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Mayoral Election 2011: Interview with Earl W. Smith

Walker Evans Walker Evans Mayoral Election 2011: Interview with Earl W. Smith
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Earl W. Smith is the Republican challenger for Mayor of the City of Columbus. Earl is a lifelong Columbus resident who has served the community as a police officer for more than three decades, in addition to other crime and safety roles. Smith’s supporters see him as a fresh perspective and a non-politician with a strong focus on core city services and a determination to improve the quality of life in all neighborhoods. Opponents cite Smith’s lack of experience in elected positions, and claim a leadership change in the city’s highest executive position is unnecessary.

Below are Earl W. Smith’s answers to 15 interview questions that specifically address the concerns of Columbus Underground readers:

To read Michael B. Coleman’s responses to these questions, click here.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your personal, professional, and political background?

A: I am 58-year-old life-long resident of our community. I have been widowed for three years, and I still live in the home my wife and I built some 27 years ago. I am a small business owner (E. W. Smith & Associates, LLC which is a security and safety education and consulting business). I have owned my business for about 18 years. I am a nationally recognized authority on Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), as well as community/neighborhood redevelopment issues. I am a Certified Crime Prevention Specialist as well as a Master Trainer in Terrorism Awareness and Prevention. For 33 years, I served the citizens of Columbus as a Columbus police officer where I spent several years helping establish and train neighborhood watch groups across the city. Further, I developed the operating procedures and training for the (then) newly created Community Liaison Unit in the Strategic Response Bureau for the Columbus Division of Police. I have received approximately 200 letters of commendation, as well as having twice received the Columbus Division of Police, Medal of Merit. In 1997, I received a lifetime achievement recognition as the Ohio Crime Prevention Practitioner of the Year. In 2002, I was honored with the Fraternal Order of Police Associates, Police Officer of the Year. In 2003, I was awarded the Blankenship Memorial Service Award. In 2004, I received the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, J. Edgar Hoover Award. In 2005, I was elected the President of the Ohio Crime Prevention Association, and I was re-elected in 2006. In 2008, I received the President’s Award of Merit from the Ohio Crime Prevention Association.

Over the years I have served on, or as a volunteer with a variety of charitable organizations such as Canine Companions for Independence, The YMCA, Women Against Rape – now Sexual Assault Response Network of Central Ohio, the Capital Area Humane Society, and Golden Endings Golden Retriever Rescue to name a few.

I have never run for political office prior to this year. I am registered as a Republican, however, I do not operate in lock-step with any party. In other words, I am a grown man who makes his own decisions based upon the specifics of any given situation.

Q: What drove you to run for Mayor this November, and what are your primary areas of interest when it comes to Columbus issues?

A: First and foremost, I have simply been a public servant for the majority of my adult life. While some people bristle at being called a “public servant,” I found being a public servant often challenging, occasionally frustrating, and often very rewarding. I owe no favors to anyone and I am able to do what is right without concern for which campaign contributor might be offended. I will take the same approach to my previous public service to the process of serving the public as mayor.

I am hugely concerned about the growing deterioration of our older neighborhoods. Having spent so many years working directly in the troubled areas of our city, I am well aware that the poorest and least able to defend themselves residents of our community are also the most forgotten and neglected. It is simply morally indefensible. That said, it is impossible to truly or effectively separate the issues of violent crime and declining quality of life issues from the overall well-being of those same neighborhoods. In other words, our response must be comprehensive to permit long-term success.

Q: The topic of economic development is a hot issue in Central Ohio, with renewed emphasis through the Columbus 2020 program. How do you specifically define “economic development” and what specific types of programs will help the regional economy grow over the next five to ten years?

A: Let me begin by defining what economic development is not. It is not taking business from our neighboring communities. For decades, I have watched political leaders claim to have brought “new” business to our city when in fact we did little else than steal it from one suburb or another, which they in fact stole from yet another suburb. Typically, it is accomplished by giving a variety of financial incentives, which often come at the ultimate expense of the taxpayers and/or our schools.

I believe one of the single most important efforts needs to be creating a real Central Ohio community collaborative to market our collective strengths. I have spoken to suburban mayors who have explained to me that they have approached the current administration, only to be rejected. Columbus is not an island, and we will never achieve true economic growth and stability unless and until we develop a real working relationship with our most logical partners… our community neighbors.

Q: Downtown Columbus has grown residentially and commercially over the past 10 years, due to public investment and a renewed national focus on urban living. What further needs to be done from a public policy level to continue the growth of the core of our city?

A: It is easy to focus on the Downtown community of Columbus since we have largely forgotten and ignored the plight of our less-sexy and attractive old neighborhoods. The reality is that we will never have a truly viable downtown while we allow our traditional neighborhoods to die, and that is precisely what we have done. Much like a cancer in an extremity of the body, pretending that it does not affect the body whole is ultimately a lethal denial of reality. We must co-develop and enhance our city.

Q: A common anecdotal complaint about local government centers on a lack of adequate city services: unplowed streets, lack of curb-side recycling, potholes, too few proactive police patrols, et cetera. Is this a funding issue, a geographic issue, or something else entirely?

A: I believe it is a combination of the above. There is even a correlation between your previous question and this issue. Having studied neighborhoods across the nation in my consulting role, I have come to the conclusion that a geographically large city driven only by property acquisition is seldom a well-developed city. Our own demonstrates that reality. Your previous question seems to suggest that the Downtown is a priority above our Columbus suburbs and/or older neighborhoods. That has the potential to appear elitist, with the net result of fractionalizing our city. We all lose. Columbus is challenged by the reality that we are simply too large for our current population. It is my estimation that we need a net increase by a factor of approximately 3.6 times, or a population of 2.8 million. In other words, we typically determine public service staffing based upon population numbers. That is not an effective sole factor determinant. There is a reason why places like Boston have an inherent energy and vitality: a significantly higher density. There is no easy answer to addressing the problem. While many people are in fact leaning toward urban living, contrary to many previous assumptions by some urban planners, recent studies indicate that suburban livers actually do prefer that lifestyle. We will need to study best practices to effectively manage our mixed needs responses.

Q: It’s practically a daily occurrence that a national publication produces an article on the growing importance of public transportation networks to young professionals and the Millennial generation. Does our lack of rail transit hurt our ability to attract young talent to our region, and if so, what needs to be done to address this issue?

A: Again in connection with previous questions, it is a matter of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? In other words, does population bring transportation enhancement; or does the transportation enhancement bring the population? Also, this again seems to focus on benefiting a very small percentage of the overall city, while at a large expense to the overall city. I recently viewed light rail and limited-service trolley lines. Even the Metro in D.C., which I believe is excellent, requires costly subsidies. I think that light rail and/or urban trolley service may one day be very appropriate for Columbus. I am unconvinced we have the population density to make it a viable reality at this time.

Q: Small businesses are the cornerstone of our economy. What are the biggest challenges that our small business community currently faces, and what would you do differently to address those challenges?

A: I agree with your statement regarding small businesses. Sadly, I think our city has forgotten that. My father was a small business owner. My wife was a small business owner. I am a small business owner. I empathize with the challenges small business owners face in Columbus. I have spoken with many small business owners who are constantly frustrated with the layers of bureaucracy they encounter when attempting to deal with the city. Everything from the simple runaround to serious multi-month delays in getting necessary permits, all help paralyze small business attempts to grow and improve. I believe it is a leadership issue. The man or woman in charge of the city administration must communicate his/her expectations, and provide a means by which business owners can access the mayor when problem remain unresolved. Bureaucratic red tape is the kiss of death to the small business red tape.

Q: Several years ago, Columbus was ranked the No. 1 “Up & Coming Tech City” in the country. What role does Columbus city government play in continuing to support our technology-friendly environment from a city services perspective?

A: I have several friends and relatives in the IT community. As a frequent traveler who is utterly dependent upon internet access, I suppose at this point in time I essentially expect the ability to have up-to-date accessibility. While looking at what has been accomplished in Mumbai, it is my observation that Columbus has not claimed its potential position in the tech community. I have looked at what has been accomplished via OSU and their tech campus. Frankly, I believe we are under-invested in this area, and I would very much like an opportunity to address that.

Q: The recent announcement that the City of Columbus and Franklin County would be purchasing Nationwide Arena has quickly become a hotly discussed topic. What is your personal stance on this issue, and why is it a good/bad deal for taxpayers and a good/bad deal for the region?

A: Let me state this clearly. While I am a supporter of the Arena District and the Nationwide Arena, I believe the “deal” as described makes rosy fiscal assumptions based on little factual evidence. Further, the citizens and voters of Columbus have repeatedly indicated they do not wish for this to happen in this fashion. As being done, this is an utterly undemocratic end-run around Columbus voters.

Further, as numerous studies/white papers from multiple sources (including Professor Dale Oesterle of OSU) have concluded that these deals are seldom a winner for the taxpayers.

Q: A portion of the revenue from the Columbus Hollywood Casino is being earmarked for the purchase of Nationwide Arena. Where else should the Casino revenue be spent, and what percentage should be earmarked for redevelopment of West Side neighborhoods surrounding the Casino?

A: Again, rosy expectations for revenue as quoted from a variety of sources linked to the Arena district are anything but a sure thing. We are in the midst of a real recession, with markets on shaky ground around the world. Unemployment has not been measurably improved and the housing crisis may have a 30 year recovery period. Then we build multiple new casinos in Ohio, coupled with a number of accessible existing casinos, and a solid revenue stream is anything but guaranteed. While Columbus reserves the right to “walk away” from the deal if things sour, the obvious question is what would happen to our oft-quoted credit rating as a city? Bad policy. Bad politics.

Q: According to an article published in April by USA Today, the inner core of Columbus (defined as a 3-mile radius from the center of Downtown) saw 45 percent growth in the number of 20 to 40-year-old residents, a faster growth rate than the rest of the region as a whole. In the years ahead, as these young professionals look to buy homes, have children, and further invest in their community, what specifically needs to be addressed to keep them engaged in central-city neighborhoods?

A: I think the challenge we face is to stop thinking of one Columbus neighborhood as opposed to all Columbus neighborhoods. I have already discovered that there is a huge disconnect between many of the older as opposed to the more recently gentrified neighborhoods. All of our neighborhoods require a reasonably dependent level of safety and security. All of our neighborhoods require reasonably accessible and affordable transportation. And while the core city has seen growth, based upon 18 years of looking at cities across the nation, and particularly in light of the current economic situation nationally (and internationally), I think it is entirely possible to make assumptions about the current numbers that may not be born out over time. Nonetheless, infrastructure support coupled with the on-going support of the essential day-to-day necessities is clearly part of what will support further/continued growth. Again, I think it can prove counter-productive to treat the core radius as an island unto itself. We must create and encourage a more comprehensive plan for future growth for Columbus, and by that I do not mean further annexation. We may already have stretched ourselves too thin to effectively and efficiently service the 220 square miles that already makes up our city.

Q: Beyond programs that target the young professional demographic, what types of programs and initiatives would further accelerate the revitalization of urban Columbus neighborhoods, such as Franklinton, The King Lincoln District, The South Side, Weinland Park and beyond?

A: One thing that your readers should be aware of is that for every action, there is an equal reaction. Many of these projects have resulted in people who were ostensibly targeted to be “helped” are in fact being forced from their neighborhoods. Gentrification often benefits a very small group of community members, and often at the expense of those who are by the very nature of things, under-represented. My observation is that while targeted improvements have great value, we must insure that the business arrangements are not as a result of “special relationships” between political leaders and those who benefit financially from their support (and I can assure you that is the case with some of these efforts). Further, we must insure that we do not simply discard current residents for the benefit of future residents. All should benefit in some fashion from our official efforts as a city.

Q: Arguably, the largest issue on this year’s ballot is SB5. What is your stance on this issue, and why do you feel it’s important for voters to vote “yes” or “no” on this issue?

A: I do not support SB5, and will vote against Issue 2. While my commitment and interest is with the City of Columbus and our many challenges here, SB5 will impact our city as well. SB5, as even noted by some of those who voted in favor of it, has far ranging and serious implications. Yet it was put through with what is likely to prove, in too short order. As with many things in life, there is often the risk of unintended consequences.

A brief history lesson is warranted. Let’s go back about 50-60 years in law enforcement. At the time, the basic qualifications were a lack of criminal history, being physically big, and very tough. Officers carried big (and in some cases, I mean REALLY big) sticks and used them liberally. Technology consisted of a phone on a pole where officers called in to learn what they were supposed to be doing next. If the guy in charge didn’t like you, you could find yourself having your assignment changed quite literally in the middle of a work-day. Assignments for better jobs were given to those who were friends of, or were favored by the people in charge. It was pretty common to find the round peg in the square hole. Poor wages and benefits meant that really qualified people went into other professions, and in some cases, the difference between the man wearing the uniform, and the criminal he was pursuing was damn minimal. New Orleans (and other well-known cities) suffered terribly as a result of generally minimum wage jobs. Sadly, officers in New Orleans saw no problem with trafficking narcotics, guarding dealers, and in a few cases, even doing contract killings! A sordid tale that was an embarrassment to any law enforcement professional anywhere.

Forward to today. In the almost three and a half decades I dedicated to law enforcement in Columbus, I have witnessed incredible changes and improvements. Huge strides in technology has resulted in every single member of the Division of Police in Columbus using computers and related technologies on a daily basis. As the city grew in size and demands for service increased almost exponentially, a better educated and more sophisticated officer enabled us to literally do more with less. We have more degree and post-grad educated professionals than you would believe, and frankly, the business as it is today will require even more in the future. Outside the box thinking, leading to the creation of outside of the box solutions, do not generally come from people who are there simply to earn their minimum wage and go home. This is a motivated work force and that has paid off for the community.

Q: Several weeks ago, local leaders met to discuss the importance of arts funding and the growth of the creative class as it relates to economic development. How can Columbus invest in the creative community, specifically as it relates to smaller arts collectives and individual artists?

A: As French dramatist Jean Anouilh wrote, “The object of art is to give life a shape.” I was fortunate to have parents who loved and celebrated the arts in every way. Music, literature, the great masters, sculpture and more were all part of my life as I grew up. That perspective was part of my youth and therefore, I am well aware that the arts help to create a well-rounded, more in-depth human experience. The arts ensure that man is more than the sum-total of his or her parts. They awaken the heart and soul, and inspire them to greater achievement… even in our work world.

While my administration will begin by focusing on the necessities of our city, I will also work to ensure that our city never neglects the arts. They will have my full support to ensure Columbus citizens and neighbors find that our city encourages and supports all of these important aspects of the greater human experience, that take life from a simple existence, to a true celebration of the human essence.

Q: Please summarize in one sentence why our readers should vote for you in November.

A: As a non-politician, no one is in my pocket, and I serve no master other than the Columbus community; I am ready, willing and able to serve honestly, tirelessly, effectively and efficiently.

More information can be found online at EarlForMayor.com.

To read Michael B. Coleman’s answers to these questions, CLICK HERE.

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