The little big city that refuses to represent, serve, or respect its publics
Police car

Part Two

A new set of factors emerged in winter 2021-22. The first opened a previously unexposed window into the failed interworking of the Assistant City Attorney liaison for the Columbus Police Department (CPD). I first learned about this from a conversation with an exceptionally knowledgeable, professional CPD officer about why he was not permitted to give a citation or tow a car that was parked illegally.

For a relatively brief time, a court in another state ruled that police or parking enforcement officers chalking tires or making a note on a car’s window to indicate that it was observed for the 72-hour limit represented an “invasion of privacy.” A Michigan court struck that down.

After my conversation with the CPD officer, I contacted the relevant Assistant City Attorney. He refused to accept any information, citizen input, or question. While referring to the relevant court rulings, he denied their actual content, demonstrating complete unfamiliarity with the basics of his paid employment.

As I attempted to explain matters to this several decade Assistant City Attorney, I learned that officers see him as an obstacle to their enforcing the laws that they are under oath to do and to serve the public.

As I explained when I filed a formal complaint to the Assistant City Attorney responsible for investigating colleagues (Columbus’ self-contradictory and self-serving façade for responsibility), this was worse that dealing with a spoiled child. The individual was self-serving rude, ignorant, arrogant, uncivil, dismissive, and demeaning to a knowledgeable city resident. When challenged on factual grounds, he literally hid behind his Capital University law degree. Neither the clear meaning of texts nor reality, let alone respect for a resident ever intruded.

When, as expected but only after months of prompting, my complaint was rejected, the sole defense was that the offending party had been a member of the bar for several decades. Not one word about the issues or relevant court cases. And, by the way, he is encouraged to change his tone in dealings with the public.

After learning recently that instructions to police about chalking tires and also using impound lots to tow illegally parked cars had not been revised in recent months, I renewed my complaint. No, I am not holding my breath.

The next step of my City discovery also came through CPD. In late winter 2021-22, for several weeks, my student neighbors and I began to find short-term lease vehicles with company names like Free2Drive and Free2Move left like litter in the parking spaces in front of student rentals for which they paid for residential permit parking.

After consulting with several students, I called CPD. The officers were perplexed. No one had informed them about this practice. They were hesitant to write tickets, fearing that they would be thrown away. One officer investigated.

The discovery both astonished but also did not completely surprise us. The very large city department called Public Service sold the rights to central European short-term lease vehicles owners to allow their renters to abandon cars in the same spaces for which residents paid for permit parking.

If this unethical and quite likely illegal action were not enough, Public Service (which I renamed Private Service) did not inform City Council or CPD and had no public input. When I demanded an explanation, the director who is under multiple state investigations for conflict of interest for awarding City contracts to her husband’s construction firm, had one former and one continuing associate director send rude non-responses to me.

One included “I hope you had a great weekend” in his messages regardless of the day of the week. Both sent me a nonsensical, poorly written paragraph with nothing specific to short-term lease vehicles about “enhancing mobility.” With no relationship to specific actions, city codes or laws, approvals, or the vehicles themselves, this constituted the multiple offensives of an insulting dismissal and almost certainly a legal offense. Of course, they did not respond to any questions. I again filed a formal complaint against the associate directors. It took multiple mailings for the director’s aide to even acknowledge receipt and only after I requested the professional civic-oriented City council aides to assist me. Weeks passed. Through means never made clear to me, I received an email from the legislative aide to the novice council member who chairs the council supervising committee for Public/Private Works. This untrained, unresponsive person of few words informed me that I would hear from her soon. Seven months later, I am still waiting. In a recent exchange, she admitted that she was ordered not to communicate with me. So much for “civil service” or responsibility. Instead, with no forewarning, description of process or procedure, or explanation of any kind, I received an email from one Mb—Michael Brown, the President of the seven-person City Council’s chief of staff. In barely intelligible English (despite listing a journalism degree), Mb informed me that Council had “heard” my complaint and dismissed it.

Startled and confused, I make inquiries. Mb blatantly lied to me. No one on council “heard” anything. Of course, Mb ignored all my attempts—and at least one aide’s—to demand the explanation to which I am, by law, entitled. This is the Columbus Way. (See “My ongoing struggles for responsibility from the City of Columbus,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, July 12, 2022; “Is Columbus the corruption capital of a corrupt state? Mismanagement, no management, and corruption in the 2020s,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, July17, 2022; “You can’t sue City Hall, can you? But we should educate the public and use the ballot box: That’s the American Way, not the Columbus Way,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Aug. 21, 2022.)

My more recent formal complaint against Brown as well as Private Service Director Jennifer Gallagher and Associate Director Randy Borntrager, of course, is denied with no explanation. As previously, I only learn this by asking repeatedly.

These incidents revealed a new world of urban corruption in Columbus that may bear comparison if not quite to New York City’s Boss Tweed but also Chicago’s 1960s Richard Daley or Pittsburgh’s 1950s Davey Lawrence. (See Andy Ginther as Columbus, Ohio’s very own shabby 21st century limitation of New York City’s 1860-1870s Boss Tweed,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 19, 2022.)

Private (aka Public) Service is an overly large for-profit operation central to City government. By Charter, it has huge responsibilities which it does not meet. These include regular inspection of Columbus’ immediately recognizable broken streets and sidewalks. They encompass parking and parking enforcement including bicycles and especially electric scooters.

The physical city and the actual “mobility” of motorists, pedestrians, bikers, scooters be damned, because they are not in the narrow money-making interests of Private Services. Contrary to slogans and self-contradictory rhetoric, they actively impede, not enhance, mobility (except perhaps CPD’s horses who shit in the streets and civilian bystanders must ask officers to clean up).

This is not only the case with respect to scooters and short-term lease vehicles (but oddly not for bicycles which have locked return stations) but for parking. Private Services replaced permit parking stickers clearly visible on cars with apps despite the obstruction to the police doing their jobs and to neighbors whose paid spaces may be occupied illegally. Closely related is the replacement of parking meters including those with card scanners with apps and kiosks.

In fact, the largest number of department employees write parking tickets relentlessly but primarily in a handful of neighborhoods and for miniscule violations of two inches to less than one foot.

None of this “enhances mobility.” It retards mobility and inconveniences everyone concerned from motorists to police. But double-dealing with parking spaces, littering streets and sidewalks, blocking rights of way, and reducing handicapped and senior parking results in regular unannounced and unreported public profits to the Department of Private Services.

Almost as ridiculous as the silly slogan of “enhancing mobility” is the rhetorical recklessness of blurting that removing parking meters “beautifies the environment.” Did anyone consider commissioning a qualified ad agency? Oh no, that would require spending.

The greater contradiction of private substituting for public service is that the department ignores their city charter ordered responsibility to inspect and require that all “rights of way” be maintained in good repair. The physical structure of Columbus collapses literally at the hands of its own City government. Which landlords are developers are paying for that reprieve from City law?

Only worsening the insult to residents and visitors to see this on arrival is the mayor’s and city council’s uncontrollable urge to award private developers and businesses as well as pseudo-public interests tax abatements without responsibility, complete proposals, budgets, timetables, or measures of accountability. When a Dispatch reporter revealed this regular practice in fall 2022, both a recipient and the City’s Director of Development Michael Stevens rushed to the non-daily, non-newspaper to lie brazenly about practice, results, and profitability. That, too, is the Columbus Way.

The more I learn about Private Service, the most questions I raise. The more ethics and legal violations I see.

Asking any questions, however, is not the Columbus Way. It results in the insult and disrespect of refusal to respond to any questions from an active, knowledgeable, and observant citizen whose taxes pay their salaries. Private Service ignores all my questions about scooters, no longer wishing me “good weekends” past or future, or mumbling incoherently about “enhancing” someone’s economic “mobility.”

For the record, I filed another complaint. Of course, it was rejected without investigation and no explanation. And of course, I only learned its expected fate by repeatedly demanding a response from the City’s Chief “Ethics” Officer whose job seems to be distributing complaints to the very departments where the reported employee works in order to facilitate their unannounced rapid dismissal. No investigations. No explanations. No consequences. No city.

Most recently, with rude and uncivil failure, I attempted to have my questions raised and share my complaints with the chairperson of the council committee that pretends to oversee Private Works. In the Columbus Way, that chair is a novice councilor with no relevant experience. Their legislative aide is the same person from whom I have waiting to hear since June.

As usual, she rudely, disrespectfully, and uncivilly ignored my repeated communications. When the aide finally replied, contradicting the actual timeline of neglect, she ignored all of my explicit questions and concerns. The tone was dismissive and demeaning. When asked directly, the aide did not understand those words or civility and common courtesy.

When I insisted on some degree of explanation, she strived hard and achieved a new degree of disrespect and empty rhetoric: “I have looked into your concerns [I filed a formal complaint] regarding littered scooters and Free 2 Move [Free2Move] vehicles. Councilmember Barroso de Padilla and Councilmember Bankston [I asked him nothing] met with the Department of Public Service and discussed your concerns [complaint]. There is no new information that I can provide at this time. In [Barroso de Padilla’s and Bankston’s] joint opinion, no further action from our offices are [is] necessary on this matter.” To be clear, the aide “looked into” nothing. Did anyone meet with anyone? Is there in fact a “joint opinion” and whose orders are being followed?

Only a bit taken aback, I asked immediately about the terms of the alleged meeting and the content of the purported discussion; the substance of the not-new information since I had no prior information old or new; and the substance and terms of the “joint opinion.” I also asked why one novice accompanied the other when the issues did not fall within his domain.

Of course, there is no response. Frustrated, I telephoned the aide. Hesitantly, she admitted that in June and again in November, she was ordered not to provide me with information. I tried to begin a citizen’s conversation. Rushing to a meeting, she indicated that she would telephone me. That was one month ago. As with June, I am still waiting.

Who is most likely repeatedly to command a city council aide not to communicate with a 73-year-old homeowner, taxpayer, voter, knowledgeable, and active resident? How far up the chain of disrespect of the Columbus Way does the order extend? Is it the Chief of Staff of the council: or his boss, the President of Council, or his boss, the mayor?

On the other hand, I can be very brief.

The Director of Refuse is the most professional and civic-oriented employee of the City. He has an excellent staff. It goes without saying that his department is underfunded and understaffed.

One Assistant City Attorney attempts to serve his multiple conflicting constituencies and maintains cordial relations with me.

After about one month’s effort and a never-heard complaint, the Director of Zoning and Neighborhoods overruled four of his staff about the literal and unmistakable meaning of an article in the city code and ordered them to act as I had requested—based on checking the city code--almost two months earlier. After first accepting my complaint, they changed their minds without explanation during one weekend and responded with f disrespect and denial. I await an apology for four senior city staff members lying to me repeatedly.

Finally, my outraged demand to be resubscribed to City Hall messages was honored after the novice head of communications unsubscribed me against my wishes because I complained about the City’s practice of spamming its residents with the same contentless emails three, four, five, and more times. She ignored my request for an apology.

Not surprisingly, I hear snarky, ignorant elements of a narrative about “the Professor” leaking from CPD and City Hall. My Zone 4 CPD Commander and her community liaison officer see no reason to communicate with me. This contradicts her predecessor who accepted early retirement in frustration after long service. He was a professional who valued his relationships with concerned citizens.

I “am never satisfied.” My “expectations are unreasonable and will never be met.” (See “My short life as a ‘civic leader’ in the directionless maze called the City of Columbus, Part One, Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, May 11, 2022; “My short life as a ‘civic leader’ in the directionless maze called the City of Columbus, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, May 14, 2022.)

Are they? All I ask is this: do your jobs. Obey the laws. Enforce the laws. Be respectful and civil. But that is just too much for Columbus, Ohio.

Respect for citizens is not the Columbus Way. Tax bills are always on time, but no charter-ordered city public services is the Columbus Way. (See in general “Abandoned by my elected and unelected officials (unless I pay to play): The Columbus Way, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Oct. 30, 2022; “Abandoned by my elected and unelected officials (unless I pay to play): The Columbus Way, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 2, 2022; “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part One,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 13, 2022; “The City that breaks its laws has a police force that refuses to enforce the city’s laws: The Columbus Way, Part Two,” Busting Myths, Columbus Free Press, Nov. 16. 2022.)


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 2022. My Life with Literacy: The Continuing Education of a Historian. The Intersections of the Personal, the Political, the Academic, and Place is forthcoming.