Interview: Sheriff Zach Scott, Candidate for Mayor
Franklin County Sheriff Zach Scott was the first to announce his candidacy for Columbus mayor late last year after current Mayor Michael Coleman announced he would not run for reelection. On Saturday, Scott opened his new campaign headquarters on East 5th Avenue. While there, he agreed to talk at length with Columbus Underground about his campaign and the future he envisions for the city if he is elected.
Jesse Bethea: Can you tell me a little about your background, where you grew up, how you came to be Sheriff?
Zach Scott: I grew up in the South End, I was a respiratory therapist for a short period, and ended up getting into law enforcement. I graduated from Franklin University with a degree in business and organizational leadership, as a double major. Ended up getting onto the sheriff’s office. So I just kind of fell into law enforcement and it seemed to fit.
JB: Can you tell me why you want to be mayor of Columbus?
ZS: Absolutely. Being in law enforcement for thirty-some years, I’ve worked everything from SWAT to homicide to undercover, worked a jail, worked patrol, my last place was community relations, and we work really hard in law enforcement, all of our law enforcement agencies, we have about 28 different law enforcement agencies here in Franklin County, and I didn’t like that there didn’t seem to be a lot of progress in those areas as far as when it comes to crime. For instance, last year there were 300 shootings, over 300 shootings in the city of Columbus. A few days ago we had three homicides in a 24-hour period. My kids are cops, so it’s kind of like the theme of the family here, and so when it comes to public safety, looking at public safety from that point of view – I was a fireman for a short period too, so I really have a good grasp of what public safety is about – and getting back to those 300 or so shootings, we’re not really making an impact, we just keep putting a Band-Aid on the situation. About 85 percent of law enforcement seems to be very reactive. We do have some programs that are proactive, but it’s still not making the impact that I’d like to see.
Due to the fact that the city has around 822,000 residents, and I’m generally responsible, as the Sheriff, I’m responsible for the jail, I’m responsible for the courthouses, we’ve got two jails, two courthouses, we also take care of unincorporated areas, we take care of augmenting services for townships, we’ve got about 1100 employees or so, our budget’s well over 100 million, so doing all this that we’re doing, we could see that, after looking at what the city does and the issues that are going on in the city, I thought we could probably have a better impact on public safety if we start going after the root problem. And so you may say, what’s the root problem? Well, we could put cops on the street, at the corner of every street, if cops were free, and I don’t know if it would actually make that much more of a difference, obviously it’d make some amount of difference, but the real problem we’re running into is, basically, it’s poverty, it’s jobs, it’s our school system that’s broke. So I know that if we can get the right jobs recruited here, if we can get the right school system that’s actually a model that actually is functioning, if people cannot break the law that are actually responsible for our kids when it comes to education, I know that will cause the crime to start dropping.
I had an interesting conversation with a guy who was a bail bondsman, and he happened to be African-American, and we were walking across the street downtown and he just said “Hey Sheriff, I hear you have a big endeavor ahead of you.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ve got one.” He says to me, “Man I get so sick of having to deal with these guys,” and I said “What are you talking about?” He goes, “Well, I’m a bail bondsman…all I do, man, is constantly, same guys getting in trouble, I gotta chase them down, it gets so old.” And I said to him, “At the end of the day, what else have they got to do?” He goes, “What do you mean?” I said, “We don’t have any blue-collar jobs.”
We’re great at white-collar jobs. We’re awesome. We have banking, which we’re doing fantastic on, we’ve got schools, we’ve got health care, we’ve got IT we’ve got software. We’ve got a lot of white-collar jobs that we’ve been very, very successful at, and that’s awesome, we’ve done a good job in that area. But at the end of the day, it’s like, what else have these guys got to do? And he said to me, “You know what, if they actually had money in their pocket, maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore.” And I smiled and I said, “That’s why I’m running for mayor.” He kind of laughed and said, “All right, Sheriff, good luck with that.” So there it is in a nutshell.
JB: You kind of spoke to this already, but I wanted to ask what sort of skills do you think you’ll bring from the law enforcement world to the mayor’s office?
ZS: It’s not so much law enforcement, it’s executive experience. If you look at the other candidates that are in the race and then you compare my resume with theirs, which I hope you do…executive experience is what we need, strong leadership. Almost 70 percent of the budget, of their general fund, $811 million that the city has, you know what that’s made up of? Public safety. Think about that for a second, 70 percent of their budget is public safety. I don’t have an academic knowledge of public safety. I have an out-in-the-streets, out-in-the-neighborhoods, down-in-the-weeds, that’s my knowledge of what’s going on in public safety. So I get it, I get what’s going on out there. That’s 70 percent of their budget.
Then there’s obviously picking up trash, there’s some services as far as snow removal, stuff like that…When we have Level 1 snow emergencies, who calls that? I call that. I call [Franklin County Engineer] Dean Ringle, we have a conversation about how fast the snow is being removed, the rate. I have a conversation with patrol divisions about how many vehicles are holding on accidents, so I make that determination. And I’ve talked with Dean, I said, “You know once I’m mayor, Dean, we’re going to have to look at being able to remove snow at a faster rate for a lot of our citizens and neighborhoods” and Dean said “We’ll meet, we’ll figure out some way to get this working, sheriff.”
So as far as executive leadership, who in this race has over a thousand employees? Who in this race has handled over $100 million budgets? Nobody. So that translates very well and very, I think, easily into why I would probably be a good choice to be mayor. No disrespect to the other candidates, they all have their own strengths, but when it comes to leadership and a large amount of people, that would be my resume.
JB: What do you think is something, the primary thing that would separate your vision for Columbus under your leadership from the vision that maybe your opponents have?
ZS: Well, James Ragland and I talk a lot, and he also agrees with the job issue. We probably have a different idea of how to go after those jobs. I think we have to go recruit them, and I think we have to match that workforce and I think we have to start doing vocational training, we have to have a system in place to do that.
I was reading the other day, I forget which organization within Columbus was doing some vocational training but it was for IT work again. And that’s all they were setting up for, IT work again, and IT work is great. I don’t want to detract from Columbus, Columbus is a great city, we have a ton of successes here. But we don’t have all of the successes that we should be doing, as far as getting out there and recruiting the jobs.
I’ve talked to people who go to Germany all the time, I’ve talked to people who are from the Asian-Indian community. I said, in order for Columbus to continue to survive without us having to go after the taxpayer dollars again, which I can see that happening, we’ve got to bring jobs here and we’ve also got to export jobs. We don’t export, we really don’t. So I’m talking to the Asian-Indian community, they were excited by what I was talking about. China is starting to get very expensive. So we have to have leadership in the position to take some of those jobs from China and move them back here.
But the first thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to start fixing infrastructure. We have antiquated sewer systems and water systems in these neighborhoods. They’ve been sitting there forever and they’re very expensive to fix. But if we don’t start fixing them now, and we don’t start looking at fixing them because today’s dollars are always cheaper today than tomorrow, guess what they’re gonna do? They’re gonna raise your water rate, raise your tax rate. So if we don’t start working on these issues right now, taxes are gonna go up for the people, poverty is gonna go up.
So again, I don’t know if my vision is different than all theirs’, maybe in some respects, maybe me, Terry Boyd and James Ragland, we see some of the things that need to be fixed like the school system, it’s got to be tackled hard. The previous administration was hands-off…I think they put an education commission together that could make recommendations but had no ability to actually sanction or do anything, and I don’t see that changing under Andy [Ginther]. I see the same old thing that we’re doing.
I say we’re at a crossroads, we really are at a crossroads. So I think the only thing that I bring different is I’ve had a little bit more experience in the leadership area as far as the volume of people and actually getting successes at the sheriff’s office. We have a ton of successes, we’re building a new jail, we just finished up the academy, we have a legal based reporting system that’s gonna help reduce lawsuits. We have systems in place to where our success rate when it comes to picking up fugitives is one of the highest in the country. And it’s about me picking leaders around me that are gonna be able to be successful, and I’ve had very good success with putting a senior staff together that, they’re just awesome, they get it, what the vision is, they go out and execute and I oversee.
So I have a system already in place and even one of the very top union leaders, I was having a conversation with him the other day and he said there’s no doubt in his mind if I become mayor that I will take that same success that we’ve had in the county and I’ll move it right into the city, which was a very good compliment. My biggest concern right now, for me as a leader, is that my deputies and my employees are concerned that I’m leaving. They don’t want me to leave. So it’s an honor.
JB: So as of now you’re running against two fellow Democrats and one Republican. How hard do you think it will be to overcome the odds of how many people are in this race right now?
ZS: We have some polling and it shows that we’ve got some really, really high name recognition in comparison to my opponents. So as of right now we’re doing very well. We’re raising good money to get our message out so we’re sitting pretty good as far as we feel.
JB: One of the things I wanted to ask you about, because you have spoken about education a lot, I wanted to ask about your specific plans and initiatives that you would want to put in place with regards to fixing the public education system.
ZS: Good question, and we’re still researching that. We have several models throughout the country that we’re looking at that have been successful. I’m not gonna come in and try to reinvent the wheel, but I will go find the wheel that works and modify it that works for us. Cincinnati’s having some good success with mentoring programs, there’s been success with actually the mayor getting a ballot to where the mayor is actually in charge of the whole system.
Or maybe we’re gonna look at the mayor just getting involved a little bit more with who actually gets on…school board. We have a lot of people who like to get on school board that have no background in education and unfortunately they look good on school board, they jump to another position, so that’s got to stop. We have to have people that are there because they want to be in the educational system and their main priority is not to do political hopping, their main priority is making sure our kids leave and they’re educated so they can get a good job and they can bring income into our city.
So I don’t know what program or what model we’re going to use yet. Charter schools are not out of the question if there’s more oversight, I’ve got to dig into that a little bit more. So as the months progress, at some point here I’ll have a program or a plan that I want to implement and then I’ll come out with that.
JB: If you’re elected, what would you say you want your legacy to be? How do you want your time as mayor to be remembered?
ZS: Fixing the school system and bringing blue-collar jobs back.
JB: Pretty straightforward.
ZS: That’s what I’m after. Fix the school system and bring blue-collar jobs back. If I can do that, that 22 percent poverty level that we have in the city of Columbus, and then there’s another poverty level above that where people are working two jobs because they can’t get any wages that are actually good, strong wages. You think they’re being parents when they’re working two jobs to try and put food on the table? They’re not, they can’t, they’re doing the best they can.
My goal is to at least get us down to where at least, you know the rest of the state of Ohio, the poverty level is in the state of Ohio, you know what that is? 14 percent. Think about that for a second, 14 percent. The mean average salary in Columbus is around $42,000 a year. That’s the last, I think from 2013, that’s the last I saw. Do you know what the other people are having, like Cleveland? $48,000. So we have issues here and you can look up too about the 20,000 new jobs that are coming that they’re also saying the poverty level is gonna go up. It’s about leadership that’s focused. Leadership’s got to be focused and leadership’s got to be at the wheel.
Unfortunately, as the Dispatch at one time said, this is a legacy, like you brought up legacy, this has been a legacy of neglect. 6,000 blighted homes, we’ve got the mortality, infant mortality rate going on, this doesn’t happen overnight. This didn’t, all of the sudden, sixth months from now we woke up and went “Oh my gosh!” So leaders have got to be able to put in place people who can start looking for trend. They need to see what’s coming down the future instead of the Dispatch or someone coming and saying, “Hey, do you guys know this problem’s going on over here?” And it’s like, where you been?
So leaders have got to set up programs that they can know that we’re seeing a trend in this and a trend in this, okay, we need to step up and figure out what’s going on here before it gets to a crisis situation. We’re in crisis level right now. Columbus, in my opinion is at a crisis level. If we don’t have some change in leadership, what’s gonna happen is we’re gonna keep going down this road, the poverty level’s gonna go up, crime’s gonna go up, and the schools are not getting fixed with the systems in place. And again, I’m telling you why I’m running for mayor again.
JB: Is there anything you’d like to add that I didn’t ask about?
ZS: No, we’re just excited about the opening today…the opening’s here today on 5th Avenue, we’re right here in our neighborhoods. That’s our message. Our neighborhoods, we’re gonna get them up and running where they should be, so our headquarters is right here in the neighborhood. We have a lot of people that are gonna come by and just check it out.
We’re just two months from early voting…Let people know this is a nonpartisan race. We have a lot of people that get confused about that. They think you have to be a certain party, affiliated with someone, or you can’t vote in this primary. Completely wrong. There is no affiliation, you don’t have to show up and say I’m affiliated with this. You just have to show up and all you’re gonna see is names and all you have to do is vote. And you’re not changing your affiliation, you’re not doing anything with affiliation, nonpartisan. We haven’t had one in sixteen years or so, so the idea is to come out and vote. Two months to early voting.
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