I have watched with dismay the erosion of integrity in Columbus City government over the past years. Something has gone seriously wrong, and I’m reluctantly coming to the conclusion that the problem stems from single party control of all elected offices. This is the party that I affiliate with, the Democratic Party.
I have worked closely with city government for fifteen years, and recently I have had an up front seat to witnessing the growing gap between rhetoric and reality. I see firsthand dysfunction, and listen in amazement as both council and the administration laud praises on each other. I don’t think I have ever heard more outright lies coming from public officials, than I have heard in the past three or four years.
And the problem is that there is nobody to hold anybody accountable: they all play for the same team, and any dissenting voices are viewed as treasonous and beaten down. So everybody marches in line, to the same drummer, and a real public debate on the issues is stifled in some cases to the detriment of the community.
I have experienced first-hand, petty bureaucrats run amok, with no accountability. I have experienced first-hand, elected officials telling outright lies with seeming impunity. I don’t know where the ethics have gone in our city government: sadly, it really is different than it was ten years ago.
For me, the most recent discouragement — and the straw that has broken this camel’s back — has been in City Council’s complete avoidance of the increased drug and gang activity and gun violence in some of our central city neighborhoods. People are being killed, houses are being shot up, and when concerned neighbors bring it to Council’s attention we get absolutely stonewalled. We don’t get even the expected anemic response, we get an amnesiatic response (as in, “who are you?”).
We can’t set up meetings for months, letters go unanswered, phone calls are ignored, and when we do finally catch up to council members … promised follow-up goes undone. We have wasted enormous amounts of time and good-will, seeking merely some support keeping our neighborhoods safe. Is it the arrogance of knowing we are in a Democratic city, and all the council seats are “safe”? There is no engagement and no debate — just apathy, compliance, and/or complicity. And every now and then – if you are lucky — you learn what they would tell you if they weren’t so busy ignoring you, though a quote in the newspaper.
Here’s one “for instance” in this neighborhood safety issue. After finding out the City has a drug loitering law that it can’t enforce because it is clearly unconstitutional, we spend months finally coming to an agreement that the law can and will be re-written. After months of delay and stonewalling, we read in the paper that the City Attorney won’t re-write the law – and apparently is telling council the law even re-written will be unconstitutional, with one council member saying she doesn’t want to sponsor a law that will get the city sued. To be clear, these laws are being enforced all across the country. In fact, the New York Times reported that on May 2nd this year, the Vice Mayor/Chief of Staff of Trenton, New Jersey was cited for loitering in aid of drug offenses (the very law our local officials say won’t work here). Other than having public officials with clearly more colorful lives than our local officials, why can Trenton enforce a law that we can’t? For God’s sake, Bexley has this drug law in place, but Columbus won’t? – when it is the presence of dope boys loitering on our streets that has created a rash of drive-by shootings?!
I believe it is because the City Attorney doesn’t want to do it, and a same-party, compliant, rookie, and uninformed Council member – Michelle Mills, the Chair of Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee – accepts that passivity and marches in lockstep following a completely unfounded opinion that she doesn’t understand. The hypocrisy here – when this same City Attorney finds it appropriate to engage the City in a $5,000,000 lawsuit (including losing in an appeal to the Ohio Supreme Court) filed simply because the city won’t honor a contract to show $1 movies to children at the Lincoln Theater – rather than just showing the damn movies. We’ll risk a $5,000,000 lawsuit over some children’s movies, but won’t even write a law that will help keep our communities safe and keep police officers on the offensive against drug dealers. Something is seriously amiss downtown.
And speaking of uninformed, as I look into these issues I wonder why newly-appointed Council member Mills was ever appointed to Chair Council’s Judiciary and Public Safety Committee. Was it because she was going to run for election in nine months?, needed to have some credentials to run on?, needed to steal the credibility of police officers and fire fighters?
Michelle Mills, I’m sure, is a nice and bright person. She is a lifelong social worker and human services professional, which is commendable. But if you look at her resume, posted on Council’s webpage when she applied for a council position, you see she has absolutely no experience in any matter concerning law or safety. Yet she was put in the position overseeing the administration on these law and safety issues – which at 70% is the largest portion of the city’s budget – with absolutely no background or understanding of these issue areas.
Bypassed for the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chair was her fellow councilmember, Zach Klein, who is an attorney, worked for the Vice President of the United States, and served as a prosecutor in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. A solid background in these areas, and politically connected, he also has access to campaign fundraising.
A summary of campaign finance reports published by the Dispatch shows that Ms. Mills has raised the least amount of money for her election in two weeks – a paltry $24,000. But council president Ginther, who has raised well over $400,000 and appointed her to that position, has stated he is going to help her financially (and indeed, he is running television ads for her). And even the Mayor hosted a fundraising party for her. So everybody is partying for her political future, while the work she could have been doing to make our streets safe goes unaddressed. It leaves a bad taste.
So it looks like Councilwoman Mills was put in charge of Public Safety so she could claim to “keep neighborhoods safe” and “give police the tools they need.” In other words, stand in photos at press conferences that announce implementation of decisions that were made long before she joined council. She won’t take on the critical issues of the violence happening today (because to acknowledge an increase in violent crime would be to dispel the illusion that all is well in Oz), but will stand in the glow of flashbulbs to claim credit for decisions made last year. In my experience, neither one of those campaign statements is true, and the neighborhoods have been hurt by that inexperience and lack of understanding of what council can do to address the crime and violence issues in our neighborhoods today.
I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed in the conduct of elected officials I helped put in office. I’m disappointed in the shameless way they have advanced people into critical positions they were unqualified for, solely for personal political gain at the expense of the public welfare. I’m disappointed there is nobody to hold anybody accountable within the government.
So for the first time, instead of just not voting for a candidate I don’t like, I am going to cast a few enthusiastic votes for Republican candidates. While I object to major planks of the Republican national platform and despise the politics of “no” we have seen recently at the federal level, at the end of the day, perhaps it is really true that all politics is local. And in this election, at least, the need for balance and accountability in city government trumps my concerns about promoting candidates who may ultimately promote a national agenda that rubs me so wrongly.
I’ve never imagined anybody would care about my political preferences and votes, and have never openly endorsed any candidate (even in my own party before), but I am so upset by what I am seeing that I will do so now. I do hope Columbusites of any party are able to consider seriously a vote for Matt Ferris and Daryl Hennessey – members of the party I had always viewed in opposition to my values and interests — to help restore a public debate and a sense of accountability to Columbus City government.