Part One: Colemanville, Ohio

By Colemanville, I refer to undemocratic, unrepresentative ragged-edged principality of Columbus’ power elite dominated by the now more powerful former mayor Michael Coleman and his self-appointed Columbus Downtown Development Commission; the Columbus Partnership (whose leaders live outside the city): their promotional agents the Columbus Dispatch and Columbus Metropolitan Club, who dictate commands to Andy Ginther and the now minority-majority city council. They undemocratically rule the City but willingly remain almost completely unknowledgeable about it.

(Against all understanding, council president Hardin and now President pro tempore Dorans dizzyingly declare this unacceptable cosmetic change to be a genuine advance in Democracy, if not democracy, if I understand them correctly. It is often difficult to do so.)

Together, these self-appointed dictators maintain the power of the few, all profiteering private interests who pay for play in the long traditions of The Columbus Way. Together with the mayor and city council, they neglect the publics of Columbus. They rule by secret collusion and weak anti-factual slogans.

As for Colemanville itself, aka downtown, it has broken streets and sidewalks, is dominated by parking lots, has no boundaries, and no identifiable landmarks. (None of the private parking lots accepts the City’s mobile app.) Or do parking lots and unaesthetic, over-priced and unfilled recent apartment building. Professional urban planning, size and height considerations, and attention to design are forbidden in the private and secret city called Columbus.

On hearing the name Columbus, all non-residents ask immediately: Columbus where? Which one? Two of the city’s disreputable namesake’s public sculptures sit in boxes while the council pays unqualified “consultants” for advice about their future that no doubt will be ignored. The same applies to “public art.”

Unlike any of its peer cities, Columbus has no buildings designed by a nationally or internationally distinguished architect. It has only one building of any note, the Leveque Tower, now a boutique hotel. Its modern architecture is poor. A private developer now forces an unaesthetic wildlife threatening pseudo-sculpture — actually a net inexplicably called “Current”— on Gay St.— that is, when the weather is clement (and until the State Legislature bans the name of the street). Despite 900,000 population, Columbus has no nationally or internationally distinguished institutions, unlike for example, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, or Pittsburgh.

For no more than meaningless, self-promotion, one city councilor under Colemanville leaders’ Orders – Lourdes Barroso de Padilla – insisted on an unenforced (as everywhere in Columbus) 25 mile per hour limit, necessitating unnecessary and wasteful replacement of traffic signs. All for no practical point. She apparently cannot see the parking lots or the broken streets and sidewalks. Of course, this council member will not respond to members of the public (despite her rude aide’s promises to do so). But she competes for mentions of her name on contentless City announcements especially with her senior colleague Shayla Favor. Favor attracted attention for sending out Merry Christmas messages to the City mailing list while ignoring Kwanzaa and Hanukah.

Not a single member of council or the Division of Public (aka Private) Services even noted that many residential areas with children and older pedestrians literally beg the city for traffic speed limits. With no representation, they are not recognized by the now minority majority city council. Without genuine representative government, the people have no voice, nor do the profiteering elected and unelected officers have any interest in hearing them. No one in Colemanville cares. Coleman did nothing for Black Columbus. The data are incontrovertible. His influence is greater out of office than in.

Visible – but unread – signs of the failing city

While the mayor and his staff specialize in conflicts of interest; his Division of Private (aka Public) Services in conflicts of interest, illegal and unethical actions, failure to meet its legal requirements in the physical maintenance of the city, and selling the city to outside private interests; council in ignorance of the city and its populations—and of cities in general; staff in ignorance of the city, lack of concern, dishonesty, disrespect to residents, and subservience to private interests; everyone in no regard for ethical conduct and refusal to genuinely engage with the publics on their own terms, in an election year in which Franklin County, AEP, and Columbia

Gas all raise taxes and charges, it is long past time to enumerate the pillars of 21st as well as 19th and 20th, century urban failures. -

The bottom line first: Columbus must change. The city is imperiled. It cannot whine about imaginary futures and “branding” at the same time that it continues to ignore present failures and their historical bases. It is no accident that the largest U.S. city with no identity, image, or moderately accurate image, has no documented professional histories. This is not accidental or coincidental.

Note: I have records of all relevant communications, and other documentation. That is why City employees and councilors will only condemn me uncivilly and ignorantly on personal Twitter and other social media accounts, none which I see. My comments are always fact-based. They know that. (For details and examples on many of these issues, see my regular essays in the Columbus Free Press, available on the website.)

No governing by the City government

Columbus is a historical anomaly. It is an unreformed, anti-democratic, unrepresentative City government. There are no comparable examples in the U.S. today. Establishing fake districts for “communications” but not political representation adds insult to injury. No resident of Columbus has their own direct representative. This is purposeful, a re-election strategy.

During the past 3 to 4 years, only three of eight elected non-representatives responded to my repeated emails. Two stopped abruptly, when it was clear that I expected knowledge and insisted on answers and respect. The third left council. Neither mayor nor council president or president pro tempore or their staff will respond to a homeowner, taxpayer, voter, very knowledgeable, active senior citizen. The most knowledgeable, responsible – and helpful to residents – legislative aides all leave the revolving door of the City. That is a clear warning sign.

When I demanded factual responses to the illegal conduct and refusal to answer any questions of the Division of Public (i.e., Private) Services, first about its almost certainly illegal and clearly unethical and destructive contracts with short-term for-lease vehicle companies (based in Europe) and was promised a prompt response by one new supposed responsible council committee chair, Barroso de Padilla, Mitchell Brown, or Mb as he signs, Shannon Hardin’s chief of staff, ordered a number of councilors and aides not to respond to me.

When I wrote to him directly, Brown answered only once. He brazenly lied that “council has heard you and dismissed” your concerns. I checked: no one “heard me.” There is no record. Private Services will not say more than “have a good weekend” regardless of the day of the week. Brown, of course, has no qualifications for this position; his experience is in tourism. Of course, the City’s Anti-or Non-Ethics Office dismissed this and all my other documented complaints without investigation or explanation in contradiction to Ginther’s statement of standards and ethics which do not hold for him and his office. There is no policing, let alone self-control, within, or outside, City Hall.

My documented complaints about these City staff are always dismissed without investigation or explanation, despite violations of the mayor’s declared standards of conflict and ethics.

Mayor and city councilors do not govern. They do not know how. They do not care. They only run for re-election every day of their term(s). The model shared by all is sloganeering without meaning or content; pushing their names and faces before the public incessantly especially in contentless announcements from the City itself; and giving away millions of tax-payers dollars mainly to advance private developers who support their campaigns for their plans directly, and at least as much through tax abatements and TIFs of tax cancellation incentives. More often than not, the recipients who range from private developers to OSU do not need the funding. Basic city and public services do. They are neglected.

The consequences of the city as give-away to private interests with no accountability pock-mark Columbus like an epidemic. Among many is the explicit underfunding of the mediocre to poor Columbus City Schools precisely at the time that the state of Ohio cuts back, and that both overall and especially minority schools and their students are failing. The future of the city’s children matters only in empty rhetoric. Councilors and mayor babble without concrete plans or evidence much more about after school and early evening sports leagues for young people who are not likely to commit violent crimes than about equality of educational opportunities, to use a favorite U.S. phrase.

But it is not only the schools. It is all the elements of public safety and public health, that is, basic urban public services. This ranges from the mayor’s signature assault on the Columbus Division of Police with 100s of $200,000 unregulated retirement bonuses for an already short-staffed, inadequately trained, 80% residing outside the city force. CPD is a national leader in police killing unarmed young Black men and in acts of violence. They know that the face no consequences between the most obstructionist FOP chapter in the U.S., city and county prosecutors, and local judges.

Columbus is a national leader in inequality with widespread food and health “deserts,” and extreme differences in mortality and infant and maternal survival. We hear little about this from the City including its Department of Public Health. Slogans rise and fall, of course.

Despite the entrenched, apparently addictive habits of the mayor and the Chief of Police who knows little about the city or her force after almost two years, empty slogans do not hire, train, and retain good police. There are few non-armed police community public service or social workers. No laws are enforced.

City services for the poor and homeless/unhoused today are shameful. It is no accident that the City used extraordinary public expense and police presence to clear the homeless camp actually named Camp Shameless and then arrest several citizens for conducting peaceful protests on the front lawns of Shannon Hardin’s home. A few months later, multiple agencies completely mishandled so-called “warming centers.” Who, indeed, is shameless in Columbus?

Clearing homeless camps gets more attention and more personnel at taxpayers’ expense than temporary or long-term housing alternatives, food, sanitation, and health care. Promotions of a limited and insufficient number of affordable homes in the very few “affordable housing” units as a small part of much larger private housing development is yet another City welfare program for friendly private interests—unnecessary, incomplete, and wasteful. Part of unaccountable pay for play, that’s The Columbus Way. It is also the American way of corporate socialism for the haves, not the have nots.

The City and its private recipients (or occasionally real or more often pseudo-non-profits who in turn give the public funds to their private contractors for example to unlicensed coding boot campus, financial planners, early reading programs) do not recognize underlying realities. Despite the fact that there is no city law to that effect, there is no measure of accountability—nor practice of public honesty – anywhere in the City.

The mayor, some councilors, and especially the director of development Michael Stephens brazenly lie about positive impacts of grants, abatements and TIFs, and other “incentives.” Either or both purposefully or by ignorance, they confuse numbers or Ns with percentages, have no concept of significance statistical or other, pay no attention to periods of time or other measures. They never have sufficient reliable or comparative data. This never prevents the city-boosting Columbus Dispatch from printing dishonest, undocumented opinion essays.

Neither basic literacy nor arithmetic are strengths of the City. Urban studies, urban history, civics, and knowledge of the law are absent. Evidently, either elected, hired, and appointed persons do not understand any of this themselves, and/or they have such contempt for the public whose taxes pay their salaries, and the media, to believe that anyone else will know. The City shares few records fully or easily. That is clearly purposeful. But I see no reason to believe that anyone in office or employment keeps reliable records or knows the basics.

Public relations stunts ranging from paid TV ads to “hearings” with no agenda or content where nothing is “heard” substitute inadequately for either knowledge or democratic participation. My own requests for data, including how many “warnings” are followed up at all, lead to citations and eventually prosecutions are only answered by the Department of Refuse. Zoning and Neighborhoods, Private Services, and CPD either refuse to respond or state no more than uninformative totals. Of course, this is legal public information.

Disorganized, unknowledgeable, unprofessional, and dishonest Columbus desperately needs a highly qualified experienced city manager. That absence shows in every council meeting, on the pavement of every street, and every over-developed uncoordinated traffic clogged street corner. All private construction outweighs traffic and public safety.

There is no awareness, discussion, admission, or concern about the sight or the plight of the city. When I raise this with city council members, shockingly, they—the elected officials and their aides—immediately ask me—a 73-year-old retired professor and student of cities—what does a City Manager do? This has occurred with at least three councilors and many aides. Only one showed any interest in my answer. That person no longer serves the City.

This happened most recently with then newbies Remy and Bankston in my dining room after a former veteran aide insisted that they meet with me. I urged them to look closely at other cities. Startled, Bankston attempted to trick me (as is his want) by asking “oh, which ones?” I asked: how much time do you have? I started with Cleveland, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh….He did not have much time or interest in learning. One legislative aide with no background in urban studies, refuses comparisons of Columbus with any other city.

When I commented on the total failure of all City communications, Remy quipped: Oh, everyone knows that. I then asked: Why does nothing change? He was silent.

Remy is an Upper Arlington realtor. Almost everyone in City Hall with whom I have spoken considers that an unacceptable conflict of interest that should disqualify him from office. As chair of the public safety and refuse committees, he specializes in not knowing about Public Safety, and in promoting the wasteful PR sloganeering CleanerColumbus, once a year volunteer trash pick-up, in lieu of adequately funding trash collection and enforcing city code. This year, the City awarded a $100,000 no-bid contract to Channels 4 and 10 to advertise Remy’s face, an unethical and likely illegal move. My plea to clear the trash that OSU students throw in our corner yard as if it were a public dump went unheeded both by Remy and OSU’s student government-funded stunt where student groups were paid $100 to clear their own fraternity and sorority house yards but ignore the rest of us especially the trashiest areas in the University District. Neither Remy nor the OSU student “organizer” reply to my questions or acknowledge my suggestions for reorganization.

Not knowing what a city manager does—as well as the contents of the US Constitution, state, and city laws as well as knowledge of cities – should be an automatic disqualification for office. But election to council and mayor in Columbus is completely a function of the out of repair, poorly oiled, anti-democratic Democratic machine in the city and county.

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.“Reconstructing the ‘uni-versity’ from the ashes of the ‘multi- and mega-versity’” is in progress.