Columbus City Hall

There is truth in the old saying that “you can’t sue City Hall”—especially with any likelihood of either winning more than your costs or winning at all. That’s what attorneys who I’ve consulted tell me. This is true despite the fact that the “mayor,” City administrators and senior staff, City-appointed commission members, and City Councilors blend an exceptional combination of ignorance or dismissal/neglect of city, county, state, and federal laws.

Of course, they follow the lead of the State of Ohio where the Governor owns stock in corporations in which the State invests, the Lieutenant Governor accepts a paid position on a private-for profit Board of Trustees (rationalizing it as “educational” [but to whom?]); and the Attorney General and Secretary of State regularly express ignorance of State laws, State Constitution, and federal Constitution. So too do Republican senator and representatives especially but not only with collusion with corrupt firms like First Energy.

As in so much else, history- and identity-less Columbus is a special case. It differs from other Democratic-dominated cities in Ohio, and bears a greater resemblance to former president 45’s favorite cities Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit. However, those cities do have history and identity, and repeatedly engage in rounds of reform long- and short-lived.

Suing the City is found to fail. After all, the laws, charters, and ordnances are full of limited liabilities and immunities. More than I can count. And of course, who appoints or nominates the judges and magistrates? And who has its own City’s Attorney’s Office?

But publicizing the many grounds for legal action serves the urgently-needed cause of education for the diverse the publics and especially the electorate who are—metaphorically, at least—criminally ill-served by the local “news media,” relentless city boosters who are as often for-sale to local private interests and advertisers as the City itself. Some of these thin, blurred lines are almost invisible to naked or the corrected eye.

Let’s play a semi-fictional game or contest. If we were planning to sue the City of Columbus where would we begin? It’s a difficult choice.

Begin at the “top” with our very own “DisHonor,” the “mayor.” For better or worse, ceaseless undocumented, fact-free, and fabulous sloganeering and claims that Columbus has been called “Opportunity City” when it’s only by the “mayor” himself are not indictable offenses. Nor are slogans about “equity” with no interest in joining the actual national Mayor’s Organized for Racial Equity (MORE), or repetitive slogans about crime, gun violence, and preventative measures with no relevant policies or actions. Or taking steps to reduce, rather than enhance, the strength of the Columbus Police Department.

Let’s take the radical step of looking back first six years and then a decade or so. Upon taking office as “mayor” in 2016, according to his office’s website, “Mayor Andrew J. Ginther issues his first Executive Order, establishing a new ethics policy” on May 10, 2016. Not only was the “new ethics policy” not quite so new and different, but it came on the heels of his own experiences with the now largely forgotten City’s Red Flex and Centerplate scandals, and Ginther’s City Schools data and fiscal scandals, both while he served as “President” of City Council, an ill-defined office especially in relationship to the mayoralty. No wonder the “mayor” rushed to post a remarkably thin, repetitive, and incomplete five pages that 1) leave out more than they include; and 2) have been forgotten in City Hall especially by the “mayor” and his Director of Public—that is, Private—Service.

On one hand, familiarity with the slim, rushed document should preclude the “mayor” and his office from lobbying for major salary increase especially on false pretenses. It should also prevent him and his office (for which he is responsible, after all) from claiming Civil Service Commission appointment powers that the Charter does not grant. For the Director of Private Service, the thin rules disallow granting of a City contract to her husband’s business. For all of Council, these “rules,” so to speak, should preclude both holding unannounced meetings and ignoring the complicated issues of conflict of interest.

On the other hand, the “mayor’s” rushed, incomplete Executive Order on “Ethics and Conduct” of May 10, 2016 does not deal reasonably or responsibly with conflicts of interest. A high school civics teacher would probably fail that section. Overall, the statement simply does not address relationships and dealings with the public and publics of a diverse city. Nothing is stated about following procedures or the necessity for honesty in all matters. The resident taxpayers, voting constituencies, and the dominant private interest are absent from the City’s “Ethics and Conduct” document. That, indeed, is a damning and debilitating phenomenon. 

Among the “mayor’s” dubious distinctions is ignoring the specific information he was provided about the illegal use of steroids at Columbus’ signature The Arnold Bodybuilding Classic and tourist promotion event. Following his mentor former mayor Coleman and the former owners and editor of the Columbus Dispatch, the “mayor” ignored pleas from national organizations like Protect Our Youth from Steroids (POYS), who sponsor statewide legislation in Pennsylvania and in Congress, to conduct a formal investigation into steroid use and trafficking at The Arnold. He also ignored requests for age restrictions. As POYS concludes, “Ginther has made the decision that money means more to him than the health and welfare of the youth of Columbus, Central Ohio and the country.” We recognize that as the Columbus Way.

What about the “mayor” and/or his office lobbying for a significant salary increase on false grounds? Is that not a violation of city or state laws?

Or flaunting city and state laws about a mayor’s appointment powers to City Civil Service Commission?

Or the Columbus Way of either selling or donating public resources, especially scarce funds, for either or both private interests or favorite non-profits without developed proposals, certification of qualifications and relevant experience, comprehensive timetable and budget, and any measures of accountability or work accomplished.

The unrepresentative, mid-19th century unreformed City Council proudly shares in the latter offense. Each Councilor or pair on a two-person Council committee specializes in giving sums from tens of thousands to tens of millions of dollars without vetting. Within the last month, Council’s funding of an unqualified and unlicensed private computer coding “boot camp” was exposed by a metro reporter from the Columbus Dispatch.

Together “mayor” and Council delight in approving destruction of the city’s rare natural attraction of the Scioto River waterfront and MetroParks, crimes against nature and the City’s publics if not literally against the thin city, country, and state boundary lines between public and private. Knowing nothing about urban or other economics, they are unaware that not even conservative economists endorse “trickle-down economics.”

Despite being enshrined in the law at all levels, conflict of interest is not in the vocabulary, lexicon, glossary, or thesaurus of City Hall or City Council. It is never raised as a question or point of information in councilors’ proposals, endorsements, and financial support of either or both private and public programs and organizations. Are neither councilors, “mayor,” senior staff, or City Attorney’s office aware of the legal as well as moral and ethical issues that are raised by actions almost daily?

That no representative has a defined constituency radically limits any level of accountability. The undemocratic, noncompetitive electoral process sponsors many councilors assuming office first through appointment with others playing “follow the leader” through city and allied organization ranks. These well-established paths ensure, in combination with inappropriately restrictive limitations on paths to candidacy for office-holding and other public input; and a lack of democratic process, accountability, and equally strikingly relevant expertise.

I am struck regularly by how little the “mayor” and councilors—and far too many administrators and staff—know about Columbus itself and even less about cities more generally. Councilor do not know what City Managers do or why disorganized, ungoverned, and poorly communicating Columbus urgently needs a professional coordinator.

Lack of expertise is almost a requirement for office-holding or City employment. It shows in almost every proposal, public statement, and meeting (that is, when the meeting is publically announced as the City Attorney occasionally reminds Council).

Lack of expertise, lack of representation, and inadequate committee structure permeate City government. Together they result in Council agendas and actions always resembling a patchwork of unchecked special private and public interests, and never a vision or policy for the City or the city as a whole. Council functions as if each member is riding her or his hobby horse or pushing his or her wheel barrow. It is not a common effort. Agendas never give complete proposals or details necessary for public input. Reports of meetings are equally thin. That’s the Columbus Way.

Also in the Columbus Way, the current decades-overdue 1914 City Charter Reform Commission was created at the prompting of special interests that tired of requesting their all-but automatic ordnance variances for actions that directly contradict to city law, Charter, and zoning ordinances. The proof of this lays in the city’s destroyed historic neighborhoods especially the University District, Weinberg Park, Franklinton, Linden, and The Hilltop.

It is also clearly visible in the chaos and unaesthetic streets of Downtown that lack a single building with architectural distinction. And, complementarily, in the privileged areas of the Short North, Villages Victorian and German, and northern Clintonville.

It is no accident that cleaner, more sanitary, less crime-ridden, higher socio-economic status, and, not accidentally whiter neighborhoods separately chartered and un-annexed communities like Worthington, Upper Arlington, and Grandview, to mention a few, surround the City. They successfully defeated Columbus’s growth by undemocratic annexation as Kevin Cox demonstrates in Boomtown Columbus.

Pride of corrupt place goes to the City’s unregulated departments. By all accounts, they function—such as they do--with no direction or oversight by “mayor,” Council, or City Attorney. The problems here are wide-ranging: from woeful lack of resources; lack of legal or management direction; lack of regard or respect for the public interests or the publics ourselves; freely malfunctioning loose cannons; and public profit-taking by a City for sale to the highest (or probably not highest given rampant mismanagement) bidder. In none of these cases are the diverse publics or the moral, ethical, or legal rights of residents, taxpayers, voters, or homeowners recognized.

I mention only a few revealing examples, some of which I have discussed in previous essays. OSU gained permission illegitimately to locate its physical slogan portable lamp posts by bullying one staff member in the Department of Public Safety to ignore all regular procedures including public input. Staff members and a City Attorney confirm this.

With City Council uninterested in adequately funding either 311 or zoning inspection/enforcement, a private company was hired by create a new, much touted website instead. It has never operated satisfactorily. But there is no evidence that it was tested or that the private entity was not paid.

Rumpke has never met its contractual obligations, and it is one of the City’s major targets of complaint. It is not appropriately penalized.

The City’s lack of professional urban planners leads to approval and/or zoning variances of unaesthetic, height, density and traffic congested 32 story and higher towers beside the historic North Market, the Convention Center Hilton Hotel, and the banks of the Scioto River. The City can’t say no to private developers regardless the real costs or public interests. That, of course, is the Columbus Way.

As I have written previously, there is the self-promotion, anti-public, and anti-accepted procedure purportedly 800-person Department of Public—that is, Private—Service. After learning through a maze that led me from Columbus Police to City Attorney, City Council, and finally to the offensive, rude, and anti-resident senior staff Robert Ferrin and Randy Borntrager who has no apparent qualifications for his position, the Department literally sells the rights for out-of-city, state, and nation private corporations to litter the streets and sidewalks of the city with short-term lease cars, electric scooters, and bicycles.

With only an anti-factual, false, and wholly rhetorical rationalization of “facilitating mobility”—when they are actually limiting it, the Department through assistant directors Ferrin and Borntrager sells the spaces for which it also charges Columbus residents’ for paid permit parking in front of or on the streets of their residences. They also shifted from annual stickers that CPD and neighbors could visibly identity to apps sold by a private company that prevent direct identification of violators.

The merchants of the Short North but not homeowners or residents within a few blocks have the right to prevent scooters from indiscriminately littering their streets and sidewalks, just as a handful of Indianola Avenue shopkeepers in Clintonville preserve parking for their clientele despite approved city-wide bicycle lanes. The rest of us have our streets, sidewalks, and lawns littered by unregulated electric scooters because Private Service sells that right to private for-profit out of city and state companies. Fictitiously, this “enhances mobility”! But whose?

Fifteen months ago, I contacted City Council aides to urge action about this. I provided information to them on the working policies in other cities. In that time, nothing has benefitted residents, only the scooter rental companies and propertied private interests. That, too, is the Columbus Way.

If that were not sufficiently dishonest, the Department has carried out its action with no public input, and did not inform CPD, City Council, or City Attorney’s Office. Repeatedly, they refused to answer a single question from me, which one City Attorney justified as their “discretion.”

After repeated attempts with ruder and more sarcastic non-responses, I filed a formal complaint with the Director of the Department. She refused to acknowledge it. A staff member finally did, with sarcasm only after another City Attorney and several City Council legislative aides also submitted my complaint.

Hearing nothing in a full month, I prompted Director Jennifer Gallagher. Incredibly and unethically, she had one of the two Assistant Directors, Randy Borntrager, about whom I framed my complaint, write directly to me. He continued his pattern of lying, nonresponsiveness, rudeness, and sarcasm.

I subsequently learned that another complaint, also unanswered by Council, has been filed against Gallagher for contracting with her engineer husband to do City work.

On the direct recommendation of a City Attorney, I sought Council’s action. Two Councilors declined, a third did not respond to my request. One of them suggested that I refer my formal complaint to the councilor who chairs the committee that oversees, in theory not fact, the Department. After a full week, that councilor’s aide responded that they would look into the matter and that I would hear from them later that day.

That Monday afternoon passed. At 7:30 p.m. the same day, I received an email from a person who identified himself as the Chief of Staff of the “President” of the City Council, a Michael S. Brown who signed his statement Mb. A former director of Experience Columbus, he was an aide to former mayor and head of the public for private development lobbyist Downtown Columbus Development Corporation Michael Coleman. (The seven-person Council has both a President and a President Pro Tempore who goes by PPT, unlike any other US city.)

In confused, imprecise, and contradictory prose, this graduate of a journalism program informed me summarily that Council had “heard” and dismissed my complaint. He did not tell me what they had “heard” or “from whom,” or if anyone had read the formal statement. He gave no explanation or rationale. He showed no familiarity with any of the legal, moral, or ethical issues. He referred or transmitted no meeting minutes. And neither he nor any of the above-mentioned councilors or aides has responded to my direct, pointed queries.

Meanwhile, the Department of Private Services is selling to private corporations paid parking throughout the city and making “mobility” more difficult for residents, taxpayers, and voters, and especially for the handicapped. There is no coordination of City parking and private parking lot apps, sowing confusion especially throughout chaotic, unplanned downtown.

Nowhere is there recognition of the voices, welfare, or rights of the public whose taxes pay these undemocratic, unprepared, and possibly corrupt individuals. There is no communication, no responsibility, in fact no civility, ethics, morality, or honesty.

That, indeed, is the Columbus Way.

If they cannot be sued successfully, they must be defeated at the ballot box, unelected; or if never elected, legally removed from their positions.

That would be a new Columbus Way for the twenty-first century. Can a city with no history confront its future? I do not know.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History at The Ohio State University and inaugural Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies. Author of many books on social history, the history of literacy and education, and interdisciplinarity, he writes about the history and contemporary condition of higher education for Times Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, Academe Blog, Washington Monthly, Publishers Weekly, Against the Current; Columbus Free Press, and newspapers. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of Historian is forthcoming.