Harvey J Graff

As I continue my search for Columbus’ history and identity, I regularly rediscover the City’s and the city’s willful lack of the foundational elements for a modern city. I return to its absence of typical city reforms toward representative city government in the second half of the nineteenth century and its missing Progressive Era of the early 20th century: that’s capital P, unlike our present-day search for a 21st century progressivism. These are historical anomalies, unlike other cities of its age and size in Ohio and across the nation.

A central element in Columbus’ absent core is the combined extent of mismanagement and lack of management, and both real and likely corruption. As Ohio increasingly takes center stage nationally for corruption permeating its state government, 21st century Columbus takes center stage as its corruption capital.

In this essay, I argue that these critical omissions, on the one hand, and commissions, on the other hand, are part and parcel of the same lack of a modern urban foundation and sense of itself and its publics. As I have explained in earlier essays, Columbus City government is unusual in lacking in expertise and relevant experience, organization for operations to serve its publics. In fact, Columbus’ diverse publics have never been the focus of its City government and its overlapping elected and unelected governing class, a number of whom live outside of the city’s boundaries from Worthington to New Albany and beyond.

Followers of mayor and City Council are not surprised by lack of concern about ethics or the law. Let’s begin with the incumbent mayor who unselfconsciously follows his predecessors in disdain for his publics and his responsibilities. A firm believer in leadership by sloganeering, Ginther is unusual both in the unoriginality of his slogans—from “Columbus is America’s Opportunity City,” with no concern for defining “opportunity” or for whom or professing support for equity but not joining Mayors Organized for Racial Equity, to repeatedly declaring gun violence “a public health crisis” but doing nothing serious to meet the crisis. Instead, he materially weakened the Columbus Police Department by offering buyouts of $200,000 to 100 officers indiscriminately of their status as “good cops” or “bad cops.”

Making no effort to provide the human and financial resources urgently demanded by a depleted and demoralized force, he did not attempt to renegotiate the City’s contract with its unusually powerful chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. In the face of mounting gun violence and homicide, and of numerous cases of police violations (under seldom-mentioned federal Department of Justice investigation), there is no serious program of responsible gun-buybacks. Instead, a small number of already overworked and understaffed police are paid overtime to patrol police parks where gun violence is not occurring. City Councilors confuse law enforcement with crime deterrence and prevention. They are not synonymous. The latter often takes the form of evening basketball games for teens.

The mayor and police chief mention federal gun surveillance programs but never provide evidence of their impact. This is more sloganeering. With respect to guns and crimes more generally, the mayor tosses around numbers with no respect to their reliability or significance. As with his approach to affordable housing, he is arithmetically challenged.

The mayor’s accompanying slogan is Columbus will “spend whatever it takes” to make city safe from crime.” But there are no proposals or funds allocated to “spend whatever it takes.” Empty rhetoric corresponds to the absence of developed programs, budgets, timetables, or means of evaluation: That is the mayor’s, indeed, the Columbus Way. City Council trademarks slogans for spending without accountability or responsibility.

“Columbus is America’s Opportunity City” takes the prize. The mayor’s office website brazenly proclaims, “Columbus has been named ‘Opportunity City’” during his term. But it is the mayor himself who named it. Evidently he thinks he is fooling someone. But who?

The same pattern follows with respect to the faint line that divides ethical violations from illegal actions. The City’s unaccountably confused and confusing City Charter Review process functioned through a commission of unqualified appointees prompted by private interests desiring to reduce their need to request all but automatic variances to city zones and regulations—not by the victimized, taxpaying public. Increasing the salaries for the part-time City Councilors and especially the mayor was proposed. This occurs at a time when basic city services are starved for minimal support but never appear on Council’s agenda

When it was revealed that the mayor’s office was unethically and potentially illegally lobbying hard for a significant pay raise, first the staff rather than the incumbent was held responsible. When that did not succeed, the mayor’s office bobbed and weaved to aver that, after all, Columbus does not have a City Manager. If that desperate end-run were not ridiculous on its face, no one proposed hiring a much-needed for decades professional city manager. Nor did even the mayor’s lobbyists seriously suggest that he actually did the job of a trained and knowledgeable professional city manager.

In the end, in the words of the Columbus Dispatch, the Charter Reform “Panel appointed by Columbus elected official recommends boosting those officials’ pay” (Apr. 19, 2022). Never did any of them—elected officials or their appointed commissioners—make concrete arguments that their workload and contributions merited significant salary increases at a time of great underfunding of underperforming basic city services.

City services barely appear in the City’s proposed $1.5 billion capital budget proposal. As I write, Council conducts four public hearings in different parts of the city but provides no basic explanation of its contents. When I pointed this out, I was told that a concerned resident could contact a specific city department. When I commented that it was all but impossible to get a response via either telephone or email, the conversation ended.

Since the Charter Reform Commission was not appointed in direct response to public demands—as it should have been decades earlier—the Charter dates from 1914--unsurprisingly, it is ending with a large number of disconnected proposals. The Columbus Dispatch expresses the unnecessary chaos: “The Columbus City Council has received so many recommended potential amendments to the city’s governing charter from a special review panel that voter overload is a concern.”

No one, not the appointed commission or the non-managing mayor or Council president, is managing the matter. With no respect to any kind of constitutional or orderly process, Council President Shannon Hardin “said there are so many proposed changes that they may have to be split up and put before voters over more than one election” (July 13, 2022). Who will decide what and when? Where do the needs and wishes of the public play their roles? Those issues are never addressed.

Among the popular proposals to which the appointed Charter Commissioner responded unenthusiastically were those that sought to democratize Council elections, promote public input, and reduce the influence of special interests. As I have argued, neither the typical urban representative governmental reforms of the second half of the nineteenth century nor early twentieth-century Progressive Era changes have come to 21st century Columbus.

Tellingly, the symbolic and the real unite in one of the most consequential conflicts that emerged publicly from the Commission’s sometimes public and announced hearings and sometimes not—in violation of the Charter itself: the overt conflict between the mayor and his office’s contention that the city’s civil service director serves the mayor, and the language of the City Charter which does not state that.

To quote the Dispatch, “Columbus voters created the city’s Civil Service Commission in 1914 as a check against mayoral patronage hiring and corruption.” That was a national movement of the time. But in 2022, “emails show its current executive director coordinated with and took direction from Mayor Andrew J. Ginther’s office in recommending the elimination of competitive testing in city hiring” (July 12, 2022). Does the mayor’s office have a literacy problem, a legal problem, or a reality problem? The wording of the City Charter, the law of the land, is clear. But for the past two decades City practice and City Charter take different paths. The people of Columbus be damned. That is the Columbus Way.

Council and large City departments take the same crooked paths. Both knowledge of the city and general expertise are rare. In part, this results directly from the historical anachronism of at-large elected City Council in the 21st century combined with the absence of the professional guidance of a trained City Manager. There is neither an overall urban vision nor urban policies for a complex, diverse, and divided city. Consequently, individual City Councilors and distinctive disconnected departments and divisions act without coordination or communication. The City website and communication lines, led by its 311 problem reporting systems, are all but inoperable.

Rather than coordinated urban governance, Columbus is a City and city of bits and pieces seldom connected with each other, and never with the sum more than the parts. Consider this:

1. City Council operates through a committee structure with only two councilors per committee. The scope of the committees is ill-defined and apparently redundant. Experience and expertise seem to place no role.

2. Proposals come to Council from committees, individual members, or the mayor. Little is linked into coordinated policies. Proposals reflect a combination of members’ personal interests and the results of either or both private or public interest groups lobbying the Councilors and/or the mayor.

3. Budgets and scope of ambitions do not bear close relationship to each other.

4. Based on the documents available—on request, not posted with notices of hearings or meetings and their agendas—remarkably little attention is accorded to completeness of proposals, budgets, timetables, or means of assessment and accountability.

5. Not surprisingly, the public only learns about the progress of plans approved when wholesale failure occurs. This took place recently with respect to a city-funded private program to establish and fund a “boot-camp” in computer coding by a start-up private group with no experience or qualifications that never secured licensing. (“For-profit tech school funded by Columbus council doesn’t have state license to operate,” Columbus Dispatch, June 26, 2022) That should never occur. What is known in the “trade” as “vetting” is not part of the City of Columbus playbook.

6. Reporting on progress or culmination of publicly-funded projects including costly tax exemptions and tax-free development zones (TIFs) seldom if ever occurs. Large institutions like Ohio State automatically have their requests met regardless of public testimony.

7. No attention is paid to simple or complex conflicts of interest. This typically pivots around public vs. private. On the one hand, neither Councilors nor staff addresses their affiliations or other relationships with either or both public or private interest groups. Potentially questionable relationships are common, exacerbated by the non-representative structure of City Council and the lack of common purpose/common united policy. The City Attorney, an elected official, must remind City Council of its legal obligations to abide by its own charter.

8. History and precedent speak loudly here. As Kevin Cox demonstrates in the only documented book-length study on the city, Boomtown Columbus: Ohio’s Sunbelt City and How Developers Got Their Way (2021), conflict of interest is the Columbus Way. Etched into the fabric of the city’s history, the modern mold was set by the Columbus Dispatch’s Wolfe family in conjunction with City Councilors and mayor.

It is no accident that former mayor Michael Coleman has more influence as unelected head of the self-appointed purportedly public group for private advancement Columbus Downtown Development Corporation than he did as elected mayor. Or that his privates and lieutenants follow him into elected offices. The equally self-appointed Columbus Partnership refuses to engage direct questions asked publicly. That, too, is the Columbus Way.

In an issue crying out for study, City Council and City department senior staffers play a local version of “follow the leader” from minor to major offices, appointments to elections, and then often back to either the private sphere or the blurry non-transparent world of public “interest” groups for private advancement. This is undemocratic. It also raises ethical and legal questions.

Not surprisingly, among the proposals for Charter reform that finds no sympathy inside the commission or the council is a legal limitation on the use of a sitting Councilor surplus campaign funds to assist the electoral campaign of a present or past staff member’s campaign for election. As I have noted in earlier essays, it is common for Council members to begin find their time in office through an appointment process that includes no relevant job qualifications and an application process less arduous than applying for admission to college. Is it a surprise that Council members typically lack relevant knowledge and expertise?

9. As I argue regularly, ignorance of history, lack of identity, mismanagement and lack of management, little concept and respect for the city’s publics, conflicts of interest, and at least alleged corruption come together to insure that private interests dominate over publics and that Columbus’s “Opportunity City” is constructed by and for private interests. I have written at length about the destruction of historic neighborhoods, especially Franklinton, the University District, and Weinland Park, and the chaos and lack of architectural distinction of Downtown.

10. Inseparably interrelated and shocking in the third decade of the 21st century is today’s continuing domination of private interests over preservation and enhancement of the natural environment’s underpinnings of public health, public safety, recreation, and aesthetics.

One of Columbus’ few natural attractions, the Scioto Peninsula and its adjacent waterfront areas, are a prime site for developers with Council’s blessings. This ranges from the much too tall and outrageously named Junto Hotel to the just approved—over the objections of City and Franklin County Metro Parks--750 unit apartment complex on private property adjacent to Downtown’s Scioto Audubon Metro Park. (A token, inadequate 10 per cent of units is to be allocated without regulation to lower income renters.)

Local environmental activist and Columbus Community Bill of Rights leader Bill Lyons shows how this functions as a pattern in his chapter in Death by Democracy: Protecting Water and Life (2021). A walk or drive through the filthy, unsanitary, and unsafe city convinces the curious.

In the latest case of waterfront destructive action, City Council typically blames the victims. As reported in the Columbus Dispatch, “The vote, however, came after council members expressed dismay with Columbus and Franklin County Metro Parks for not agreeing to cede a strip of park land that city officials say is needed for a new entrance to accommodate 1.5 additional car trips a year to and from the project.” The report continues, “The dispute puts the city and park system on a collision course that could ultimately force part of the traffic flow…through a road that winds through the center of the park.” (July 12, 2022)

“Dismay” joins the “frustration” that our elected at-large City Councilors failingly substitute for policy and action. Last month, it was “frustration” over AEP’s unexplained inability to manage its own power grid that took the place of action that met the needs of its high-paying subscribers.

Nor will mayor or Council make public statements in the face of clear evidence that the city and county US Postal Service is among the very worse in the nation. I know because I have asked without success the City to speak, and filed formal complaints through Senator Sherrod Brown’s office to the USPS and the federal Inspector General’s Office. City Council and its leaders see no role in speaking for the interests of their voting, taxpaying publics.

11. Columbus eschews professional and reputable city planning and planners. Instead power and influence flow to private corporations, landowners, and large institutions and their “consultants,” i.e., lobbyists. All but automatic variances to the century out-of-date, inadequate Charter and zoning codes substitute for planning. Thus the sustained desecration of the environment, the domination of Ohio State University over the interests of homeowners and residents in the areas near the spatially segregated campus, the social and economic tragedy of Franklinton, the crisis of affordable housing and the homeless, poverty, public health, and crime.

The expected considerations of appropriateness, aesthetics, design, and traffic congestion and flow drown in the Scioto or fall on the unplowed snow when the City approves a developer’s 32-story high-rise tower beside the historic North Market or even higher structures on the banks of Scioto on the edge of Downtown. The transformation of Fifth Avenue is another example. All this with ecologically-outdated and inadequate public transit.

12. I will not repeat my earlier analyses of 311, zoning, public services, public safety and Columbus Police Department. But I end by underscoring the relentless and uncontrolled sale of the city to national and international private interests by the Department of pseudo Public Service. That unit, impermeable to a city resident’s inquiries, request for explanation, and failing effort to file a formal complaint, must be renamed Private Service or Private Advancement. Without public input or informing City Council, CPD, or the residents of the city, it sells the rights to out-of-city, state, and US corporations to litter residential areas with short-term for-lease cars, scooters, and bicycles by allowing the renters to leave vehicles in spaces for which residents actually pay the city for permit parking. At the same time, the 800 employee department chaotically deconstructs public parking throughout the city.

How long will the uncontrolled Columbus Way dominate the city’s publics?


A knowledgeable reader calls my attention to

Article XV, Section 10 | Civil service

Ohio Constitution

Article XV Miscellaneous

Effective: 1912
"Appointments and promotions in the civil service of the state, the several counties, and cities, shall be made according to merit and fitness, to be ascertained, as far as practicable, by competitive examinations. Laws shall be passed providing for the enforcement of this provision."

Apparently no one on the Charter Reform Commission, City Council, or the Mayor is familiar with state 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 on social history, the history of literacy and education, cities, and interdisciplinarity, he writes 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 a Historian is forthcoming.