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Mr Jehl goes to Berry Street

By Jim Sack

Fort Wayne Reader


Over the last seven years we’ve watched city council carefully, and learned more than a bit about the personalities and attitudes toward public service of each council member. In these last seven years we have been pleasantly surprised by the attitude and the willingness to lead of councilman Russell Jehl.

Our first eyebrow raising experience was when he, a Republican, from a party known for generous corporate welfare, led reform of the sloppy and wasteful system of tax abatements given to companies that are the very backbone of the local GOP. He was not shy to challenge a system that seemed indiscriminate in lavishing precious tax dollars on nearly every company seeking a tax break, but was lax in enforcement of businesses’ half of the bargain, namely the creation of jobs.

The reforms he proposed were sufficient to anger local business leadership, but he stood his ground and won, and in the process started a much needed debate that continues today over the value, purpose and process of abatements.

In a number of recent discussions at city council, Councilman Jehl has taken the lead on issues that affect the entire community, not just his district. The problems with Red River garbage company is one example, where he has pushed on behalf of frustrated citizens for better service. In that issue and many others, Mr. Jehl has doggedly and repeatedly followed up on an issue to keep it moving toward resolution.

Another matter of recent interest was the question who would pay for sidewalk improvements around the downtown Landing. In cooperation with city officials, over $1 million of taxpayer money was saved, thanks mostly to Councilman Jehl.

Furthermore, Mr. Jehl has become the preeminent watchdog for the Legacy Fund on council. More than the councilmen who are appointed to the Legacy board, Mr. Jehl regularly updates all who will listen on the status of every dollar spent, every dollar encumbered, in the pitfalls of overspending the fund.

Mr. Jehl has consistently and frequently crossed the aisle to work with Democrats on projects they hold near and dear. Most councilmen, both Democrats and his fellow Republicans, can count numerous times when Mr. Jehl championed their initiatives.

Remarkably, on more than a few occasions Mr. Jehl has admitted at the table his misunderstandings of administration policy, and been willing to apologize for mistakes. Humility is indeed a rare thing in politics and Mr. Jehl has expressed mea culpa aplenty. He should be applauded for a trait that is fundamental to progress and solution finding. Even better, he is known to seek the comments of those who are not in his party and likely don’t share his political philosophy.

He has also championed spending in the neighborhoods on critical infrastructure projects, as well as in supporting Mayor Henry in redevelopment of our long neglected downtown.

On the downside, his vote to end City collective bargaining served to anger many city workers, the very people he will most need on his side should he ever serve for mayor. The promised savings to the city are less quantifiable. He also stood against Mayor Henry’s admittedly rushed annexation a few years back that would have greatly benefitted the city. Instead, Councilman Jehl sided not with the city he represents, but with both the GOP-dominated county government that stood to lose significant revenue had the annexation succeeded, and with the conservative Republican suburbanites who would have been annexed.

Additionally, at budget time he has often filed the largest number of budgetary cuts among his fellow councilmen. This approach, unfortunately, establishes a pattern of confrontation with both administration and other councilmen that could be avoided. On the other hand it shows attention to the details of local finances. While dramatic confrontation does shed light on budgetary concerns, and does force the administration to justify its policies, a less confrontational approach might save everyone time and heartburn.

Often the way one views Mr. Jehl depends upon one’s party affiliation, but in his willingness to delve deeply into the city budget, in his mastery of the details of code and ordinances, in his willingness to challenge authority both in City Hall and among outside forces, that Mr. Jehl should be applauded.

We attended his abortive campaign launch a year back where his core supporters had gathered to hear him announce for mayor. He didn’t announce for that office or any other office that Sunday afternoon in what was an obvious recognition of the realities of fundraising against two formidable opponents, one his fellow Republican councilman John Crawford, and the other juggernaut was our highly successful, and masterful fund raiser, Mayor Tom Henry. Call the event a strategic retreat.

What is obvious is Mr. Jehl wants to be mayor and is carefully and systematically working toward that end.

In order to be mayor, a thick skin comprising a willingness to lead, to stand out front, to raise one’s head above the crowd, to put one’s ideas and reputation on the line, are essential. Mr. Jehl has shown his willingness to speak up, to organize around an issue, and push for a solution, not to mention stand his ground against powerful interests. Has also shown an ability to work across party lines to affect change. And he has that rare trait in politics, a willingness to listen to others.

Come 2023 he may well be the best prepared, and most capable candidate the Republicans will have to offer.

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