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Q&A with Council’s Newest Member, Rob Dorans

Lauren Sega Lauren Sega Q&A with Council’s Newest Member, Rob Dorans
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Rob Dorans was sworn in as Columbus City Council’s newest member last week, replacing former president pro tem Michael Stinziano. Stinzianio won his race against former county auditor Clarence Mingo in the 2018 general election, and officially took office on Monday, March 11.

Stinziano’s successor comes from a labor law background, dedicating seven years to his practice as a labor attorney. It was quite the deviation from the career plan he started undergrad with: journalism. Dorans says the catalyst for his major change from journalism to political science was the 2004 presidential election, during which he observed “tumult going on in the country,” he said. “You had the Iraq war waging, people upset at the federal government.”

“I was one of those folks who was really pulled to try and engage politically, and I did. I started volunteering with campaigns and, after about a year, journalism sounded like a great path, but I wanted to talk about issues and advocate for issues rather than just report on them,” Dorans continued. “That’s what led me to become a political science major, led me down the path to work on campaigns, led to the statehouse, and then ultimately led to law school and become a labor lawyer and now, here.”

As a labor attorney, Dorans worked to enforce Ohio’s prevailing wage law, which sets a minimum wage standard for employees working in public sector construction. Throughout his seven years, he said he helped return hundreds of thousands of dollars to workers that were defrauded by their employers — “That’s something I’m very proud to be a part of, because that money really means something to families to put food on the table.”

Dorans has also done some pro bono work for Columbus Legal Aid, in which he helped restored citizens seal their criminal records. 

“That’s real near and dear to my heart, because there’s a lot of folks in our community that have not had the ability to seek stable housing or even stable employment because of some of those criminal backgrounds that they’ve had, even though they’ve led exemplary lives since they’ve made those mistakes,” he said.

He’s been on the Recreation and Parks Commission for three years, a position that he said has allowed him to get to know the city from all angles. 

In an interview with CU, Dorans explains how he plans to use his experience and expertise to serve the residents of Columbus:

Had you always planned on running for City Council?

No. You know, my wife and I have been here close to a decade, and we’ve been pretty active members of the community, active members politically, and the timing was just right. The past couple years, I was interested in the role. Last year Councilmember [Emmanuel] Remy was appointed, and this past time it just sort of lined up perfectly for our family, and I was interested to throw my hat in the ring. I have been very humbled and honored to have been selected to represent the people of Columbus.

When you threw your hat in, what issues were you most concerned about in Columbus?

Well, I think right now if you’re looking at a city that has had the growth that Columbus has had over the past several decades, my wife and I are sort of prime examples for that growth. She came for grad school, I came for work, and the city has changed over the past two decades. Unfortunately, that growth hasn’t been shared with everybody. 

When you look at it, two out of every three families in the Columbus metro area make less than $50,000. That’s a real problem, and we’ve seen wages stagnate not only in Columbus but across the country. And as a labor lawyer that’s certainly an area that I really believe in and have a lot of expertise in and want to bring that experience to the city.

What do you think should be the wage standard?

I think it varies across what industries folks are working in. I think when you’re looking at a city that has increasing issues with affordable housing and cost of living, we’re looking at making sure folks are able to make that living wage.

Maybe that’s $20 an hour or more. Organized labor helps set those wage standards, whether it’s across public sector employment or private sector employment, whether it’s blue collar or it’s white collar work. Because without an institution standing up to help workers set those wages, all too often you’re going to have folks who are more interested in profit over people.

You threw out the number $20 — is that your preferred minimum?

No. I mean, I think it really runs the gambit depending what industry folks are working in. I think when you’re looking at— there’s been a lot of conversation across the country about the “Fight for 15,” making that the new minimum wage, and there’s been a lot of movement here in Ohio, which I think is great. There was a bill introduced at the Statehouse I think yesterday to raise Ohio’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. I think that’s a great starting point. 

It’s a little late now, the $15 proposal is about 5 years old

Yeah, yeah, I mean, I think we need to look at, what does it really cost for folks to afford housing, afford education, be able to raise their kids. In some places in Ohio, $15 an hour may be that. Columbus? Probably not. But, unfortunately, yeah, the legislature has preempted cities from engaging in those kinds of discussions. So, I think what we need to do as a city is work with the public sector and private sector and workers to be able to help raise wages as much as we can and encourage responsible development that has workers at the table.

Is it a priority of Council to pull more leverage into their relationship with the state?

I think, you know, Council wants to be effective advocates at the Statehouse. Obviously, whether you’ve got Columbus, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or other urban areas around the state, they want to make sure their issues are heard at the Statehouse. I think central Ohio has a great delegation of representatives at the Statehouse, including a lot of very strong women, that are over there carrying our issues to them. So, I do think we’re a city here, we’re across the street from the Statehouse. We want to make sure the issues that are affecting our residents are effectively advocated for over there.

They’re just kind of outnumbered.

Yeah! I think when you do have the legislative landscape that Ohio has at the general assembly, it is tough sometimes to make sure that priorities here locally are priorities that are shared there at the Statehouse. Again, that said, there’s some really effective advocates for central Ohio.

You’re seeing that yesterday with the vote on the transportation budget that was able to bring some real historic investment to public transportation, which the state hasn’t historically invested heavily in before. And, you know, some of those conversations were led by folks like Kristin Boggs, or Rep. Erica Crawley, Rep. [David] Leland, representatives from central Ohio, because they know how much public transportation really matters to urban areas. And it matters not only for transportation itself, but transportation as a social justice vehicle to make sure folks have access to jobs, have access to healthcare, have access to all the different community things that they need.

So far, I’ve heard you mention jobs, wages and affordable housing. Would you say that’s what your focus is during your time here on Council?

Absolutely.

What have you seen Council do right and wrong in those areas?

Well, I think you’re looking at, right now, we’ve got a bond package in front of us that’s going to make a $50 million investment from the city into affordable housing. That’s an incredible statement to be made that we’re going to bring that kind of money to the table to partner with other entities in the community. I think that’s a wonderful step and certainly want to support the vote in May for folks to support that bond package with that kind of investment. So, I think folks around this council have really stepped up on that. I think Councilmember Elizabeth Brown has done a good job as finance chair to push the $15 hour minimum wage for development projects the city’s involved with. I think that’s a great step. So, I think this council is definitely taking that leadership.

As far as issues that council has gotten wrong, I think any time you’re engaging in these big picture discussions you want to make sure you bring all partners along. And I think that’s something this council is continually striving to make sure that they’re being effective advocates, not only in neighborhoods, but with other likeminded interest groups that are in the community. 

I think one of the things I think this council is focused on is bringing things like the wage discussion, the affordable housing discussion to the forefront. What I think we’d want to avoid is waking up and being a city like Seattle or San Francisco, in which, by the time they figured out they had a wage and affordable housing problem, it was too late. You know, from my perspective I’d have loved for all these conversations to be happening five, six, seven years ago. But these things don’t happen overnight. Priorities take a while to change. That’s why I’m glad that the folks on council here have recognized this and are trying to get out in front of these issues.

I guess it’s pretty recent, depending on how you define recent, that council has become this all-Democratic entity. You’re a democrat yourself.

I am.

Do you think there’s any sort of perspective or option not being brought to the table because Council is so unanimous in its thought?

You know, I think everyone on Council brings a different perspective. Coming from the labor world, I have a different perspective on, say, workers issues or wages than some of my other Council colleagues do. Not that either one of us are right or wrong, we just bring different perspectives. 

I think often times folks think that because you’re in the same party, it’s a monolith, that people think the exact same thing. I think that there’s robust debate that goes on in City Hall with Council and the Administration. I think it’s healthy. So, I do think it’s important for folks to be able to bring those different perspectives to council. There’s not a shortage of partnerships in the community that provide us with a lot of feedback. 

So, simply because everyone on Council is a Democrat, that doesn’t mean that we don’t hear from folks who disagree with us, either on issues or ideologically. And I think most of the folks on Council really do take those suggestions and criticisms very seriously because, again, we want to do the best we can for the entire city.

How involved are you and City Council going to be in selecting a new police chief for the Columbus Division of Police, and what do you hope to see in the next chief personally?

I think Councilmember Mitch Brown is a world-renowned expert on public safety. I think a lot of folks on Council are going to be taking his lead on that discussion. I think that, getting back to what I said earlier on input from the community, we are the folks that are out there having people give us input on what they want to see in the next police chief, what kind of things need to be emphasized with the police force. 

I think council is going to be very involved in getting that feedback and providing that to the administration, and also, again, it’s very helpful to have somebody like Councilmember Mitch Brown who has seen these positions and knows what matters the community, understands what folks need to bring to the table in order to be an effective leader for that department here in Columbus.

I think [the city needs] somebody that’s going to listen to the community, that’s going to understand Columbus, understand the changing needs in our neighborhoods. I think having a local perspective is very helpful for a police chief. I understand the Administration is looking at interviewing folks from other cities as well, which I think any time bringing fresh eyes to a city is helpful, but I do think it is one of the things I’d like to see is make sure you have someone who understands how to be engaged with Columbus, understands the needs of the city. So, that’s something that i’m hoping to see.

So, being appointed, and I don’t know if you’re aware of the debates around appointments—

Oh yeah, very aware of the debates.

Okay, I kind of knew you were aware, but I’m segueing, haha. How does it feel to be appointed and not really elected by the city?

Yeah, well, it’s what the charter calls for. If there’s a vacancy that occurs, the city charter calls for a process to appoint a member to the unexpired term. There’s been a lot of discussion, a lot of criticism of that process, but that’s unfortunately what the law requires. 

I think what I’ve seen this last time in which both Councilmember Favor and I were appointed was a lot more public transparency around that, having the ability to have public hearings. There was also some community events hosted with the folks that threw their names in the ring for this. I think that was helpful. I think it was helpful for community members to get to know us a little bit better, to hear from us, so they know what our priorities are.

So, when Council selects someone like Councilmember Favor, who has a great background in housing and zoning, they know that’s what she brings to the table. They know for folks hearing about my background as a labor lawyer, as a volunteer with Columbus Legal Aid, I sat across from families dealing with eviction issues and other issues. I think it’s helpful for folks to know that’s my values and where I’m coming from. 

So it’s a little less, ‘Hey we found somebody and appointed them now, and now you get to know them.’  You know, so I am treating the next nine months as a job interview with the citizens of Columbus. It’s not like i’m going to be in office for years before I face the voters, and I’m hoping those next nine months, people get to know my values, what I care about, where my priorities are, and how I can help the city.

You were saying the appointment process is what the charter calls for — do you think we need to amend the charter?

You know, I think that we’ve actually just amended the charter

Right, to include a public hearing in the appointment process.

Mhm. We’ve had past proposals that have come forward that the voters have voted for, we’ve had past proposals come forward that voters haven’t voted for. I think any time we’re talking about issues pertaining our governance, they need to be looked at very closely. As folks bring those things to the table, I think everyone — whether it’s Council, the Administration, or other leaders in the community — they are always going to take a real hard look at how this increases transparency, or how it provides benefit to the process to make sure folks have good leadership, have faith in their leadership, and ultimately have the right people in these positions to represent the city and make the right decisions. So, you know, folks bring proposals forward, we’ll all take a look at them. 

Right, I want your personal opinion. The fact that out of the last 39 council members, 32 have been appointed — doesn’t that feel a little bit like City Council saying, ‘We know what’s best for you’?

I think you can interpret it that way, but at the same time, they’re playing by the rules that the charter lays out, right? So again, folks who are on Council, who decide to seek another office or change positions… we’ve had folks resign from office and go take a job somewhere else, right? You can’t require that folks stay in these roles until the end of the term just so that folks aren’t appointed. So, it is tough. I mean, it certainly has— when you’re looking at quality folks to be in these positions, and those quality folks tend to maybe pursue another interest, it does create vacancies, you know. I’m hoping that, again, if I’m elected in November, my plans are to stay around City Hall for a long, long time, you know, not create a vacancy to be filled.

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