Harvey J Graff

Rather than taking humor again as the genre for this essay, I follow French author Emile Zola’s classic 1898 open letter to the President of France as my model and metaphor. For readers unfamiliar with European history, Zola accused the French national government of antisemitism in its the unlawful prosecution and imprisonment of French Army General Staff officer Alfred Dreyfus. Falsely charged and sentenced for life for alleged espionage, he was denied all legal rights.

Zola identified judicial errors and lack of evidence in his front page “J’Accuse” in the major daily newspaper, L’Aurore. In retaliation, the government prosecuted Zola for libel. Found guilty, he fled to England for 15 months. Zola’s and others’ denunciations of the government’s blatant dishonesty and illegal actions led to the French Supreme Court’s annulment of both convictions following thorough investigations.

For more than a century, “J’Accuse” has been employed effectively around the world as a term or trope of condemnation for illegitimate government actions. I use it to publicize the activities of the City of Columbus’ out-of-control, mismanaged, law-breaking, and corrupt Division of Public Service. Readers will recall that in 2021-22, I publicly renamed it “Private” not “public” service.

Never reviewed or reexamined from its long out-of-date establishment in the antiquated 1912 City Charter, the division grew enormously through the 20th and early 21st century. Especially with no overall management or city manager, apparently no mayor, city councilor, or journalist noticed.

I was not aware of its machinations and contradictions until fall-winter 2021-22. As short-term lease cars (Central European-based Free-to-Drive, Free to Lease, etc.) were left like litter in my University District neighborhood, student tenants increasingly discovered them occupying the permit parking space for which they paid fees.

After consulting with my young neighbors, I called the Columbus Police. Upon arrival, they were confused. To the best of their knowledge, these abandoned vehicles were parked illegally. On the one hand, they were hesitant to write tickets because they expected them to be ignored or never reach the responsible parties.

On the other hand, when they checked with CPD and learned that Public Services had sold the right to leave rental vehicles in the spaces already sold to residents, they were both mystified and shocked. No one had informed the police (or city council or the public) about this. There was no public input or formal procedure. The officers were stunned at the obvious contradictions and misconduct.

I next inquired to Public Service directly. I received muddled, poorly written, self-contradictory, distracting and dismissive, and offensive nonresponses from now former assistant director Robert Ferrin and continuing administrator Randy Borntrager. In between ignoring my direct questions and wishing me “good weekend” regardless of the day of the week, they justified their rampant double-dealing and compromising the rights of permit parking holders because in some inexplicable way, they were “enhancing mobility.” In fact, this unethical and quite likely illegal action is actively limiting “mobility.”

Director Jennifer Gallagher is always silent, despite her official responsibilities. Ferrin and Borntrager refused any further inquiry or discussion.

Further investigation showed that their sale of parking rights to an offshore foreign for-profit corporation was done without public comment or conversation with CPD or city council—that is, no procedures were followed. As I pursued matters further, Public Service’s conduct grew darker.

At this point, J’accuse the Division of Public (aka Private) Service of

--conflict of interests

--violating City Charter, Code, and Code of Standards and Ethics

--violating City and State laws

--running a private for-profit business at the expense of t residents, taxpayers,

homeowners, and voters

--actively damaging the people and the built environment of the city through both

commission and omission

--refusing to respond to legitimate questions from the public and the media

--lying to the public

--operating with the knowledge and collusion of the mayor, City Office of Ethics,

a number if not all city councilors, and city employees including but not limited to the chief of staff. Employees of other departments including Zoning Enforcement are also certainly involved.

Failing to receive any rational response from the division, I asked the City Attorney if his office could investigate this matter. He replied that it did not fall within his domain. I next turned to the City’s own politically-appointed Chief Ethics and Campaign Violation Office. In my complaint, I pointed to both selling the same parking space twice without following procedures, and the Division leaders’ clear violation of the mayor’s 2016 Code of Ethics and Standards.

I had to email multiple times to obtain a simple acknowledgement from Pam Ramsini (who runs her own business on the side). With no response, I learned second or third hand that my complaint had somehow—supposedly—migrated to city council or at least to council president Shannon Hardin’s chief of staff Michael Brown (whose background is in tourism).

First, I received an email from new city councilor Lourdes Barossa de Padillo’s new legislative aide Jessica Caceres. In the City of Columbus’ disorganization, inexperienced Barossa de Padilla chairs the committee putatively supervising Public Service. The aide informed me that I would hear from her within the week—that was 9 months ago, I am still waiting. (In December 2022, she slipped and told me that Michael Brown ordered her—and other aides and councilors—not to communicate with me, another ethics and civil violation).

Next, I received an all but unintelligible communication from Mb (as Brown signs). He stated that City Council “heard” me and dismissed my complaint. Very surprised, I checked with my council sources: no one had “heard” anything, anywhere, at any time. I asked Brown for an explanation and evidence of my being “heard.” I am still waiting.

Of course, the Ethics Office dismissed my complaint against Brown and the two councilors (de Padilla and Nick Bankston) who I know collude with him, Gallagher, and Borntrager. Conflicts of interest and collusion overrun the City Hall swamps.

But this is far from all.

For more than a year, Director Gallagher has been under investigation by the Ohio State Ethics Commission for awarding construction contracts to her husband’s firm, a clear and blatant violation of conflict of interest policies and statutes.

Complaints were first made to the City of Columbus, but the mayor and City Ethics Office inexplicably refused to act. The complaints then went to the state, focusing on the award of the contract and the action of the developer in mixing public and private lands.

Work on the Little Tuttle development ceased, and a trial is pending. Gallagher awarded the contract several years after being advised against such actions by the State Ethics Commission in 2016. (See Bill Bush, “One year on, Ethics Commission probe into Little Tuttle contract appears ongoing,” Columbus Dispatch, Jan. 30, 2023)

Public—Private—Services offenses do not stop there. It is all but certain that the Division has also sold the rights for rented electric scooters to be left like litter on sidewalks and especially street corners. Not only are they not allowed to be ridden on such “rights of way,” they cannot be left without blocking sidewalks and limiting the mobility of pedestrians and especially the handicapped, elderly, young children, strollers, carriages. Again, with no public involvement or consultation with city council or police, the division has illegally sold the right to break the law.

Although I was told by a number of council aides two years ago that Columbus would soon follow other cities and regulate scooters, nothing has happened except additional illegal profiteering by Public Service and offenses against the residents. My complaints to Ethics and relevant city councilors were dismissed without explanation—of course. This is the Columbus Way. “Public Service” is synonymous with private gain and violation of the law.

I do not understand why rental bicycles must locked in special areas but not rental scooters or cars. Simple logic does not apply in city hall.

Public Service also wrecks paid parking throughout the city. Standard parking meters were removed and replaced with online-cell phone apps, confusing and poorly located “kiosks” purportedly but ridiculously in the interest of removing environmental eyesores. In the process, handicapped and seniors parking spaces were reduced, and easy to use by all coin meters replaced with confusing and sometimes difficult to use apps that are not available to all and not always operable. The fees are higher than they had been despite the need for fewer human monitors.

Why? The app and kiosk owners and operators pay the City for the right to profiteer and restrict the rights of the public whose taxes pay for their salaries. Public Service serves private interests.

Inexplicably, monitoring parking is also part of Public Services. Local news reporters document that the division targets certain areas including the students in the University District and consumers in the Short North. Vehicles only inches over lines regularly receive citations for tiny infractions, never a warning—unlike trash and zoning enforcement. Public Services contradictorily is a for-profit enterprise of the City.

But it gets worse. Public Service replaced long-standing, and tried and well working parking stickers or decals on vehicles as confirmation of paid permit parking with more expensive online apps. Of course, those vendors pay to play.

But it now almost impossible for either the police or residents who may well have paid for parking on their block to know if other vehicles are parked legally. CPD was not consulted. Officers with whom I speak do not like this at all.

All this keeps the division busy, too busy to conduct much of their legally required and desperately needed responsibilities. The broken physical condition of the city, which visitors notice immediately but about which City Hall is almost completely silent, follows directly from Public Service’s malfeasance and neglect. They are violating city code and actively destroying the built environment.

Sidewalks and streets are not inspected. Complaints to 311 are ignored. Almost all residents in the University District fall on illegal unrepaired broken walkways. I broke my leg in May 2022.

The City and its legally responsible division do not care because code-required maintenance would cost Columbus, not profit the City, its anti-public taxpayer paid servants—and of course the private interests.

The division demands major reorganization and a reconstructed leadership.

J’accuse loudly and clearly. Will the courts play their legal role?


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.