Harvey J Graff

Part One

Less than two months ago, pushed by two friends who read my essays, I published “Why I remain in Columbus despite Columbus. . . .” (Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Sept. 16, 2022). Events during the past month have me seriously reconsidering that judgement.

I voice my heightened doubts in this essay. The factors driving my self-reflections, in a few words, are: major officials of the City of Columbus, Ohio elected and appointed, knowingly violate the letter of the law and regularly mislead the city’s residents among the contents of their actions including City Council proposals and initiatives put to the public.

If that were not enough, the beleaguered Columbus Police Department (CPD), materially weakened by leading elected officials, and rudderless, does not enforce the law. Officers admit this to me, that is, when they don’t dismiss my documented complaints on false grounds.

Fundamentally, residents who don’t work for the City, or live in the Short North, have no rights in Columbus, Ohio.

I ask myself: is there a place for a 73-year old homeowner in a city-destroyed historic district, taxpayer, voter, retired professor, and civic activist in “the little city than can’t” aka “America’s Opportunity—for a few—City.”

Before I provide specific examples, I underscore the immature undemocratic city’s--without representative government, city manager, reputable planners, or traffic engineers--responses to my questions and challenges. In one week in late October, an assistant district attorney commented, “you don’t agree with our approach…. I don’t expect anything we say or do to change your mind.” My honest—and unanswered—response: tell me what “your approach” is, and we have laws in this city. There is no response. Evidently, I am asking, and expecting far too much in 2022.

A CPD lieutenant who only the previous weekend told me that CPD was confused about how to police the University District especially on football game days and urged me to invite City Council to my home during the next home game--to see and hear for themselves--responded to my request to continue that conversation by refusing, dismissing, and insulting me.

After four days and several prompts, he wrote, “It is my understanding the issues you have been dealing with are ongoing for many years. I can see how this would cause frustrations for you and your family. However, I have also been advised there have been many conversations with you about the issues and problems you are experiencing. Unfortunately those conversations have not resulted in solutions you deem satisfactory. At this point, I do not believe continuing our conversation... would be productive or beneficial.” Too “many conversations”? Not “deem satisfactory”? This from our uncivil tax-paid servants.

Let me be clear. I am not asking for “many conversation.” The only “solutions [I] deem necessary” is enforcing the law. That is too much for the lieutenant. His commander—in stark contrast to her predecessor who was responsive personally, and subsequently took early retirement—and her “community liaison officer” will not even acknowledge, yet alone respond to my emails or telephone calls. This is unprofessional and intolerable. I have no rights in Columbus, Ohio.

And the City of Columbus assesses taxes for this!

Hand-in-hand with CPD’s active denial of realities on the ground, and the law as written and passed, the illegal refusal by the City’s head of zoning enforcement to accept the undisputed text of the City Code pushes me to the tipping point. With the other incidents, this report may strain readers’ credibility but I have the emails and copies of the relevant sections of the law.

For context, I have struggled for years to have both the City’s 311 complaint reporting line and website, and the Departments of Zoning and Refuse Collection Enforcement function. 311 is underfunded and lacks sufficient staff to do its assigned tasks. Like other City offices but unlike genuine enforcement agencies like police, fire, and utilities, it is only open Monday-Friday, 8 am-5 pm. If problems occur, however serious, outside of business hours, there is no response.

This is especially problematic because some parking violations must be reported to 311 before CPD can be dispatched. No one can explain why. In addition, major zoning and trash problems occur predominantly on weekends.

But the City and its 311, code enforcement, and police agencies do not care. They actively deny the rights of residents to enforcement of the laws. Ironically, on a recent football Saturday, a CPD officer complained to me that Zoning Enforcement should be open on such days because CPD gets so many reports about illegal structures, banners, and other activities that it (often but not always) claims fall under others’ jurisdiction.

Last winter, the City’s Public (aka Private) Services and Department of Neighborhoods finally acknowledged that 311 was broken. This was admitted to me almost a year earlier when 311’s director telephoned me. She explained that she did not have the human or other resources needed to do the job, and that she had no control over other agencies’ responsiveness to complaints. She cried; she wants to do her job but was unable.

The “repair” was not to reconstruct and adequately fund this critical service. Instead, a new website was purchased--to someone’s profit. Not surprisingly, it also fails. Within a few days in the week in which I am drafting, I had four reports closed for complaints I did not file, while three others I did file have not yet been acknowledged.

These are the circumstances which led to my conclusive discovery of how blatantly Zoning Enforcement breaks the city’s laws. Among my many reports both directly to the head of Zoning Enforcement and to 311 is a house across the street from mine. The eight OSU seniors were ideal neighbors last year but since May, they have become juvenile delinquents, disrespecting those of us whose assistance and friendship they had welcomed.

As the school term began this fall, noise and lawn structure violations became common. They responded with complete disrespect when I asked them to respect their neighbors—fellow students who may be studying and senior citizen homeowners alike—and follow the law. On more than one occasion, neighbors called 311. Emails to their landlord, who lived in that house when my wife and I moved to Columbus and was once a responsible owner, were alternatively ignored or responded to dishonestly and with hostility.

Hanging illegal banners in fair measure to taunt me, accompanied by bold-face lies, was a breaking point. When I reported a large Ohio State banner or flag (Zoning and I differ on that but it does not matter), the first Zoning inspector finally dispatched did not know the contents of the city’s code, according to his director. A second was sent out and decreed on a Thursday that the banner violated code.

For no reason yet presented, the director of Zoning Enforcement changed his mind over the weekend. First, he confused reports about two different houses on different streets, criticizing me for sending too many emails (in comparison, Refuse never has a problem with my emails). Then he declared what had been a banner three days earlier had magically transformed into a flag, supposedly making the object exempt from City code.

Astonished, I asked him to show me the relevant ordnance. He provided Section 3375.08, noting that it begins by mentioning “flag.” Unlike this division head, I read beyond the first word. It next mentions flag pole, not a piece of cloth tacked to the front of a building.

Regarding exemptions, the section refers specifically to local, state, and national governments, holidays, and religious occasions. Nowhere are universities or their sports teams mentioned.

Does the director think that Buckeye Nation qualifies as a political body, or is this the worship of Brutus Buckeye, the teams’ cartoonish mascot? He will not answer any direct question, not even is he, like OSU’s president, “born to be a Buckeye.” Is he on the OSU payroll? With no response to my questions or explanations, his “CEO” [?] and Assistant Director block my 311 complaints. All deny my rights.

I pointed this out in detail to him, City Council legislative aides, the City Attorney, and the relevant assistant city attorney. All have gone stone cold silent. The law is unmistakable. There is no need or room for interpretation. But that doesn’t matter in Columbus, Ohio.

Led by the director of Zoning Enforcement, they join in breaking the law and violating my, and my neighbors’ rights. I have filed repeated 311 complaints against both the illegal object and law-breaking director. The City’s ethics officer in Human Resources is trying to discern how my formal complaint can proceed. This is completely untenable. And they assess me taxes for the privilege of denying my legal rights while they violate the law.

This is only an unusually blatant example, not an exception. To list just a few others, consider abandoning electronic scooters on city sidewalks. That violates city code. For almost two years, City Council aides have assured me that regulation—like an increasing number of other US cities (about a number of whom I personally provided information)—is imminent.

In that time, only in the Mayor and City Council’s privileged but undistinguished and declining Short North are scooters regulated. The influence of the area’s large developers, who are also major campaign contributors, is transparent.

For the rest of the city, the law is broken with impunity. Riding scooters or bicycles on sidewalks is also against the law. But no one enforces that—except perhaps in the Short North (and on High Street near OSU on game day afternoons). All these practices are unsafe. When I regularly ask when long promised regulation is coming, and when Columbus, Ohio will join other cities, and when I point out that bicycle rental companies maintain locked return areas, silence is the only response.

Given relevant precedents, I have rising suspicions that the Department of Public (aka Private) Service has secretly and illegally sold the “right” to litter sidewalks to scooter rental companies. It did just that with short-term lease vehicles. In that egregious case, the department sold to a foreign company the “right” to leave their vehicles in the parking spaces already sold to paid permit parking holders. Yes, you read that correctly.

This illegal double-dealing was done secretly. Neither City Council nor CPD was informed; there was no public comment. I learned about this from perplexed CPD officers who did not know how to respond to Free2Drive vehicles littering residential streets including paid permit parking spaces.

When I demanded an explanation, two associate directors responded by ignoring all direct questions and state: we are “enhancing mobility.” When I filed a formal complaint about the illegal, unannounced action, and offensive non-response of these uncivil servants, the Department Director had the temerity to have one of the subordinates named in my report respond in broken English. None of them would answer a single question. They were rude, dismissive, illogical, and wrote poorly.

My complaint supposedly went to City Council. “Mb”—Michael Brown, President Shannon Hardin’s chief of staff—lied to me about it “being heard.” No one “heard” it. When I demanded evidence including meeting minutes, Brown went silent. Brown claims a journalism degree but has a background in tourism. He writes like a junior high schooler. He too was disrespectful.

Together this grouping also violated the law and denied my—and permit parking permit purchasers’--rights. Our rights to respect, integrity, and civility are in the law. But that too is denied throughout the City of Columbus, Ohio. Honesty is not integral to the Columbus Way.

The seven-member council has a president and a president pro tempore—who goes by PPT. Others go by MC, member of council. These titles recall Cub and Boy Scout ranks. Councilors admit to knowing nothing about city managers; they show no knowledge about the city they are elected—at large, with no specific constituencies—to “govern.” They are part-time councilors, yet they lobby for pay increases.

Committees are comprised of two councilors but in practice conducted by only one. Each councilor has one legislative aide and one other assistant. There is no research or professional support staff. With no city manager, and a dysfunctional departmental organization and dysfunctional communications, there is no expertise anywhere in City Hall.

It shows from discussion to legislation, public statements, lack of accountability and oversight, to the complete absence of any vision of the city as whole, the broken physical city, the extreme degree of inequality, and the domination of private interests—the traditions of the Columbus Way under both Republican and Democratic, but never democratic—administrations.

City code is also violated by the near complete absence of city code stipulated inspection of streets, sidewalks, signage on buildings. OSUlive for example has 3-4 signs per property and stadium-sized banners on apartment buildings. That is a violation. So too are the broken front door of almost every HomeTeam rental property.

Illogically, inspection of sidewalks falls under the highly selective and inconsistent jurisdiction of Public (aka Private) Service on the grounds of “right of way.” That designation is contradicted by the fact the individual property owners are responsible for sidewalk repair, not the city. And that, under (unenforced) law, scooters and bicycles cannot be ridden on sidewalks. No one, of course, can explain this. Regardless, both property owners and the City are breaking the law.


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, he writes about a variety of contemporary and historical topics 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 was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.