaborney contributed to this report.