Athens City Council and the City Administration both have big problems with transparency, accessibility and, therefore, democracy.
As Athens Messenger Editor Alex Hulvachick stated at the September 21 Council candidate forum,
“Council agendas have been published online with little time to review them. Ordinances are normally only viewable after they’ve passed. And there’s been an increase of suspension of rules to bring ordinances to vote sooner.”
As the Athens News reported on September 21,
“Ohio Revised Code Section 731.17 requires all proposed ordinances to be read at three separate meetings. It also allows a legislative body, such as a city council, to forego three readings if three-fourths of its members agree to do so… Before its July recess, Athens City Council suspended the rules to pass at least 22 out of 86 ordinances, or 25% of all ordinances introduced. The figure may be higher; no minutes are posted on the city’s website for several meetings, including five of six meetings held since returning in August.”
The Athens News reported this in the context of Mayor Patterson’s attempt to get Council to suspend its rules and immediately approve his controversial choice of a new Arts, Parks & Recreation Director after Council member Smedley had asked to see the candidate’s resume, and without the usual time period for public comment stipulated by state law. There was no emergency or pressing deadline that required the suspension of rules. Patterson simply wanted to silence growing questions about, and opposition to, his process of selecting one of his wife’s co-workers for the position without consulting the Arts, Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, the Athens Municipal Arts Commission or APR staff, and without providing requested information to Council.
Nevertheless, the majority of Council members voted with the mayor to break their own rules and silence dissent. That includes two of my competitors in the at-large council race, Sarah Grace and Micah McCarey, as well as lame duck Council member Chris Fahl (defeated in this year’s primary) and member Sam Crowl.
Council members Ben Ziff (another candidate in the at-large race), Arian Smedley, and Jeff Risner all voted against the mayor’s effort in a rare act of defiance and commitment to local democracy, the rules were not suspended.
But last December, Risner and Smedley both helped rush through passage of new 3-year police union contracts not informed by the racial equity review Council had promised 6 months earlier. And similarly, this August Risner, Smedley and Ziff joined everyone else on Council to vote to suspend the rules to eliminate all opportunity for public comment before authorizing Mayor Patterson to spend $91,000 to purchase a racial equity training course from his own organization, the National League of Cities Racial Equity and Leadership Council, to which Patterson was appointed in March despite his lackluster record on racial equity one or two months AFTER the mayor told the Athens News he started negotiating the course’s purchase. In addition, the course will also be conducted without the city ever conducting its promised racial equity review. Therefore, there is no way to direct the course towards solving specific problems and no way to measure whether or not it has any positive impact, which makes the $91,000 course no more useful than a PBS documentary city employees could have watched for free. Thus there were serious concerns regarding the mayor’s conflict of interest, wasteful spending, and city officials continuing to make performative gestures that do more to cover-up than correct racism in city governance. And to prevent those concerns from being raised, Council simply voted unanimously to eliminate all opportunity for public comment.
But these aren’t Council’s only problems with transparency. Council generally plays fast and loose with its rules in order to weaponize procedure against concerned community members.
For instance, in the lead up to Council’s December 2020 passage of the new, 3-year police union contracts, in October 2020 hundreds of community members were concerned that the contracts would be approved without them being renegotiated. Hundreds of residents signed a petition urging the city to renegotiate. A dozen community members spoke at two different Council meetings urging the city to renegotiate. And these public concerns were reported by the Athens News, Athens Messenger, Post and New Political in 5 separate articles during the month of October alone.
However, negotiations already were underway– that fact was just kept a secret by everyone on Council, the Mayor and Police Chief Pyle, despite all of the above displays of public concern in the matter.
When I finally learned of the contract negotiations in mid-November 2020, I asked Mayor Patterson in a recorded phone conversation (the full transcript of which was published by Athens County Copwatch) why, despite he and the police chief being present at the Council meetings where residents raised their concerns, no one ever divulged the fact that contract negotiations were then underway.
In response, the mayor claimed that Council’s rules prevented city officials from responding to concerns residents raised during the public comment period of Council’s meetings. As is often the case, the mayor’s claim was false. But a closer look at how Council actually handles public comments reveals the extent to which Council weaponizes its procedures against concerned community members.
In response my December 7, 2020 public records request for council’s written policy on public comments, Clerk of Council Debbie Walker supplied a document titled “Rule 14,” which Walker stated was “approved by City Council on January 3, 2017.”
“Each speaker will be limited to a maximum of three (3) minutes, with a limitation of fifteen (15) minutes imposed on the total amount of time allowed on the topic, which shall include all of the participation by council members, elected officials and administrative representatives, unless permission to extend the time has been granted by the President of Council. Council Members, other officials and administrative representatives shall not debate public speakers, and shall only answer questions as directed by the President of Council.”
This allows the President of Council considerable leeway, including the ability to pose questions to other members of Council or the city administration in response to public comments. And Council frequently exercises that ability.
For instance, at Council’s January 22, 2018 meeting — more than a year before I emerged as an opponent of the city establishment by running against Mayor Patterson, Council allowed me to speak for 17 minutes about mobile vending issues, instead of the 3 minutes I have been limited to since becoming a critic of city policy. During those 17 minutes, I offered to take questions from members of Council, and this was permitted. Multiple council members replied to my comments, including council member Jeff Risner, who also posed questions to me.
While then Council member Kent Butler served as acting Council president of the January 2018 meeting in place of current Council President Chris Knisely, who was then filling in for Mayor Patterson as acting mayor, Knisely did preside over Council’s May 28, 2019 meeting where, without any advance noticed, Council broke from its usual practice of not allowing any public comments during its bi-weekly committee meetings, and also broke from its usual 15 minute limit in discussion of a single topic to allow roughly 50 people to deliver public comments about the city garbage and recycling contract for a total of approximately two and a half hours.
Furthermore, Knisely presided over Council’s March 16, 2020 meeting, where during the public comment period Krane posed questions to all city officials present about city utility shut-offs during the pandemic. Knisely herself responded to Krane’s questions, as did Mayor Patterson.
Yet after Athens County Copwatch publicly invited community members to use the public comment period of the October 5, 2020 Council meeting to call on Council to carry out the racial equity review it committed to conduct on June 22, Knisely announced at the beginning of that meeting’s public comment period that no city official present would respond to any public comment, no member of the public could speak for more than 3 minutes, and that the entire public comment would be limited to 15 minutes.
And one final example of our city’s lack of transparency —
Until 2019, the Athens City Code Enforcement office kept all of its records of rental housing inspections and violations on paper, which made it nearly impossible to examine the records to determine which landlords were the worst offenders. I’ve been interested in housing justice issues and housing code enforcement since a horrible situation I had with an Athens landlord in 2008. So in 2010, I set out to student housing code enforcement in college towns and major cities all over Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois — as well as right here in Athens. I purchased a high speed scanner than could handle paper records, and I began making requests for multiple years of code enforcement records kept by numerous cities.
Some city governments complied immediately. The City of Indiana, Pennsylvania (home to Indiana University of Pennsylvania) stored its records electronically. Within days of me making my request, officials there had burned me a CD containing 5 years of housing code enforcement records. The City of West Lafayette, Indiana (home to Perdue University) kept its records on paper. But within a few months, officials there prepared all the records for me and my scanner, and within a week I converted 5 years of that city’s housing code enforcement records into text-searchable PDFs. The City of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (home to multiple colleges and universities) initially refused to comply with my request, but after I defeated the city’s assistant DA’s legal challenge, the city simply emailed me everything I requested.
The City of Athens also refused to comply with public records law in 2010. But at the time I had enough data from other cities to keep me busy, so I didn’t challenge the city’s denial of my request. However, during my 2019 mayoral campaign Athens Code Enforcement announced it had converted all of its records back to 2008 into electronic form. So I figured it might be worth another shot. Thus in July 2020, United Athens County Tenants (of which I am a member) requested all of the inspection and violation records from the City of Athens for a single year: 2019.
This time the City of Athens stated it would comply with public records law, and the requested records began to trickle in. But now, some 15 months later, UACT still has received only a fraction of the total records we requested.
While the City of Indiana, Pennsylvania was able to provide 5 years of records within days, using 2010 technology, the City of Athens has not provided a single full year of those same records within 15 months of UACT’s request, using current technology.
In part, this is no doubt due to the same understaffing of the Code Enforcement office which prevents it from being able to adequately enforce our city’s housing code in the rental properties where 80% of residents reside. But at the same time, it’s also clear that the city is keeping public records in a manner that prevents them from being accessible for public inspection.
Add all of this up, and you get a city government that’s deeply opposed to transparency and democracy.
In contrast, I have been a an activist for government transparency and democracy for 25 years, as well as a journalist and researcher, and a community organizer interested in shaping public policy. I have the experience, and I know the issues at stake. If elected to Council, I will do everything I possibly can to increase our city’s sorry lack of transparency and democracy.
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Paid for by The Committee to Elect Damon Krane