Lima voters need to do three things in deciding who will be the city’s next mayor.
• They should look at incumbent David Berger’s 28 years in office and ask themselves if a change would be warranted.
• If considering a change, they need to determine whether they believe Keith Cheney will do a better job.
• Then they must be heard, which means voting. To have only 14 percent of the 22,294 registered voters participate in the May primary was ugly. Redemption can come in the Nov. 7 General Election when Lima residents have an opportunity to take a hard look at what the city has accomplished, where it is heading, and the road it will take to get there.
It is no accident that Berger has won seven straight elections. His strength comes in the zest he’s shared for downtown revitalization and economic development. But has that come at the expense of not paying enough attention to crime and blighted housing? His opponents the past 20 years have all chased him with that question. This year it is under even more scrutiny from Cheney.
Berger speaks proudly of his record. He talks about taking over a city 28 years ago that was suffering from Rust Belt economics and transforming it to what he calls the best economy in 40 years.
“That didn’t just happen. There was no magic bullet. It took lots of hard work … teaming together,” the mayor notes.
It included clearing out a high-crime area in downtown Lima once known as the “Snake Pit” and replacing it with the Lima Senior campus. A hotel, new restaurants and the YMCA also have been part of downtown’s rejuvenation.
On the economic front, Berger has built task forces to maintain existing jobs and create new ones. He has a keen understanding of the impact the automobile industry has on this area. He’ll tell you the auto sector is not just the Lima Ford Engine plant or auto suppliers like Metokote, but includes a refinery that produces approximately 25 percent of the gasoline consumed in Ohio. Berger’s signature performance came in the late ’90s when he led efforts to save that refinery from permanent closure.
Berger also hasn’t been afraid to swing for the fences in search of a home run.
He once pitched the idea of a downtown ice skating rink. He still has dreams of high-speed rail transporting people from Lima to Columbus and back in minutes. Then there’s the nightmare: Global Energy, a proposed energy plant that consumed Berger for years only to end up being just a slab of cement.
Cheney says Berger’s claims of a good economy are just bandages on Lima’s wounds. He points out Lima’s poverty rate has jumped from 21 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2016 — “hardly a good economy. … That’s one in three people living in poverty. All we’ve done the past 28 years is import poverty, not imported prosperity.”
Where Cheney hits the mayor the hardest is on crime — which he says is out of control. He vows to shake up the police department and hire more officers. He says it’s unfathomable the department is 26 officers below authorized strength, a number Berger disputes.
“My immediate focus on day one in office will be directed to cutting off the supply of drugs by targeting drug dealers through aggressive enforcement,” Cheney said. “I will make sure that the drug unit is always at full strength.”
Berger counters that “every single dime from the income tax” goes to the police and fire department budgets. “You can’t make safety services a higher priority than spending all of the income tax on it,” he says.
The big unknown of this race is the impact Lima’s African-American community will have.
Berger did manage to land the coveted endorsement of the Black Ministerial Alliance, but he still is haunted by his refusal to have any dealings with the Lima NAACP Chapter while Ron Fails is its leader. Berger has taken issue with Fails’ attacks of city hiring practices as well as accusations the NAACP leader made against the Lima Police Department and school system.
The mayor also failed to issue any response to a national study two years ago that rated Lima among the top 10 worst cities for blacks to live. He questioned the study’s methodology, yet later, would herald studies that praised Lima for being the 33rd fastest growing city for new and expanding businesses and another study that said Lima is now among the top small cities for millennials.
The mayor has been in politics long enough to know the importance of talking with those with whom you disagree as well as quickly addressing bad news.
Cheney has seized on that.
“I believe a mayor should be accountable not just every four years, but each and every day because they are hired by you, the citizens of Lima,” he said while also noting, “There are city councilmen who are not invited to go to the mayor’s office. “It is a closed-door policy. He determines which ones he will meet with and which ones he won’t.”
This race has been the heated battle that everyone expected when Cheney and Berger advanced out of the May primary with Cheney collecting 43 percent of the vote to Berger’s 41 percent.
However it turns out, both candidates deserve praise for their frank discussion of the issues.