A small group of outsiders wanted to change their city for the better. So they got elected. And then the revenge began.
Chapter 1: "We Have No Hope"
Chapter 1: “We Have No Hope”
When Donald Trump campaigned for president, there was one promise he repeatedly made: he said he would “drain the swamp.” It was an appealing phrase that he threw out at rallies and on Twitter--a commitment to reshape the way business worked in the nation’s capital.
To Trump, draining the swamp originally meant putting restrictions on lobbying. It was narrow and targeted just one aspect of government. But once he took office, something changed. The phrase expanded to include other things and other goals.
The swamp was apparently the politicians he didn't like. It was the media that he felt was spreading lies. It was anyone who said anything critical of him. The swamp was suddenly much bigger, and the promise to drain it much more convoluted.
So what has the draining process looked like? So far, it’s meant violating the norms of governing. It’s meant discrediting government workers as a so-called “deep state” out to undermine the administration. It has meant a single-minded drive to reverse the decisions of his predecessor and an obsessive focus on his former rival. He insisted that so many things were bad deals--deals he never would have done. Deals he would renegotiate or terminate entirely.
To assist him in the draining, Trump appointed people to government positions who were political novices. But at times, these subordinates paradoxically seemed to work against good government. Questions lingered about who was actually calling the shots. And like any group of politicians, some have been successful, while others were forced to resign.
It was an intriguing experiment about whether an administration of outsiders could reform the way politics works. But the question is: was the “swamp” truly as reprehensible as it’s made out to be? Or was the swamp--and the people who were a part of it--actually how a government is supposed to function?
The story you are about to hear takes place before the rise of Donald Trump and far away from Washington, D.C. Years before “drain the swamp” became a rallying cry, a small city found itself caught in its own battle between the establishment and a small group of political outsiders that decided enough was enough. They started to win elections. They started to have control. And they started to actually change the city.
What happened next looked very different depending on what side you were on. Did these fresh faces clean up the government by blowing the whistle on corruption and chasing away its enablers? Or did these amateurs bully, sabotage, and bumble their way through one crisis after another?
It turns out, when a city tried to drain the swamp, it wasn’t pretty. From City Council Chronicles, I’m Michael Karlik.
Michael Karlik: Would you read the message you sent to me on July 10, 2017?
Amber Bailey: I need help. I am the youngest member of a city council here in North College Hill, Ohio, and my peers are on another level of “Mayberryism.” (I made that up.)
But basically they are old, they are mean, and they want no progress but call themselves “Change North College Hill.” Kill me.
They refuse to read anything, period. But they have mastered the art of deception. I’m not sure how they’re getting people to drink the Kool Aid or smoke the rock, but their buy-in is so ridiculous, it hurts. Help me.
When I saw that note from Amber Bailey, I understood her frustration. It’s not always fun to be in a group of people who are older than you and with ideas different from yours. But that’s how it is in politics. That’s how it is in a lot of things. This was my first reaction.
But a few hours later, Amber sent me another message.
Amber Bailey: I'm not sure I can explain the amount of crap these people are pulling. I am unsure how to expose them for the bigots they are. I am at wit’s end.
Amber Bailey: I think that our little town has been taken over by one group in general for way too long and what’s happening is is they’re really good at manipulating people that they're doing good for the community and they're not.
But where I am younger than all of them by 20-plus years and where I am one of these people that are very honest and open with my intentions, they hate me. So, like, even today, we have committee meetings today and all of, like, the agendas got sent out to everyone except for me on purpose.
Michael Karlik: When you say, “they,” who are you talking about? Is this the entire city council? The mayor? The city administrator?
Amber Bailey: The city administrator and the mayor and the president of council, Ms. Nichols--it’s kind of like--it’s kind of like there’s this feud that’s been going on for so long and they are one half of the feud. And then the other half of the feud are the rest of the city council members.
So it’s like all six voting seats except for myself are all part of one big organization of just madness and hate.
Because I hate when they manipulate people. I hate when they lie because they’re so great at lying. Like, great politicians: them. Horrible politician: me. Great leader: me. Horrible leader: them.
I bite my tongue on them so many times during these meetings that it’s sad. Because I don’t want to be the one that just says, “y’all are a bunch of idiots.” Because that’s not how you conduct a business meeting. But on the other hand, like, I want to tell them “you are a bunch of idiots” all the time but I don’t. Sorry to rant for a moment. I’m so sorry to rant but, ugh!
Amber and I talked on and off for several weeks and each time she brought a new grievance about her city council.
Michael Karlik: You sent me a message on Wednesday that said, “the Monday meeting was a shit show.”
Amber Bailey: Mmhmm.
Michael Karlik: In what way was it a shit show?
Amber Bailey: Oh, man. The lies. The lies!
The obvious question is, if she can’t stand her council so much, why is she there in the first place? Well, it’s about as unconventional a path as you can imagine. For several years, Amber Bailey sold cell phones for T-Mobile. She says she took a year off and traveled the country on Greyhound buses, where she met her husband. The two of them moved to North College Hill, Ohio in 2013. They now live with their three-year-old and her husband’s grandfather.
Amber Bailey: One thing that I will tell people and I’ll tell you the same is, I don’t have the education that a lot of them have and some of them claim to have. But I think that there are two different--I believe you have two different paths: you can either go for the education path or the experience path. But even if you get the best education in the world, the first question on the job application is, what is your experience in this field?
In 2016, Amber began showing up at city council meetings as a resident. Sometimes she just sat and watched. Other times, she spoke at public comment--asking questions, offering suggestions, and, at the April 17 meeting in 2017, criticizing the council members.
Amber Bailey: First of all, I’m gonna say that it’s really, really, really disgusting when people take blows at one another in references from people sitting in the crowd to people making--I just can’t even understand why someone would bring up--ugh! It infuriates me that no business is hardly ever done up here because of this unspoken hate for one another and this whole thing going on. And I’m gonna tell you guys, it’s got to change.
One month after those comments, a position opened up on the North College Hill council. The president, Sean Feeney, resigned his seat to move out of state. A committee selected one of the other council members, Tracie Nichols, to become the new president. Now that Nichols’s seat needed filling, Amber had drawn attention to herself as someone who was active and interested. Another committee, which included the mayor, selected her for the vacancy. And on May 15, she was sworn in as a council member at the age of 27.
Amber Bailey: Last week there was a--we can all have our own webpage on the city web page and our administrator, Ms. Sheryl, she has told us this 12 times in meetings, I promise, that we can do this. Well, I was the only one that actually took the time to, like, just write a short, “hi, I’m Amber,” you know.
Well, somebody made up a “concerned citizen at North College Hill .com” Gmail and sent it to everybody in council and all of the administrators except for myself, but wanted to talk about how atrocious my writing was.
The council was no small source of stress for her. Talking to Amber Bailey one on one, it’s obvious that she’s intelligent. She does her research--amassing documents, facts, and figures about the issues she has to vote on. Amber drills information from the city administration and doesn’t wait for anyone to give her anything. She even created her own survey to let people choose an official North College Hill flower. She said 100 people responded. Two-thirds picked the sunflower.
She even receives compliments at meetings from the residents, who admire her ideas and her energy. But Amber gets the cold shoulder, too. I've seen her lose confidence sometimes in the meetings--sitting there quietly while taking criticism or corrections. And then there’s the e-mail.
Three days after being sworn in, Amber sent an e-mail to everyone on city council, plus the mayor and administration. “You were elected and appointed to make the best decision for all of North College Hill, not just one demographic,” she wrote, signing off with the hashtag #cantbestopped.
Another recently-appointed council member, Matthew Wahlert, responded politely but firmly to let her know how she was coming across to the others.
“You have mentioned that you feel you are negatively perceived,” Wahlert wrote. “[D]id that email help dispel that perception? In other words--your remarks were completely appropriate for a citizen in the crowd….But, as a citizen--you can ‘throw bombs’ from the crowd, make absolute statements, offer binary (all or nothing) solutions, point fingers, and generally lecture Council on how evil they are. Your role is different now.”
Tracie Nichols: God our father, we are all your servants. We trust in your mercy and love. We trust also in your guidance. Direct the meetings of this council of North College Hill to make good decisions for all the people who live in our city. Give all the members of this council wisdom and insight to know what is best for our city. Help us to be fair and just in all our decisions. Bless us all to do the very best we can. With your help and guidance, we pray this in your name. Amen.
When Amber stepped onto the council in mid-2017, it was in the midst of a heated controversy. North College Hill’s city hall exists inside an old elementary school. Now called the City Center, the single-story building is separated into two pieces. The administrative side of the complex is where the council chamber is located, as are the mayor’s office, the tax department, and the North College Hill Historical Society.
But the second half of the City Center is what makes it different from other city halls. Depending on your point of view, it is either City Center’s asset or its biggest pitfall. Called the “recreation side,” the building contains a gymnasium and several classrooms. Over the past few years, programs for children and adults filled the recreation side: a theater group with over two dozen performances a year. A youth basketball league. Double Dutch. Cheerleading and football. A bootcamp. And a church that ministered to 100 African refugees.
Amber Bailey: Back in the day--not really that far back in the day. I can’t tell you what year it is, honestly. We traded the land that our school is sitting on for the old school that the City Center is in now, even. Well, the building had not been reroofed in X amount of years and hadn’t been maintained.
My fellow members of council are completely cool with demolishing half of that building and spending more money and losing 18,000 square feet because they say that kids won't use recreation centers. Kids don’t come out to open gyms and art programs anymore. They say that no one would use that side of the building. So there's a church in there now, the DAV, the American Legion. And there’s a recreation--we have a recreation director that took them two years to pay.
And so nothing has really been developed on that side of the building because the roof is leaking. We had an acting company, the Centerstage Players, for in there. They would bring in a couple thousand people into their shows and they had to leave because the building was leaking, number one. But number two, we were gonna lose our insurance on September 1 for the entire building. So here we are.
Michael Karlik: So why is this so complicated?
Amber Bailey: That’s like asking me the question to life. I don’t know. It’s black and white to me. I get it. I've read every piece of paper there is. I’ve seen it all. I mean, I've read bids. I’ve read estimates. I’ve read proposals.
But for some reason, it’s just this big stigma that just keeps going and going and going and going. But where we are, there is no place to rent. I asked them--when I asked my fellow members of council in a committee meeting--a committee of the whole meeting. I asked them, what is our budget? What are we willing to put into this building? And Mr. Wahlert, my other fellow councilman, screamed at me like a dog.
Michael Karlik: How much time has this one issue taken up in your meetings since you’ve been on council?
Amber Bailey: I was sworn in on May 15 and every single meeting since then except for maybe two.
The problems with the City Center began shortly after the city moved in. The school was already over 50 years old when North College Hill acquired it in 2010, and the roof had developed major leaks.
Commenter: Not only was the roof leaking at that time, there were windows that needed replacing. Lights that needed upgrading. Floors with possible asbestos that needed replacing. Bathroom facilities that needed fixing and upgrading. But no money was appropriated at that time to fix anything, including the leaky roof.
The city council had been aware for over a year that something needed to happen. There was agreement about the administrative half: the roof over city employees needed replacement.
Sheryl Long: And honestly, I have headaches. I’m sick in this building. A lot of other employees don't feel good in this building. We need to do something. Council is supposed to appropriate money. That is it.
Matt Wahlert: It’s a very difficult--I honestly feel like a deer in the headlights with the bills coming up because I’m one that doesn’t like a lot of overhead, and debt makes me very, very uncomfortable. But so does asbestos. Well, yeah, I think we owe it to the workers to provide a safe, yeah.
But the stalemate among council members and their allies was about whether the recreation side should even exist anymore.
Commenter 1: If we put programs in every room every day, we would not make enough money to pay for this 55-year-old building.
Tracie Nichols: There’s potential here. I just think there's potential here. We just have to get it together.
Shawna O’Shea: Time and time again this building has failed to be more than anything than what it was supposed to be: an elementary school.
Commenter 2: You keep kicking it down the road. You know, you're gonna put these people's lives in jeopardy. Y'all need to get off your butts and get it done. Quit jerking around.
Mary Jo Zorb: We’ve made it clear that we're not--we’re not in favor of putting money into this money pit that I’ve heard a couple of residents call this tonight.
In the first part of 2017, the council and the mayor struggled to find a direction forward for the City Center. There was an idea known as “fix half, patch half.” The administrative side would get a new roof and the recreation side would get patches that would last a year, maybe two. That idea was shot down. Then there was a proposal to replace the roof on both sides of the building at an estimated cost of over $600,000. That, too, failed.
Around this time, the administration posted a bright orange sign on the door of the building. It read in capital letters, “LOCATION CLOSING: SEPTEMBER 1, 2017.” The insurance for the City Center was set to lapse without a solid roof. The workers would be evicted. So would the council. But council members instead were annoyed that their email addresses were listed on the flyer--seeming to blame them for the closure.
Matt Wahlert: What I find interesting--and it’s kind of been sticking kind of with me ever since it happened--the name of every member of council and email address was on the front door like a scarlet letter. Like we've done nothing. It’s a scarlet letter of shame in order to try to convince people that it’s council’s fault and no one else’s fault. And that bothers me.
Finally, what did end up passing was a plan to replace the roof on the administrative side and demolish the recreation side. The only no vote was Amber Bailey. Afterward the mayor, Maureen Mason, lit into the council for their decision:
Maureen Mason: You are telling all of the citizens of North College Hill, “we don't care to provide any kind of recreational programs for you. We're gonna let that building, that part of the building go.” But you're just saying, “no, they are not important enough to worry about.” Some people need to get over the fact that they dislike former Mayor Dan Brooks so badly and he was the mayor when this deal was made.
The mayor vetoed the plan to fix half and demolish half. So the council passed it again. This time even Amber voted in favor, she told me, just to get the city to do something to end the paralysis.
Amber Bailey: Have you ever heard of something being played out? Like in an example, you have a great photographer who is awesome but they play out that one location that’s beautiful. Or you hear that one song on the radio and you hear it over and over and over again for, like, two years. Well, say “Fireworks” [sic] by Katy Perry. Whatever. You hear it in movies. You hear people karaoke it. Then you go to the radio, here it is. Then you go to a concert and somebody that’s not even Katy Perry, like Backstreet Boys, is singing it. It’s played out.
People are tired. People think that this should have been taken care of a long time ago and it hasn’t been. It’s played out. It’s irrelevant to people. They don’t understand what’s really happening because they’ve been fed the wrong information so many times that in their mind it is completely played out. They're done.
How did the council get to be in the position of tearing down half of city hall--and why did one side feel that it was purely a grudge match about someone or something in the past? It came up during one of my conversations with Amber.
Amber Bailey: Just a side tip: we do insulin here at the house every night for an 82-year-old. [off mic] How old are you, Pop? Eighty-two or 87? Eighty-seven.
Michael Karlik: Wow. Does he have any opinion on what’s happening?
Amber Bailey: [off mic] Do you have any opinion on them people on council? He rolled his eyes and shook his head! [laughs] He has plenty of opinions. I'm not sure if you're ready for that because that could be a book!
The Dan Brooks thing got a lot of attention. The O’Shea lawsuit got a lot of attention. Shawna O’Shea, a former city council member, sued the city on behalf of the city--I didn’t get any money though, I’m just saying--for Mr. Brooks combining the two salaries of Ms. Fitzgerald. And the word that they used the whole entire time was “toxic.” Toxic, toxic, toxic.
Well, they are the only common denominator through everything--are those people.
I think him and Maureen went way back. And so I would say that Mr. Brooks, yes, knew Maureen. I’m not sure of how close they were. I really try not to, like--I get, like, the backstory of all of it. But I still can’t find the underlying reason on why people do what they do, if that makes sense.
Like, I get it….And that’s how I feel like there’s no constructive criticism anymore in our council or constructive feedback because all the votes are--I mean, we have no hope. There is no hope. If you have a council and you are running and you have six people on there and the votes are 6-1, you have no hope...Like, it’s a problem. It is a problem.
Michael Karlik: It sounds like you’ve been consistently frustrated at every meeting since you've gotten on the council that the other people don’t see the problems and the solutions in the same way that you do. I know your term is for four years. Do you think you can last that long in that kind of stress?
Amber Bailey: Four years? Hoo. I--hmm. A four year term....Let me be completely honest: I don't think anybody could last four years sitting next to the people that I sit next to.
And the reason is because very few of them decide to read a book. Very few of them understand what is happening because they don’t do the research and they just vote or they just make decisions based off I don’t know what. Maybe their dreams. I don’t get it. So I--
Hmm. Hmm. To think of four years as a term...gosh. It is very stressful. Oh, just the sound of four years of dealing with them sounds so stressful. But North College Hill has no hope at all.
Amber Bailey: Have you ever had an interview like this?
Michael Karlik: Exactly like this? No.
Amber Bailey: Or, like, close to this?
Michael Karlik: Close to it? Also, no.
Amber Bailey: [laughs] This is a whole other ball game!
This story is about more than just one council member’s strained relationships with her coworkers. And it is about more than one building slated for demolition. In a sense, the City Center is a focal point for a struggle that began a decade ago, when a group of insurgents decided that they were unhappy with the way things were going in North College Hill and they began to do something about it.
In that time, things have happened here that are not normal for a city council. Not even close. This story is the product of ten months of work--based on nearly 200 hours of city council meetings, almost 60 hours of interviews, and hundreds of pages of documents, emails, and posts from social media.
What transpired inside the walls of the City Center did not begin there, nor did it stay there. After one political group took power, a lot changed in North College Hill. The name of that group? Change North College Hill.
This is Tear It Down.
North College Hill is a roughly-rectangular city of less than two square miles. It’s situated in Hamilton County, at the southwestern tip of Ohio and miles away from the Kentucky and Indiana borders. Two main roads cross in the middle of town: Galbraith Road going east to west and Hamilton Avenue north to south. Immediately below the city is College Hill, a neighborhood in the much bigger city of Cincinnati. Surrounding North College Hill on its other borders are the city of Mount Healthy, Springfield Township, and Colerain Township.
A cemetery at the intersection of Hamilton and Galbraith predates the Civil War, but North College Hill started as a village in the 1900s. It gradually swelled into a suburb--hitting a population of 12,000 in 1960. Since then, it has dwindled to around 9,300 people. Mostly residential, the city ten years ago was majority white; now, it’s split almost evenly between white and black.
The community has occasionally found its way into national news. North College Hill spawned a court case in the middle of Prohibition, in which the mayor, A.R. Pugh, tried and convicted a man for violating state liquor law. The problem was: Mayor Pugh received money for convictions and nothing for acquitals. The defendant appealed all the way up to the United States Supreme Court on the grounds that there was no way the mayor could be a neutral judge. The court agreed and overturned the conviction.
North College Hill incorporated as a city in 1941. But for 30 years--almost 40 percent of the city’s existence--it had one mayor: a man named Daniel Brooks.
Brooks was an architect professionally who won his first seat on the city council in 1979 in a field of 18 candidates. Four years later, he ran for mayor and won.
Rick Dikeman: He wanted to create things. To solve problems. To build things. To plan things. To improve the life of people in the community. That was something that he sought to do. He always claimed that he didn’t care what party somebody belonged to as long as they wanted to get things done, and as long as they were willing to work together towards those goals.
Dan Brooks’s biographer, Rick Dikeman:
Rick Dikeman: He was part of a group that got together and were interested enough in the city….and saying, we could change this. It’s a small enough place that we could really make a difference here. We need to make things better.
And they got together a group and it was formed by people from different political backgrounds. They called themselves local Democrats because they were--their involvement here was through the Democratic Party, but not all of them had identified before that as Democrats.
For three decades, North College Hill was run by Democrats, with Dan Brooks in the mayor’s office and majorities on the city council. But in the late 2000s, some locals were dissatisfied with the way Mayor Brooks operated. They grumbled that the council was merely his rubber stamp.
Suddenly, a new political operation cropped up: Change North College Hill. According to their website and from various accounts I’ve heard, it had its origins in a 2008 incident inside a butcher shop. Bullets from a shooting next door pierced the walls of the store and left some people rattled about the safety of their community.
They began to meet. They began to talk and plan. What started as a concern about public safety morphed into something bigger.
No one is quite sure who came up with the name, Change*nch. But the idea was literal: a change in direction. A change in leadership. That’s what they stood for. The same thing Brooks had wanted decades earlier.
And in the 2009 municipal elections, coming just one year after Barack Obama won on the slogan of “Change We Can Believe In,” Change*nch captured three seats on the city council.
Four years later they won the majority. Shortly after that, Dan Brooks resigned.
It appeared that Change*nch had achieved what they set out to do. But now that they were in control of the council, what did they want to get done? What was their direction for the city? What did they want to legislate?
Sean Feeney: You’re not drafting any legislation and--
Brittany Feeney: Nothing got written up, nothing got passed, nothing got done unless they were shoving something of the administration’s down.
Former council member Sean Feeney and his wife, Brittany Feeney.
Sean Feeney: Because of that power situation that they were after, they put the city in jeopardy multiple times just to prove a point. And their point was not consistent so it was very disappointing both as a resident and as a member of that council. That constantly you just saw things shut down based on something minor--
Brittany Feeney: Just for the sake of shutting it down
Sean Feeney: Yeah.
Brittany Feeney: Just because they could.
Tracie Nichols: I could be off a little bit, but they want to have power. These are my words: the most power. They want to be able to dictate how the mayor hires and fires whomever she chooses. They wanna have control over the city administrator….So it's just a matter of dictating how everything is done.
Tracie Nichols, the current council president:
Michael Karlik: Yeah, I get that. But once they have control over everything, and maybe once they get into the mayor’s office, what--what are they going to do? Like, what do they want done that’s not already being done in North College Hill?
Tracie Nichols: To tell you the truth, I really can’t tell you.
Michael Karlik: I’m confused about what Change*nch actually wants. Obviously the mayor’s office and all seats on council, but what do you think they’re going to do once they get that stuff?
Al Long: Make North College Hill as white as they can again.
In the beginning, Change North College Hill had a handful of volunteers and candidates--people who were Democrats, Republicans, or neither. One of those early candidates was Al Long. I reached him at the cafeteria of Thomas More College, where he was a retention officer at the time.
Al Long: Four months after I moved in, went to my first city council meeting. At the end of the meeting, I was approached by the former mayor, Dan Brooks, probably because I was the only African American that attended one of the meetings in a very long time. And he said, “Who are you? What are you? What do you wanna do?”
And I said, “I just want to be aware.” And it went from there. He said he wanted me to join the recreation commission. They had a spot opening. And told me what it was about. So within a month after that meeting, he had me on the recreation commission.
Michael Karlik: What was your relationship with Dan Brooks like?
Al Long: Early on and up and until this day, it’s always been as a mentor. To a certain extent, I looked at Dan Brooks as a father figure. We had a time when I told my dad that I was ready. My mentor didn’t believe me and as a result, I ran against his will. And I ran against his entire team.
Michael Karlik: Okay. So this Change*nch group--that was in opposition to Dan Brooks’s team, as you put it?
Al Long: Absolutely.
Michael Karlik: Okay. What was the original goal of Change?
Al Long: What was our goal?
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Al Long: To get something other than appointed people, handpicked people that were--how did we look at it? People that thought they bore a--a natural right to serve on council because they were picked by the Democrats. And the funny thing about it: if they had picked either Renee or myself, we probably wouldn’t have had a problem. But they didn’t and they kept saying we weren’t ready, we weren’t ready.
But you know, we felt that we were ready and somebody needed to take a stand.
Michael Karlik: But the council is nonpartisan. At least it is now, right?
Al Long: Well, we did that during our time at Change, too. We knew that the Democrats had a--you know, North College Hill being a Democratic town, they usually put D’s on the ballot. So people would vote because they see a D or an R.
So strategically, we made an alliance with the Democrats saying that we would remove all political references on campaign literature as well as the ballot and just run a clean campaign. Your name against our name. You can be endorsed by Democratic Party or Republican Party, but we’re gonna remove them from the ballot.
Michael Karlik: Why would they agree to that deal if they were the ones winning?
Al Long: We never--we never really knew. But we were so happy when they did. I think I negotiated it, Nick negotiated it. It was probably the biggest mistake that they made that we recognized that they made to this day, because I don’t know if we can change it now. [chuckles] If we gotta change it by ordinance or by charter amendment.
But it was probably the stupidest thing they did. And we walked out of there--we had a number of concessions, right? We were going back and forth about, you know, rules of engagement. But they didn't understand that we thought that that was our biggest thing.
So we kind of we downplayed it. They said they didn’t have a problem with it because they were so cocky. Like, well we're gonna win off our name anyway. They wasn't thinking big picture. I guess Nick Link was and we got it.
Michael Karlik: What was so dissatisfactory about the way the Democrats were running the city that brought you to form this group in opposition to them?
Al Long: That’s a good question. It actually differed for everybody in Change. Now Nick Link, because of his longtime association with Mayor Brooks, he had fiscal reasons. He had personal reasons. You know, he was more rooted in my opinion on justable reasons that we couldn't really understand because we were all two, three, four years into our time in North College Hill.
My reason was: shit, they didn’t want to let me in. I wanted to be, you know, an African American male supporting, you know, our black community and our black people in the city. And then they went and found people that had never done anything and put them on council and appointed them to different seats and never sacrificed the time that we did.
I just, I thought that wasn’t right. But Mayor Brooks would always tell me--him and Roger Krummen--“you’re just not ready. You’re too busy. You got too much going on. You're not ready.”
I’m like, well, how the hell you’re gonna say I’m not ready? I love you, you know? But you gotta give me a shot. So everybody had their own reasons.
Roger Krummen was the longtime council president and friend of Dan Brooks. The two of them were more or less the top of the Democratic Party in North College Hill. Another friend of theirs, Nick Link, helped form Change*nch after years of service as a Democrat in various offices in the city. Link helped run the campaigns of Change’s first slate of candidates, including Al Long.
To Long, Change was a vehicle to the city council. But early in 2009, warning signs started to pop up. Long told me that the only other black member at the time told him to get the hell out, but he brushed it aside. Then, one of the members allegedly emailed a news article to the group which, in Long’s recollection, reported that black Americans were inferior learners to whites.
He remembers getting offended--which in turn offended the other members at him. At the Easter Egg Hunt, he confronted the group.
Michael Karlik: Do you remember cursing at them?
Al Long: Oh, man. I probably lit ’em all up. I probably did light ’em up. Yeah. I probably did. I probably said a couple damns or m-fers.
Shortly afterward, Change*nch voted to boot Al Long from the ticket for his behavior. Long says he quit and ran as an independent with “A Real Change for North College Hill” as his platform.
Then he took them to court.
Al Long: You know, I still planned on running my own campaign. I thought it was, you know, close to $2,000, so I sued them. Took them to municipal court in Hamilton County. I thought I had a pretty strong case.
I called him a couple of days later when he was driving with his daughter. He said he filed a claim against Change*nch for what he saw as his share of their campaign contributions.
Al Long: I had a couple of them on the stand and lit them up real bad. So much so that the judge took offense to me, you know, going in hard on them. And I don’t think she used the facts with the law appropriately and sided in their favor.
Court records show the amount was actually $500. In a two-page email to Change*nch, he wrote, “Legally until a judge says differently, I will not allow a majority of members to oust me without just compensation.” He added in bold a phrase he said Change members used in their meetings: “What sets us apart from the Dem’s is we are a family.”
Long was right: he did not win his case. What did happen, however, was another escalation.
Al Long: And they started to track my Internet activity. They got real savvy because we have--we created a blog and I think I commented on the blog while I was working at Lexisnexis. Are you familiar with Lexisnexis?
Michael Karlik: I am, yeah.
Al Long: So they tracked that I used my work computer during lunch. They contacted HR at Lexisnexis and threatened to sue Lexisnexis if they didn’t fire me for using my work computer to comment on their blog anonymously.
So I got called into HR and they were like, you better never go on that website again and you should probably leave that organization alone.
So it was at that point when I saw that they could touch my job, my livelihood, I never, ever said or did anything else against Change. It wasn’t that serious.
As for Long’s interpretation of what Change*nch wanted--to make North College Hill as white as they could--he generally doesn’t believe that the group’s members are racist. I could tell he’d given this some thought. And he made it clear to me that as a black man, questioning racial motivations is not something he wants to think about. It’s something by which he has to live.
Al Long: The issue--and if you’ve ever seen me speak when I do talk about race with council--it's an uncomfortable conversation. And it should be, you know. Because that’s how you deal with racism, by having uncomfortable conversations with people so they can learn.
And I don’t want to think that they’re racist, but I know that some of their actions are not promoting a positive interaction with everybody of a different race.
Michael Karlik: But didn’t Dan Brooks also give you the cold shoulder when you wanted to be a part of his team? When you wanted to change things? Did he make you feel uncomfortable with that in the same way?
Al Long: Absolutely. But he was clear: he at least was telling me that I wasn’t ready. And, you know, the reason I wasn’t ready. I didn’t serve enough time. He didn’t think I would make decisions that would be in the best interest. I disagree.
You know, technically we have a meter--those of us that are older and more experienced African Americans--a meter where we have to gauge whether or not someone has an issue with us because we’re assholes or we’re just difficult people or if it's because we're black.
You know that meter, that filter, is always on, right? And most times Dan is able to go through that filter and have little issues of racial problems….Most times. That same filter when used with some of the things Change does or did in the past, it doesn't even get halfway through before you realized that there’s something else there.
Michael Karlik: Okay. So when he said he didn’t think you were ready, you think he really didn’t think you were ready. It wasn’t a race thing.
Al Long: No, not at all.
Michael Karlik: Okay. What did you make of it when he resigned suddenly?
Al Long: I was very suspect. Thought there might be stuff up. [off mic] Honey, what are you doing--70, 80 miles an hour?
I thought it might be something up because it really didn’t make any sense. But then again, I thought that they were being strategic because when his term was done, he had served his time and they were finally ready to transition.
Michael Karlik: Yeah. How does Change view Dan Brooks?
Al Long: Hate him.
Michael Karlik: Why?
Al Long: Well, they did. They didn’t trust him. They didn’t think he was doing best for the city. Thought he was irresponsible.
It’s not completely true that Dan Brooks was irresponsible. But near the end of his time in office, he did develop major blind spots. And as Change*nch entered the picture, they did not see mistakes. They saw conspiracy.
A conspiracy which demanded they turn their attention away from legislating and toward getting rid of the person who ran the government.
Shawna O'Shea: I don't want to be threatened into putting money in a position. I don't want to be threatened or bullied into anything. That's not what we are here for. It is an important decision that we need to take our time and make. Therefore--I'm not done, Mr. Deters! Please let me finish!
Note: This transcript may contain minor deviations from the story as compiled. For an accurate record, please refer to the audio.
Chapter 2: "The Salary"
Chapter 2: The Salary
West of the main intersection in North College Hill is St. Margaret Mary Church. In November 1977, one of the nuns, Sister Madonna Ratermann, was in the audience for a city council meeting. She was there to ask for a crossing guard for the Catholic school.
When she stood up to make her case in front of the council, her request was denied.
This angered someone else in the room, a young architect named Daniel Brooks. He raised his hand and asked if the council had ever considered using volunteer crossing guards. The council president laughed, saying no one would ever volunteer.
Brooks turned around and asked how many people in the room would do the job. A half dozen people raised their hands.
He smiled. “There are your crossing guards.”
Shortly after that meeting, Dan Brooks learned that there was an opening on the city's planning commission. He thought he would be perfect for the job and said as much to the mayor, Joseph Binder. But Binder appointed someone else--someone who Brooks saw as unqualified. And perhaps it was the mayor's way of slapping Brooks down for causing a scene at that November council meeting.
Instead of giving up on the city, he found a new project: trying to put a nativity scene at the cemetery. The mayor, predictably, said thanks, but no thanks. So the following year, Dan Brooks rounded up 200 volunteers to raise money, design scenery, and make costumes.
Two weeks before Christmas 1978, hundreds of people walked down Hamilton Avenue to the Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, where they dedicated the nativity. The mayor was even there to flip the light switch. The whole episode raised Dan Brooks’s profile and forced the mayor to grapple with Brooks’s increasing influence in North College Hill.The following year, Binder wanted to know if Brooks would consider running on the Democratic ticket for city council. Although he really wanted an appointment to the planning commission, Brooks said okay. But in the middle of the campaign, he noticed some red flags from his own team. He didn't have yard signs like the other Democrats. His name wasn't listed on the Democrats' literature. Dan Brooks suspected he was being set up by the mayor to lose--and to force him out of politics.
Once again, he didn't get mad. He worked harder. On election day, he got the highest number of votes of all the Democrats and was elected to council.
Maureen Mason: Very friendly. Very nice. He had a vision of what he wanted North College Hill to be like and he saw the best of it. He was definitely a person that saw the glass as half full and looked for potential.
Maureen Mason, the current mayor. By the way, everything you've heard until now is Dan Brooks's recollection of his entry into politics.
Being on council frustrated Brooks. The Cincinnati Post wrote at the time, “As much as Mount Healthy is praised for its efficient government, North College Hill is criticized for its lack of one.”
The streets, sidewalks, and storm sewers needed attention. But there was a resistance in the government to spending money. The new Republican mayor, Charles Woeste, said, “We have more bickering here because there is so little money and so much to be done.”
In 1983, Dan Brooks ran for mayor and unseated Woeste, meaning the citizen agitator was now the head of the government. He launched into his vision to modernize the city. The public works department got its first backhoe. A street levy passed, bringing money for repairs. He pressed for a city charter, to let North College Hill set up its own rules for how to operate. And he appointed the first full-time city administrator to manage the day-to-day operations of North College Hill.
Rick Dikeman: He had good ideas as far as, again, running the city like a business. He liked to talk about recognizing that it was important enough that there should be full-time people doing that and not just relatives of people that were hired to work for the city. That there were people who were qualified.
After Dan Brooks had left office, Rick Dikeman wrote Making Things Better, a glowing biography that paints Brooks as personable, competent, visionary, and with the purest of intentions. Not to mention that being mayor was something he loved.
Rick Dikeman: He said to me, “when I go into this meeting tomorrow, everybody’s gonna stand up when I walk in.” And he really liked that….Some sort of a meeting he was gonna go to he said, “when I walk in there, everybody will stand up.” And him telling me--he didn’t say the words--but “I really like that”....Once he was convinced to be mayor, he liked being able to stand up and talk in front of a group of people, there's no question.
But you don’t see Dan Brooks’s name around town. You know--in fact, I’ve been very disappointed in some ways, naturally maybe from the fact that I wrote a book about him. But even to the--and I hesitate to mention this. It’s a tiny thing, but it’s a reflection.
One of the few things that I did to promote the book just because that’s not my nature to take that aspect of a project and be a promoter or a marketer, I put up some flyers around town--one of them naturally in the City Center. And the only reaction that I was aware of to that was that the clerk of council sent an email to all of the council members and said, “this is inappropriate for this to be on this bulletin board” and took it down.
So that’s the legacy, the treatment currently that Dan Brooks’s legacy gets. Dan was never, as I say, someone to promote his name for its own sake and for his own gratification. But that’s to me the treatment of 30 years of what I’m calling progress and effective government.
There is a case to be made that Dan Brooks was responsible for the progress of North College Hill over his 30 years as mayor.
There is also a case to be made that he left behind an astounding mess for others to clean up.
In reality, Mayor Brooks made three separate, unwise decisions during his last years in office. They caused division, anger, and a lawsuit. And Dan Brooks, the man who didn't take no for an answer, did not stick around to deal with the fallout.
Each of those decisions was well-intentioned. Each of them was so close to being a good idea. And each of them would majorly affect the city for years to come.
This is Tear It Down.
Ron Mosby: So now the question becomes: if I did inherit that and our city administrator has enjoyed for a period of time a particular salary, the question is not so much can we lawfully go in and change it? But is it prudent or is it right or is it judicious for council to arbitrarily come in and change the salary?
It was the middle of 2015 and the North College Hill council was arguing over the main topic of the year: cutting the city administrator's salary.
Maureen Mason: You are holding the rest of the city hostage because of your wanting to decrease Mr. Fitzgerald's pay.
At the time, the city administrator was a soft-spoken man in his early sixties named Mark Fitzgerald. During the '90s, he had been the city manager of Loveland, a half hour away. Since 2007, he was also a part-time city council member in Loveland, re-elected in 2011 and 2015.
Mark Fitzgerald: I provide a good grasp and good understanding of how policymaking works. Council members, indeed, are policymakers. They're not implementers. As such, they have to have the proper temperament to understand the distinction between the two.
Fitzgerald worked with his wife, Linda, at a firm called LSR Consultants. Back in 2009, Mayor Brooks had a vacant city administrator job. Linda Fitzgerald had already been North College Hill's 30-hour-per-month economic development director, making a comfortable $41,000 per year. Brooks decided to make Mark Fitzgerald his contracted city administrator for $84,000 a year until he could find a permanent employee.
Maureen Mason was a council member at the time.
Maureen Mason: Dan had interviewed people and couldn’t find--there was--he was having problems finding somebody who was a good fit for North College Hill. And we needed somebody, though, in that position.
So since Mark Fitzgerald knew the city, he was part of LSR, he had done administrative work before, it was like, okay, he would be acting--he would be in there as an interim city administrator. It would be a contract--so that it wasn’t a full-time city employee and no benefits involved….
And then it was, this is dragging on more...Dan wasn't finding anybody else to be able to hire as city administrator--
Michael Karlik: Did you get a sense of why that was? You said he couldn’t find a good fit, but what does that mean?
Maureen Mason: They all wanted--they wanted more….I think some of them, it was, this wasn’t going to be a position that they looked at as permanent. We were gonna be a stepping stone for someplace else. I don't know. Being a little city, it was--it’s kind of hard to find somebody that looks at North College Hill as being more than just a starter home.
If they start out that way, it’s really bad….You don’t want to start out with feeling like you’re only a temporary location for me and I’m gonna still be out there fishing for something bigger and better and pays more.
In court documents, Mark Fitzgerald would later claim that actually, he was receiving no money as the contract city administrator. Supposedly, it all went to his wife, who owned the company. Which meant he was doing the most important job in North College Hill as simply a volunteer.
But in late 2011, after Mayor Brooks was re-elected for the seventh time, he decided to hire Fitzgerald as the city's full-time, permanent administrator. If it had been as simple as that, there likely would have been no problem. But instead, Brooks concocted an unusual scheme: he would dissolve the contract with LSR and the Fitzgeralds. He would pay Mark Fitzgerald $125,000 annually for four years to do both city administration and economic development.
But the crucial detail--the part that would cause a gigantic headache for everyone involved--was in the final paragraph of a letter Dan Brooks wrote to the city council. Copies of that letter would later appear over and over again in legal filings. Brooks said:
“Linda will be included in the package...She will continue to provide the same level of service she has been dedicating to the City of North College Hill, about 30 hours per month. Thus we still pay less than we were [in] 2008 for administrative and economic development services. Mark benefits due to his increased level of contributions to OPERS,” the state pension agency.
Maureen Mason: Dan Brooks--I cringed when he said it--that, “oh, and this way we get two for one,” because Linda Fitzgerald could still help her husband or assist her husband in his role as economic development, city administrator. And her contacts and her expertise and everything would still be available to the city.
And I was kind of like, you know, two for one? Okay, you have someone in this job while you expect their spouse, male or female, to be a consultant or to help with advice or input or whatever or their connections.
But it’s not like, oh, do we pay this person? Because what if he and his wife get separated and divorced? Or do we have her--I mean, it’s kind of a stupid or a--I don’t know. Not the best phrase to say--
Michael Karlik: It sounds like your concern about the arrangement was that you’re having the spouse work for free--
Maureen Mason: Yeah.
Michael Karlik: Or it appears that way. Or the spouse is an unpaid intern to her husband.
Maureen Mason: Right.
Three months later, Dan Brooks sent an e-mail to the five Democrats on the council. “Look for an e-mail tomorrow regarding the pay agreement with Mark and Lynda [sic],” he wrote. “It will be a lengthy attachment so grab a beer.”
The next day, he sent a two-page letter defending the pay package.
“I find it interesting,” he wrote, “that whenever people talk about government, invariably you hear/ [sic] 'Why don't they run it like a business.’ I agree, but when one tries, the same nay sayers go crazy and then say 'How can you do this.’”
Brooks outlined how the city would be saving money by combining the Fitzgeralds’ two positions into one. But then, the tone of the letter shifted. He stopped talking about how this would help the city and explained how this would help “the team.”
“Mark Fitzgerald approached me last year and informed me that he is looking forward to retiring in 4 years but, he needs to bolster his pension….Thus, he asked to be made an employee as opposed to a contractor.”
“Keep the team together, give a good product and control costs,” Brooks wrote. “The Fitzgeralds gain security for their future, the city solidifies the cash flow and we are assured of good people.”
And anticipating the worst-case scenario, that Linda Fitzgerald would not put in as much work or have a conflict of interest, Brooks said, “Bull on both….[I]f Lynda sandbags it, I will fire her and Mark.”
I spoke with people outside of North College Hill who had experience in city administration and human resources. Their reactions to this scenario were all incredulous. It's nepotism. It's paying someone no money for the work they used to get paid for. It's a conflict of interest time bomb. And if it ends up in the news, how is it defensible? These weren't even red flags--they were giant, blinking stop signs. Stop signs that an HR department might have caught--if North College Hill had one.
Everyone should have known better. But then again, Dan Brooks's architecture firm for years had been just him and his wife. So perhaps he didn't know better.
On April 16, 2012, the council approved the pay combination. All five Democrats voted yes. The two members from Change*nch voted no. And for more than a year, that was that.
I have no way of knowing exactly who felt what at the time. But in the minutes from that meeting, there was no discussion of the ordinance. No questions from council. No concerns.
And no mention of one word in particular: “fraud.”
Interviewer: What did the investigator tell you?
Nick Link: After I had explained the circumstances, “they can't do that.”
The following summer, someone showed Brooks’s letter to Nick Link, one of the founders of Change North College Hill. He contacted the pension agency, and told them that Mark Fitzgerald was receiving two people's salaries to defraud the taxpayers and boost his state pension.
A local law firm sent a letter on behalf of Link to the city's law director, asking him to sue the city and stop the illegal payments. Soon after that, OPERS halted all pension contributions for Fitzgerald over $84,000.
In September, Linda Fitzgerald resigned from doing any volunteer work for the city. That same day, Dan Brooks wrote to her husband. “You will continue to provide community and economic development services….I feel this is part of your charter related duties as city administrator.” It wasn't exactly him firing them both if Linda “sandbagged” it.
Three months later, Dan Brooks abruptly resigned.
It appeared that the city was headed toward major trouble. But in fact, the record shows otherwise. The Ohio state auditor, which investigates fraud, took no action. And after another person associated with Change*nch emailed more alleged evidence to the pension agency, they responded that they were no longer investigating.
Maureen Mason: Do you think OPERS would have said, “oh, well, they didn’t--we’ll overlook this?” Hell no!
Michael Karlik: Do you think their reasoning was just that it was a singular compensation amount for Mark Fitzgerald and it didn’t necessarily matter if his wife was attached to it? That was his salary and so he would just get a certain amount for his pension based off of that figure alone?
Maureen Mason: Just like anybody else, if you were given a raise--if you’re under OPERS and you got a raise or you got a promotion and your pay increased, your OPERS is based on what your salary is.
So there was no fraud. There was no fire and fury from the state. But instead there was something just as stressful: a new city council where Change*nch had the majority.
The November 2013 election gave Change*nch control of the city council just four years after running their first candidates. Council Members Renee Stiles and Pat Hartzel were joined by Susan Wietlisbach and Shawna O'Shea. Maureen Mason lost her seat, but in a twist, was put right back on council after another member, Amy Bancroft, was appointed the new mayor.
Trouble started almost immediately. In March, the city needed someone to perform building inspections and help with code enforcement. Fitzgerald asked the council to approve of a contract with a company called XPEX. The first two times the issue appeared on the council agenda, there were a few questions from the Change members and their supporters in the audience, but nothing overly critical.
However, at the final reading, all four Change*nch council members voted down the proposed contract. There were allegations that Fitzgerald was friends with the company's owner. That because of this, he should have shopped around for other companies. Fitzgerald claimed that this was a specialty operation; it didn't need shopping around. Besides, he didn't need the council's permission. He was just coming to them out of courtesy.
Within days of the council rejecting the contract, Fitzgerald signed it anyway. But the council majority had a trump card: the lawsuit.
Shawna O’Shea: When he was hired, he was hired at $84,000. And then the appropriation came in that they combined the economic developer’s--
Bill Deters: That’s not what it said, though.
Shawna O’Shea: It doesn't say anything. It just says they're combining the salaries. That’s what the appropriation says. No, I don't want to--I don't want to get into it anyway either! My question was, is we've heard it a couple of times--
Bill Deters: I’m not sure what you're trying to accomplish.
Shawna O’Shea: I want to take away the duties of economic developer.
Bill Deters: From Mr. Fitzgerald?
Shawna O’Shea: From Mr. Fitzgerald. And I would like to have that separated from his duties.
Bill Deters: But you don't want to pay him $124,000 anymore.
Shawna O’Shea: Well, the only reason--
Bill Deters: That’s what I’m trying to figure out.
Shawna O’Shea: Yes. Yes, I would prefer to not pay him the $124,000.
Shawna O’Shea was nothing short of a lightning rod on the city council. A one time paramedic with the North College Hill Fire Department, she was one of the most vocal council members in questioning the administration on matters large and minute. She was outspoken in her belief that items before the city council should go through three readings--be considered in three separate meetings--before council approved them.
O’Shea filed a lawsuit in Hamilton County in June 2014. The case was given the surreal title of City of North College Hill v. City of North College Hill.
Tracie Nichols: I don't know why she didn't--or may not have thought that that would have been a burden on the city.
Michael Karlik: I mean maybe the idea was that if Mark Fitzgerald was found guilty, he would have paid back the city whatever it was, $160,000 over four years? And that would have outweighed the costs of the lawsuit. Did anyone ever say anything like that?
Tracie Nichols: No.
The court documents wove a conspiratorial tale of how Mark Fitzgerald with Dan Brooks plotted to cheat taxpayers, enrich himself, and “duped” and “hornswoggled” the city council. O’Shea submitted as evidence the letter Dan Brooks wrote to the council in 2011, plus the one he sent to just his allies. There was even an email Brooks sent a month before he resigned, referring to the Change*nch council as “our new group of idiots.”
But given her lawsuit--where as a council member she was the plaintiff but also technically the defendant--it was puzzling to watch her and the rest of the majority attempt time after time to cut Mark Fitzgerald’s salary.
The council majority leaned religiously on one sentence in the city’s charter, Section 3.06, which reads, “the Council of the City, by ordinance or resolution, shall determine the number of...employees in each department...and shall fix, by ordinance or resolution their respective salaries and compensation.” Council members took that to mean they had the right to set the exact dollar amount of each city worker. So in the 2015 budget, they simply slashed Mark Fitzgerald's salary to what they thought it should be, $84,000.
Bill Deters: Council initially set that salary. And that salary you've inherited. You may not like it. You may have great disdain for it. But it was originally set and you originally approved it.
Once that happens, if you read my letter, I believe there's an implied contract by operation of law and that employee has a constitutional right unto that salary as set. I believe if you don't approve that amount, you're subjecting the city to liability to Mr. Fitzgerald if Mr. Fitzgerald sues you or asks for an injunction. He probably would succeed.
William Deters, the city’s law director, repeatedly lectured the council that they could not lower Fitzgerald’s pay. Fitzgerald, he argued, had a property interest in his salary. Not liking what a person is getting paid wasn’t a lawful reason for cutting his pay.
Deters did allude to one possible legal way the council could cut the salary. From what I gathered, it would involve abolishing the economic development director, and no one could recall precisely how that would work. (I attempted to contact Deters and the Fitzgeralds. Deters declined to talk and none of the email addresses or phone numbers listed for Mark or Linda Fitzgerald was functional. I left a message for him with the city of Loveland, where Fitzgerald was recently mayor, but he never returned it.)
Thanks to the council, because Fitzgerald’s salary in the budget was now $84,000, that meant if he was getting paid at the higher rate, he would have stopped getting paychecks midway through the year. This aggravated Jim O’Shea, the husband of Shawna O’Shea and an almost obsessive critic of mayors Amy Bancroft and Maureen Mason for what he perceived as violations of the law.
Jim O’Shea: Okay, so, so--
Maureen Mason: And I believe you know that there is--
Jim O’Shea: You have no intentions of trying to resolve the problems with the overspending from the account?
Maureen Mason: It is in the midst of lawsuit right now, Mr. O’Shea.
Jim O’Shea: Well actually, that particular part of it is not part of the lawsuit.
Maureen Mason: It is part of a lawsuit, Mr. O’Shea.
Jim O’Shea: No, it's not.
Maureen Mason: Yes it is. Yes it is.
Jim O’Shea: Well, apparently you haven't read the lawsuit. Nonetheless, the issue here is if you are going to allow your employee to be paid from an unappropriated fund.
Maureen Mason: It is part of a lawsuit. How many times do I have to tell you that? It is part of a lawsuit and we have been advised by counsel that we are not to discuss that.
Jim O’Shea: Thank you for your opinion but that is not part of the lawsuit. So again, I'm just asking in general, are you going to continue to allow the finance director to pay money out of an account that has negative funds?
Maureen Mason: It is--that is my answer. You may not like my answer, but that is my answer. It is part of a lawsuit.
Kathy Riga: Do you have anything else, Mr. O'Shea?
Maureen Mason: It is--move on to the next question. You're not gonna get another answer, that is the answer.
The Change*nch majority was focused like a laser on salaries--and not just the city administrator's. In December 2014, North College Hill’s finance director announced his resignation. To take his place, Mark Fitzgerald planned to hire Shannon Hoelmer, a longtime employee of the tax department. He and Mayor Amy Bancroft agreed to pay Hoelmer $57,000. At one point, the council asked at a meeting what her salary would be. Fitzgerald responded that it was less than what the previous finance director was making, which was true.
But the administration was shocked when the council moved to change the budget, making the finance director's new salary $50,000, not $57,000.
Mark Fitzgerald: If there was all that much heartburn about her making $57,000 rather than $50,000, why was that not brought to anybody's attention rather than at that very last moment?
So I find it really distasteful that we’re quibbling over $7,000 for someone who probably could leave this community and go and get a tax administrator’s position that pays more than $57,000.
A few days later, Mark Fitzgerald did sign a contract with Shannon Hoelmer. Her pay in the contract was set at $57,000. Fitzgerald asked Council Member Pat Hartzel, the chair of the Finance Committee, how the council decided on the lower amount.
Mark Fitzgerald: Where did you come up with the number that you threw out there? I mean, that was totally arbitrary.
Pat Hartzel: It's up to council to set the salaries in a number of people. Is that not correct?
Mark Fitzgerald: Council's job is to set policy.
Pat Hartzel: We gotta set budgets, too. And that's our job. We set the salaries of people. Is that not correct?
Mark Fitzgerald: Council approves the appropriation. Council's job is not to go to every nickel with what every individual makes. Now, if you wanna sit here and quibble about how I do my job, you've been doing that since the last year-and-a-half.
Pat Hartzel: Okay. I really don't wanna quibble it. I wanna get it straight as to who's doing--if we're setting it or you're setting it. Whose job is it to set the amount?
Hartzel appeared confused and unable to answer. So Council Member Renee Stiles jumped in.
Mark Fitzgerald: Why--why did you arrive at a number like that? Where did that come from?
Pat Hartzel: I don't know where that came from. All I know is when that came to that reading, that that amount was in there. Can anybody tell me where that money came from?
Maureen Mason: Well, I'm interested in knowing where the $50,000 figure came from.
Renee Stiles: Madam President?
Kathy Riga: Ms. Stiles.
Renee Stiles: The promotion for the finance director from tax administrator to a finance director was an internal promotion. And had that original salary be given it would've been almost a 60 percent increase. And to do an internal promotion with a 60 percent increase was kind of astronomical. So a 15 percent increase is what brought it to approximately $50,000. So that's where it came from. Just based on an internal promotion.
June 2015 was a crisis month for North College Hill. There was a discovery that the previous finance director had $21,000 in unused time that needed to be paid out. However, that money would come from the current finance director's budget, meaning that if council didn't add more money, Shannon Hoelmer would have to stop working for the rest of the year.
The administration prepared an ordinance which would have done three things: it would add $21,000 to pay out to the previous finance director. It would add the missing $7,000 to the current finance director’s salary. And it would add the missing $41,000 to the city administrator's salary.
At the June 1 meeting, Shawna O'Shea moved to strike out everything but the $21,000 payment.
Shawna O'Shea: I would like to make a motion to remove Mr. Fitzgerald, the full time salary, 101701521100, remove that from the ordinance. And to change the appropriated amount for 101704521100 from $28,000 to $21,000.
The motion failed. Maureen Mason moved to adopt the ordinance as written. That failed too. The clock was ticking and the frustrating part was that the impasse was largely not about finance at all. It was about Mark Fitzgerald.
Mark Fitzgerald: I hope you feel vindicated in being able to make your point. And let's face it: Shannon's collateral damage. And it's just an unfortunate situation.
Two weeks later, Shannon Hoelmer ran out of money. She stopped working and consequently, could not sign paychecks for city employees. A special meeting on June 15 was called for council to fix the problem.
However, when the cameras turned on at 6:30, something was not right. At the council table were the four members of Change*nch, but the council Democrats and the administration were gone.
Also in the room was Ryan LaFlamme, who worked with Bill Deters, the law director. LaFlamme had a statement addressed to one particular council member.
Ryan LaFlamme: --Is that there is a current litigation against the city. Ms. O'Shea is a participant in that litigation as a plaintiff. And the suit seeks money damages against the city for issues that are directly related to the legislation. And so the concern would be that if there's a vote on the legislation, at least on the part of Ms. O'Shea, there could be a potential for someone to claim that there's an ethical violation there in the sense that a public official is not allowed to have a personal interest or a pecuniary interest in a matter before council….We would be advising specifically Ms. O'Shea that you don't participate in the vote on the 12-2015 ordinance.
From there, the meeting degenerated. Renee Stiles was irate that the city even had to pay the previous finance director at all.
Renee Stiles: And what entitlement gave the past finance director the $21,000 payout? We haven't received any written documentation that states he was entitled to that other than that's what was agreed upon….So I don't care what might have been said. If it's not documented, it didn't happen. So now everything's suffering and now the budget’s being held up and now, you know, there's chaos that the city might shut down, which is not acceptable.
George Snyder, a former auditor and council member who was helping Shannon Hoelmer with the budget, was in the room to respond.
George Snyder: How many employees are here today? Raise your hand. How many of you people understand that when you leave, you get paid out for your vacation? Hold up your hands. It's policy.
Renee Stiles: But do they have contracts?
George Snyder: You have a policy, longstanding--
Renee Stiles: Where is the policy? Because Mr. Snyder, we've asked for that but nobody's given it to us.
George Snyder: It's also in the state code. When people leave, they get paid for their vacation. Do you work? Do you have a job?.
Renee Stiles: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
George Snyder: Do you have a full-time job?
Renee Stiles: Yeah, absolutely.
George Snyder: If you leave in the middle of the year, do you get paid out your vacation?
Renee Stiles: Absolutely.
George Snyder: Well, there you go. There's nothing else to say.
It's unclear where the missing Democrats were during all of this. But Council Member Suzie Wietlisbach pleaded for them to join the meeting and they began to trickle in.
Suzie Wietlisbach: As I mentioned before, I'm greatly disturbed by what Mr. LaFlamme has spoken to us about the fact that paychecks for the city is gonna be held up and paychecks for our vendors will be held up.
And that the first I had actually heard of this was not from Mr. LaFlamme and not from the city, but Facebook. And that's really sad that that is my mode of finding out things. So it greatly disturbs me.
So right now, I'd really like the rest of council to please join chambers. So if Tracie Nichols could also join us from the other room because I'm gonna call for an amendment and I need everybody please here. So if Tracie could please join us from the other room--
Maureen Mason: Amendment to what? I didn't get my notice about the 6:30 meeting until 9:00 this morning.
Suzie Wietlisbach: It was dropped off at your house at 1:30--
Maureen Mason: It was taped to my door and we were home and nobody knocked on the door or attempted to make any kind of contact to let me know that it was out there. I didn't get it until 9:00 this morning on my way to work--
All of the council members were now present and immediately, President Kathy Riga attempted to start another special meeting--one that had been scheduled for 7:00. That prompted mass confusion.
Kathy Riga: Then if you're done talking about this, then we can proceed with our meeting and get this ordinance passed so these people can be paid.
Renee Stiles: But we can't pass an ordinance, Madam President, because the letter specifically says the purpose of this meeting is for an executive session to discuss personnel matter, employment of official--public official, and pending legislation. Once we come out of executive session, we cannot go into a council meeting because that's not the purpose of the special meeting.
Ryan LaFlamme, from the city's law office, appeared stunned at the chaos.
Ryan LaFlamme: This is certainly a strange circumstance with two meetings running up against each other as they've been set.
Council Member Ron Mosby was disturbed at the free-for-all that the meeting was turning into.
Ron Mosby: Well, right now what we're doing is we're not displaying proper decorum. And so I am more concerned right now that we maintain order in our council rather than to have people speaking at every whim. So what I would ask of my colleagues would be to kindly refer to the president when you desire to speak instead of doing as you had just mentioned, Mr. Hartzel, and cutting each other off.
Mosby was an outlier on the council. A Republican, he was appointed to a council seat held by a Democrat seven months prior. He's a Christian author and radio host, but had worked before in state government and as the chief of staff to three Cincinnati city council members. At times, he could be pompous and long-winded. But though he floated around the periphery of Change*nch, Mosby was thought to be a fair dealer--and the one person on the council who insisted on procedure and decorum. To see him this rattled was highly unusual.
Ron Mosby: What I’m saying is, this is what I mean. What we are doing right now is we're grandstanding and we're making this personal. We can't make this personal. This should be about the business of government and how we operate our city. It's got to be more important than trying to win a battle.
The mayor, Amy Bancroft, had a wild-eyed look of rage.
Kathy Riga: Mayor Bancroft, were you--are you good with that idea of going into executive session?
Amy Bancroft: I'm sorry, I was--I was just pondering this whole fiasco going on right now. That would be fine. Whatever gets us moving along and getting work done for the employees and citizens of the city. Why we--why another meeting was called without just calling and say, can we amend the existing meeting? This is such--it's crazy! It is crazy. Just--
Kathy Riga: Yeah, the 7:00 meeting has been set since last Friday.
Amy Bancroft: And the public knew about it.
After deliberating for a half hour, the council entered executive session behind closed doors. When they returned, they agreed to add $21,000 for the finance director and called another meeting the next day to give final approval.
At least, that's what was supposed to happen. When the council reconvened, Ron Mosby had had a revelation.
Ron Mosby: In the movie It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a job working for him. George is about to accept the offer, but declines and emphatically states, “you sit around here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you.” Well, we're not Mr. Potter and we were not elected to spin our little web.
He delivered an impassioned speech about the proper role of council and administration in the city's government.
Ron Mosby: Madam President, I would ask your permission to inquire of my colleagues and yourself two very important questions. My first question is--and because I am the junior member here on council, the newest one--since being elected to city council, have you been involved with the reduction of salary of any employee in the city?
In a bizarre twist, Mosby went down the row of council members, asking each of them if they had ever reduced someone's salary and then if they would want their own salary reduced.
Tracie Nichols: No, I would not, unless there was just cause or if it was neglect or something on my end. I would not want my salary….
Ron Mosby: Renee?
Renee Stiles: I would not want my salary decreased unless it was to maintain my job.
After listening to everyone's answer, Mosby sprung a surprise motion.
Ron Mosby: With that--and as I said, that I believe this is the most difficult decision that we have to make. However, I am going to move to amend Mr. Hartzel's ordinance to include the salary of Mr. Fitzgerald in this particular ordinance.
Maureen Mason: I'll second that.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Now, I understand where you're coming from that you want to add that in there because you feel very strongly about that. But I caution you to, if you want this to be addressed, I would suggest maybe making its own ordinance and not trying to tie it to an ordinance that has people's paychecks tied to it. Because I don't think that's a very fair thing to do.
That exact argument was why Ron Mosby made the controversial amendment to begin with. No city employee should be deprived of their salary, and Mark Fitzgerald was a city employee, too.
Bill Deters, the law director, was sitting and listening. He reiterated his advice that Shawna O'Shea should recuse herself.
Bill Deters: She's seeking monetary damages and as a plaintiff, she would be the one that would receive those monetary damages. She has an interest in the action, a personal interest. And if you read any of the ethics laws and Chapter 29, I think it would be clearly in violation in my opinion. She also choose to abstain yesterday, so I think she has some understanding of the concern that she might have as a risk.
And so my obligation is to represent council and the mayor and the administration. So she has to make that choice herself. I can't make it for her. No one else can. I can only give her my advice.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Okay. And then--that I reiterate to call the question.
Kathy Riga: We have a motion and a second on the floor to adopt ordinance 12-2015--
Ron Mosby: It's simply to amend.
Kathy Riga: Oh that's right. [sigh] To amend ordinance 12-2015. Roll call.
Clerk: Mr. Mosby?
Ron Mosby: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Mason?
Maureen Mason: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Wietlisbach?
Suzie Wietlisbach: No.
Clerk: Mr. Hartzel?
Pat Hartzel: No.
Clerk: Ms. Nichols?
Tracie Nichols: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. O'Shea?
Shawna O'Shea: No.
Clerk: Ms. Stiles?
Renee Stiles: No.
The amendment failed, with Council Member O'Shea voting no. She realized that if she abstained, the vote would have been 3-3 and Council President Kathy Riga would have broken the tie to pay Mark Fitzgerald his salary. The council proceeded to a final vote.
Clerk: Mr. Hartzel?
Pat Hartzel: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Nichols?
Tracie Nichols: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. O'Shea?
Shawna O'Shea: I'm gonna abstain. Abstain.
Clerk: Ms. Stiles?
Renee Stiles: Yes.
Clerk: 6-0, Madam President.
When Shawna O'Shea abstained, Ron Mosby leaned back in his chair. Maureen Mason looked to the ceiling and laughed. O'Shea had gone against her legal advice to prevent the city administrator from being paid. Then she recused herself when it was no longer about him.
Two people with an understanding of North College Hill's administration told me that in reality, Mark Fitzgerald could have signed the employees' paychecks. Doing so would have averted some of the crisis atmosphere. But it would have given the council more time to avoid paying the finance director, which is likely why he refused to intervene.
I understand why Change North College Hill resented Mark Fitzgerald's salary. They felt it was the product of deception. That it was free taxpayer money for no extra work. While I don't think it was that bad--and neither did the state of Ohio--they have a point: I cannot overstate how truly terrible this idea was. To have one spouse supervising the other, with only a swashbuckling promise from the part-time mayor that he could fire them both--it was a botched attempt at saving money that cost the city much more.
It was too cavalier. It was too “trust me, I'll take care of it.” But ironically, the salary combination made it harder for Change*nch to trust the administration on anything. The salary did not turn into a problem when Change realized what it meant. It was the city's problem from Day 1.
I can also sympathize with the council members who were skeptical of the $21,000 payout to the old finance director and demanded proper documentation. Their job is to look after taxpayer dollars. For the most part, they appeared to be doing their job and Fitzgerald probably had as little respect for them as they had toward him.
But after talking to city managers, mayors, and council members with many years of experience in municipal government about what is appropriate for a council to do, I was told that undercutting the administration by slashing a new employee's salary after it's been negotiated is incredibly unwise. It's not how you convince people to work for your city. One person told me, “you don't treat people like that.”
In the words of another, it's “bullshit.”
Twenty-fifteen was a rough year for North College Hill's government. Not only was the O'Shea lawsuit steamrolling ahead, but there was plenty of concerning behavior happening off camera. It's for those reasons that 2015 was also the last year for so many people.
Amy Bancroft: Just for the council members to fully realize the toxic workplace that has been created here for our employees. But we made it through that and I do--it's my regrets. It's been an honor. I had really hoped to make it through the end of the year. But unfortunately not. And I regretfully will be resigning.
Note: This transcript may contain minor deviations from the story as compiled. For an accurate record, please refer to the audio.
Chapter 3: "Bullies"
Chapter 3: Bullies
Michael Karlik: Is that the media's perception? And I won't limit it to the media, but do you think that's the perception of people who live outside of North College Hill? That the city is crime infested?
Lynda Stagman: I think that is the perception. A lot of people here are very pro-North College Hill and even though they see a lot of that stuff, I mean, they are more optimistic and...we take care of our property. But there's a lot of people that have come in that--well, I don't know if they've come in or where they've come from or if they've been here all their lives. But it just doesn't seem like there's as much pride.
Lynda Stagman has lived in North College Hill most of her life.
Lynda Stagman: From what I was told, 38 percent of North College Hill is rental. So I would say to me, the standards--the bar has been lowered. The standards aren't here like we had in the old days and--
Michael Karlik: When you say “standards,” standards for what?
Lynda Stagman: We have--I don't know that I noticed it years ago, but now there's a lot of litter on the streets and the houses seem more run down….I guess in that respect. And then just courtesies. People throw trash out their windows when they are driving down the street.
Or you do see--like, the one day I was painting outside and I'm pretty sure I saw a drug deal go down right in front of me because a car pulled up and another guy got out of a car and got in the first car and then they got back in the second car. So you didn't see that or I didn't notice it when I was a kid.
For the past two years, Stagman served as the clerk of the city council. It followed many years of involvement with Change North College Hill and its sister organization, Serve North College Hill. Change ran candidates and got people elected. Serve was around to volunteer in the community, to pick up litter, to help out the senior center. And to mine candidates for Change*nch.
Many years ago in the late '90s, Lynda Stagman was a Republican council member under Mayor Dan Brooks.
Michael Karlik: What was your impression of him?
Lynda Stagman: Well, I guess initially to me he was just in the other party and I questioned all the decisions that he would make or what he did or--he’d sort of--he and his wife walked around. They lived in our neighborhood where I grew up and they'd walk the neighborhood. And I always called them, like, a king and queen. They thought that they were the royalty or something.
But as time progresses--and I don't know if you're familiar with maybe the last four or five years, I can't remember when that started--
Like many conversations about Dan Brooks, the topic shifted to the city administrator's pay.
Lynda Stagman: --And then there were some appointees who would defend--his name was Mark Fitzgerald--defending, you know, that “nothing was wrong there.” That that was an appropriate amount of money.
But it wasn't presented as appropriate. It was presented as, you know, that he was taking his wife's salary and she was no longer employed. So that to me is fraud and lying and stealing and all the bad things that--how I learned them growing up.
Michael Karlik: Lynda, do you know that there is a book that exists about Dan Brooks?
Lynda Stagman: I know there's one that he supposedly wrote. I don't know that there's one about him that someone else wrote.
Michael Karlik: Does the name Rick Dikeman sound familiar?
Lynda Stagman: Yes.
Michael Karlik: Okay. He's the one who wrote a biography of Dan Brooks. I guess it was published in 2016.
Lynda Stagman: Okay, that sounds familiar. I thought it was something Dan wrote.
Michael Karlik: Do you recall there being a flyer posted in the City Center about that book a year or two ago?
Lynda Stagman: I do.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Do you remember taking it down?
Lynda Stagman: No.
Michael Karlik: Okay.
Lynda Stagman: I remember complaining about it because I thought that was self-centered and that he was no longer mayor and it was presented as--I thought it was one he wrote. Or that he had written that book and it was for profit and I didn't think it should be hanging there. I didn't think that was ethical.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Do you remember to whom you complained?
Lynda Stagman: To the city administrator and probably everybody I knew in Serve that that should not be hanging there.
Michael Karlik: Do you feel any differently knowing he did not write the book?
Lynda Stagman: No. I don't think that anybody should sell something for profit using the space that we had--especially there--was limited for the things that we were trying to hang and needed to be hung for public notice. And I didn't believe that that should be there.
Michael Karlik: Okay. So if it was a nonprofit exercise, say the author was giving a talk about the book in a room without selling it, that would've been a different scenario for you?
Lynda Stagman: [chuckles] I don't know that it would've been. It would have still been improper. I don't know. Depends on what he was talking about or--I don't know. No, I still would've disagreed I guess.
Michael Karlik: Because the subject matter was Dan Brooks?
Lynda Stagman: Probably. And I found him to be a very unethical person and not an upstanding community person, so….
Michael Karlik: I want to read you something that you posted on the “Anything or Everything about N.C.H.” Facebook group. And this was from two years ago. You said, “The last mayor,” referring to Amy Bancroft, “had no back bone. She sat there (pretty) and got paid as she was told. She did have good ideas but she wasn't a decision maker. She didn't seem to know right from wrong. She didn't have the back bone to stand up for what is right.”
Do you still feel that way about Amy Bancroft?
Lynda Stagman: I don't know her anymore. She moved away. She did seem like she was appointed and that she was just filling the spot and assumably she was getting paid but--yeah.
I don't know her any differently. I've not seen her since then.
Michael Karlik: Okay. When you say she didn't have the backbone to stand up for what is right, what would you have liked to see her do?
Lynda Stagman: She was backing Fitzgerald. I can't remember the situation but she wasn't standing up. She was just an appointment that they had and she didn’t--I guess she was on their, you know.
She did what--maybe she did what she felt was right. But I figured she didn't have, you know, the backbone or gumption or anything to say what was right.
Michael Karlik: And for you, what was the right thing? To not pay Mark Fitzgerald a salary? To fire him outright?
Lynda Stagman: Yeah, those things.
Michael Karlik: Okay.
There is something crucial about North College Hill that you need to understand from this point onward. Change*nch began in opposition to Dan Brooks. But during his last years as mayor, Change did not just disagree with Dan Brooks and Mark Fitzgerald over policy. They were not simply skeptical of Dan Brooks and Mark Fitzgerald.
They thought they were criminals.
If you believe that the people in city hall are quite literally stealing money from taxpayers for themselves, that breeds distrust and it’s only natural to want to stop it by any means possible. It took me a long time to realize how truly foundational this belief of theft is to North College Hill politics. But everything that happened--the name calling, the harassment, the lawsuit--began from the point of view of victims, of people who felt wronged.
That feeling was, in my opinion, valid. The problem is, when this group tried to take out their target, the collateral damage was significant.
This is Tear It Down.
Amy Bancroft: I have a few more just details about things at the City Center. Kind of how they're going--how things are going on right now….
Amy Bancroft was 33 years old when she was elected to the city council in 2011. She received the most votes of any council candidate that year. Although she ran with the Democrats, Bancroft was not part of the close-knit social group of Dan Brooks and the older Democrats. She ran for the reason most people run for office: to do something.
Colin Thornton: Amy was working at Colerain Township, which was a neighboring neighborhood, as a zoning planner. She got really frustrated there because people were making bad decisions and she felt kind of powerless in her position.
Colin Thornton is Amy Bancroft's husband. He was involved in the community theater program at the City Center and was a volunteer in the schools while she was mayor. When the Democratic club wanted to recruit her for the election, Thornton said: that sounds great.
Colin Thornton: So I recommended that she run for city council in North College Hill and she reluctantly said that she would.
Michael Karlik: Do you remember what the campaign was like?
Colin Thornton: Yeah, I mean, I remember it being fun. I kind of acted as her campaign manager. We really pushed hard going door to door and I think it was really weird to see her name on signs. Amy’s so introverted, not really the type of person who really likes attention. And I remember her being very uncomfortable just at the idea of so much attention and having her picture on the campaign literature.
You know, I’m a theater kind of guy, so I obviously am the opposite. Definitely like attention and I think I enjoyed it vicariously. You know, probably I was the one with the better mindset to run for office, at least politically. And she was the one who would do a better job at it [chuckles].
Michael Karlik: Yeah, yeah. That was also the year that the mayor was up for reelection, so how much of him did you see during the campaign?
Colin Thornton: Mayor Brooks--you know, it was really kind of exciting to just think, “oh, we’re meeting at the mayor’s house tonight!” You know, we'd tell people that and just feel how weird it is to, like, know the mayor and be talking with the mayor. You know, the idea of her being mayor was not even close to on our mind.
Amy Bancroft: I still sometimes hear the phrase “but our mayor's a man.” And so I feel the need to give you an introduction. I'm not one for formality, so here are photos of my family….
Bancroft recorded a State of the City video in 2014. It was clever and cheesy, with her standing in front of a green screen while scenes from the city panned and zoomed across the frame.
Amy Bancroft: --now this “If Not Who” campaign, these postcards, I paid for out of my own pocket. This is truly something that's so important to me. I think if we get people to volunteer, we build that sense of community--
There was no teleprompter, just her holding a slide show clicker and glancing downward at her notes while describing her accomplishments so far.
Amy Bancroft: I'm excited to talk about the North College Hill City Center. In the last year, it's made a complete 180. And it's very exciting. At the start of last year, I encouraged the nonprofit who runs the building, the Pro Foundation, to change their onsite management. This was done and that's when great things really began to happen….
When Dan Brooks resigned as mayor in 2013, he wanted Bancroft to succeed him.
Colin Thornton: He was going to recommend her and the, you know, the committee didn’t have any reason, you know, not to choose somebody that he recommended.
Michael Karlik: How did you feel about it?
Colin Thornton: I thought it was cool. I was really encouraging her to do it and the idea of her being mayor I thought was a lot of fun and also really unbelievable. So I was all for it.
Michael Karlik: Okay.
Colin Thornton: If she could go back in time, she would definitely refuse [chuckles].
Michael Karlik: How are things different then for you guys once she became the mayor?
Colin Thornton: Once she became the mayor, the other thing that’s important to know is that the minority party that had not had power suddenly got power on city council. That changed things quite a bit. Because the two years before that, you know, votes were really easy. You know, the minority party would vote against it but they--Change*nch would vote against things. But it, you know, it didn’t really matter. So just, things got done.
But the minute that they, Change*nch, got into power, there was this kind of blood lust of, like, “oh, now we can do something” and all guns were pointed towards the administration. We thought, like, things would lighten up once campaigning season was over. But then they got in and it was as if the campaign never stopped....
I don't know. I don’t know. I don't really have any, like, strong reactions. I just felt embarrassed and--for the city. A lot of times they’d bring in special guests or people to come and speak about a project that might need to happen. And then those people would walk away, you know, thinking less of our city, so….
Michael Karlik: Okay. And from what you heard during that campaign or from what you know about them since, what did they want to do? Like, what was their goal if they were to win office?
Colin Thornton: Well, that is part of the thing is nobody knew “what exactly do you want?” Because they won. They had the power and I mean, for the first year, they spent the entire time arguing. You know, being difficult and not passing laws is what it seemed to me. And that is something that I would bring up to them is, what have you done?
You know, I know that they said a lot of things about the high crime, the switch of the school and the government building, and they’ve talked a lot about transparency and communication. I know, like, the big thing that they wanted was public access cameras in the city council room. So I would say that that was their one accomplishment and that was very important to them.
Michael Karlik: Well, it's important to me, too, now. Eight years later or whatever, so….
Colin Thornton: I imagine so!
In September, I emailed Amy Bancroft asking her to tell me about her experience. She replied back, saying, “I do appreciate your interest in NCH; it is fascinating, mindboggling, and just plain sad.” She added, “I try not to think on it much, as the latter part was miserable.” Then she went silent.
Colin Thornton: I want to say that my wife and daughter are about to come in, so I might be interrupted here.
Michael Karlik: Okay, that’s fine.
Colin Thornton: I need to let them know. [off mic] Hey, I’m on an interview, just so you guys know. Okay. Yeah, so--Amy’s gonna come over here and correct me now that I’m...“that’s not how it happened!”
Amy Bancroft: Hi, this is Amy.
Four months after that email, Amy Bancroft agreed to talk.
Michael Karlik: When Dan Brooks asked if you would be mayor, were you an immediate yes or an immediate no?
Amy Bancroft: Not “immediately, yes.” [chuckles] Yeah, no, I definitely remember thinking on it and I mean, at some point, I didn’t--there wasn’t a lot of time between it all….I mean, I think at some point I thought, “you know, think of, you know, all I can do,” right? I knew there were things that--things had been, I don’t know.
It needs some shakeup, right? And I knew that. And I was like, “oh, I can do this! And this might be good! I can help build some relationships and think of all I can do.”
Michael Karlik: Do you know if the committee was considering anyone else for mayor?
Amy Bancroft: I mean, Maureen Mason was someone else under consideration.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Did they not pick her because she lost reelection, do you think?
Amy Bancroft: Oh, no. I mean I don’t think that was really why. I think honestly, a big part of it was with the changes to the makeup of council that were coming. You know, I was at least someone not--at least, I think we all thought I wasn’t carrying the baggage that other people were. Apparently I was carrying it and I didn’t even know.
Amy Bancroft: Mark Fitzgerald and I were on the same page about some things that needed to be fixed. You know, like, I thought things were gonna get done. And gosh, maybe in the--by February, like, you knew it was gonna be an uphill battle.
So the sticking point was that they wanted Mark Fitzgerald fired. And here I was, right? I’ve never been mayor before….and so the first thing I wasn’t gonna do was get rid of the city administrator, you know? Like, you don’t want to be without a city administrator and have a new mayor and, you know, wanna get things done. It just made no logical sense to me.
Michael Karlik: How did the trouble start?
Amy Bancroft: Oh, gosh, what did it start out as? I mean, the main thing was his contract or lack thereof or whatever. They did not like how much he was being paid. Again, I could understand they may not have liked it, but compared to what other city administrators make that have experience, it was not a crazy salary. So, I think they always questioned that general contract that had them both on it, yes, so….
Michael Karlik: And the contract was the letter from Dan Brooks to the council outlining that the salaries would be combined, please appropriate the money?
Amy Bancroft: Well, right. That’s the issue, right? Even though council voted on the actual, you know, legislation to make the salaries, the fact that people weren’t happy--there wasn’t actually a signed piece of paper that said that. Which is so interesting because then I made sure that anyone we hired started having a contract and that was signed, right? And anyways that came back to bite me, but yeah, I did not share their level of problem with the whole issue revolving around him. And that created an issue that was always the underlying issue of everything.
When Bancroft refers to contracts coming to bite her, she’s talking about finance director Shannon Hoelmer and how the council cut her salary right as the administration was hiring her.
Jim O'Shea: ...Yet public records show that the city administrator and the mayor executed a contract with the finance manager for an amount that is $7,000 greater than the amount appropriated for that position. I was just wondering, Mr. Fitzgerald, were you aware that the contract exceeded the amount appropriated by council?
Mark Fitzgerald: You're entitled to--
Jim O'Shea: An answer.
Mark Fitzgerald: --participate in this meeting but I am not obligated to respond to you.
Jim O'Shea: Okay I appreciate that no answer. Mayor Bancroft, were you aware the contract exceeded the amount appropriated?
Amy Bancroft: I've had communication with council and I think this is just out of hand.
Jim O'Shea: It's just a simple question.
Amy Bancroft: I think this has gotten out of hand and it looks really poorly to our residents.
This is how it went from Bancroft’s point of view.
Michael Karlik: Well if you remember, Mark Fitzgerald and Shannon Hoelmer I guess were the parties who settled on a salary of $57,000 for her. But at some point, the council lowered it to $50,000. When did you find out about that?
Amy Bancroft: Yeah, no, I was involved in all that. So when we first were talking to her about the position and what, you know--and making an offer that we thought was a reasonable amount to be paid for that very important role in the city, extremely important, that was the value decided upon.
So at the same time, council has the 2015 budget in front of them and it still had the amount for the former finance director on it. Offhand, you might even know what it is. I can’t remember. It was over $57,000 though. We get to the third reading of that ordinance and council asked us the question, how much we were gonna pay Ms. Hoelmer?
Now, I do not feel it’s a place at a public meeting to discuss an employee or an employee’s pay to that specificity, sorry. I mean, it’s in the ordinance, right? In forthcoming ordinances, right? So it is public record. But to discuss an employee at a public meeting, like, that to me isn’t right.
So they asked how much we were gonna pay her and the answer that we gave was that it’s well within the amount that’s appropriated.
Michael Karlik: Was that your wording? That it’s well within the amount? Or did you tell them the exact amount?
Amy Bancroft: It was very close. We did not, no. Neither Mr. Fitzgerald or I said the exact amount.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Do you think that made them suspicious? Like, “huh, why are they not telling us the amount that we just asked for?”
Amy Bancroft: Oh, probably.
Michael Karlik: Do you think that made them paranoid? Okay.
Amy Bancroft: I don’t know, but the funny thing is--so here's the thing. They could have asked that question before the meeting. I think it’s a really odd question to ask at a meeting, personally. If it’s something that’s weighing on their mind to the extent that they then decide to make cuts to--oh, I think it was two or three different areas, and one of them was that line item.
And I just remember sitting there and they cut it down to $50,000 and I was like, “no! [Laughs] No! Don't do this! Right? Why?!”
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Amy Bancroft: And then they voted and it approved. And I was all about getting everybody contracts, right? Because they want contracts, I want people to have contracts. It protects the employee as well. It goes both ways. But I gosh darn it was gonna make sure that Ms. Hoelmer had a contract.
So we proceeded with the amount we had originally agreed upon with the crazy idea that we could come back and say, you know, “hey, council, we need an extra $7,500 here. Please give it to us.” Right? Again, still obviously hadn't learned our lesson that they wouldn’t do that.
And...I was just dumbfounded.
Michael Karlik: Did you ever feel uneasy about the two-for-one salary arrangement with Mark Fitzgerald and his wife?
Amy Bancroft: I think if the whole amount of money had been truly a crazy sum of money, perhaps so. As it was, there were so many other things to be concerned about--truly concerned about with that city--that, no. I just--no.
On Facebook, there is a group called “Anything or Everything about N.C.H.” Today, it’s a place where people post events, download the police blotter, or ask questions about something they notice in the community.
During Amy Bancroft’s time as mayor, the Facebook group became a cesspool of negativity and accusations aimed at Bancroft and the city administrator.
“They are all accessories to this crime,” wrote one person.
“This is why NCH will never clean up, you all have grown adults trashing each other!” wrote another. “Seriously??? This needs to stop. Its been going on for years. Please stop acting like children.”
At one point, Jim O'Shea, the husband of Council Member Shawna O'Shea, posted a video he shot himself. I was told that for upwards of a year, O'Shea would bring his GoPro camera to meetings. This particular video shows Amy Bancroft sitting off to the side in her mayor's seat. She's not the one talking, which makes the footage of her seem voyeuristic.
While a council member is making a point about something, Mayor Bancroft glances to one of the people in the audience and quickly does a “gun-to-the-head” gesture to convey her aggravation. The commenters on the Facebook group labeled it disrespectful, which it was. On the other hand, it's not exactly the height of grace to point a camera at someone in a year's worth of meetings just to capture one “gotcha” moment.
By far, the most vocal commenter was man named Bill Campbell. He appeared to be in his forties or fifties and bald. He identified himself as a nurse. It would be more appropriate to call him something else: a cyberbully.
“Amy (Our Mayor) has stood by [Mark Fitzgerald’s] side and watched him verbally assault 2 citizens, give preference and a job to his friend at the cost of tax payer money, deliberately put the city of Loveland first, try and get state pensions he's not entitled to and fraud with tax payer money,” Campbell wrote.
“I understand that Amy didnt fire [Fitzgerald] because she was appointed to be his puppet.”
“Part of me feels sorry for Amy. In the grand scheme of things, she was set up from the beginning. SHe [sic] never had a chance considering Brooks and Fitzgerald was using her as a pawn.”
And to a former council member, he wrote, “Maybe your dumbass can learn how to look things up.”
Some of Campbell's statements sounded highly dubious. He claimed that over 100 people messaged him in a week asking for information. He claimed there was a possible court hearing to remove Amy Bancroft as mayor. He claimed there were emails from Dan Brooks calling Bancroft a puppet. He claimed he personally talked with the elected auditor for the entire state of Ohio, and the auditor told him that North College Hill could be dissolved.
He repeatedly called into question the work Mark Fitzgerald was doing as city administrator, saying Fitzgerald was the “full-time” vice mayor of the city of Loveland. The vice mayor part was true. But like North College Hill, Loveland council members are not full time.
Then, there was his outright harassment. He said that Mark Fitzgerald must be bribing Amy Bancroft or having an affair with her. He told women who disagreed with him that they must be “sleeping with” someone who had a differing opinion. When Amy Bancroft and Colin Thornton moved out of the city, he sent Thornton a message with the family's new address--as if to say, “I know where you live.”
And about the city's law director, Campbell wrote, “he's an idiot too....I'll pay him to walk on my property.”
Many people I spoke with had heard of Campbell. Virtually none of them had ever seen him in person. No one believed he lived in North College Hill. That was probably the most galling aspect. He hammered Mark Fitzgerald for living elsewhere. He was so strident and claimed to have so much inside information, even calling Amy Bancroft “our mayor.” And he didn't even live there.
But on all but his most despicable of posts, the people who viewed the administration as criminal accepted what he wrote, and even praised it.
“I would believe you before any of the crooked politicians,” posted one person. “Nice job, Bill, being persistent and exposing the wrongdoings,” wrote someone else.
What wasn't obvious was that he was a friend of Renee Stiles, one of the Change*nch council members. Some people speculated to me that Stiles was feeding him information. (Stiles declined to talk to me and Campbell never responded to a Facebook inquiry.)
In October 2015, Renee Stiles wrote in the Facebook group, “I've served on city council for the last 6 years and watched the corruption progressively deepen but have not been so silent about it….I asked the mayor to dismiss the city administrator after he has repeatedly been rude and disrespectful to citizens and council members and she said she would take it into consideration. That was 1.5 year ago and he's still here. When is it enough?”
Shortly afterward came a reply from Lynda Stagman, the Republican former council member and a Change*nch ally. “Renee Stiles is one of the most intelligent, well spoken people who I know. I believe in her. She knows the difference between right and wrong and she stands up for what is right. Thank God for Renee and for those who also not only know the difference between right and wrong, but who do something about it. Thanks, Renee.”
Two months later, in one of the last council meetings of the year, Renee Stiles said:
Renee Stiles: I would like to make a motion to appoint Ms. Lynda Stagman to be the clerk of council, effective January 1, 2016.
Amy Bancroft: [sigh] I understand--you brought up that, you know, “do you understand that they felt, you know, that they thought it was ethical wrong?” Or I think that might have been the wording you used.
I can see why they thought that. I just feel like they felt this--there was this greater evil or something and I’m really not sure. It was--and I think that’s what was hard to wrap my head around because I did have a different experience and perspective of it. And I didn’t understand the level of viciousness, I think, that was being used towards their purpose, you know? Whatever their reasoning was, it seemed a bit much.
Michael Karlik: When you call it, “viciousness,” is that the gradual erosion of you and Mark in the hopes that you would leave? Was it just the nature of a lawsuit being filed? Or was it the actual words that they would use to describe how they saw your conduct?
Amy Bancroft: Maybe a little bit of both. I don’t know. And I think what gets missed here is the effect on the morale of, I think, a lot of city employees in the whole midst of this that were watching this go on....
I liken it to bullying. I mean, I really think it was an adult version of bullying. It was asking the same question over and over and over from different people amongst themselves, right? So it would all be Change*nch but they’d all be asking the same question maybe a slightly different way, trying to get--thinking I’d slip up and give two different answers. Like, I don’t even know what they were looking for, but it was stuff like that. It was just kind of a little relentless.
And then, I mean, Facebook groups I didn’t even know existed. Like, to find out I’m being discussed there. And I’ve always been somebody who’s--I don’t know, I’m a really nice person. I consider myself honest, forthright. So to have people start considering and twisting what I say and imagining that everything I did had some ulterior motive--I think one of their favorite things was to say that we were playing a game.
And I was like, “I’m not playing a game! What game is this? Make it stop!” And you could see them kind of, like, moving pawns around, right? Amongst themselves, like, setting me up and stuff in meetings. Setting us up to, like, look as bad as possible.
And the unfortunate effect of that is not only I didn’t like it, right? But it makes the city look bad. And here, this was a city still struggling economically and really the last thing you wanna present is this dysfunctional council and city management.
And it didn't have to be that way. That I didn’t get. But it was just kind of a--it was just the constant, “what’s it gonna be today?” And then….if they had just picked up a phone and called and asked us, right, we’d be like, “oh, yeah. We’ll look that up” or--but it wasn’t. It was all about putting us on the spot. And for what reason? I really don’t know.
I don’t know how it was really supposed to help the city.
Michael Karlik: Yeah, I see what you’re saying. You know, in other city councils I’ve seen, there have been instances where you have audience members get up, they hammer on particular council members for something--conduct, an issue they’re considering--
Amy Bancroft: Right.
Michael Karlik: --and, you know, they might praise the council member who’s on their side--
Amy Bancroft: Right.
Michael Karlik: --and it generally ends at that meeting.
Amy Bancroft: Right.
Michael Karlik: I mean, you get the gadflies who come in every week and they’re pissed off about something. So I mean, in what way was what you were seeing different than the situation I just described where yeah, you do have coalitions in the community and you expect them to show up and be vocal?
Amy Bancroft: I--right. Right, and for it to be--right. You know, I totally, I agree with what you’re saying. They come up--usually it’s a particular issue or problem they’re having or like you said.
I think with this it was the same handful of individuals focused on the same thing. And when you have a large portion of those people involved in a lawsuit and it’s all just--it’s yeah. It was just really bizarre.
It--[sigh]. I’m really bad at explaining it, which is what--I think part of why, you know, it had an effect on me that I wish it hadn’t. But usually people speak their piece and you help them resolve an issue and you move on. But this wasn’t--it wasn’t resolving anything. It was truly just getting up to make people look bad or make the city look bad, despite a lot of work trying to make the city better.
So yeah, it’s just really hard for me to explain.
Michael Karlik: Was the point of the questioning to wear you down and Mark Fitzgerald to where you might resign?
Amy Bancroft: [laughs] That's what it felt like, right? And I definitely got to that point. I don’t really know if that’s the reason. If I could figure out why they were doing it, then I think I could’ve made it stop...but um, yeah. So I don’t really know.
I think some of them got some enjoyment out of it. But my underlying thing is, like, they don’t--they can’t possibly really care about this community. Like, they care about winning I think a couple issues, right? Getting rid of Mark. That was the big thing....
I really don’t know other than I think they’re enjoying themselves and I--I feel sad for them. I really did.
And so many nights I’d, like, be thinking, “is it me?” And I’d try…I’m sorry...and I’d try and imagine, like, their perspectives. I really would. I would try really hard because I started feeling like I was crazy. And you know--and then I was like, no. No, it just makes no sense and, you know--there was a lot of that.
I tried really hard to see what perspective they were coming from and I never came up with anything that really made any sense. So, sorry.
Amy Bancroft announced her resignation on September 21, 2015. Council Member Ron Mosby appeared surprised.
Ron Mosby: I'd like to wish you the best in whatever you and your family are doing to move forward. So thank you for certainly your public service and I wish you well.
Council Member Maureen Mason was sympathetic.
Maureen Mason: I'm very sorry to see you go. You brought a lot of energy and ideas and enthusiasm.
But for the Change North College Hill council members and their allies, the mayor's resignation barely registered with them.
Suzie Wietlisbach: I had a question--actually, a couple of them. Coming from somebody that eventually will be having a hard time walking across the parking lot once it's under construction, are we gonna do that in parts? Like, one side first and then the other?
Shawna O'Shea: Mayor, since Mr. Fitzgerald's not here, do you have any idea--I know he was gonna get a report from ODOT, the questions that we had. Do you have any idea--
Jim O'Shea: I just wanted to clarify, Mayor, the effective date of your resignation.
Amy Bancroft: It'll be tonight at midnight.
Michael Karlik: How did you feel about Dan Brooks leaving you in the position that he did?
Amy Bancroft: Um, I mean it kind of...it was what it was. I don’t think I really had any opinion of him making that decision. I think it was the right, you know, decision for him, which was a lot of what it comes down to eventually after you’ve given a lot of time to a public service like that, you know? Eventually you have to consider yourself.
Michael Karlik: Yeah. Do you get the impression that he saw all the problems you would have to deal with?
Amy Bancroft: No, I don’t think so.
Within a few months, the city administrator would also be gone. The finance director would, too--as would the money the city spent training her for her one year in the job. And at the last regular meeting of the year, right after the council failed to pass an ordinance that would let the city collect income tax--
Clerk: Please be advised that effective midnight, Tuesday, December 21, 2015, Ms. Kathy Riga is resigning her elected position as president of North College Hill city council.
--the Democratic council president, Kathy Riga, resigned.
Bancroft and her family moved out of the city shortly afterward. The Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story titled “Did 'toxic environment' lead to N. College Hill mayor's resignation?“ Bancroft was quoted as saying the council was responsible. Change*nch council members said that Bancroft was responsible. And until today, the media left it at that.
I understand why she felt she shouldn't fire the city administrator. After all, what if she did tell him to clean out his desk? Who would be there to run the city the next morning? The answer is: no one. And I don't think Change considered that.
But there was actually a very good reason to fire him: as long as Mark Fitzgerald was there, the government could not trust itself. This was affecting the city's operations. It was affecting the city's image. And it was affecting the mayor.
Colin Thornton: I mean, us leaving was basically a big middle finger to NCH. To say, you know, we did our best but we felt like crap at the end of it.
In another city, Amy Bancroft would have been a good mayor. She might've even been a great mayor. But in North College Hill, she was simply collateral damage.
Michael Karlik: Knowing what you do about Change*nch and the environment that was the context of that resignation of Dan Brooks, do you think that Amy Bancroft was the right person to take over?
Sean Feeney: Honestly, Maureen Mason was the right person to take over and that’s why she was successfully elected after Amy stepped down.
Maureen Mason: I've been there to communicate with you. So don't accuse me of a lack of communication on my part….I've been here.
Colin Thornton: Maureen Mason is a really strong personality. She doesn’t take crap from anyone and, you know, in that way she was very much the opposite of Amy.
Maureen Mason: Now are we gonna go on for another ten minutes because you're upset because I said we had a meeting and you didn't come?
Colin Thornton: To see her become mayor and--and also know that Change*nch really despised her I think made us happy.
Maureen Mason had been involved in Democratic campaigns since 1968, knocking on doors, making phone calls, working the polls. If Amy Bancroft erred on the side of staying quiet, Mason erred on the side of punching back. The secretary at Saint Margaret Mary Church, she had been on the North College Hill city council for 23 years when Bancroft resigned. Now, 66 years old and running for mayor against Change*nch's Pat Hartzel, Mason was appointed mayor and was suddenly the incumbent one month before the election.
This bothered Change*nch. Nick Link, the group's co-founder, argued her appointment did not follow the law. It certainly appeared to give her an unfair advantage. Three Change council members attempted to call a special meeting, alleging that the city council--and not a Democratic committee--should appoint the interim mayor. The meeting never ended up happening and Mason won the election.
Maureen Mason: What is the number that has been put into the line for city administrator?
Pat Hartzel: We have zero dollars for that right now.
In the final weeks of 2015, Maureen Mason was looking for a new city administrator to replace Mark Fitzgerald.
Maureen Mason: I think it wasn’t until I was appointed in October of 2015 that I was told that it was going to be at the end of that year that he had planned on retiring.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Did he tell you that in person?
Maureen Mason: At some point, yes. I think I did hear it from him, yeah.
Michael Karlik: How did you communicate to the council that you would need a new city administrator?
Maureen Mason: Um...I don’t remember.
In December, Mason learned that the council had changed the 2016 budget. The salary for the next administrator would not be $125,000. It would not be $84,000. It would be zero.
Maureen Mason: And how do you expect to have a city administrator? How--you know, you have tied my hands. If there is no money there for a city administrator, then I have no alternative. So I guess Mr. Fitzgerald stays with us because his salary has already been set.
Michael Karlik: Would you have considered keeping Mark Fitzgerald on as city administrator if he hadn't retired?
Maureen Mason: Um, it's possible. He had skills. He had talent. He--I had no problem with working with Mark Fitzgerald.
I don't know as far as he was the lightning rod and possibly would have made things totally impossible to work with the majority that was then on council. So there's only so much of hitting my head against the brick wall that I wanna do….
That it probably had reached the point where to have council be that hostile would not have been good for the city.
When Maureen Mason suggested in that council meeting that Mark Fitzgerald would just have to stay as city administrator if council refused to pay for a new one, it doesn't appear that she was serious. Nor does it appear that Fitzgerald was remotely interested in being a punching bag for the council one day longer than he had to.
But suddenly, the council, which apparently had not seen any letter of resignation, seized on the idea that funding a new city administrator was not an actual emergency.
Shawna O'Shea: We don't know if there's an opening or if there's not an opening. So therefore, if there's not a resignation, then it's true. Then the salary--because we can't lower it, so the salary remains the same. But if there is an opening, then we can set the new salary and move on. But we as council can't set a budget, set a salary for a position that we don't know whether it's open or not. So to say that we aren't doing our job, that's maybe not the right wording, is incorrect.
Then, in one of the most surreal moments I have seen, Shawna O'Shea, who was suing the city and Mark Fitzgerald for his salary, suggested that he should remain the city administrator and keep getting paid that salary.
Shawna O'Shea: Therefore, I think as a council we need to take our time. And if it takes multiple meetings into the new year to make this decision and Mr. Fitzgerald staying longer, then so be it.
In North College Hill, the charter gives the mayor the power to hire a city administrator. Council, of course, sets the pay. If the council zeroed out Fitzgerald's salary because they disagreed with it, that would have made a statement and not much else. But zeroing out a salary to prevent the new mayor from hiring someone?
In talking to other people with experience in local government, I asked if this was normal. The answer was no, it wasn't normal. But it was most likely something else: a power play.
With Change North College Hill assaulting Dan Brooks's badly miscalculated salary combination; with the group responsible for the resignation of one, perhaps two mayors; and with no one having any idea what they wanted to do other than fire the city administrator, I decided it was time to contact the person at the very top of the organization.
Nick Link: Hello?
Michael Karlik: Hi, Nick. It’s Michael Karlik. You ready to do this?
Note: This transcript may contain minor deviations from the story as compiled. For an accurate record, please refer to the audio.
Chapter 4: "The Puppet Master"
Chapter 4: The Puppet Master
Amber Bailey: How are you?
Michael Karlik: Oh, I’m okay. How’s the campaign going?
Amber Bailey: Honestly, I’ve been so busy with just trying to keep afloat with them and doing all that I can do that I haven’t really been campaigning hardly at all.
Michael Karlik: What do you mean, “keep afloat with them?”
Amber Bailey: Well, it seems as though everybody looks real nice in our meetings, but behind the scenes it isn’t always nice and a lot of that communication flow that you are seeing is because I’m being relentless on them communicating. Relentless.
So not only that, but I have been trying to get out and talk to people and move forward with--I’m a horrible politician. I am a horrible politician. I’ll tell you that right now. I’m the worst politician you’ll ever meet [chuckles].
Michael Karlik: Why do you say that?
Amber Bailey: Because I don’t like to lie to people. I don't like to finesse people. I don’t like to have these intentions in front of your face but behind your back I have these intentions. I just--I am who I am.
I don’t care about platforms. People ask me my platform all the time when I’m running for council, when I knock on doors. And I’m like, really don’t have one because I don’t know what issues are gonna face us when it’s time for me to make my vote or when it’s time for me to open my mouth.
Amber Bailey, the new council member who wrote to me asking for help. A few days before the city council election in November 2017, I called her to ask how things were going. Not surprisingly, she was having some problems with her opposition, Change North College Hill.
Amber Bailey: I don’t, like--even in our forum, our candidate forum, when I hear them talk about needing to have every seat on council and every seat in the administrative department, like, all I think about are a bunch of dictators. It’s sad.
Michael Karlik: Dictators?
Amber Bailey: Yeah. I mean what group of people--let’s just play this back a little bit. What group of people feels it’s necessary to control...the mayor’s seat and have it in the city charter that they are allowed to confirm the appointment of a law director, a finance director, and a city administrator? What group of people really think that that is okay? To have that much power to say, “we want our hands in everything?”
And that part scares me because there are no checks and balances in that at all. And given their work ethic that I have seen for myself, I am not comfortable living in a place where they rule everything, at all.
If I don’t get elected--mark my words right now on the record, off the record, I don’t care--if I don’t get elected, I will still be at every meeting and I will probably circulate petitions to get each and every single one of these people thrown off of our city council. And then I won’t run if you wanna know the truth about it.
Like, I’m torn. If I win, awesome. I get to be that one voice that stands out that says, “this isn’t right.” But I have to sit next to them for the next four years. I lose, I lost, which sucks. I hate to lose. But great, because I get to go back to being the resident in the stands that has the First Amendment and can say whatever I want to.
Michael Karlik: With the recall though, wouldn’t you be taking their tactics to the next level on them? I mean, at what point does everything have to stop--at what point does it just have to decline from the hostility and the personal grievances that Change was able to be so politically successful on?
Amber Bailey: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. If I get a successful recall of all of them, which is 15 percent of the votes--historically there’s only been 600 people vote out of a city of 9,000--they cannot reappoint. That’s the difference. Fresh, new turnover. They cannot reappoint people….a successful recall means they’re all gone. Everyone’s gone.
Michael Karlik: Okay, so wait a minute--
Amber Bailey: [laughs] Yep.
Michael Karlik: --if Change is so politically shallow and such a small, insular group of folks who doesn’t really say what they want to do and then, logically, doesn’t do anything once they get elected, why in the eight years since the first Change candidates got elected have they come to within two seats of taking over the entire council?
Amber Bailey: They are the masters at manipulation….And historically in North College Hill, we don’t get--I’m trying to be politically correct, but I can’t. We don’t get the young people to vote. We get old, white senior citizens. We don’t get the young black people. We don’t get the old black people. We don’t get--or “African Americans,” I’m sorry. We don’t get the Asians. We don’t get the Indians, we don't--shut up!
She was talking to someone sitting next to her, not me.
Amber Bailey: We don’t get--nobody votes. Okay, you tell me this: in a city of 9,000 with 6,000 registered voters, why is the highest turnout for a city council member 687 votes?
Michael Karlik: I’m not arguing the point with you but, like, ten years ago, the population was 80 percent white and 20 percent black and the Democrats had all the seats on the council. Now it’s 50 percent black, 50 percent white in the city and they’re not Republican, but they're certainly not Democrats. And they’re winning. A lot.
One thing I have discovered is that in North College Hill, things that seem shady can have reasonable explanations. Likewise, things with a reasonable explanation can turn out murky after all. Both sides hurl accusations and both sides have answers to those accusations. In that sense, it's like any other relationship between two opposing political parties.
Technically, Change*nch is not a party. As one of the founders, Nick Link, likes to say, they have Democrats, Republicans, and independents. Instead, it’s a political action committee, whose purpose is to get candidates elected.
Since 2009, Change has raised over $27,000 for their campaigns. In its first year, tons of people pitched in. Nearly 60 people contributed $7,000. It seemed like a movement, one which ended up giving Change*nch its first three council seats.
Since then, the number of donors has dwindled. Fewer and fewer people gave more and more money. Sixty percent of all their donations come from just seven people. But one man has put more money, time, and arguably thought into Change*nch than anyone else. And in his version, he did not manipulate people; he saved them from their government.
This is Tear It Down.
Nick Link: I think the one thing that I was most proud of back in those days was I kept every last ordinance in my paperwork. And when it came time for there to be a question on this, that, or the other thing, they would look over at my end of the table and I would be in the midst of rooting through to find the piece of evidence that we would need to come up with this answer, that answer, or the other answer.
This is Nick Link, one of the original founders of Change North College Hill. In the 1980s, he served three terms as a council member under Mayor Dan Brooks.
Nick Link: I didn’t have to make people wait around to get an answer. If a citizen or a member of council had a question about something, I usually could come up with the necessary paperwork that would answer the question.
For 35 years, Link was a middle school science teacher in a nearby school district. But his community involvement could fill up an entire page on a resume. Besides being a Democratic council member, he was the clerk of council, the auditor, a charter review commission member, and, briefly, a campaign manager.
Nick Link: But anyway, I ran the nineteen--I guess it was ‘91 campaign. And at that particular time, the Democrats swept all ten positions.
Michael Karlik: Was there anything particularly appealing to you about the positions that you took? Or were you just happy to be involved with the city government in any way and those are what was open?
Nick Link: I don't know. I kind of liked a challenge. And when I got a challenge, I kinda put my heart and soul into it and so I guess that was--just liking a challenge, I guess.
Nick Link: Change*nch, we felt that that would be a name that could last forever because, you know, unless you’re changing, you’re not getting better. So we felt that would apply at all times. No matter how good you might think you’re getting, you can always get better. And so we liked Change*nch.
Michael Karlik: Right, I remember this being 2008, 2009, Barack Obama’s first year in office. The Tea Party was just starting up. So did any of that national context play a role in the branding and the organization of Change?
Nick Link: I don’t think we spent one second in any of our campaign meetings talking about President Obama or the Tea Party.
Michael Karlik: Yeah. What was your personal vision for the group?
Nick Link: Well [chuckles], it’s the same now as it was back then. I guess you might say it’s a--you know, I wanted to, this sounds kind of corny. But I was hoping that we could get a kumbaya-type situation going where we have people totally--you know, people of many, many different backgrounds. Of different ages, different genders, different--different racial makeup, different religions working together in harmony.
Michael Karlik: Okay. So your vision was about process, not policy?
Nick Link: Well, I mean certainly--I mean, policy was important. We wanted, like I said--our whole idea was to have different ideas available, rather than the same old ideas that had been promulgated for decades and decades by the same people being there all the time.
Link is now 74 years old. He was very personable and could easily name to me all the people who had been part of running North College Hill’s government for the past three decades. He spoke about his friendships with a variety of Democrats, living and deceased, who had mentored him or worked alongside him.
Granted, his memory wasn't perfect: he did not, for instance, remember at all being taken to court by Al Long in 2009.
Michael Karlik: Case number 09CV11743 in small claims court, Al Long v. Nick Link, et al. over $500. And the judgment was for the defendant. So apparently, you won that case even though you didn’t know it existed! Um, so--so there you go. There’s your court case.
Nick Link: Hmm. Okay. I don’t remember--I don’t remember giving any testimony or I don’t remember going to court. I don’t remember any of that stuff.
He did remember Al Long being unendorsed from the Change*nch ticket that year and that someone from Change called Long’s office after nasty comments appeared on their website. Although Link believes that Change was not actually trying to get him fired.
In the Change*nch era, Nick Link was not a candidate. You could call him an advisor. A tutor. A bookkeeper. A donor. An organizer. But for people I talked to outside of the group, there was always a deep skepticism of how Change's council members decided what they were going to do. There is a larger group called Serve North College Hill where Change recruits its candidates. Serve NCH does volunteer projects at the city's senior center and occasional beautification work.
They also hold monthly meetings where the group discusses what's happening in North College Hill. The concern from outsiders has two parts. First, if a majority of council members, known as a quorum, is together someplace, that can be dangerous territory. If they start deciding how they will act on city business, that's a council meeting. If it isn't advertised and open to the public, it's illegal.
I never found any evidence that this was happening with the Change*nch council members, despite a lot of grumbling about the Serve meetings. But other people familiar with local government told me that it's simply best to avoid having those council members in the same room to begin with. Better safe than sorry.
The second suspicion aimed at Change*nch was not where council members might be making decisions, but who was making decisions for them. The accusation was that suddenly, in a council meeting, all Change*nch members would be on the same page about some issue. Sometimes, it was true and I saw it for myself. Other times, the council members would be divided on what to do. So that is another difficult allegation to prove.
But for those who were convinced that someone was orchestrating the council members, all fingers pointed to Nick Link.
Nick Link: People always confuse me as being a puppet master. And I’ve told you that before, too, I think--
Michael Karlik: I don’t think you used the word “puppet master,” though.
Nick Link: Okay. Well, I think I told you the story about Mark Fitzgerald and taking me behind closed doors and trying to slam doors and--
Michael Karlik: No. No.
Nick Link: No? Oh, okay. Well, that was the first thing he said. First of all, he invited me very brusquely, to join him in the room that’s adjacent to council chambers. I was at a meeting. He happened to be there, too, and I could tell he was ticked. And so he motioned me to come and follow him behind--behind the door, you know, in the little antechamber there, next to city council. I did.
As soon as I got inside, he tried--he took the door and tried to slam it as hard as he possibly could to make the most noise possible, I guess to get attention. And I caught the door before it could slam so he couldn’t get that part of it done.
I spoke with multiple people who were in the room when this confrontation happened between Nick Link and city administrator Mark Fitzgerald. No one could remember exactly what was said. Some of them could barely pinpoint the year. The only thing they could recall was one word that Fitzgerald hurled at Link: “puppet master.”
Nick Link: And the first thing he said was, he called me a puppeteer or a puppet master or whatever the case might be. But it was in terms of me manipulating everything that our members of city council were doing, and I’m a bad guy and this, that, and the other thing.
And I said, “you don’t know our people very well because our people have minds of their own.” And I give my opinions and if--at meetings that we might have--and if they agree with them, fine. But I’d say half the time they don’t and we go from there. But he was--he was using foul language. By that time the door was closed and so as soon as he really started to do that, I opened the door again and invited everybody to come over and listen to their city manager cursing me. Of course he stopped then.
Michael Karlik: Okay, okay. And do you remember what prompted him to take you aside? Was there anything in the previous days or weeks that might have triggered that?
Nick Link: If there were things like that that happened more recently, I don’t recall them. I don’t think it was anything specifically out of the ordinary. I think it was just a general rant.
That puppet master incident took place in March 2014, the day the Change*nch council voted down Mark Fitzgerald’s proposed contract with XPEX.
Michael Karlik: You mentioned that Serve North College Hill was started because you wanted to be active in the community more than just an election cycle. Did it cross your mind that if you did have your candidates--and the group associated with the candidates--doing these service projects, that would increase name recognition and visibility when it did come time for people to vote?
Nick Link: I don’t--you know, quite frankly, I don't think that was our concern at all. I think we probably over a period of time realized that perhaps that might be--that might be beneficial. But that wasn’t the reason why we did it….
If people saw what we were doing, fine and dandy. That was a benefit also to us. But if they didn't, that was no big deal either. I mean, most of the stuff we did was behind closed doors or doing them without any recognition whatsoever.
I mean, nobody ever saw my wife sitting in a hallway in the elementary school working with two or three kids because they were behind in their reading ability. Nobody ever saw me stack books in the library in order to get the very brand new library, you know, off its feet. Nobody ever saw us doing our painting project at the senior center.
Those kinds of things, but we did them anyway, without regard to any pictures in the paper or stuff like that. That just wasn't our way of thinking.
Michael Karlik: Is Serve NCH a nonprofit?
Nick Link: We--we are not a, what do you call that? Something, something (3)(c)?
Michael Karlik: 501(3)(c) [sic].
Nick Link: 501(3)(c). We don’t have that because we don’t feel like having to do even more paperwork and reporting to the government every year to maintain that status. So we give up the opportunity and maybe--maybe have fewer people donate to our cause because we’re not a 501(3)(c) and they can’t claim us as a deduction. But we don’t care. We do our thing and we don’t have to report to anybody.
Michael Karlik: So you were the auditor and obviously that included keeping reports. And you also told me that you were proud when you were a council member to keep all of the ordinances organized so someone had a question, you could answer right then by just looking down to your documents.
Nick Link: Mmhmm.
Michael Karlik: But when it comes to Serve North College Hill, you told me, “we don’t have 501(c)(3) status because we don’t feel like having to do even more paperwork and reporting to the government to maintain that status.”
Nick Link: Yeah.
Michael Karlik: So I’m having a hard time understanding how someone who is proficient with recordkeeping is dismissive of making Serve a nonprofit because it means doing paperwork.
Nick Link: Yeah, well, I’m lazy now [chuckles] quite frankly. I mean, I’m retired. I was--I was being paid to do what I did. Quite frankly, I’m not being paid anymore.
Nick Link and I talked for over six hours about Change, Serve, money, volunteering, personalities, accomplishments, and feelings. I guess I was surprised at how open he was. Not just about what he did and why he did it, but also an openness to at least considering things from his critics’ point of view.
Michael Karlik: Do you think there is anyone affiliated with Change who either intentionally or perhaps unaware of what they were doing overstepped and caused anyone to feel harassed?
Nick Link: I don’t think so. I mean, especially the people that we've had over the past couple of years--I mean, you can make some suggestions of people who maybe you might have seen on camera as questioning some things or otherwise that you consider to be contentious. But I can't think of anybody who has been really nasty….There's nobody been like that. I think, I think--
Michael Karlik: May I suggest something?
Nick Link: Okay, sure.
Michael Karlik: What we were talking about earlier with the XPEX contract where there was no opposition on the first and second reading but tons opposition on the third reading. And we saw that again with the finance director in 2015. The administration entered into a contract for a certain amount and then the third reading of the budget after council learned that amount they slashed the salary to $50,000 seemingly in response to the person who was chosen. And while I would not say that was bullying or name calling, it is kind of the legislative chipping away at people that I think Amy Bancroft and Mark Fitzgerald experienced a lot of.
And I'm sure the council felt justified and they were within the charter, which I agree with. But it’s the kind of undermining of an administration that could cause people to get emotional. Would you agree with that?
Nick Link: It could. I could see where some people might get emotional over something like that. But if you only knew how--how long the shoe was on the other foot. And I'm not trying to minimize any potential guilt that might be justifiably put on one group or the other just because they've had to endure so much in the past.
But try to put yourself in the feet of people who maybe had not been given very much information about stuff and had no other recourse to make things right other than to do it legislatively because the other party or parties were not in the mood of listening.
So there’s always two sides to every story and now you’re hearing another side.
I asked him about his vision for Change*nch. What was the platform? What were the policies? I remembered how Amber Bailey told me she didn't really have a platform; so I was genuinely curious about how the other side saw their own ideas.
Nick Link: I guess it's not so much what my ideas were or the ideas of people, you know--the ideas that I had are, were kind of nebulous….So I mean, as far as policies and things like that are concerned, I think philosophy is a better way of putting it. We just had certain basic philosophies and the policies would flow from that philosophy….
I want the group to be composed of people who are not listening just to one person and then rubber stamping anything that one person said.
Michael Karlik: Nick, I understand what you’re saying. And I’ve talked to a lot of people in North College Hill who see what Change*nch has done over the past several years. And I’ve asked people, “what is it that Change wants to accomplish?” And all of them are very confused by that. They don’t see Change as having a real goal other than opposing the ideas of Dan Brooks. And you alluded to that a little bit. You called your own ideas “nebulous” and I appreciate you telling me that.
But I think to those people and to me after hearing that and seeing that, it does appear that if you don’t have any ideas, it’s just an anti-Dan Brooks party. And then that leads itself to getting more personal than politics might otherwise be if it’s based on ideas. Are you sensitive to that perception of Change?
Nick Link Well, I’m sensitive to the--that description of Change*nch. Negatively sensitive, obviously. I mean we--first of all, we have a website and in that website, we specifically went down the line and we said specifically what we wanted to do. What we intended to do if we were elected.
And seemingly they--I mean, I don’t know how--I don’t know who you’re speaking with, but all I can say is, obviously there’s a lot of people who seem to like what we were saying. Otherwise, how could we have come up with a 6-1 and then 5-2 majority on city council out of nowhere?
That, you know--for what you’re saying--what you’re saying does sound specifically like what the supporters of the group that was on the other side of the ballot, I guess you might say. That’s what those--that’s what those people try to get people to think. “All we wanna do is say no.” But that's not it.
We’re giving--we gave time and time again--for example, there’s the situation having to do with the building that we got from the school district. We traded them some land so they could expand parking and what have you and they gave us this dilapidated--I don’t want to say dilapidated, that goes overboard a little bit too much--but the roof always did leak--
Nick Link began talking about how the city could not afford the City Center building and how the administration is, in his opinion, underfunding public safety.
Nick Link: We have told people what we wanna do. Seemingly a lot of people listen because we get our people elected. And like I said before, I think the people that you’re talking to who said what you just said they said are the naysayers in reverse.
Michael Karlik: What you just said now, quoting the City Center, the spending on the fire department, the police department--it sounds like what you’re conveying to me is that Change*nch was a party opposed to poor administration of the city. Am I wrong?
Nick Link: Well, that’s not the only thing that we are. But that is a correct--we felt that the administration was not using money properly. It was not using the money for which it was intended. And so--
Michael Karlik: So you did sound a little aggravated hearing that people characterize Change*nch as simply the party of opposition. So if Change had won the mayor’s office in 2015 and they had a majority on council, how would the city administration look different today? What would they have accomplished do you think that would have been different from what we have seen over the past three years?
Nick Link: Well, one thing for sure is that--one of the bad things about having new council people--that is they’re not fully in understanding with what can be done, what can’t be done. And I’m not sure what’s happening behind the scenes relative to certain administrative offices within the city--I don’t know if those people are just taking money and using it any way they want to or if they are bamboozling members of city council or its finance committee into--without explanation--into why this money is going there and that money is going somewhere else--
Michael Karlik: Well, wait. When you were a part of the administration, was anything going on with the city council then? The “bamboozling?”
Nick Link: Well, I had the benefit of having been on city council for a number of years, so I knew how that kind of stuff could work. And I think I might have told you the story already about a former auditor wanting to spend $70,000 as a member of city council by appropriating it to the auditor’s--
Link described to me an episode from when he was auditor about how one member of council, George Snyder, suggested that the city buy expensive new accounting software that Link thought was unnecessary. The council ended up appropriating money for it and Link refused to spend it.
Michael Karlik: Was he on council at the time? George Snyder?
Nick Link: Yes, he was.
Michael Karlik: Okay, so that wasn’t an example of staff coming to persuade council. That was a council member who had prior expertise making the case to his colleagues.
Nick Link: That’s correct, yes.
Michael Karlik: Okay. But I cut you off. You were talking about how staff could persuade the city council one way or the other, so you're not sure what a new council or new administration can do to carry out its goals. Can you pick up there?
Nick Link: Well, I think it's not so much what the staff is saying. It’s what they’re not saying….
And because members of council are relatively without a whole lot of--you’re probably gonna say, “well, you sound like you’re talking out both sides of your mouth.” Because yes, we do have new members of council, but you have to have new members if you’re going--if you're ever gonna get new ideas.
So--but the one thing about new members is, they don’t have a lot of experience in addressing appropriations ordinances and things like that. They don’t know what to look for--
Michael Karlik: Sure, I understand where you’re going with the complexity of the finances. My original question, though, was supposing that the mayor was a Change*nch person. Therefore, he would have control over the administration. So going back to the original question, supposing that were the case after the 2015 election, what would you have expected to get through that was a new idea? That was a new approach? That would’ve made the city better?
Nick Link: Well, number one, we would’ve put a stop to having money transferred from the fire equipment fund into the general fund. And we would’ve made sure that the amount of money that is appropriated from the general fund for fire department general fund usages would not go down….
Nick Link and I covered the concerns he had with the city. How he felt the fire department was underfunded. How the city wanted to spend money unwisely over the years on things like a Civil War reenactment.
Those are political issues, so there is no right or wrong point of view. But the subtext is that Link did not trust the financial management of his city. The salaries for the city administrator and the finance director are one example of that.
But then I looked at the audits the state of Ohio does for North College Hill. The reports are highly problematic.
Every single year, the auditor finds problems with the city's books. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are misreported year after year. The city spent more money than council appropriated. One year, it even failed to give Hamilton County the legally-required budget documents. That happened when Nick Link was auditor.
Something that Change*nch council members say publicly is that things have been done the wrong way in the city for a long time. It's hard to disagree when the state of Ohio says it in black and white to you for over a decade. But surprisingly, Nick Link believes that Dan Brooks, for much of his term in office, was the best mayor the city ever had. And for all the problems Change*nch would later have with Dan Brooks's choice of city administrator, Link said that actually, the creation of that position was exactly what made Brooks the best mayor.
Nick Link: For the first 15 years of his terms of office, was the best mayor North College Hill ever had because of that one decision. And it kind of opened up the way for him to be able to do a lot of things for the city.
For three years, Council Member Shawna O'Shea's lawsuit against North College Hill and Mark Fitzgerald dragged on. Remember, the state pension agency and the auditor did not take disciplinary action for the salary. But one reason the suit kept going was because the city got unlucky in the person assigned to oversee the case: the appropriately-named Judge Ruehlman.
Robert Ruehlman was a bit of a controversial figure in Hamilton County. Twice in 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court overruled him for inappropriate handling of cases. When the defendants in the O'Shea lawsuit moved to dismiss, Judge Ruehlman denied them.
In December 2016, Shawna O'Shea's lawyers sent a braggadocious letter to the city. “We have no doubt that we will win at trial,” they said. “We will likely bankrupt Mark Fitzgerald and the City of North College Hill...Mark Fitzgerald's career in political...administration will be over, as will the political career of any NCH politician who is tarred with the Fitzgerald fraud brush.”
Earlier that year, the council attempted to pass Ordinance 6. It was written by Change Council Member Renee Stiles and would have done two things: first, it would have set salary levels for city employees. And second, it contained nine pages of HR policy, talking about everything from sick leave to mileage reimbursement to military leave.
But at the February 16 council meeting, two strange things occurred. Number one: Renee Stiles, who was one of the loudest voices about keeping salaries as low as possible, said about the finance director:
Renee Stiles: I am actually going to ask that that annual salary be taken under consideration to increase it. The $55,000 is not--it's kind of low….But I do want to somehow put some consideration into actually increasing it even more than $55,000.
Number two: Shawna O'Shea for years on council complained loudly about ordinances not getting a full three readings in meetings.
Shawna O'Shea: I feel like we're doing our citizens an injustice. It's--first, second, third readings are there for a reason….
Shawna O'Shea: There's a reason why we have first, second, and third readings.
Shawna O'Shea: There's a reason why we have second and third readings and that is so everyone, the citizens can, if they want….
Shawna O'Shea: --And it is for one, two, and three readings. And there is information in there, direction in there for a reason. And I would like to continue to follow that charter considering that is what we have in place.
Shawna O'Shea: I just feel like we are dragging our feet for something that is majorly important to the city.
She was fully behind suspending readings to pass Ordinance 6.
For nearly two hours, the council floundered, not being able to pass it or even agree on what needed fixing.
Tracie Nichols: The thing that irritates me the most is the fact that we've had this for quite some time. And everyone has had the opportunity to look over this ordinance. And I'm sorry. We sat in a meeting on Thursday. And again, I'm not--I don't point fingers. But Mr. Hartzel, you were at that meeting. You didn't ask any questions. We actually even asked you, “Mr. Hartzel, is this okay? Is there anything that you wanna change?” And you said nothing.
At one point, the issue of getting a second legal opinion on Ordinance 6 came up. Shawna O'Shea defended the opinion of the city's law director, William Deters, that the ordinance was fine. Change Council Member James Dewald backed her up--sort of.
Shawna O'Shea: We pay Mr. Deters $32,000 for his opinion and I was willing to accept that, his opinion on Ordinance 6, for what the city pays him. So--
Jim Dewald: I agree with Mrs. O'Shea. You might not always believe what the law director or the mayor or the city manager is telling you. At some point you gotta realize, maybe they--at times they aren't telling you the truth and you gotta get it into your head that “I believe this,” you know?
Council Member Mary Jo Zorb jumped in.
Mary Jo Zorb: So should I flip a coin to find out when I believe him and when I don't?
Jim Dewald: Well, opinions can be changed and at that time, my opinion changed in favor of what he was telling me. In other times, I might not believe what he's telling me. That doesn't mean if someone's a liar or you think he's a liar all the time. Sometimes he might be telling the truth.
Shawna O'Shea: I guess--I'm sorry, Mr. President?
Sean Feeney: Ms. O'Shea.
Shawna O'Shea: I guess when--if you're looking, if you just take Ordinance 6 for what it is, what reason would he have to lie about Ordinance 6? Considering if he did lie about Ordinance 6, then any one of these people could sue because of misrepresentation, I guess. If we misrepresented Ordinance 6, I guess. So I don't know why he would lie about anything that's in here.
So his job I guess would be on the line if he didn't even bother to look at this and said, “yeah, it looks good” and just sent it to us. So I don't understand--in my line of thinking, I don't understand why he would--what would be his gain to not say that this was a good document.
Mary Jo Zorb: I thought he told us that litigation was above and beyond that $32,000.
Shawna O'Shea: I believe you're correct.
Mary Jo Zorb: So that could potentially be motivation.
To be clear: one council member just suggested that the city's lawyer is a liar only “some” of the time. And another council member theorized that that he might deliberately mislead the council into a lawsuit so he could get more money from the city. This was wildly inappropriate and should have been called out.
But to my knowledge, it wasn't.
Four months later, there was suddenly a fresh crisis. The new finance director needed a salary ordinance. And Council Member O'Shea had discovered a section of the charter that mentioned amending or repealing ordinances. She tried to persuade council members that they needed to repeal any other ordinances that had ever mentioned a finance director salary, and that some broad repeal language from law director Bill Deters simply wasn't enough.
Shawna O'Shea: When I joined council--like being a first-time parent--no one gives you a guide on how to do things when you become a council member. It's trial and error. And what I have learned in the past probably six months is we do a lot of things incorrectly….And I think our law director did us a terrible injustice by writing this and not doing what he has been paid to do….I don't even think he has no idea what Ordinance 26-2012 says. I don't think he has any idea what our charter says.
Council Member Susan Wietlisbach asked O'Shea whether she still trusted the law director.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Ms. O'Shea, you stated several times this year that we should trust our law director.
Shawna O'Shea: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. I don't think we should trust our law director.
This time, Deters heard about it. And at the July 5 meeting, he showed up, stood at the lectern, and barely hid his disdain for the way Shawna O'Shea had interpreted the charter, without specifically naming her.
Bill Deters: One of the things you were discussing that evening--and I wish I would've been here because you had a lengthy discussion that went about a million different directions as it related to section 9.06 of the charter. I think you were misled by a councilperson and I think you were maybe misled by some people in the audience.
But quickly, it got personal on a level that is far outside the norm, even for North College Hill.
Bill Deters: If you got a problem with me, anyone on council--I mean, first of all, tell me when I lied to you. Because you said you can't trust me. Ms O'Shea, can you answer that question? When I lied to you?
Shawna O'Shea: I'm sorry, I was writing something. What did you say?
Bill Deters: Do you remember the comments you made regarding your law director at the last council meeting? Do you recall them? Or were you just in another one of your little fits of rage when you don't remember what happened?
Shawna O'Shea: No, I said I do not trust you. No, I definitely--
Bill Deters: When have I ever lied to you?
Shawna O'Shea: I don't know if I said that you did not lie--
Bill Deters: Oh, you said you can't trust him. You basically called me a liar.
Shawna O'Shea: Well, I--
Bill Deters: You called me everything but a horse thief, basically.
Shawna O'Shea: We are all entitled to our opinion.
Bill Deters: No, you're entitled to back your opinion up when you stand in front of the public on television and make defamatory comments about people in the city, whether it's an employee or anyone else.
Shawna O'Shea: I did not defame you. I said I don't trust you. That I don't trust you. That is my--
Bill Deters: You said you didn't trust me and--
Shawna O'Shea: Correct.
Bill Deters: --you said about something just mentioned about section 9.06 of the charter, that I just politely--at the beginning of this meeting--informed you that you are absolutely dead wrong and you misled this entire council and sent them down a road for an hour that was unnecessary.
Shawna O'Shea: Well, I--
Bill Deters: So next time, next time you wanna give council legal advice, I'd ask to find out where your law degree is and where it is. And if you have a problem with something I've done or trust or something you don't trust me about, then I would prefer you to bring it in the open. Because what have I ever done to lie or mislead this city council?
Shawna O'Shea: I would have to go back and look at what I actually said to--in order to answer that question again--
Bill Deters. Well, I'm sure there are some people in the room that remember it better than I did that are here. Do you wanna ask them?
Shawna O'Shea: No, I don't because I wanna see it for myself.
Bill Deters: Are you gonna--are you gonna say here now to me that you're going to deny that you said defamatory and disparaging comments that--
Shawna O'Shea: No, because I don't remember exactly what I said. I do remember--I do remember saying I do not trust you. I do remember that. I--
Bill Deters: Okay. So then I'm asking you why you don't remember that then. You said you remember. Why don't you trust me then?
Shawna O'Shea: There are reasons outside of this council on why I don't trust you.
Bill Deters: Oh, you're talking about the lawsuit that you filed against the city. Is that what you're talking about? The lawsuit to recover $40,000 that the last demand from the attorneys was over $250,000 in attorneys' fees that's gonna cost the taxpayers of this city. Is that the one you're talking about?
Shawna O'Shea: Mr. Deters--
Bill Deters: Because if you're saying you don't trust me because of that lawsuit, then you are definitely crossing the line. Because that has nothing to do with your role at council or my advice to you as your attorney. I've said enough. I think you get my point [walks away].
Shawna O'Shea: I don't know what it is with people that stand at that desk and state their piece and then walk away and don't let me state my piece.
Bill Deters: [off mic] I'll come back! What do you want to talk about? I figured I said what I needed to say. You said what you needed to say and you can't even remember saying it. At least I hold--I stand by my comments.
Shawna O'Shea: I'm standing by my comment. I said I didn't trust you. That was my comment.
Bill Deters: Then what specifically does it have to do with something--
Shawna O'Shea: I don't have anything specific and I don't have to get you anything specific by saying I don't trust you.
Bill Deters: Oh, so you wanna call people liars--
Shawna O'Shea: I never called you a liar. Never once did the words come out of my mouth that Mr. Deters is liar. Never once. And if we--if you want to sit here and replay that to me and it says, “Mr. Deters is a liar,” then I will stand up and apologize to all of my council members and on public television and apologize.
Bill Deters: Typically when you say you don't trust somebody, that's inferring that they've lied to you or they've intentionally misled you.
Shawna O'Shea: No, it's not! No, it's not. Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Bill Deters: So then tell me what you--
Shawna O'Shea: My children--I do not trust my children when they were teenagers. That does not mean they lied to me. I know they're teenagers and I know they're gonna do things wrong. I didn't trust them as teenagaers. That doesn't mean they lied to me. It just means--
Bill Deters: You should really think about your analogies because when you say you don't trust them, that means you think they're not being truthful to you or they're not gonna tell you the truth.
Shawna O'Shea: It doesn't mean they'd lie to me--
Bill Deters: It means you're--you're anticipating that they are.
Shawna O'Shea: They could've been sneaking out at night. I didn't trust them.
Bill Deters: You don't trust them to follow the rules. You don't trust them to do what was necessary. You don't trust then for me to give you advice which is accurate? Is that what you're saying?
Shawna O'Shea: I'm not saying--no. That's not what I'm saying. You're putting words in my mouth right now.
Bill Deters: Okay, so I don't wanna put words in your mouth. You're the one that asked me to come back up here. I would've been done.
Shawna O'Shea: No.
Bill Deters: So now you're gonna get it from me a little--
Shawna O'Shea: No, I'm not! I don't wanna get it from you. That's not what this is about.
Bill Deters: No, I'm not--I'm not gonna let you throw--I'm not gonna let you throw another temper tantrum and get your way. You're gonna listen to what I'm saying.
Michael Karlik: Why did you allow that to continue?
Sean Feeney: So I--if you look at the handicaps that were placed on me by that council through the council rules, an exchange between a city councilperson and a member of the administration is not something that has a time limit.
The Democratic council president at the time, Sean Feeney.
Sean Feeney: So I allowed that to continue because that’s the working of the government, right? Those branches need to communicate. So I--if they had put something in there that said, hey, all comments kind of intergovernmental has to have a time limit, then I would have abided by it. But I didn’t have any requirement to in that case.
Michael Karlik: I, I have to--I have to be skeptical of that. I’ve watched three years of your council meetings and the meetings of many council meetings around the world. And I have a hard time coming up with another council president who would have allowed that bad behavior to snowball.
And it’s one of several instances--Kathy Riga allowed it. Tracie Nichols allowed it at least initially. And I think that any reasonable interpretation of Robert’s Rules or any other--
Sean Feeney: We didn’t follow Robert’s Rules of Order. That was one of the explicit things at that time, those council rules they had, we did not follow Robert’s Rules of Order. They had taken bits and pieces out of it and put it into those rules, but we didn’t follow it.
Michael Karlik: But if you were concerned about the image of the city, wouldn’t it have behooved you to say, “gentlemen, ladies, please take any personal differences outside the council chamber. This is not related to any of the legislation we’re considering and it’s clearly inappropriate for a public meeting.” Did it ever occur to you to say that?
Sean Feeney: I would say I was treating that night--when he got up, I was treating that as part of his law director report. And I generally don’t moderate the reports of the administration. So no, [chuckles] I was not going to stop that exchange. It didn’t make sense to.
My reaction to the confrontation by the law director was that it was inappropriate, juvenile, and highly unprofessional. I also found it unprofessional for that to be allowed to happen for nearly five minutes. “Temper tantrum?” “Fits of rage?” I don't know any employee of a city who would disrespect their bosses like that, nor do I know any council president who would sit on their hands while a meeting melted down in front of them.
The council rules, by the way, do allow the president to maintain decorum. So blaming the rules is no excuse.
And if Bill Deters was so concerned about being called a liar, why did he say nothing four months earlier, when one council member actually called him a liar? As with many things, I am less convinced that it was about what Shawna O'Shea said, and had more to do with what she was suing the city for.
Tracie Nichols: I don't agree with how sometimes Ms. O'Shea would express her feelings for the law director publicly.
Traice Nichols, one of the council members.
Tracie Nichols: Do I believe that because he felt publicly insulted, he wanted to publicly insult her? I do. I can't say I agree with it--how it was done. I think it was done on both ends out of anger. And I don't think that is the format nor the place to do it. It's almost like, you dislike your boss but you can't publicly say it.
Michael Karlik: If you were president, would you have cut that off way before five minutes?
Tracie Nichols: I may have, yes. When I sit and I think about it and I see that Ms. O'Shea--I don't think--it took her off guard. But then again, sometimes they don't listen. You can gavel. You can say cut it out. They will not--if they wanna get their point across, it does not matter.
Because it's not gonna get anywhere. You don't like me, I don't like you. We're not gonna keep having a shouting match here. I mean--and you see that. And sometimes I do think it's, “okay, let's get it out.” For him, he came to say, you know, “you said you didn't like me. You didn't trust me. Tell me why.” I can't say why she didn't outright answer the question.
Michael Karlik: Did you feel bad for either of them in that scenario?
Tracie Nichols: Honestly, no. She said it publicly. He wanted a public answer. Now again, I do not agree--I think that he did it to publicly embarrass her. And I could be wrong….But when she said that she didn't trust him, that was said regularly and often.
Ambushing someone is easy--perhaps necessary--when you don't trust them. And it meant that for North College Hill's newly-elected mayor, the first day of her term was rocked by one of the biggest ambushes possible.
Commenter: The days of slavery are over. The days of slavery are over.
Chapter 5: "Secretary" to "CEO"
Chapter 5: “Secretary” to “CEO”
Al Long: You know, if I'm being honest….it’s pleasant to me that they’re not questioning her ability to be an effective leader. That's pleasant to me. The City Center offers them the ability to get upset at something else, as opposed to something about her personally.
This is Al Long again. I caught him at his day job at a college in Kentucky. It's early October 2017 and our topic was his wife, Sheryl Long, the current city administrator.
Michael Karlik: When you say that, I assume you mean “anymore.” They’re not questioning her anymore, right?
Al Long: At this time.
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Al Long: If the City Center wasn’t an issue, I believe they would absolutely go in--you know, you've heard the phrase H.A.M., right? You know what it stands for?
Michael Karlik: Oh, no. I don’t.
Al Long: H.A.M. stands for Hard As a Motherfucker.
Michael Karlik: [chuckles] Okay.
Al Long: So they would go H.A.M. into her if they didn’t have the City Center to go H.A.M. into. Even though she, you know, meets and exceeds the qualifications. She’s met and exceeded...you know, just with her being hands on and knowledgeable and every day gaining even more.
That shit don’t matter. And unfortunately, that comes down to the issue of race in our opinion. Well, in my opinion.
Michael Karlik: [bells in background] What can you--hold on, I'll wait for the bell to stop in the background.
Al Long: That damn bell goes off every hour, man. It ain't gonna stop. Let me go in the building.
In the Long family, Al was the political one. Sheryl stayed away from the city government. Sheryl Long for many years had worked in commercial real estate and managing properties. But in 2013, the job of mayor's assistant opened up and Sheryl decided to apply. The mayor at the time, Dan Brooks, hired her. And when he resigned, she stayed on under the new mayor, Amy Bancroft.
Al Long and I picked up a couple of days later, when he was driving in the car with his daughter.
Michael Karlik: I mean, did she like him?
Al Long: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah. She liked Dan. But she just never participated in politics. It wasn’t her thing. She was always--Sheryl is--for a long time, you know, Sheryl was working on her degree and putting so many hours into that property management thing. And then they made her a manager and then corporate trainer. Then there was a merger of companies...She was just very engulfed in maximizing her experience in her companies where she would not give two seconds about getting on politics and letting me do it.
Michael Karlik: Do you have a sense of what she did for Dan Brooks and then Amy in the office?
Al Long: Yeah, from my recollection she ran the city. You know, because they were not full time. Mayor was part time, so she ran the city.
Michael Karlik: What did Mark Fitzgerald--who is the guy supposed to be running the city--do?
Al Long: I know, right? I love Mark but...I guess he worked a lot of remotely. But Sheryl learned through baptism of fire, you know. Handled a lot of stuff she probably should not have handled because it needed to be handled.
Michael Karlik: Did she complain about that to you?
Al Long: She never complained to me about it. I mean, she appreciated the experience. Never complained about it one bit. Mark's a good--you know, always been good to her and whatnot so she never had reason to complain. And you know, who is she to know when he's supposed to be there and when he's not supposed to be there? Where he's working and what he's doing?
She knew what he gave her to do, which she always exceeded. And she knew what she had to do when the calls came in. You know, citizens complained. Something had to be done. She’d get it done.
Michael Karlik: I don’t know, [chuckles] that seems like the mentality of a young black woman to do the work and not complain. Whereas if it had been a white person complaining about a much older white man, I don't know. People might have listened to that. Does that make sense?
Al Long: I hear what you’re saying. But we are conditioned--I will say this: we are conditioned when given opportunities that we’re--[off mic] Just stay straight. Yeah, get over. We are conditioned, when we feel as if we've been given good opportunities, to put our head down and work above and beyond.
And you know, one of the things I teach my daughter that’s a little different than my sons--they gotta, my boys got to work twice as hard as everybody, right? Unfortunately, my daughter’s gotta go three times harder, you know? She’s got the woman and the black.
The boys just black and they’re men. So...you better believe that’s something we definitely talked about when she had that opportunity. Just do whatever. Shine. Make your boss look good. Take credit for your mistakes. And if he wants to take credit for the successes, that’s your boss. You let him do it and keep it moving. Your time will come.
Two years later, Sheryl Long’s time would indeed come. The city would have a new mayor who was searching for her own administrator. Hiring a qualified person didn't have to be messy. It didn't have to be about race, gender, and power. But like many things in North College Hill, that is exactly what happened.
This is Tear It Down.
Maureen Mason: I am also the first woman to be elected as mayor for North College Hill and that means a lot to me personally.
It was New Year's Day 2016. Maureen Mason had been the appointed mayor since October after Amy Bancroft resigned. But now, two months after the election, she was beginning her four-year term. Although Mason had defeated her Change North College Hill opponent, the three council members also being sworn in that day all belonged to Change.
Maureen Mason: One thing I have to say: the people who founded our country, our form of government, established a balance of power--the administrative, the legislative, and the judicial. One branch cannot and should not control the other. The administration can't control the legislative branch. And the legislative branch can't control the administration. The balance has to be there. No one is completely in control.
With a full room of onlookers, the council's main goal in the New Year's Day meeting was to pass the 2016 budget.
Clerk: First reading, Ordinance 1-2016. Making appropriations for current expenses and other expenditures for the city of North College Hill, Ohio for the period beginning January 1, 2016 and ending December 31, 2016.
But suddenly, Change*nch Council Member Susan Wietlisbach pointed to the line in the budget for the city administrator's salary. And she said,
Suzie Wietlisbach: My amendment is to make that line item zero and I...it is our intention, and with the administration, to fill that position. I feel like it should be in there but zeroed out until we have further discussion on what the whole process is gonna be.
The city charter gives council the power to set salaries and compensation. Having a salary of zero is certainly a possibility. But in the nearly two dozen pages of North College Hill's charter, there is one line that mattered to the council almost as much as the salary-setting one. Under Article IV, it reads, the mayor “shall appoint the City Administrator with the advice of Council.”
“Shall appoint” is fairly clear. But “advice of council?” That could mean anything.
Shawna O'Shea: The charter does state with the advice from council. And as far as we know, we've only met with three candidates and we haven't even spoken to the mayor regarding either the three that she--that we sat in on those interviews. So we have no idea which three was her even choice. So I think that shouldn't be--that she should not be making that decision without us--her even discussing her three candidates with that.
I read the charter and I did not find anywhere in the charter that it states that we have to have a city administrator.
One month earlier, Council Member Pat Hartzel, who was the chair of the Finance Committee, sent an email to the others. “Maureen called me on Friday,” he wrote, “and said she will bring three candidates to interview for City Manager at tomorrows meeting….Bring any questions you my [sic] have.”
Change Council Member Renee Stiles was furious. “Why did you, Pat, wait until Sunday evening to share with council” she shot back. “How are we suppose to...work together as funcational [sic] elected officials when the Mayor and Pat are secretly plotting meetings without involving council members?”
Council Member Shawna O'Shea added: “I do not believe the mayor can take over a committee meeting….We do not have an official resignation from Mr. Fitzgerald. How can we be interviewing for that position.”
In another city that was about to hire their most important employee, the mayor might have given her finance chair more than three days’ notice. And the finance chair might have given his fellow council members more than a one-day warning. And there might have been some effort to make sure everyone could weigh in--to show trust and respect between the branches of government.
But in North College Hill--
Renee Stiles: Mayor Mason, when we interviewed these three candidates, did you ask me what I thought about any of these three candidates?
Maureen Mason: Did you offer your opinion? I came to your meetings.
Renee Stiles: But my question is--
Maureen Mason: Did you offer any opinion on them? I was waiting to hear from you.
Renee Stiles: My question to you, Mayor, is did you ask me specifically what my--what my pick was or who I liked better or what my thoughts were about the three candidates?
Maureen Mason: No, I didn't. I was here at the meetings and communications is a two-way street.
Renee Stiles: Absolutely.
Maureen Mason: And nobody contacted me to offer any opinions or advice or any comments at all at the people that you interviewed. I didn't know you were that shy.
As the Change*nch council prepared to zero out the administrator’s salary, Maureen Mason's irritation was barely contained.
Maureen Mason: By making that zero, you make it impossible for me to have a city administrator in that--in the position. By charter, we have to have a city administrator. So making it zero--council making it zero, you are going against what is in our charter.
Then Maureen Mason did a quintessentially Maureen Mason thing: she told the council that she had already picked someone.
Maureen Mason: I am prepared today to announce who my choice for city administrator is. But I need money in there in order to have somebody in that position. You are responsible--it's on your shoulders that we cannot have a duly-named city administrator.
The council voted to zero out the salary. Then, while they were at it, they emptied the finance director's budget, who was leaving at the end of the month.
Maureen Mason: Who's gonna be interested in taking that knowing it's zero?
Shawna O'Shea: Once again I will state that we--in the charter it states that the council will set that salary and we have yet to discuss that yet. So we will discuss that and set that salary.
Three days later, there was a special council meeting to figure out the salary. This time, law director William Deters was there. And seated between him and Mayor Mason was not one of the three people the council had interviewed weeks before. But there--short, thin, with her arms folded and looking as annoyed as everyone else in the room--was 35-year-old Sheryl Long, until this week the mayor's assistant and now the city administrator.
Renee Stiles: How many years has Ms. Long been a city administrator?
Sheryl Long: Ms. Long has been--has not been a city administrator. But Ms. Long has over 14 years of management experience….When the city manager wasn't present. Who was the person dealing with a lot of the things? That was me. In fact, a lot of council members, actually--I have been the one to step in to handle a lot of your issues….
So when you're looking at Ms. Long--by the way, I am here--I have over 14 years experience in property management, which, actually I've worked with over 10,000 units. Which is pretty much the population of this city.
So I think you guys need to understand that from the management standpoint, I'm an amazing job. A lot of the people here, employees, they depend on me to get things done. And that's what I've been doing since I stepped foot into here. So when you think about the salary, honestly, the emotional distress that this pressure can put on a candidate--which it has done to prior people--you need to actually consider that in the salary as well.
Renee Stiles: Well, and I understand….
As Council Member Renee Stiles started to make a point about Sheryl Long's lack of experience compared to the other candidates, Long snapped back that she had something they did not: experience dealing with this council.
Sheryl Long: The previous candidates had no idea how to deal with a council, which--
Renee Stiles: Sure they did. One was a council--
Sheryl Long: I'm not done. A council with the culture and the personalities that is going on right now. The one thing I can respect all you guys--and I've seen your standpoint of where you guys are coming from. The good thing about that is, you could potentially get some candidate to come in here who could potentially bide time to be looking for something else once they get wind of the climate that we're dealing with.
I am happy to come in here. I am happy to listen to everyone. Because I am not going to be shocked by anything.
In talking to mayors, council members, and city managers elsewhere, I asked them what would be some reasonable qualifications for an administrator in a city the size of North College Hill. Management experience was the most common skill they cited. Behind that was government experience and--similar but not quite the same--political experience. Some people acknowledged that given the size of the city, it would likely be someone at the beginning of their career.
One person mentioned an interesting idea: how well does the administrator fit with the vision of the city? Where is the city going? What will it take to get them there? That's something voters ask themselves when electing a mayor or a council member. But a city government is more than just them. It's everybody. And the closest anyone came to acknowledging whether Sheryl Long fit with the city was law director Bill Deters.
Bill Deters: You have a mayor--and I'll call the elephant in the room. You have a mayor that's chosen someone who I think is passionate about your city. Based on what I've heard her say and the amount of communication that she has provided to you in this meeting is more than I ever heard the previous one give.
She wants to do this job. She wants to make this city great. And this has nothing to do with her abilities or anything: she just happens to be a woman, which I think is tremendous. And she also happens to be African American in a community that needs that kind of representation. It truly does.
As is often the case in North College Hill, controversies are about more than what appears on the surface. The appointment of Sheryl Long was about her, but it was also about the charter, about communication, about fairness, and about money.
At the January 4 meeting, council members saw a proposal to pay Long $85,000. With benefits and retirement, full compensation would be around $100,000. The law director was quick to say that based on what other cities pay their administrators, this was a fully reasonable amount.
The problem was Long had been making $40,000 as the administrative assistant. To the Change*nch council, this was an astronomical raise for the top job in the city. The last time the council had to set pay for someone new--the finance director--they settled on a 15 percent raise because, like Long, she already worked there. A 15 percent raise for Long would total $46,000--less than some of the people she would supervise and an incredibly low amount for any city administrator.
That suggestion gave rise to a phrase the administration repeated throughout the next several days: funding the position and not the person.
Maureen Mason: You need to be funding the position and not the person. This is what I was afraid of. That you would see that it was somebody within the city and you had interviews with three candidates that you had never met before. That you had no dealings with. You didn't know them at all….And this is what I was afraid of. That as soon as you heard that it was somebody from within, you would try to lowball them.
Michael Karlik: And you seemed to acknowledge that yes, you had not given them the opportunity to talk to Sheryl Long. But you were worried that if they knew you had chosen Sheryl, they would would underpay her because they didn’t like you or didn't like her or whatever.
And I see your reasoning but I also see theirs. And I can understand how they expected to be a part of the process like the charter says, but you blindsided them. So why did you paint a big target on your back and on Sheryl Long’s back by doing it that way?
Maureen Mason: Them saying that I didn’t give them chance for any feedback, they had all of the chance to be able to--these people are not quiet, shy, and have to wait to be called upon. I got no feedback from them or very little feedback from them. They knew Sheryl. They had interacted with Sheryl.
They knew her. They had talked to her. And so it wasn’t like it was somebody from outside that they’d have to be introduced to. It was somebody that they had already worked with and--
Michael Karlik: But you can see how that’s still incredibly surprising to them. I mean, even if I know somebody, if all of a sudden I realize they’re being hired for a job that I thought was being given to one of three other people and I was supposed to be consulted on that, I would be a little upset.
Maureen Mason: Well, possibly. But it still boiled down to, it was my choice of somebody that I thought fit in with what my goals were, what my vision of the city, someone I could work with, someone who I could trust.
And like I said, to me, I was surprised that they were all up in arms and that they were so demeaning of Sheryl and any of her--she presented what her credentials were. She had had experience in administration and they demeaned her by saying, oh, she’s just a secretary.
Michael Karlik: Her title was still administrative assistant. She was still getting $40,000 a year. And it appears to be a huge promotion that most people in other cities or private corporations wouldn’t be able to luck into. So do you see it from that perspective of no matter what she’s actually doing day to day, on paper it just looks like a very odd choice for you to make?
Maureen Mason: Frankly, I think they would have been upset with whoever I picked.
Bill Deters: I know a lot of people up there think that I take sides and that I’m on one side and not the other side. And I’ve said this many times and if you're up there and you're thinking that, you’re just wrong. My side is the side of North College Hill. The mayor is right. Okay? She’s just flat-out right.
You had that budget in October. You've had a charter that has a city administrator in since you've had a charter. To think that you are not gonna have to fund a line item for a city administrator is absolutely despicable. It speaks of only one thing: politics or wanting to get back at people….
You can make the argument that the council knew exactly what they were doing. They held the trump card that allowed them set salaries and the mayor forced them to play it.
Bill Deters: And just out of coincidence, you also put zero at the finance director position. Oh, by the way, those happen to be the two positions that are open that your new mayor has to appoint people on. And you all did it at the last minute.
But I have a harder time believing that they saw this from every possible angle--in particular, from the perspective that all of the salary-cutting fit a pattern with this council. A pattern of discrimination.
Bill Deters: You've had it happen twice now in a very short period of time. They both happened to be women and one of them also happens to be an African-American woman. And you have chosen not to fund a position commensurate with what the job requires and what the market conditions require. And you had a male who made a jump up of police chief. I grant it, he had qualifications to get there. But so did these other two people….It doesn't take a rocket scientist or it doesn't take someone with a law degree to understand the potential position you're putting the city in.
Pat Hartzel: I'm just saying where we're coming from on our point--
Bill Deters: I understand where you're coming from. But I don't understand it, Pat. I really don't.
Sheryl Long: One. We have to be one. We will start behaving like one united force. When we do that, that's when we put the residents of North College Hill first. That's when we put the city first….Believe it or not, people do not wanna invest in a brand that looks like a mess. They don't wanna have any association with it….
It was now 11 days into January and the council gathered for yet another special meeting at the City Center. On the wall behind the mayor, Sheryl Long projected a slideshow outlining her vision for North College Hill.
Sheryl Long: --They put the business of the city first. And that's what we need to do. Work together.
From my perspective, it was a well-intentioned pep talk. A way to say, we're in this together. Something to give the council confidence in her.
However, her tone....
Sheryl Long: I shared my Outlook calendar with every single one of you. I have nothing to hide. I'm just ready to work. I want the same from you.
“Preachy” was how one person in the room described it to me. “Scolding” said another.
Sheryl Long: Stick a smiley face on the end of it instead of a period. Let's change the way we're addressing with each other!
Keep in mind, the purpose of this meeting was to convince the Change*nch council to approve a salary for the new city administrator.
Jim Dewald: Your job is the highest paid job in the city of North College Hill. Nobody's--nobody in this city has ever started a job in North College Hill receiving the top salary right off the bat.
But the council was barely fazed, with Council Member James Dewald suggesting that her salary be conditional on her performance.
Jim Dewald: I think a compromise would be if you was on a six-month trial period at a raise from what you've been doing. But not the top salary of the city manager.
Maureen Mason: You fund the position. It's my appointment. If I feel that she's not performing up to what is expected, if I feel that she is somehow not doing the job correctly, then I have that authority to be able to say this isn't working out. But you need to fund the position….That's undermining her authority. Undermining her respect. Undermining her in that position. Undermining that position, actually.
Council Member Mary Jo Zorb interjected.
Mary Jo Zorb: Don't you think those people would respect her more if they knew she could do the job and not just talk the--it's that walk the walk, not talk the talk.
Maureen Mason: Anybody that comes in here has to prove themselves. But if you lowball them and not pay them a comparable salary, that's saying from all of you, well, we had to have somebody, but we don't think she's worth it.
That perception--that the council didn't believe Sheryl Long was worth the job--stung some of the audience members. For nearly 20 minutes, a series of men and women, mostly black, stood up to say that to their eyes, the motivations of council looked very different.
Female commenter 1: What is disappointing to me is how she has been belittled during this meeting. And I understand many of you do not think that you have belittled her. And it comes across differently to different people. But when you call a master of marketing an “art degree,” that's belittling someone.
Female commenter 2: Nobody hires--puts a job out there without a salary. I don't understand why it's a question once someone's been hired as to whether or not you're going to pay them that salary.
Male commenter 1: But if someone comes in with that kind of energy, you need to take a second look and stop squabbling about some things. And you know, maybe she can bring some change here because I think North College Hill needs some energy.
Female commenter 3: But give her the opportunity to try versus putting her down. Versus saying she may or may not be the great person.
Male commenter 2: It's not economically prudent to fail to follow your law director's advice when you're at a meeting that is being taped.
Female commenter 4: This is not 1910. The days of slavery are over. The days of slavery are over.
Michael Karlik: How do you think that affected those council members?
Tracie Nichols: I think they were offended. I know they were offended--I don’t think they were.
Tracie Nichols, the current council president.
Tracie Nichols: I think they felt like it was an attack and some of them, you know, “they’re flooding the audience with African Americans. These people would never come in here before and you probably won’t see them again.” Those were just some of the comments that we heard, or that I heard.
Michael Karlik: Yeah. I mean, to be fair, that was a lot of people. The news was called. I mean, who coordinated all that media presence and presence of commenters at the meeting? Do you know?
Tracie Nichols: I do not, to be honest. I really do not know.
Jim Dewald: I do resent the fact that some people are trying to turn this into a racial issue. It is not a racial issue.
Council Member Jim Dewald.
Jim Dewald: So because council traditionally gets stuff at the last minute or is--information’s held back. Information they are trying to learn to do their job better. That's the part of the problem that's been on council in the last year. But you people out here, you don't see that. You don't know that. And I understand that.
The mayor and law director continued to beat back suggestions by council that Sheryl Long needed a contract with conditions attached to it. Council Member Pat Hartzel seemingly could not understand why this wasn't being done.
Bill Deters: I don't know how to get this through you. The charter says that the city administrator is appointed by the mayor. Serves at the will of the mayor. Cannot be removed without the mayor removing that person. The charter says that you as council set the salary.
Pat Hartzel: What I'm trying to say is, I want a contract that spells out--I won't approve anything without a contract.
Bill Deters: What's the contract gonna do for you? That's what I don't understand. That's where I'm having the disconnect.
Pat Hartzel: Okay. A contract will tell you what the benefits are gonna be. What the payouts are gonna be. When it expires.
Bill Deters: It can't--it doesn't expire. That's what I'm telling you, Mr. Hartzel. It can't expire. It can't expire.
Pat Hartzel: I want one that expires.
Bill Deters: Yeah, and I would like to be a Major League Baseball player, too. But I don't have the talent. And we have a charter that says we can't do that.
Pat Hartzel: Why do we have a contract with the police chief? The fire chief?
Bill Deters: Because he's not in the charter. He doesn't--it's not how it works with him.
After two hours, Bill Deters asked the council to go into executive session, with the cameras shut off and the audience cleared. He said he had an idea he shared with the mayor that the council might agree to. After talking behind closed doors, the cameras turned back on and Deters announced an agreement on the city administrator's contract.
Bill Deters: I do understand that you wish to enter--you wish to go ahead and agree to a contract with Ms. Sheryl Long as city manager, city administrator, pursuant to the mayor's recommendation. There would be a--although the contract would not have a per se ending date, the contract would have three dates that are of importance related to her salary.
In her first year, the city administrator would earn $70,000--below what the mayor had wanted. In her second year, she would earn $85,000. And in her third year, $95,000.
The vote passed with five yes, one abstention, and one absence. The council member who wasn't there? Shawna O'Shea.
Shawna O'Shea: I've struggled all day with writing things down on paper. I'm--I think best when I write. And pray. And write and pray and scratch and write and pray.
On January 19, O'Shea gave a seven-minute monologue about how she felt about the city administrator situation.
Shawna O'Shea: According to the charter, we have the right to give our advice. And that was taken away from us. She denied us that right. And we need to leave that in the past. But I'm concerned that that was her first act as the city's mayor….
And as I watched the January 11 video, I first watched it and I was angry. And then when I stopped and I just, I walked away from it and then I came back and I watched it and I listened to it again, and I then felt sadness in that video….
It appeared to me that it was people that were in the audience that was strategically and methodically placed in the audience. And they were brought there for one reason...It wasn't what--they were making it be about something that it wasn't. It was sad to see that the people in that room that would never be in council chambers again. And that made me sad. Because I felt like those people weren't there because they loved the city like obviously the people in these council chambers do.
They weren't there because they loved the city. They were there for another agenda and that made me sad. So I feel that that set the tone for Ms. Long's administration.
*** Maureen Mason: The first couple times or so that had people that came to a council meeting and they happened to be school parents who were predominantly black, then it was, oh, we were “stacking the audience” against them.
And it’s like, no, they’re citizens. We didn’t recruit them. They came to a council meeting. I didn’t make one phone call to any of them to say, “come to the council meeting.” And if you’re intimidated by the fact that you’re looking out there and it’s, you know, black citizens that are sitting out there in the chairs, you know, who does that fall on?
When Shawna O'Shea said the mayor “took away” the council's right, it was an interesting way to phrase it. The year before, in 2015, there was a charter review commission to recommend changes to the city council on how to improve the charter. Her husband, Jim O'Shea, was the chair. Other people affiliated with Change*nch sat on the committee too, including Nick Link.
Perhaps the biggest change the commission recommended was that the city administrator, the law director, and the finance director would all need to be approved by the council before being hired. It would be similar to how the president of the United States appoints cabinet officials and the Senate confirms them.
You would think the Change*nch council would have enthusiastically sent those changes to the voters in 2015. But they didn't. From what I was told, they felt it was too expensive to put the revisions in the mail for people to read.
Former Council President Sean Feeney.
Sean Feeney: City council would have to pay to print a copy of both the old charter as well as the new amended charter and mail that to every citizen of North College Hill. And so the cost of doing that is somewhere between $10,000 and $15,000. That was enough for the Change*nch members to say, “whoa, whoa, whoa.”
The 2015 revisions, if they had passed, would not have been the only alteration Change*nch had inserted into the charter. Beginning in 2011, a spinoff group called Citizens for a Better NCH successfully got three charter amendments passed, amendments you might describe as “good government.”
One made city elections officially nonpartisan. The second affected the hiring of the law director. And the last one put a 12-year term limit on any elected office. At that time, only three people exceeded the 12-year limit: Mayor Dan Brooks and two council members. One of them was Maureen Mason.
Mason and a handful of others sued the city in federal court, saying that a retroactive term limit was unconstitutional. The judge agreed and she struck down that portion of the charter.
Michael Karlik: Do you think that lawsuit affected the relationships or the trust that existed on council?
Maureen Mason: Hmm. I can tell you that having the feeling of having this whole charter amendment...to have people who go about this and you know that you personally are one of the targets to it, it kind of leaves you--you know, it makes it personal. It really makes it like a personal attack. And, you know, and feeling like, “what have I done that would create this kind of animosity? This kind of hostility?”
That you would target me in such a way that you have just banned me for life for doing something that I have spent all of these years doing because, you know, I love the city. I love government. I love being a part of it. And you’ve targeted me in that way.
Yeah, I think it does affect how you view other people when you know that they must be harboring that kind of hostility towards you.
If the charter changes from 2015 had passed and allowed the council to confirm the mayor’s appointees, it had the potential to usher in a new era of cooperation or perhaps enable dysfunction beyond what we’ve even seen so far. But I would argue that the council did not need the revisions. They did not need the power to confirm appointees.
They had it all along: they set the salaries. And it didn't matter whether the law director called their behavior despicable or not. They had just seen a city administrator for years get paid far more than they thought he should be. This was about control, but it was also about trust. Less of one meant more of the other.
It wasn't Maureen Mason's fault that she needed a new city administrator. But Change North College Hill wasn't wrong to be skeptical of who was being hired and how, exactly, they were getting paid.
Sean Feeney: So Sheryl took a very proactive approach with that council, which is good. That’s what you need a city administrator in that kind of situation to do.
Sheryl Long: So my job is to give you as much stuff as possible, information, and give you the tools to make that decision.
Sean Feeney: And she invited each and every one of them to private meetings to discuss what are their concerns and how can she, you know, communicate better with them? How can she bring them in the loop on things?
Sheryl Long: And I've been really putting out fires all over these decisions and trying to stay in front of it and not let my staff be affected.
Tracie Nichols: Sheryl, I think--in my opinion--has been doing a good job. She had to come in, clean up some stuff.
Commenter: It's almost like a joke to you, I kinda--
Sheryl Long: It's not a joke. Three years is not acceptable. I will have your pothole fixed.
Tracie Nichols: She goes out into the community more. She’s focused on building bigger and better relationships.
Renee Stiles: Just to back up what Ms. Long says, she is--she has a very wide open door policy. So thank you.
Sheryl Long: Thank you.
As 2016 moved on, Sheryl Long was doing the work, learning the job, and receiving compliments from residents and council members. Not everything went smoothly. North College Hill had no permanent finance director until the summer. And when the administration did find someone fully qualified, the council predictably was anxious about her pay.
And just like the previous year, the council failed to give enough money to the city administrator--
Sheryl Long: After Friday, I have to wait until this is taken care of in order to show up to work and be able to do my job.
--so they rushed into a Saturday morning meeting to get her back to work.
It would take some council members a long time to get past how the city administrator was chosen and what she was being paid. In fact, council wouldn't even pass a proper salary ordinance for her until December, after she had been on the job for 11 months. That was a source of irritation for Long, who saw it as a personal slight.
Sheryl Long: All I'm saying is, is that if you're going to do something with it, do something with it. Because how I am taking it is pure disrespect. And that's all I'm saying. Just figure it out..
Michael Karlik: Do you think there’s anything that Change*nch does that has to do with race?
Maureen Mason: [chuckles] Well, the two people that they have tried to undervalue that they have gone after that way happen to be a black man and a black woman.
Sheryl Long: He's physically showing up and doing a job. Secondly, we have group of volunteers who will probably dismantle if they do not have a leader.
In the fall of 2016, the council was in the middle of yet another salary fight. This situation was a little different: the city's charter said that the administrator had to appoint a recreation director, someone to coordinate activities in the community. For two years, the man unofficially filling that role was Gregory Moore. At first, he was a contractor for the nonprofit that ran the recreation side of the City Center, which had the gymnasium and classrooms for rent.
But it didn't take long for the nonprofit to walk away from the City Center. And with that, they walked away from Gregory Moore. But for whatever reason, Moore stayed right where he was.
Michael Karlik: Did you think to stop working when you weren’t getting paid?
Gregory Moore: [chuckles] To my chagrin, detriment, no. But there was a greater goal for me. You know, to be honest, not to--I’m a religious guy but there was just a calling. I didn’t want to leave some of that work undone.
We had some things going on. The Double Dutch program was rolling. I thought that potentially the city may see the great work we were doing and....I could keep the building running with the things I was doing, with the rentals and with the summer program. And I could make it work….
And we just kept it going. I said, we’re gonna keep it going as long as we can and the city manager was behind me 100 percent. The new mayor was behind me. I just--you know, I said, until they put me out, we’re just gonna keep it going.
The administration noticed what Moore was doing. In April, the council began discussing hiring a recreation director. Greg Moore’s resume rose to the top of the pile. By the early fall, it had become official: Moore would be the rec director and he had a salary ordinance awaiting approval.
In North College Hill, ordinances typically receive three readings, which means they appear on the agenda in three separate council meetings. The first two readings passed by without any objection. But at the third reading on October 3, suddenly the Finance Committee chair, Mary Jo Zorb, had a major problem. And it was less to do with Greg Moore than it was a basic objection to the City Center, period.
Mary Jo Zorb: I am of the opinion that we should be doing something other than proceeding blindly into putting a roof and going through with this building….And consequently I don't know that I support paying an individual to work in a building that I'm not sure that we should have somebody in.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Do you have any suggestions?
Mary Jo Zorb: I would support a decrease in that salary, but I can't support that salary.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Has this been discussed in Finance?
Council Member Suzie Wietlisbach questioned Zorb if she had brought this up in her Finance Committee. The answer was no. The city administrator was visibly frustrated about this last-minute change of heart.
Sheryl Long: We've tried the volunteer route. I've reached out to colleges. No--what we're paying them is less than what other cities are paying for this position. This is a man who is more than qualified and we should be very happy to have them. But this is another person that we are gonna chase away from North College Hill because we are not going to make a decision about $1,000 a month.
Even some Change*nch council members seemed taken aback by Zorb's abrupt new position.
Suzie Wietlisbach: I'm surprised it hasn't been discussed in Finance to this point.
The council appeared on the verge of taking a salary of $12,000 for an experienced, part-time recreation director and slashing it further. As Mary Jo Zorb requested the ordinance be rerouted through her committee, Sheryl Long's voice shook.
Sheryl Long: Because I'm gonna have to go back to a man who's been doing a job and tell him that he's not getting a paycheck. And I'm sorry, at the end of the day I'm here to run a city. But because of a lot of your decisions, over $1,000 is preventing me from keeping a lot of the people who are dedicated to this city. We're losing talent. And I'm sorry, but I don't understand.
A recess was called and the cameras shut off. But a hot mic picked up the Change*nch-appointed clerk, Lynda Stagman, questioning how Zorb was using the City Center to justify cutting the salary.
Lynda Stagman: But what I didn't understand is that she said because she didn't want him working in this building. So that shouldn't have any--with that reason then it doesn't matter what you pay him. So that objection--
Sheryl Long: And my only thing is, is that you guys--I'm more than open--communicate to me beforehand. Why are we waiting to the third reading for you to say this?
Lynda Stagman: I know. Crazy, girl. Crazy. So what are you thinking? See, she brought up the fact of the--didn't want him working in this building. So then it doesn't matter what you pay him. Because he's still gonna be working in this building.
When the cameras turned on again, audience members laced into the council for what just happened.
Commenter 1: We're either showing incompetence or sabotage in here….By the time you get to a third reading, you ought to be able to vote….And it seems like this happens meeting after meeting after meeting.
Al Long: You got someone that's done the job before who happens to be Caucasian. You don't have enough information--and you stop it and you don't really give a reason other than it relates to the City Center, which--that's not even a serious percentage of his duties. It seems like on its face, there is another issue….Their actions look suspect.
Commenter 3: You know this is getting out of hand. That man works his rear end off up here. He really does. I've seen it….Every day. Helping them kids out. You know? And it's not right the way you're treating him. I happen to agree with him. I think you're prejudiced against him.
Finally, Greg Moore stepped up to speak.
Gregory Moore: I've never been disrespectful. I've never been out of order. I've never questioned anything. I didn't ask for the $1,000....I just said, “I'm your man. I'm here.” If it's $1,000, $400, stop disrespecting me. I have a reputation over the city. I've been doing this all my life. And now it's like I'm some nobody that comes into trying to steal $12,000 a year.
The next month, the council was still talking about an appropriate amount to pay Moore.
Tracie Nichols: Is that the one with the dollar amount that we talked about?
Mary Jo Zorb: It has a dollar amount on it, yes.
Tracie Nichols: Okay, and what is that dollar amount?
Mary Jo Zorb: Six hundred dollars.
Tracie Nichols: Do you know that that's less than minimum wage?
Maureen Mason: Yes, $600 is not even minimum wage. So you are stating a man with 20 years of experience is not even worth minimum wage. You've devalued him that much.
Shawna O'Shea: I understand everything of what is going on. But with the minimum wage, I understand what you're saying, Ms. Nichols. But there is nothing that states that that's--he has to make minimum wage or he makes this much amount except for that ordinance.
Tracie Nichols: I just wanted to comment on what Ms. O'Shea said. I do believe that we can have a charter. The charter is our city rules, what we want to abide. But we also have to abide by Ohio law. And Ohio law states that minimum wage is $8.10. I don't think you would wanna go on a job yourself and, regardless of how many years you have, and get paid less than minimum wage. I think that's an insult.
After weeks and weeks of taking a monthly salary from $1,000 to $600 to just above minimum wage, the council in December approved giving their recreation director $9 per hour.
At the end of 2016, the council was reviewing the budget for the next year. Back in January, everyone had agreed that the city administrator’s salary would jump from $70,000 to $85,000. It was the compromise worked out with law director Bill Deters. The problem was that one council member, Renee Stiles, no longer supported that deal.
Renee Stiles: I asked for a performance evaluation from the mayor. And she declined and refused to do it. Which is fine, whatever. So to me, I don't support a pay--a 22% pay increase to city administrator, to Ms. Long. Also, you guys are talking budget cuts. We’re gonna have to cut--potentially cut….
I’m just being up front to let you all know that I don't support that line item and I won't support that line item--
Sheryl Long: Well, fortunately that has been already passed--
Renee Stiles: --but I still get to talk because this is a committee meeting. So--
Sheryl Long: --so we don't have to worry about that right now.
Renee Stiles: Also, when is the last time an employee in the city of North College Hill got a 22 percent pay increase? Please tell me. Can anyone tell me? And to do it without a performance evaluation or something tangible, concrete to say, you know what, I brought in $3 million dollars this year. Or increased revenue this year. Or I brought in--
Sheryl Long: I manage a city that was about to be--employees were about to walk out and a finance director that had a zero budget. So what are you saying, Ms. Stiles?
Renee Stiles: Ms. Zorb?
Sheryl Long: Can you respond to that?
Renee Stiles: This is a Finance Committee meeting--
Sheryl Long: And you're talking about me.
The city's finance director spoke up.
Angelina Burton: Also, I will just for the record, I'm getting a 21 percent wage increase as of January 1. And....as your finance director, I have made no recommendations for any budget cuts.
Stiles's comments caught the attention of one North College Hill resident.
Brittany Feeney: I have a series of questions for Ms. Stiles based on the December 27 meeting. I don't want any of them answered until I'm finished. I wanna be able to use my whole time to get everything out.
Brittany Feeney, the wife of Democratic Council President Shawn Feeney, stood up in a meeting and read a lengthy list of questions, statements, opinions, and insinuations.
Brittany Feeney: --And you do not think she deserves a raise to make her pay equal to what her degrees deserve because she hasn't been here very long. I will allow you to comment on that later….
I don't think you're racist at all. Not even an ounce. But--excuse me. Mr. President, can you control the audience please? This is my time to talk….The actions--while probably I don't think anybody in the public would back them, but if somebody did decide to indulge us in a frivolous lawsuit, they would probably have a strong case. Because the past two people that have been given unfair wages for their experience have been black.
Renee Stiles: I request that you go ahead and email me your questions. I will email you back the answer. And I would be more than happy to read your--read the answers to your questions at our next scheduled council meeting.
Brittany Feeney: Can you go ahead and give me answers to the ones I've already asked?
Renee Stiles: You've asked a lot of questions--
Brittany Feeney: I warned you that ahead of time and you agreed to answer them for me so--
Renee Stiles: And most of those questions have a lot of detail to them.
To her credit, on January 17, Renee Stiles dedicated the last 15 minutes of the council meeting responding point by point to each of Brittany Feeney's questions.
Renee Stiles: Ms. Long's education and experience as of January 16 were well below the stated qualifications. To insinuate that race and gender is an issue is insulting.
Michael Karlik: I know you said you didn't think Renee Stiles was a racist. What is the relationship between Change*nch and race? There’s a whole lot of insinuation. A whole lot of accusation. But I don’t see anyone saying concretely, “these are a bunch of racists. Here’s the proof.”
Brittany Feeney: Well that's--[laughs]--there isn’t a lot of proof. It’s a lot of speculation. It's--they’re not out there, you know, yelling horrible words at people. But they’re not also focusing on taking care of the majority of the population, which is black. I mean--
Sean Feeney: Yeah, if I could add, there’s no concrete evidence, right? There’s no Facebook post that we could post to that's saying this. But you’ve really got to take politicians by their actions.
Renee Stiles: Have you ever been a city manager or in a similar position to be able to judge what constitutes “fluff” in regards to the job? My answer to that is my employment history has no bearing on this topic.
This is a sentiment I heard from many of the Democrats in North College Hill: that Change*nch does not look out for the black population or appreciate the black employees. Of the people I was able to speak to affiliated with Change, they naturally saw no validity in that. For the record, it is true the Democrats have had more black council members over the years. But most recently, they only fielded three candidates in the 2017 election and two of them were white.
Change*nch does have one black council member who was appointed in early 2017. She's fairly quiet in the meetings. She does not really offer a window into her philosophy like the others do. She was also not interested in talking with me for this story. Almost every Democrat felt a mixture of confusion and sympathy for her. They just didn't understand why she would want to be part of a group that they saw as having racial motivations.
Renee Stiles: And I am aware that our legal system allows people to file lawsuits for just about anything. As a matter of fact, I do recall that Mayor Mason and Mr. Long, in conjunction with a few others, filed a lawsuit against the city of North College Hill and the Hamilton County Board of Elections in 2013. Unfortunately, I have no control over our legal system.
Michael Karlik: To your point about them underpaying or chipping away at the black employees who were brought in--Sheryl Long, Greg Moore--they also had as their number one target Mark Fitzgerald. And then Bill Deters and then Maureen Mason and Shannon Hoelmer.
So it seems like--and Maureen Mason said herself when she presented Sheryl Long as her choice--“you would have, you would've taken a whack at anyone I nominated as my city administrator.” So is it the case that their singular focus on, as you said, power, would have affected anyone--black, white, male, female--who they saw as in their way?
Brittany Feeney: I believe in the cases of Ms. Long and Mr. Moore that it was absolutely like I said. I don't think that their actions were necessarily racist, race-driven towards them. I think that was more their hatred for, you’re a part of, you know, the old crew….from the Dan Brooks side of the aisle is how I can only imagine they see it. But I think their more--their racial game comes in more when we're not taking care of the City Center that the majority or our black teens, black children are using.
Renee Stiles: I do not recall Mr. O'Shea viciously and verbally attacking any individual in the manner in which was displayed on December 27, in my opinion. To review specific and all council meetings, please visit the ICRCTV.com. The end.
Over the years, the city council would put the brakes on wage increases. They brought up a salary freeze for seemingly no reason. And they slow-walked a payout to the old finance director who was threatening to sue for what the city owed her. In one sense, this reluctance to spend money was exactly what Dan Brooks had encountered decades ago in North College Hill. But to me it's extremely likely that if the infamous salary combination by Mayor Brooks had never happened, the Change council would have more reason to trust the administration and less reason to keep compensation on the tightest of leashes.
Something to keep in mind is that what a city council says or does actually matters. It can affect morale. It can affect the type of people who want to work for the city. It can affect what businesses choose to open up in North College Hill. Anyone can google the name of a city and if what comes up is all negative, people think twice about going there.
Throughout 2016, salaries were not the only crisis in the city government. Pressure was mounting for the council to make a decision about whether to tear down their own home and what would happen to the people inside.
Sheryl Long: But those parents are happy that their kids don't have to run up and down the street and have nowhere to go. So when we say they're in dirt and we say how horrible that building is, that is providing something for our residents.
Chapter 6: "The Center of It All"
Chapter 6: “The Center of It All”
Michael Karlik: So can you describe to me what is the 1918 Building?
Jeff Harrington: Yeah, the 1918 Building was--is a former high school and junior high that the school district gave to Bonner Springs for $1 in 1985 because they had--it had come to the end of its useful life for them in its current condition.
This is Jeff Harrington. He does not live in North College Hill. He's actually the mayor of Bonner Springs, Kansas, a city about 600 miles west of Ohio. While working on this story, I stumbled across the situation in Bonner Springs, in which a small city was deciding whether to take an old school building and turn it into a city hall. It's called the 1918 Building because well, it was finished in 1918.
Michael Karlik: Did the roof ever need to be replaced?
Jeff Harrington: Yeah, they included roofing and some brick tuck pointing in one of the grants they received over the years since the city's had it….
It has a lot of really nice features in it that if redone nicely, could be quite a city facility. And so currently, for the last eight years, we have had a group of local individuals that put on a haunted house….
There's been, you know--every once in awhile there's been somebody say, “if we're not gonna do something, let's go ahead and tear it down.” But the intent has generally been to do something with the building.
Michael Karlik. Okay, okay. So there are two portions to this building--the gym and then the rest of the building?
Jeff Harrington: Yes, yes.
Michael Karlik: Okay. How much would it cost to renovate this into a city hall?
Jeff Harrington: That's some of the things that we're working on right now….but we've estimated for the public roundtable meetings that it would take about $6-7 million for the city hall and about $7-8 million for the police station. So we're looking at about $13 million, off the top of my head.
Michael Karlik: So for $13-14 million, you would get a new city hall, a home for the police, and a community center with this renovation?
Jeff Harrington: Yeah, it's about $13 million. A police station and this 1918 Building remodeled into a city hall, yes. We already have the community center.
Michael Karlik: But you're optimistic that there will be some tax raise to help pay for this renovation?
Jeff Harrington: I would imagine so, yes.
Michael Karlik: And how many people are in Bonner Springs?
Jeff Harrington: We have about 7,800 people.
Michael Karlik: Okay….Is renovating the 1918 Building the least costly?
Jeff Harrington: It was probably number two. The least costly would be, I think, tearing down the city hall and building a city hall and police station beside that.
Michael Karlik: So--[chuckles]--I've gotta ask, then: if it's cheaper to build a whole new facility that'll last you many years into the future, why turn to a 100-year-old building as the answer?
Jeff Harrington: Well, it does have some advantages to it. One of the advantages is there'd be enough space for any future needs that the city would need….The 1918 Building would have quite a bit of space for future needs for city offices or other community needs.
Michael Karlik: Gotcha. And then just to finish up, I would like to run a scenario by you and just see what you think of it.
So suppose you became mayor and your city hall was in an old school building--not one built in 1918, but one built in the 1950s. And part of the school had the city offices, the council chamber, the tax office, and then part of it was a community center. It had a gymnasium. It had classrooms where people could host smaller activities.
The big problem, though, was the roof. The roof hasn't been replaced. It is leaking. It is a hazard and it's a liability.
You could replace the roof on the whole building for just under $1 million and then there are other little upgrades that would probably total $1.5 million, possibly $2 million, but you would have a fixed up city hall for the next maybe decade or two.
Or you could tear down the community center portion and just occupy the much smaller city hall portion. That would probably be about the same amount but without all the operating expenses in the future.
And then I suppose the last option would be to build an entirely new city hall or to lease space, maybe in offices or trailers. Do you have a preference for which option you would choose?
Jeff Harrington: Well, that's a great question and it has so many different aspects to it that would take a lot of time to research. This--on face value, I think compared to what new building would be and the need for community services with a community center, if they could work out a financing plan that's amenable to the citizens, reroofing the whole area would probably be in the best interest to maintain that city hall.
But I just don't--on face value, that's how I would take it. But there's so many factors that would have to be researched that it's hard to say….is it all going to be financed with mill rate on the property taxes or is it a sales tax? Or do they have a, you know, vibrant commercial community that could help support that with sales tax or is it something that needs to be, you know, subsidized by just property taxes? All those things add in. All those things are factors.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Okay. So cost would be your first thing that you looked at. What about the desire of the community? If there was a small but vocal number of people who wanted to save the school--save the city hall because of all the activities that it provides, could you see that overruling the cost concerns?
Jeff Harrington: Well, it all--hmm. The elected officials are elected to do what's best for the community as a whole. And so there--sometimes the most inexpensive choice is not necessarily the best for the whole community as a whole.
So you could tear down and not--tear down the community center and not have those services available for the next 10 to 20 years, but is that what's best for the community? Do they need those public spaces and paying, you know, a more of an amount now that provides you with more services over the long haul? Or more assets? Has to be weighed. So there's no easy answer and those would all have to be considered.
Michael Karlik: Okay, well those are all the questions I had for you, so that was extremely helpful, mayor. Thank you for your time.
Jeff Harrington: It's a lot of information goes into making those kind of decisions and...there's a lot planning that goes into it. And for a small community, it takes a lot of time from a lot of different people. And I wish you the best on the other community working through their concerns, too.
Up to now, our story of North College Hill has grown out of a series of decisions that happened when longtime Mayor Dan Brooks was in his final years in office. I would argue that everything we have heard was directly or indirectly related to one of three poor choices.
First was the decision to combine the city administrator's salary with his wife's, which set off years of litigation, mistrust, and the council's use of salaries as a choke collar on the city government.
The second was Brooks's decision to leave office and have his successor--a first-time mayor who came in with good intentions--be the target of harassment and cyberbullying to the point of giving up.
The final decision actually took place before the other two. In fact, I've already told you what it is and how it ends.
But what you don't know is how this time, everyone had the best intentions for the city at heart. There was no bullying. No power trips. No fights over the charter. If I had to sum it up, I'd say it was actually a big misunderstanding.
But in North College Hill, misunderstandings turn into meltdowns. And for over a year, the fight inside the City Center was whether to get rid of the City Center and who, exactly, was the city supposed to serve?
This is Tear It Down.
Commenter: North College Hill City Center, are you ready for something new?...You are, in fact, ready for something new.
In the council chamber on meeting night, you will find a few rows of chairs set up in the audience. It's not a huge space; the sign on the wall, written in marker, says the capacity is 47 people. Between eight council members, a mayor, and a city administrator, you're well on your way there every time.
At the front of the room is a set of tables in a U-shape. Behind it, facing the audience, is piece of artwork with a city skyline along the bottom and the word “Greetings” imposed on a blue-sky background. In the bottom right corner is the North College Hill logo: a series of yellow stars one on top of the other and the slogan “North College Hill: the center of it all.”
Michael Karlik: So how did you come to be involved with the City Center ad hoc committee?
Matt Wahlert: I knew it was the biggest problem facing us and I said, “give it to me. I'll try to solve it” [chuckles].
Matthew Wahlert is the Change*nch council member who was put in charge of the council's City Center committee.
Michael Karlik: Do you think that was a worthwhile goal that was just a little too big for the city to swallow? Or do you think, as some people do in North College Hill, that it never should have been acquired to begin with?
Matt Wahlert: You know, I'm not comfortable giving--because hindsight is perfect. And, you know, I wanna give the benefit of the people that were there in the room making the decision. I believe that their intention was something well worth trying to achieve.
You know, I hear now that people say, “well, that building's been leaking for years.” I don't know what type of diligence was done. So, I guess I really don't wanna throw others under the bus for making an effort to what I think is a good cause to do that.
For Dan Brooks, a new city hall and community center had been his white whale for decades. While he was an architecture student, he built a scale model of a city hall and took it to North College Hill's mayor to show off. The mayor dumped it in his closet.
Years later, when Dan Brooks was mayor, he came up with another idea to build a massive 65,000 square foot complex for the city, complete with a community center, police and fire station, and retail stores. This plan went nowhere. And in the late ’90s, again still he tried to snatch up an old school building and church. Once more, he was stymied.
Maureen Mason: You know, you've gotta have hope. You've gotta try to get things done and you can make yourself so frozen that you don't do anything because you're afraid you're gonna make a misstep. Or something's not gonna happen right.
You're gonna build something and maybe it doesn't just boom overnight. That it takes time and effort and it's a slow process, you know, little step by little step.
Around 2009, the school district was constructing a brand new campus. But they discovered that they needed a portion of city property to complete their school buildings. Mayor Brooks saw the opening he had been craving for four decades: the city would give the school district their land in exchange for the school district giving North College Hill the 30,000 square foot Clovernook Elementary School.
Michael Karlik: What did you think of it?
Gregory Moore: Oh, yes. Yeah. You have classrooms so perfect for any programs we wanted to do. Tutoring programs, reading programs.
Gregory Moore, the recreation director:
Gregory Moore: The gymnasium, which was the jewel--all it needed was a new floor. If we had new flooring, you know, maybe some updated backboards, that type of thing. But it was versatile. We could use it--and particularly for our largest program, for our summer day camp, it was perfect setup.
Maureen Mason: How council felt? It was, we give up this little wedge, we get this building. Yes, it was an older building, but it’s solid. A solid, you know--the only thing wrong with the building today is that it needs a new roof. And flat-roof buildings need that every now and then. I mean, that’s one of the problems with flat roofs is that over time, water pools on that roof and it’s very hard on the material.
Records from the school district show that in the years before the swap, they were paying thousands of dollars to patch the Clovernook roof. And in the agreement with the school district, the city actually had 120 days to inspect the building and ask the district to correct any defects. If the school district choose not to fix Clovernook, the agreement would have been voided.
I have no idea if Dan Brooks knew about the roof patching or whether he ever had an inspection that raised red flags. But the city signed the agreement in 2009 and a year later, the school was theirs.
Gary Gellert was the school superintendent.
Gary Gellert: But I'm not getting into that. I mean, the building was functional. The building was functional. It was a school. On paper the city got the better end of the deal.
Michael Karlik: You think so?
Gary Gellert: Absolutely!
Michael Karlik: In what way?
Gary Gellert: A little piece of property? They got more acreage. They got more acreage. By far, they got the better end of the deal.
Michael Karlik: I see what you're saying on paper, just size wise. But considering the operating costs of that building--
Gary Gellert: Well---
Michael Karlik: --the roof replacement….
Gary Gellert: Yeah, that's--yeah. No, they got--we would've demoed it. If we hadn't exchanged it, we would've demoed the building and then we would've had however many acres is there that we could've sold.
Michael Karlik: Right.
Gary Gellert: That's water over the dam. They wanted a building for a community center and a city building. That was their vision and they have more space for that by far--
Michael Karlik: So even if it ended up that the city did not want a community center forever, that was still an extension of that building's life whereas otherwise, it would be leveled to the ground by now.
Gary Gellert: It would have been demoed, correct. Mmhmm.
Curiously, it was only until after North College Hill got the building that the city decided what to do with it. In July 2010, there was a community forum to hear people's suggestions. “A golden opportunity” was how the flyer described the 50-year-old building.
Many of the ideas from that focus group were what you might expect: use the school for basketball leagues. Arts and crafts shows. G.E.D. classes. A library. Stores.
But some of the reponses foreshadowed divisions in the city:
“Tear it down.”
“I would rather look at it decaying out my window than anything else mentioned.”
“I have mixed feelings since all my children and my husband went to Clovernook. Maybe keep the part by the front door and demolish the rest.”
Michael Karlik: Can you describe what the City Center looks like? If I were to walk in, what would I see?
Sean Feeney: It still to this day looks very much like an old elementary school.
Former Council President Sean Feeney and his wife, Brittany Feeney.
Sean Feeney: It's exactly the one-floor, flat-topped building that you expected from the mid-1950s onward in America--
Brittany Feeney: Classroom windows.
Sean Feeney: Yeah, the large classroom windows with the very old, cheap panes of glass. One of the disturbing things was by the time I got on council, the building was in such disarray that it was constantly leaking and the city council chambers was included.
And so there used to be this kind of ongoing joke that there's this kind of puddling on the drop ceiling right over the desk that the city council members sit at. And in the middle of one of these meetings, you just know if it’s raining out, it’s gonna just start dripping and it’s gonna come right down on city council members and they might have to do something about it.
In the summer of 2011, the City Center underwent a transformation. Procter & Gamble chose the building for its community service day. They painted and landscaped the school. The local chapter of the Disabled American Veterans even worked on the council chamber.
But while the volunteers were fixing the building up, behind the scenes the Brooks administration was unknowingly laying the groundwork for the City Center’s eventual failure.
They sent out a request for proposals to manage the recreation side of the building, the side with the gym and the classrooms.
Maureen Mason: I don’t recall other people coming in with proposals for it. It was kind of a unique situation in that we were looking for a nonprofit to come in to run programs like that….There’s not a whole lot of entities out there that do that kind of thing for cities.
The city received one response: an offer from the Propel Company. Propel was a corporation headed by Doug Pelfrey, a former football player with the Cincinnati Bengals. It is still unclear to me what experience Pelfrey had, if any, in managing city property. But on April 23, 2012, he signed a 20-year lease with North College Hill for the recreation side of the City Center.
The single most crucial thing you need to know about this contract is not the part about the activities. It's not the part about utilities or taxes. Instead, it's section 12, labeled “Maintenance”: “Tenant shall be responsible for all maintenance, replacement, and repairs to the Leased Premises.” Those included, the building, the mechanical system, and the roof.
Replacing the roof was on Propel.
Maureen Mason: They came with the promise that they would have investors, people who would put up the money to do the repairs and the maintenance. And I believe that’s the portion that kind of fell through as far as not having investors. Not being able to raise that kind of capital investment to fix it up the way, kind of the “dream” that had been envisioned.
Michael Karlik: Did that raise any red flags for you at the time? This was a pretty new company on the scene.
Maureen Mason: Well, they came in with, “we have people that will be putting up money as tax shelters.” I did not know how--what the model was, how it would work. So it kind of was, well, let’s hope that what’s been drawn up can happen….
Michael Karlik: I mean, to the extent that anyone is to blame for that, I mean, Propel obviously shoulders a lot of that. And you know, the market does too, I guess.
Maureen Mason: Mmhmm.
Michael Karlik: But do you think there’s any fair blame that can be assigned to the city administrator, the schools superintendent, anyone in a decision-making authority for not seeing that this could fall through very easily?
Maureen Mason: [chuckles] I guess if we were more cynical and, I mean, we were banking on hope that this could be accomplished. And that, you know you take a giant leap and your stride isn’t quite as long as what you wanted.
Right away, the City Center landed a major attraction: the Centerstage Players, a theater group that had been around since 1885.
Fred Hunt: The largest we ever set the house for was the second year in 2013 when we were doing our holiday show. We had a show get snowed out and we set for 136 people. And we actually filled that with one person paying standing room only.
Fred Hunt is a director and board member with the Centerstage Players. When the roof sprung leaks and the heating and air conditioning failed, the theater troupe didn't just sit back and complain. They got involved.
Fred Hunt: But then we also--that season, for the last three shows of that season, we added a weekend where we didn’t pay rent. But any money we made that we can--we put into a fund. And the idea when the fund started was….we were going to buy a large--Big Ass Fan is the name of the company down in Kentucky--and put a big-ass fan in the gym, gym/cafetorium that was our theater….
We had a fundraiser in cooperation with Pro Foundation. And we did--it was a two-night prom event and we raised--
Michael Karlik: Can you speak a little more about what that was?
Fred Hunt: It's the Awesome ‘80s Prom. The concept is people come and they dress up and they’re coming to an ‘80s prom. So we had all the ‘80s music and everything and among the people at the prom were our corps of actors--I think we had 14 actors in the show.
So as the night would progress, you--the principal would interrupt everything and tell everybody to simmer down and all that. And would introduce the candidates for prom king and queen. And they are your stereotypical ‘80s movies kids, like all the kids from “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” and all of those movies.
And there were vignettes done throughout the night as they were lobbying to get voted to be prom king and queen throughout the night. And then the audience would actually submit their ballots and depending on who they voted for, they would be crowned king and queen, the actors would. And there were vignettes that would flow out of that…..
We raised $7,600 on that...Like I said, it was initially for a big-ass fan but it became building improvement instead.
Fred Hunt: When we moved out, the actual space we would perform in was still pretty good. They had done some patching on the roof. We had a very large leak backstage that was--they had taken a bucket and put it in the corner to capture the water and we would just empty the bucket periodically. There was another leak in the stairwell to the left of the stage that--when it would rain and it would be like almost like a waterfall coming straight down into a garbage can.
So I actually, on our next-to-last show, I climbed up there with a funnel and attached a funnel to the rafters and ran a hose so that the water would drain back into the bucket onstage and then we could just empty that. And that’s actually been a lot safer for people….
That was the first time we actually had when it rained that it was actually leaking into the gym space proper where people would sit. So for one performance, I was up on a ladder taping plastic bags to the ceiling to catch the water during the show….
Bathrooms had gotten to the point where I think we were back down to only one stall working in the women’s room, one stall in the men’s room, and then the second stall--the ceiling had about a nine- to 11-inch hole in diameter above the entrance to the stall from where the rain had taken the roof out. So whenever it would rain, it would just pour through there.
The hallway--if it rained, the hallway was just a line of buckets down the hallway. So we got to a point where when it would rain really bad, we put a curtain across and send people around the back way to go to the women’s room to avoid that mess.
I saw a lot of promise in the building. I remember one actress in the show--because I was directing my first show--said it’s sad. And because it was an old school building that, you know, had been let run down a bit.
And I remember saying, “no, this not sad. This is actually very happy. We’re gonna be part of the renaissance here for this building. We’re gonna help turn this into a really vibrant community center. So it’s the exact opposite of sad.”
We still stay tied to the city and hope they can work things out. You’re saying they’re gonna tear it down, but by next month they may change their mind because that’s the way this has gone for the last year [chuckles]. So, all they need’s another election and everything changes, so--
Michael Karlik: Would you go back if they didn’t shut the building down?
Fred Hunt: Provided they fixed the bathrooms and the roof, we would consider it. If they were gonna say, “just come back the way it is,” no.
People I talked to on all sides said that Doug Pelfrey seemed genuinely interested in making the City Center work. They said he was well-meaning. His heart was in the right place. Someone even agreed he was like a young Dan Brooks. But as the years progressed, Pelfrey, to use a football term, fumbled.
Michael Karlik: Well, you’re the only person who sees it from Propel’s side having worked for them and the city side now working for the city. Whose responsibility at the time when you first started did you think the roof maintenance to be?
Gregory Moore: Propel.
Michael Karlik: Okay. Did he ever acknowledge it to you that Propel was--
Gregory Moore: Yes.
Michael Karlik: He did?
Gregory Moore: Yes. And then it got the point where we both realized it wasn’t gonna happen.
Michael Karlik: Do you think it bothered Doug Pelfrey that he couldn’t deliver?
Gregory Moore: Yes, it did. And he said that to me as well. After--this was last year. He did say that.
Michael Karlik: Did he ever say, “well, the city was supposed to get me investors. I was supposed to have money. It just didn’t happen.”
Gregory Moore: Yes, he did. He talked about, that there was something, a disconnect. He didn’t go into a lot of detail, but there were things in both Colerain and in North College Hill that--not necessarily investors, but there was some business opportunities that was supposed to have some collaborations. Again, I don’t know the details but he did speak to both issues, more Colerain than North College Hill.
What Gregory Moore is referring to is another community center in neighboring Colerain Township. Called Skyline, the township had shut it down in 2013 because they simply couldn't afford it. Doug Pelfrey came in and offered to run it, with Moore as the director. The people who used Skyline were mostly black children and adults. But there, Pelfrey lasted even less time than he did at the City Center.
Michael Karlik: So when the Skyline Acres had to close a second time under Doug Pelfrey, how was the community reaction then?
Gregory Moore: Well, of course, it wasn’t great. I think they knew, but it wasn’t--[chuckles]--they didn’t have a lot of notice because he sort of just pulled out. We didn’t notify them. We didn’t, you know, tell them. We just left, basically. That’s the nicest way I can say it. We just pulled up stakes and went to North College Hill.
Kathy Harward: I think Doug is a great man. I think Doug’s intentions were 100 percent good.
Kathy Harward was the director of community outreach for the Pro Foundation, another one of Doug Pelfrey’s groups tasked with running the City Center.
Kathy Harward: I don’t know anybody who sacrificed so much of himself, his own personal money, for the betterment of children and community. You know, is he the best businessman in the whole wide world? Absolutely not. He doesn't have a business degree. He’s got a heart. He’s got a heart of gold. He doesn’t know how to say no to people because he wants--his heart wants to help people. His heart wants to do good….
If Doug had any fault to him, it’s that he doesn’t know how to say no….when he really should because his heart is so big.
Michael Karlik: You were talking about Doug a minute ago and kind of the caricatures I’ve heard of Doug from other people in North College Hill is that he was well intentioned but didn’t know how to manage a building. Or he was a straight-up shyster who didn’t make his promise to the city.
And what I’m hearing from you is, he was a victim of miscommunication here maybe in the same way that the city was also a victim of miscommunication. Is that accurate?
Kathy Harward: Yeah, I think neither party--I think neither party was very clear on the intentions. Because what….Doug said they were supposed to bring investors to us and they didn't.
Because there was half of the town was against it. Half the council was against it and half the council was for it. So it was a constant battle. I had never seen anything like it in my life. I wanted out of it because it was like, I’ve never seen people be so negative and fight the way that city was….
And I felt like it was a constant struggle to get the community to stand behind it because half the council was, it was like because it was--I forget who the man was who was in charge. I forget who this person was. Dan something or--
Michael Karlik: Dan Brooks was the mayor.
Kathy Harward: Dan Brooks. So because it was a Dan Brooks idea and vision, that half the council--anything that Dan Brooks thought and wanted, they were gonna, they were gonna be against it.
You know, if he fixed up the building and because you have half of--and I agreed 100 percent. With the way that council was, I said there is no way in god’s green earth I’m gonna support you putting money into this thing and then they turn around--because you got half the people just want the real estate. You turn around and put all this money into this thing and they end up canceling it, that we’re not gonna do a community center. That’s ludicrous.
Michael Karlik: I mean, Kathy, I see what you’re saying there. Logically, it makes sense. But the flip side is because money was not put into the building, it’s easier for the council to say, “demolish the whole thing.” And that is what happened last year.
Kathy Harward: Mmhmm. Yeah, but they, they’re the owners of the building. They’re the owners of that building and they weren’t putting a dime into it.
To not--for them to be able to, after you get it all done, to wipe it out from underneath you? I wouldn't do it. And I didn’t advise Doug to do it. I wouldn't do it. Would you do it? Would you put hundreds of thousands of dollars into something and somebody could just come right in behind you and say, “well, we're not gonna do this anymore?” So--
Michael Karlik: Well, your advice to Doug came too late because he did sign that exact contract saying that without ownership, we will maintain, repair, and replace the roof. So--
Kathy Harward: He didn't say he would replace the roof. What contract said he would replace the roof?
Michael Karlik: The contract he signed for, I think, a 20-year lease of the building.
Kathy Harward: I didn't think that thing said replace the roof. It said maintain the building and--
Michael Karlik: The exact phrase is “maintenance, replacement, and repairs.”
Kathy Harward: The roof is capital. That’s not--we did repair the roof. We put money into that roof on more than one occasion trying to patch it….
So he did do what he said he was gonna do. Capital expenditures to replace a roof on something that you have no ownership to, that's not management and maintenance. Night and day different.
Michael Karlik: I agree with that statement, but the word “replacement” is placed in the contract under maintenance. So either Doug glossed over it or--
Kathy Harward: Well, if the toilet breaks, you replace it. Something like that, but a complete roof? To expect somebody to put the money in when they didn't do their part to get investors? To refer people? That to me, in my opinion, that's ludicrous.
In early 2016, Pelfrey met with the mayor and city administrator. He told them he was walking away, for the second time in two years, from a community center.
Michael Karlik: What kind of accomodations did they make for you as far as making sure you were employed and paid up to certain time?
Gregory Moore: None. March 1, I was done. He just left.
It’s difficult to know what would have happened if Doug Pelfrey had never signed the contract. Would the city have fixed the roof sooner on its own? Would the City Center have shut down? It is unclear why Pelfrey agreed to manage and fix a building he didn't own. Even more puzzling is why he claimed Dan Brooks would find investors for him. If Dan Brooks had investors, he would never have needed Pelfrey to maintain the building.
Dan Brooks: Hi, this is Dan Brooks and thanks for calling. I’m unable to take your call right now. So at the sound of the beep, just leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Again, thanks for calling.
I emailed Propel asking for their side of the story. In January, I received a reply from Tom Miller, the chief financial officer.
“The best way to sum this up,” he said, “is we were surprised by unanticipated issues with the project and were disappointed that it didn't work out as planned. Other than that we would rather not comment.”
I wrote back asking if the unanticipated issues were the roof damage and Propel's trouble finding investors. Miller responded, “For the time frame that we were involved in the city center, it cost us over one hundred thousand dollars that we never recouped. Eventually we decided that we had to cut our losses and move on. That's the bottom line and our final word.”
I found no evidence that Propel put $100,000 into that building.
Maureen Mason: The point is, that's the past. However we got here--however your feelings were at the time--the city now owns this building.
It was now the summer of 2016. No one was happy with the position the city was in. On August 1, the administration brought in a project manager to brief the council on what needed to happen to both sides of the City Center.
Contractor: Currently it's a ballasted EPDM roof that is in all intents and purposes completely failed. The membrane is completely ripped around the entire perimeter. And it's currently leaking throughout the facility, ruining the structure of the building.
The council sat quietly as they heard what repairing the City Center might cost.
Contractor: The projected budget for the Phase I, which includes a roof for the entire building along with HVAC and boilers, would be $920,000 to just over $1 million. And this is strictly a budget.
The administration tried two separate arguments to convince the Change*nch council to renovate. First, fairness:
Maureen Mason: We expect our citizens to maintain their properties. I think it's about time the city started maintaining ours.
Sheryl Long: But one thing I look at this center is, we have children and we have people that say, “we need somewhere to go.” What do these kids do? They're bored. They're hanging out in front of my house. And as well as there's opportunities for people--workforce development, programming. I've had a lot of people from different cities come and visit and they're like, “we wish we had this space. We don't have space.” So it's just a matter of what we're looking for the future of North College Hill.
But the council fired back with two arguments of their own. Money:
Shawna O'Shea: And I'm not for sure that putting $1 million into this building is spending your money wisely. I don't know what this building is bringing in to our community. I don't know that.
And the opinion that the City Center was never at any time a good idea:
Renee Stiles: Seven, eight years ago, Mr. Hartzel and I decided--we kind of teamed together and spoke very loudly that this land swap between the city and the school years ago was not the best thing to do. That this was not the best investment, the best business move for our city.
And as with most things, there was also suspicion.
Jim Dewald: Ms. Mayor, I have a question to you. Did you expect that--to present this to council tonight at one time and have all these people here to force us to pass this tonight without us going through it?
Maureen Mason: Did I call any of you? Did I invite any of you to come here?
Jim Dewald: It sounds like you're trying to turn the citizens of this town against council. That's what it sounds like.
But the residents did have time to organize. And the next meeting, a dozen people sat in the audience with bright yellow shirts that read “Save the City Center” and “We Don't Want a Trailer Park.” That was a reference to Council Member Mary Jo Zorb's suggestion for mobile offices in the parking lot if the city tore the whole building down.
Also in the audience was Brittany Feeney, who had organized a fundraiser inside the City Center with food trucks, vendors, and raffles.
Brittany Feeney: And we had several hundred people throughout the course of our four to five hours that showed up, which is no small feat. I am extremely happy to announce that through vendor fees through the--and I think we had five raffles that we did--we raised $875 [applause].
Yes, very exciting, very exciting. I am blown away by the community support that we had at this event. I think it really shows how much the people in the community do want to save the City Center….
Michael Karlik: Well, you raised $875 and even with four times a year, that's $3,500 towards a $500,000, $600,000 roof replacement. So in one sense, every bit does help. But this is not going to be a fundraiser-based roof replacement.
Brittany Feeney: Right. It was less raising, you know, $100,000. I knew that wasn’t gonna happen. And it was more of a, listen, here's what you can do. The community’s involved. Here is yet another way to have monthly revenue. Because I mean, I told Sheryl. I said while we were still living there, I said, if you want me to do these monthly, then that’s not a problem at all.
Right away, law director Bill Deters told the council that this was now on them. Doug Pelfrey was out of the picture.
Bill Deters: Who in their right mind would sign a contract that you know you have a $600,000 expense the moment you walk in and you might able to generate--
Mary Jo Zorb: It probably wasn't $600,000 then.
Bill Deters: I bet it was--$500,000, $400,000. Even if it was $400,000 at $20,000 a year, that's 20 years.
Mary Jo Zorb: So everything I'm hearing you say is Pelfrey is a really horrible businessman.
Bill Deters: Well, I don't think he read it.
It was in this window that Amber Bailey began showing up to be vocal about saving the City Center.
Amber Bailey: I have actually common grants in my backpack that I've done as a citizen because I have spare time to save this place.
Amber Bailey: So I told them that I would be the liaison between the administrative department and the city council, the two opposing sides here, to try to work out some kind of plan.
If we’re going--how much are we gonna appropriate? Where are we gonna go? Are we gonna buy? Are we gonna build? Are we gonna fix? Are we gonna lease? Are we gonna rent? What are we gonna do? How much are we gonna get? What do we wanna do in this situation?
I said that I would be that person to funnel the information through to them so, like, then we could talk about it in the open meeting session and try to figure out some kind of compromise here that would make them feel like they did the right thing and the city employees safe.
Ask me how far I got. Square one. Inch one. Zero. Nothing. Very beginning. I’ve tried so hard. I’ve sent them information. I took the the time to Google every place that is commercial in North College Hill. And I sent it to them. Nothing.
One of them said, “we’ll talk about this in an open meeting.” Have we? No. Have I brought it up? Plenty of times. That's what I’m saying. Like, I don’t--I don’t know what to do.
Amber showed me a complaint that someone filed in May 2017 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Someone who claimed to be a city employee wrote that there were mold, asbestos, and falling ceilings in an “abandoned elementary school.”
Michael Karlik: When they call it an abandoned elementary school, it makes it seem like you guys are squatting in there! [laughs]
Amber Bailey: [laughs] We’re a bunch of homeless bums, yes!
Michael Karlik: Yeah! People fixed it up before you got in there. It’s not abandoned.
Sheryl Long: But what I'm saying is I have staff that is in here every day. I have people that are in here every day. And I myself, I'm immune--I don't have an immune system. The medication I take, it suppresses it completely. So every day I come to work, I'm jeopardizing myself.
Commenter: Just because everybody had a fart in their pants for Mayor Brooks, this building decayed…This building opened up on May 11. I raised the flag….You can't come up with a simple plan to finance it? It's sick.
Pastor: I am the pastor of the Good Shepherd International Church. We minister to approximately 100 to 125 African refugees and we have been here three years.
One of the most difficult moments in the pull and tug over the City Center came on October 17, 2016 when one of the tenants, a church pastor, asked the council about having heat in the building.
Pastor: To me, this is absolutely essential. Put yourself in that place on Sunday morning and it's 55, 50, 55 degrees in there and sit there for two hours shivering. I don't know how many of you would like to do that. So I would really appeal to you and appreciate either the heating system be repaired in the next month or allow, at your expense, to put in that temporary heating. We bore the expense last year. We took our rent and put it into a kitty to pay for it, so--
At this point, Council Member Pat Hartzel, who was wearing a tie imprinted with dollar bills, dangled the tie in front of him while asking a question.
Pat Hartzel: Would you not agree that this is North College Hill's home?
Pastor: Yeah, yeah. This is North College Hill property.
Pat Hartzel: You're coming in from the outside asking us to spend $1,200 a month for you to live here.
Pastor: Not just me, sir.
Pat Hartzel: I know.
Pastor: How many other people use the center? I'm only speaking because--
Pat Hartzel: You're speaking to the church.
Pastor: I mean, are we welcome here?
Pat Hartzel: You are welcome as long as the administration says that you can--
Pastor: We are welcome, thank you. Okay. That's what I need to know, if we are welcome here. That's what I need to know.
Pat Hartzel: --and that we can afford you. Can we afford you is the question that I have. Can we afford it? That's all I have.
Pastor: Okay, so it isn't just me that needs--our group that needs the heat. Okay, community, do you think they need heat in there in the wintertime?
Pat Hartzel: I agree you need heat if you're gonna be in there. I agree with you 100 percent on that. Is it our obligation to do this as a city? To do that for you?
Pastor: Well, whose obligation is it?
Pat Hartzel: Whose obligation is it?
Pastor: I don't--I'm sure the rest of the community would like to know, too. Are we going to have heat in the gymnasium one way or the other this winter?
Pat Hartzel: Probably not.
Pastor: Probably not. Did you hear that?
Michael Karlik: Did you read anything into it about this being a church ministering to African refugees, I believe, and he's saying, “you’re coming into our community. Can we afford you?” Did you think that was part of a more subtle point about race that we’ve been--we’ve been trying to address? Or was it just Pat Hartzel saying, “we can’t afford anyone in the City Center. If we can't give you heat at a reasonable price, get out, all of you.”
Brittany Feeney: Honestly, that entire exchange just had me seeing red. My dad is and has owned properties. So it really pissed me off that a landlord, basically--because that’s what the city would end up being. So a spokesperson for the city as a landlord would have the balls to say, “yes, this is our property. You have to fix it, though, if you want to say here.”
Because that’s not how that works at all. So I don’t want to insult Pat, but I just don’t think that he was fully thinking on that one. I think that that came less from racism and more from just pure ignorance.
Sean Feeney: To color that, Pat is one of the Change*nchers who is a lifelong Republican.
So he is a very strong fiscal conservative. When I say fiscal conservative, he's beyond that. He’s the Tea Party strain of let’s spend nothing. The city deserves to spend nothing.
Brittany Feeney: Spend nothing, ever.
Sean Feeney: So this is definitely his M.O. So it’s not out of character for him. But honestly, you know, no city makes money on public services. And that’s the one kind of thing the Change*nch group doesn’t understand is a city exists to provide services for the public good. And in our case, it was hey, we’re trying to offer community enrichment activities through this building that we got for free.
I don't believe Change*nch failed to understand that a city exists to provide services. Better public safety was the reason Change had started. With the City Center, each side was simply asking a different question.
For the administration, it was, “how can we shut down a building and take away the programs for our residents?”
For the council, it was, “how can we pay for a building when there are other legitimate needs?”
One of the things I heard from proponents of the City Center is that Change*nch had no problem shuttering the building because they personally did not benefit from the offerings.
Maureen Mason: They may not be programs that your children go to because maybe you can afford to send them to the Y. They aren't programs that maybe you yourself or your family take advantage of. But other families here in the community do.
Michael Karlik: What about for the people who came to the programs? The kids? The parents?
Gregory Moore: Racially it--what’s surprising, I don’t think they ever realized this--it was probably 60-40 Caucasian. Sixty percent Caucasian. Maybe even 70 percent, for the adult programs.
For the youth programs, probably 90, maybe even close to 93, 95 percent.
Michael Karlik: White? Majority white?
Gregory Moore: Black.
Michael Karlik: Had you ever been to the City Center for an event?
Matt Wahlert: For council meetings.
Michael Karlik: Okay. But nothing cultural, like the Centerstage Players?
Matt Wahlert: No.
When Matt Wahlert was appointed a council member in late 2016, he was interested in finding a resolution to the City Center. The first plan, to replace the roof on the administrative side and patch the recreation side, was known as “fix half, patch half.” That idea was torpedoed by the law director, who called it “asinine.”
Bill Deters: You either fix it because this building has certain values beyond monetary value to the city. But it cannot stay open the way it is. And it cannot stay open if you fix half of it. Fixing half of it is just as asinine as fixing the full amount if you're doing it because of the real estate value.
I'm told that certain council members thought Deters had called them asinine. Whatever he meant by it, the choice of word was probably asinine. Weeks later, a second plan to fix the whole roof died without a vote.
Commenter: Maureen, you sat here for six years and did squat and now you want them to do what you wouldn't do.
The third plan was to fix the administrative side and demolish the recreation side. Maureen Mason vetoed it. The clock was ticking.
Maureen Mason: Last council meeting, we had the person from our insurance carrier who came and said that since this a known hazard on the city building, right now we are covered for liability. But they gave the deadline that if something is not done by September that the city will lose their liability insurance coverage on this building.
And then there was the note on the door. The administration posted a sign with the email addresses of council members and an explanation that the City Center, without insurance, would close on September 1.
Michael Karlik: A lot of council members this summer were just not able to get past the note on the City Center door that said, this building will close on September 1 and here are the council members you need to email. How upset were the Change*nch council members when that happened and how long did that resentment linger?
Matt Wahlert: I mean, I think it was a--it was a speed bump. But I think there's some like Pat Hartzel that just said, “eh. Oh well.” And you know, at first I'm kind of like, “what's this?” I mean, I don't know that I was upset as more kinda disappointed. It's like, really? Okay [chuckles].
But I know that some people did take offense to it because we had worked hard to get two solutions up. One was shot down, the other was vetoed. And it's like, well, wait a second. If you just would've added the names of the mayor or the city administrator, they would've been fine….But I think that's kind of the positioning that sometimes happens in politics.
Matt Wahlert: Why post council's name? Simple answer. Blaming council is the only argument the mayor has. She's no data, no facts, no projections, so she needs to turn to emotional arguments. Place blame on the other guy….
It's really probably the best strategy to paint council as a villain. Post their name on a list and attack every alternative they suggest at every opportunity. I believe that this Ordinance 14 is the only option for our city, our children, and our future. And if everyone sitting here is really honest with themselves, really uses the data and reason instead of emotion, I think you will agree.
It wasn't just the residents using the City Center who were vocal about the building. Council members and the administration also became emotional from the yearlong ordeal over this leaking, mildewed, broken ceiling-tiled health hazard of a school.
Sheryl Long: I'm sick in this building. A lot of other employees don't feel good in this building. We need to do something. Council is supposed to appropriate money. That is it. I said we're like bumper cars. You're so far in the weeds. And this is ridiculous.
Suzie Wietlisbach: This is something that people did work on that care for this city and you may not think so. But when you say--and you look at it and you say, “this means nothing,” that--I, I take offense to.
Matt Wahlert: I'm sorry, do you still have your veto pen out? Do you still have your veto pen out? Because you vetoed the last thing--I'm not gonna sit here and listen to lies! To lies!
Maureen Mason: I'm answering--
Matt Wahlert: You're out of order!
The situation became so uncertain, the administration planned to move the employees out of the building if the insurance lapsed. But what would happen to the council? Well, as you can imagine, that was also a fight between the mayor and Council Member Renee Stiles.
Renee Stiles: It's not council's responsibility to figure out where we're going to go. So that would be an answer that we would get from either city administrator or from the mayor. So we don't know where we're going.
Maureen Mason: That's not the administration's responsibility.
Tracie Nichols: Because I had asked them and they said it was….
Renee Stiles: It's not our responsibility to figure out where we're going.
Sheryl Long: Madam President? My concern is I've talked to Clovernook Center for the Blind and a quote for them was they do not wanna deal with the drama of council….
Tracie Nichols: Somewhere, somebody needs to come together because council needs to have somewhere to meet. So--
Renee Stiles: As the leader of the city, that the mayor should work on figuring out where we're gonna have our council meetings and take that leadership role and move forward.
Tracie Nichols: Mayor Mason--
Maureen Mason: Once again, I say: it is not the administration, it is not the mayor's responsibility.
At last, the council definitively passed the ordinance to fix half and demolish half.
Clerk: Ms. Zorb?
Mary Jo Zorb: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Brown?
Ornita Brown: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Wietlisbach?
Suzie Wietlisbach: Yes.
Clerk: Mr. Hartzel?
Pat Hartzel: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Bailey?
Amber Bailey: Yes.
Clerk: Mr. Wahlert?
Matt Wahlert: Yes.
Clerk: And Ms. Stiles?
Renee Stiles: Yes.
Clerk: Motion passed.
It was unanimous, including Amber Bailey. The official city policy was to give the administrative side a new roof. The recreation side of the City Center with the gym and all its programs--the thing that Dan Brooks had thought about, searched for, prototyped since his school days--was slated for demolition. Yet another instance of well-meaning people expecting the best outcome, never planning that they'd get the worst.
Maureen Mason: So yeah, we dreamed big when we thought Propel could help us fix up that end of the building and that they could manage and bring in more revenue. But you know, you don’t just then give up just because something didn’t work out the way--and yes, maybe Dan Brooks has some blame and that he was looking for, you know, the big dream to come true.
Michael Karlik: Yeah. What you described to me earlier about how since you’ve been in North College Hill there’s been an economic decline, what you’re saying now, it sounds like the City Center was intended to be the--the shining example of what a city could do to turn itself around. To become a destination. To be a desirable place to live and to get the city out of its slump.
And because you were so willing to buy into that hope, it left you vulnerable as a city to being taken advantage of. Is that fair to say?
Maureen Mason: I guess so.
Chapter 7: "Paradoxes"
Chapter 7: Paradoxes
Michael Karlik: Like anyone researching a college teacher, I went on ratemyprofessors.com to look you up. And these are some of the things people said about you:
“Dr. Wahlert is a great guy. He acts way more like just a normal dude than he does a professor, which made class interesting.”
“He's helpful, easy going, and has encyclopedic knowledge. His books are perfect, not too dense.”
“No stress, easy A, and a great education. He's the ideal professor.”
Do you agree with those things?
Matt Wahlert: I don't think I'm an easy A. The data doesn't show that! [chuckles]
Matthew Wahlert, Change*nch council member.
Matt Wahlert: I love my content area. I just wanna--I wanna make it something that students wanna delve into. So for the most part, I agree with--the easy A, I don't know. The stats don't show an easy A. But I give every benefit--I give every benefit of doubt to the student.
And I want that kind of relationship. And I do even at the high school level, too.
Michael Karlik: Okay. That one hangup aside, everything about your personality--that you're easy going, good sense of humor--are you agreeing with that part?
Matt Wahlert: Sure.
Michael Karlik: Okay, gotcha.
Matt Wahlert is a longtime high school social studies teacher just across the state border in Kentucky. He has a PhD in political science and is a professor for national security at nearby Miami University. “Dr. Wahlert” is how people sometimes refer to him in meetings. He moved to North College Hill about 14 years ago when things looked a little different around the city.
Matt Wahlert: The thing I've noticed and I've mentioned a lot in council meetings in the past is that a lot of people have lost a lot of home value. And for what the folks have settled here--we're middle class. This is our route to America and the American Dream.
And our home's our biggest investment….And as a result we've had some people leave and the rental--the percentage of rentals has gone up quite a bit. Which, you know, I'm not shedding on any kind of bad light on rentals, but I've been a renter and I know that it's different when I rent it than if I own it….We were hit hard with foreclosures..
Michael Karlik: Yeah. So why did you join Serve NCH?
Matt Wahlert: I saw them one day by the side of the road picking up trash and I saw them and I stopped and said, “what are you guys doing? Who are you?” And I got to talking to them and they invited me to one of--it was actually Pat Hartzel--invited me to one of the meetings.
And I went out and I liked--I liked the personalities of the folks I dealt with, you know? And I liked that their--I felt that their heart was in the right place. That they're trying to--you know, trying to improve the city. And I liked the fact that they abandoned their national politics because I think oftentimes we cut ourselves into segments as society based on national issues and it doesn't take a Democrat or a Republican to shovel the snow.
That's an interesting statement for Wahlert to make. In 2016 he ran as a Republican for the Ohio state House. He ended up losing to the Democrat.
But then, a few weeks later:
Maureen Mason: But I have a serious problem with how this whole incident of Shawna O'Shea resigning has been handled by the majority on council. Why all the secrecy?
In a letter to the Board of Elections, Council Member Shawna O'Shea announced her official resignation effective November 21. Apparently, no one had informed the mayor, Maureen Mason.
Maureen Mason: You accuse the administration of not being transparent even though we try to inform you of what we are doing….And yet there was a council meeting on the night of November 21 and there was nothing said. Okay, maybe she hadn't made up her mind completely. But within hours of that meeting, she emailed all of you on council--not the president of council--to let you know it was effective immediately….
How could anyone trust what you say or do when you act in this manner over something as significant as this to the city? Actions speak louder than words. You can say “transparent” over and over. But in practice, this is how you act.
I started keeping a list that I titled “North College Hill Paradoxes.” It catalogues all of the situations that run counter to what you would expect knowing what the two sides claim to care about. For instance, Change*nch was responsible for televising the council meetings in the name of transparency--and yet there are scores of committee meetings where the minutes are missing.
The Democrats, on the other hand, were furious that Change*nch closed the City Center to pinch pennies. But the Brooks administration was guilty of the same charge when it shut down the city pool. And when that happened, Change was the one angry about eliminating programs.
People on each side have sued the city, yet they have complained about people on the other side suing the city.
And then, there is perhaps the most unusual process in the entire city charter. Something that has repeated itself over and over with increasing frequency. It started as a good-government idea, but it turned into a way for people to flow in and out of office quickly, quietly, and occasionally against the will of the voters.
This is Tear It Down.
There is no one correct way to describe the two political groups in North College Hill. On the one side, obviously, is Change*nch. They are not a party. They are a political committee to elect candidates. So in one sense, calling people “Change*nch council members” makes as much sense as calling someone an “Americans for Prosperity congressman” or a “National Air Traffic Controllers Association senator”--both of which are names of other PACs. But for the sake of simplicity, I will still call them “Change*nch council members.”
On other side are what I call “the Democrats.” Originally, it would have meant people who were on the same ticket as former Mayor Dan Brooks, like Maureen Mason or, at one time, Nick Link. But lately, “the Democrats” are really anybody who isn't part of Change.
In 2009, the first year Change*nch got candidates elected to the council, everyone agreed to run without party labels. As with so many things in North College Hill, money was a big factor. By avoiding a primary election among the Democrats, the city would save $20,000.
The next year, people involved with Change drew up an amendment to the charter to make it official city policy that all elections would be nonpartisan. So far, that's not different at all from how most cities elect their council members. But in that amendment, there was a second part. And this is where the intrigue begins.
Matt Wahlert: Just because someone doesn't agree with you doesn't mean that they don't have the best interest of the city at heart. They perceive things differently. They come from it differently. There was a discussion about Mayor Brooks. I wouldn't know who Mayor Brooks was if he came up and sat next to me.
Michael Karlik: How did you first get on the North College Hill city council?
Matt Wahlert: Last December, one of the other members retired council. The seat opened and their nominating committee then meets and selected me.
A nominating committee, also known as an appointment committee. In the charter, it was always the case that if a council member or mayor left before the end of their term, a nominating committee would pick their replacement.
Originally, when people ran as Democrats and Republicans, the political party of the person leaving would appoint somebody. But when elections became nonpartisan, that had to change. And speaking of change, it became obvious that when Change North College Hill began electing council members, they needed something to allow them to replace their own candidates.
Nick Link of Change*nch:
Nick Link: That was one of the reasons why, you know, looking down the line, that's why, you know, that was the--I think that was done in 2010 if my memory serves me correctly. That was passed. So we tried to get it in place as soon as possible after the election.
In that same charter amendment, candidates could now choose their own committee for who would replace them. That method is how Amber Bailey got into office.
Amber Bailey: In our world, what happens is when you get elected, you have to--well, once you get your petitions filled out, you have to sign, you have to put in five people that could be your appointment committee.
And Matt Wahlert.
Matt Wahlert: There's four or five, I can't remember past that who it was.
And Tracie Nichols.
Tracie Nichols: So they met and they had to decide who would take his place...Maureen Mason called and asked if me I would be interested in that position.
And Amy Bancroft.
Amy Bancroft: I think they focused on, you know, why I’d be the right person. I mean, it was a lot like a job interview.
And Sean Feeney.
Sean Feeney: When I was the person under consideration, they were, like, hush hush about those things. So I was unaware of whoever else might have been considered.
And Maureen Mason.
Maureen Mason: There'd be names that would be thrown out for consideration. But either when asked they said no or it was, you know, there would be some reason why possibly we would not want them to be appointed to it.
And Ron Mosby.
Ron Mosby: I’m not sure at the time that I knew all of the people who being considered for it. So I would have to say no.
Mosby, who was appointed in December 2014, used to be a chief of staff to members of the Cincinnati city council.
Ron Mosby: Like, you know, Cincinnati does the same thing, which a larger--which is the county seat for Hamilton County. They do it the same way. Once the person is elected to council, you have to appoint who your designee--who you designate to appoint a successor in the event that you cannot fulfill your obligation in terms of your elected office.
Michael Karlik: How often did that happen when you were working at the city council, where someone resigned….?
Ron Mosby: Well, actually two. One--and both of them interestingly enough were men that I worked for. The first person that I worked for, he stepped down before the end of his term and so they--he gave his--so I think his, he designated another--he designated that person. And that person, you know, appointed his successor.
So I mean, it happened in just the four years that I was there--four and a half, whatever--it happened twice while I was in office.
Thankfully, North College Hill doesn't use that mind-boggling method of the Cincinnati council, where each council member chooses another council member to appoint their replacement. However, what is strange about North College Hill is that in the past four years, appointment committees have filled a staggering 11 seats with unelected candidates.
Michael Karlik: You ran for reelection in 2013 and lost, is that right?
Maureen Mason: Correct.
Michael Karlik: And then you were appointed to Amy Bancroft’s seat when she became mayor?
Maureen Mason: Correct.
Michael Karlik: Did that maneuver register to you as maybe going against the desire of the voters?
Maureen Mason: Um, I’m--I don’t know. It’s a very close election and I--I don’t know. I didn’t really think about that.
Michael Karlik: Yeah. Well, it came up again when Sean Feeney lost, then was appointed council president. Did that seem--it seems odd as an outside observer, I’ll put it that way. Did it seem odd to you as someone who’s been through this process many times?
Maureen Mason: That we pick who lost in the elections to fill a place?
Michael Karlik: Right.
Maureen Mason:.I was part of the charter review, I guess, when we were talking about being nonpartisan. And if someone would resign or die in office, who would take their place, one of the options being the person who was next in line, you know?
Seven seats, whoever came in eighth. Or with the staggered four seats, whoever came in fifth. And so that would be the, you know, along the same lines, only then you would have the possibility that it would be somebody who was of a total different mindset as far as what they, what their goals and their ideas were.
So this way, okay, it’s somebody who ran and didn’t win. But it was somebody who wanted to serve. So who do you pick? Somebody who's interested in it? Or you know--who’s of the same mindset? Or do you pick someone who’s totally opposite but came in under the cutoff line, you know?
In North College Hill, filling a vacancy for political office is, from what I've been told, something that takes place completely out of the public eye. While I cannot speak to every appointment in the last four years, generally there is no public announcement of a vacancy. In some cases, the people resigning their seat tell their committee who they prefer as a replacement.
And then there are the more eyebrow raising cases. In the space of three-and-a-half years, the city had three different mayors and three different council presidents. Here was the sequence: when Dan Brooks resigned, Council Member Amy Bancroft was appointed mayor. Maureen Mason, who had just lost her own council seat, was appointed to Bancroft's seat.
When Amy Bancroft resigned, Maureen Mason was appointed mayor--while also being a member of that appointment committee--and Sean Feeney was appointed to her seat on council. Feeney lost his election to council, but was appointed council president when Kathy Riga resigned. Then when he resigned last summer, Tracie Nichols was appointed council president, and her council seat ultimately went to Amber Bailey.
If you're asking yourselves how the residents of North College Hill are supposed to keep up with who actually represents them, I'm not sure I have an answer to that. And if you're asking why is it so difficult to get people to run who will actually serve an entire four-year term--
Sean Feeney: I would love to know.
Sean Feeney: So I’ve always been politically minded and I was--minored in political science in college. So of course, I was gonna get involved. I was involved in Democratic politics going back to high school.
And honestly, it was the typical, here's a first-ring suburb, so you get absolutely no media attention for almost anything going on there. Because if you turn on the news, you're gonna see city of Cincinnati politics and you're gonna see Hamilton County politics. You’re lucky if you even get state politics in Cincinnati media, honestly.
But there’s absolutely nothing in North College Hill. So trying to bring up these issues like, “hey, we need candidates and here's the importance of running for city council in North College Hill,” we were just not having a success with that communication of the need until these people would come to council meetings.
Some of our most successful candidates--Amber Bailey being a great example. We invited her to the council meetings and she came and saw what was going on, and was like, “I need to do something about this.”
And that's true on their side as well. The people that they start bringing to city council meetings tend to be the people who are in their candidate pool come the next cycle. But unfortunately it's a problem nationwide for municipalities. People just don’t pay attention locally and it’s just exasperated in that region in my opinion.
But it isn't only the Democrats who have been taking advantage of the charter's vacancy rules. In early 2017, Change*nch Council Member James Dewald resigned after just one year in office. His nominating committee appointed Ornita Brown. If Dewald had resigned any earlier, Brown would have been on the ballot the following November. But because he was in that seat for a year, Brown will serve three full years as a council member without ever having been elected.
Sean Feeney: When they wrote that charter, they had two-year terms. So that’s kind of why it was like that one-year cliff. You wait a year and you could appoint somebody else. Well, the thinking back then was, “oh, that's only half the term.” Now with the four-year terms, it’s a much bigger problem [chuckles].
Michael Karlik: Yeah, yeah. And I mean, not to exclude anyone, but you were appointed to two different positions without ever being elected and served a year and a half.
Sean Feeney: Yep.
Michael Karlik: So do you think it makes it easier when these nominating committees of friends and allies are able pick someone? Do you think it's easier for someone to make the decision to resign, knowing that they won’t have to put the city through an election?
Sean Feeney: I absolutely think so. That's a big driver of it. I mean, the whole reason they went nonpartisan in the city was so that they didn’t have to pay as a city to have primary elections. So it’s all about saving money.
But it’s also, you’re probably familiar with how it works in partisan circles. Whenever they have the capability of doing these kind of things, they will, right? So if you get elected knowing you need to not, you know, serve three years down the line, you wait that year and then as soon as you pass that mark, then you can hand the baton to whoever you want to replace you, basically.
Yeah, it’s just an unfortunate reality of not having special elections every time, which, if the state of Ohio would change how they funded elections, you could certainly make it much easier for special elections to happen and there would be less of a cost-saving effort from municipalities.
Michael Karlik: Or maybe don’t have eight council members and a mayor. Take it down to four council members and a mayor or something--
Sean Feeney: That would be a very smart choice as well. Yeah, in other states and other municipalities there are much more effective situations with a fewer number of people.
But it has pluses and minuses, right? So I ran for Hamilton County commissioner. That’s a three-person board and so the power flips back and forth very quickly. One of the nice things about having the larger group of council people and having the terms staggered is that you can deal with the change a little more gradually.
Michael Karlik: [chuckles] That has a little bit of a double meaning what you just said, but….
Sean Feeney: [laughs]
As you know already, for years the council hunted for ways to pay the city employees the lowest amounts possible. We heard the mayor explode at the council over the reduced--and in some cases, zeroed out--salaries that council members wanted to spend. That was disturbing in itself, but now, I have a different take on the whole business of salary cutting.
If it is such a hassle to get eight council members to finish their terms, and if they all represent the same 9,300 people, what actually is the benefit of having that many legislators? Are the decisions somehow better? Is there some virtue I’m not picking up on? North College Hill council members make $4,800 a year. If there were only, for example, five of them, that would save over $14,000. I mean, if there was a way to cut $14,000 on the salaries of employees, there is no way the council majority would have passed that up.
This would of course require changing the charter. But the city did it once to save money. Maybe it's time again to look in the mirror.
On November 7 of last year, the city had its regular election. Amber Bailey, who told me she was torn between wanting to win and wanting to change things from the outside, was elected to a four-year term. The next day, I sent her a text message asking how she felt. “Dude,” she responded. “I was freaking elected.”
A week later, there was an email thread going between council members. Amber and the Finance Committee chair, Mary Jo Zorb, were discussing some legislation that needed to be altered slightly. The conversation appeared to be calm and rational.
But suddenly, at 2:30 in the morning, Council Member Renee Stiles replied to everyone, including the clerk, the finance director, and the city administrator. “Ms. Bailey,” she wrote, “it is certainly inexcusable and unprofessional to blatantly be disrespectful to your fellow council members. Your comment pertaining to Ms. Zorb as being incompetent...is demeaning, belittling and downright rude. It is comments like these that causes animosity and is terrible representation of the position you hold as an appointed, and now, newly elected official. Moving forward, consider your words more cautiously and set the bar high to lead by example during these next four years in a positive professional standard.”
It was bewildering to me why Renee Stiles would lash out so viciously against Amber. But looking back, it's possible she knew that it was the last chance she would ever get. Because three days later, at the council meeting--
Renee Stiles: It is bittersweet that this chapter of my political tenure as an elected council member will come to a close tonight. This announcement and this letter is my formal resignation as an elected council member of the city of North College Hill, effective Monday, November 20, 2017 at 11:59 p.m.
Years ago, Change*nch passed a term limits amendment to prevent the likes of Dan Brooks and Maureen Mason from serving more than 12 years. Yet paradoxically, Change has struggled to keep its own elected members on council. With Renee Stiles’s resignation, this meant that at the end of 2017, of the eight members of the North College Hill city council, five had not been elected to the seat they sat in.
Michael Karlik: Did you see that phenomenon of helicopter husbands whose wives were in positions of power? And I guess you would be included, Al.
Al Long: [laughs] I would! I’ve never even thought about that. We use that in the higher education with the helicopter parents.
This is Al Long, husband of city administrator Sheryl Long. We were talking about a phrase that I heard from Colin Thornton, the husband of former mayor Amy Bancroft. There was one particular behavior that he saw during his wife's administration that bothered him.
Colin Thornton: You know, I would call the husbands “helicopter husbands” because they showed up to every meeting and were obsessed with North College Hill politics. And their comeback would be, “well, you’re on here defending your wife, too.” And I guess for me, it feels like there’s a difference to defending your wife against public comments and showing up at every single council meeting and--and I don’t know, harassing people on a daily basis.
Al Long: Colin was a papa bear when it came to his wife. I’ve learned Sheryl can fight her own damn battles. You know, at the end of the day--and I tell very few people this--absent someone in Sheryl’s face calling her the N-word, I feel like she can just about handle anything. And when that happens, I would probably have a couple of direct words to say and only because experience, Michael.
Other than that, I don’t claim--I don’t wanna wanna be a helicopter husband. She’s a grown-ass woman and I think a pretty decent professional. So she handles herself well.
Jim O'Shea: On April 28, I submitted a public records request asking for records documenting--
The most prominent member of the helicopter husbands was Jim O'Shea, who was married to Council Member Shawna O'Shea. Frequently in attendance at council meetings and a regular commenter on the community Facebook group, many of O'Shea's public comments leveled accusations at the administration--accusations that he backed up with the charter or state law.
Jim O'Shea: According to the Public Records Act of the Ohio Sunshine Law, inspection of the records must be provided “promptly.” And copies of the records must be provided within a reasonable amount of time. I would have to think that most of us would agree that three weeks is more than reasonable and it's definitely not prompt.
Also, the law states that noncompliance may cost the city $100 per day should I desire to litigate. When I can I expect an official reply to my request?
On occasion, O'Shea would bait the law director, Bill Deters, into a nasty confrontation.
Bill Deters: I disagree with you completely about what reasonable means. Reasonable is based on the totality of the circumstances. Don't smile and laugh like you're an idiot. I didn't do that to you when you were up there pontificating. So you're gonna listen to me--
Jim O'Shea: Actually you have. Actually you have.
Bill Deters: Excuse me. Let me finish. You are gonna listen to me now.
Jim O'Shea: You know, really I don't have to listen to you.
Bill Deters: Well--well, I can't ask you questions? Can I ask you questions? Are you willing to answer them?
Jim O'Shea: Technically this is a council meeting. But go ahead, Mr. Deters.
Bill Deters: You just asked me a question!
Jim O'Shea: Go ahead, Mr. Deters. No, I did not ask you--I did not ask you a question!
Bill Deters: I'm answering your question, sir. You asked when you could receive the records.
Jim O'Shea: I asked a question from administration.
Bill Deters: And last time I checked, I was part of the administration.
Jim O'Shea: Go ahead and answer, sir.
Bill Deters: That dealt with issues regarding someone's payroll records.
Jim O'Shea: Yes, which is public record.
Bill Deters: Do you have a hard time listening?
Jim O'Shea: Not at all.
Bill Deters: Because let me finish speaking, okay?
Jim O'Shea: Go ahead.
Bill Deters: Because I didn't interrupt you. I gave you the courtesy not to do so. All right? Are we clear? Are we clear?
That involved payroll records, which have issues regarding social security numbers, which can have issues regarding personal privacy matters. It can have issues regarding criminal background check information. It is issues which we as a city, if we release that information regarding a public employee and we haven't done our due diligence to check that to enure that nothing gets out that we're not permitted to release, the city's exposed to liability.
So I would say to you, waiting 12, 13, 14 business days for payroll records is not unreasonable. And if you should so choose to sue the city for that, I would invite you to get started this evening.
During 2016, O’Shea would sit in the back row of council meetings and point what appeared to be a cell phone at the mayor and administrator. The reason I know this? Amber Bailey was pointing her phone at him. Which meant Amber was covertly recording O’Shea covertly recording the administration.
Sheryl Long: Stop staring at me. I’m feeling unsafe because Mr. O’Shea is over here staring at me.
In one of the videos, the police chief notices what’s going on and begins chuckling at how absurd this all is.
Not all of the “helicopter” spouses were husbands. Brittany Feeney, the wife of Sean Feeney, would rip into the council members from time to time as well.
Brittany Feeney: Kick 'em out. We elected these people. We elected these people to represent us. To listen to us. And they--some of them--are sitting there telling us they don't wanna do that. They are telling us they don't want to do their jobs. That is unacceptable.
In speaking with people who lead other cities, each one of them felt that spouses absolutely had the right to show up and speak at a council meeting. But still, many of them were deeply uncomfortable with that idea. Among other reasons, there would be a suspicion that the husband in the audience was saying things that his council member wife believed, but maybe couldn't say.
Normally, having more people involved in politics is a good thing. But all of these spouses showing up to start or prolong an argument was absolutely not helpful.
And that is why, when Sheryl Long was appointed city administrator, it was imperative that she say
Sheryl Long: I don't know if anybody knows me and my relationship with my husband. But if anybody knows, I am very independent from what he says, does, acts, or anything. Honestly, you cannot have somebody who is completely different than what--how my husband is. So just because he may affiliate himself with one way does not necessarily mean I'm the same way.
Michael Karlik: Has your wife ever told you, “Al, please don't come to the council meetings because you're making my life more difficult?”
Al Long: I don't know if she said exactly like that, but she's definitely cautioned me on being tempered.
Al Long is 47 years old with a law degree. Someone who is on both the school board and the recreation commission and who willingly admits that he rubs people the wrong way. One of his favorite phrases to use in meetings is “I submit to you.”
Al Long: And I submit this to you, Ms. O'Shea. It appears that your intent was merely chaos. To create as much chaos as possible to stall or delay or try to find a way to convince some of your colleagues who are acting in the best interest of all the citizens of North College Hill to change their mind.
Whenever Long showed up, he didn't get nasty. But he did get personal in a way that people viewed as an attack.
Shawna O'Shea: I am not up here to create chaos! What good would that do for me to be up here to create chaos? I mean, that's silly….But that is my feelings regarding Mr. Long's statement and I wish he would have stayed and faced me and let me tell him what I thought since he stood up there and told me what he thought.
Shawna O'Shea was the target of many of his complaints.
Al Long: Again, she's solidifying in the third instance the need for training--
Shawna O'Shea: You are telling me it's none of my business, to stay out of that contract.
Al Long: You are literally saying the same--it's absolutely your business to do the compensation. I don't know if you can understand the words that are coming out of my mouth, but if I could speak Spanish, I would say it differently.
But she wasn't the only one Al Long had problems with.
Al Long: And I say to you, administration, we--you need to learn how to be patient and appreciate the lack of understanding and reasonableness that comes when people on council--not all people, just Renee and Ms. Zorb--show you their true colors.
Tonight we were able to see that a lot of what Ms. Stiles has built inside of her is personal. She brought up an issue that had nothing to do with nothing. It's personal. She's offended, upset for some reason about the salary. That's good stuff when she allows her true colors to be shown because the camera is rolling….
Secondly, Ms. Zorb has also shown her true colors tonight by opposing legislation without a justable reason. We appreciate that. People in North College Hill need to see that live and in living color….because that is the essence of ignorance. And we appreciate it in abundance from Ms. Stiles tonight. Thank you for your ignorance. And we appreciate it in abundance from Ms. Zorb tonight. Thank you for your ignorance. Any questions?
Renee Stiles: Thank you, Mr. Long, for speaking--
Al Long: You're very welcome. I have more if you like.
Renee Stiles: No, I don't.
Al Long: Are you sure?
Renee Stiles: Positive. So--
Al Long: Will I be able to respond to what you're saying?
Renee Stiles: No.
When Long claimed that Renee Stiles was motivated by personal reasons, something that's not obvious is that the two of them have a history. They were on the recreation commission before she became a council member and he considered her a friend.
Al Long: Renee came to the rec commission. She brought a level of professionalism and organization that I think it never had before. She had a fucking binder with activities, ideals, plans.
It was actually file folders, not a binder. But point taken.
Al Long: And that was the bible we used to put on all these different programs. And it was Renee’s idea to make the community picnic as big as it was. It involved the pool and everybody. I helped her put that together but shit, that was Renee’s idea. She did a great job.
Now that Stiles was questioning his wife’s salary, the helicopter husband in him came out.
Renee Stiles: It's a personal attack, which is fine, it's unwarranted. So that behavior in itself should be addressed. And as far as the city administrator, it's her spouse. And at some point, that might have to be addressed.
When it came to spending money, it was not just the city administrator's salary, the recreation director's salary, or the finance director's salary that council members were upset with. It was everything and in some cases, nothing at all.
Finance Director: If I may, from a financial standpoint, there is no reason--no financial reason, rather--to not have something in place by January 1.
It was the last week of December 2016 and the city's finance director was urging the council to pass a budget by January 1. In reality, what the council had in front of them was not even a full-year's budget. It was a temporary budget for the just the first three months of 2017. Ohio does allow cities to do this, although it's not something that typically happens unless there is some major financial uncertainty.
Now, all eyes were on the Finance chair, Mary Jo Zorb, who was asked what her objection was to passing the temporary budget.
Matt Wahlert: So is the issue the fact that there's not an allocation in for the City Center in the temporary budget? Or are there other issues within the temporary budget?
Mary Jo Zorb: When I look at the temporary budget, I see a lot of fluff that could be skimmed to make room for the City Center.
“A lot of fluff.” That word immediately pulled an alarm for the administration.
Sheryl Long: And my question is--you said fluff. Can you give me a specific area that you're talking about fluff?
Mary Jo Zorb: Well, a lot of the things that I asked about during the meetings. Things like--
Sheryl Long: So things we gave you answers on? So there was something further after you got our answers--you didn't like it and didn't communicate it to us? Is that it? And I'm sorry, because I---this is--I don't mean to sound--I'm just extremely frustrated because there has been plenty of opportunities to talk about this and it then sounds like we have not continued this communication. And I understand we have issues talking to each other, but--so we give you an answer and then you don't like it and then we're done with it? Is that how it's going…?
Mary Jo Zorb: So here's the bottom line. I'm one vote. If nobody else at this table agrees with me, it doesn't matter. It'll pass. So it doesn't even matter. I'm telling you my opinion. That's it.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Ms. Zorb?
Mary Jo Zorb: Yeah?
Suzie Wietlisbach: Can you give me an example of a couple of the things you would be talking about?
At this point, Change Council Member Susan Wietlisbach attempted to have Zorb define what “fluff” was for her.
Mary Jo Zorb: Well it's all the things that we talked about during the committee meetings.
Suzie Wietlisbach: Just as an example. Just a couple. I'm sure there's a couple that probably stick out.
Mary Jo Zorb: No--
Pat Hartzel: I can give you one from mine….
Council Member Pat Hartzel interrupted and said he was against spending money for technology. After listening to him, Suzie Wietlisbach again asked quietly what Zorb's problem was.
Suzie Wietlisbach: I'd like to ask Ms. Zorb: what was some of the things you had found that was--you were saying was fluff?
Pat Hartzel: I have another item if you wanna--
Suzie Wietlisbach: Okay, Mr. Hartzel.
Once more, Pat Hartzel saved Mary Jo Zorb from answering. But a few minutes later, Zorb admitted she didn't really have anything.
Mary Jo Zorb: It's really just--it's nickel and dime kind of stuff that adds up, Suzie. It's not--there's nothing that jumps out at me, which is why I wouldn't be able to come up with any numbers to put numbers into the rec center.
Later that night, at one of countless special meetings the council forced itself into over the years, they failed to suspend the third reading and pass the budget. And no one really seemed to know why. Tracie Nichols, who normally was not vocal about her frustrations, said
Tracie Nichols: And I don't like to use this word--my irritation is that this is a pattern. This has gone on for the past two or three years. We've had that budget since they said, since October….I guess I'm just a little bothered by the fact that here we are again in December and we cannot pass a budget.
Tracie Nichols: That's a waste of time. I've just--I’ve wasted so much time in these committee meetings and in these meetings with, “I have questions.” But what is your question? And you can’t even identify what your question is.
It’s absolutely ridiculous. And am I glad I don’t have to sit through any of those committee meetings anymore? Yeah, I am for that reason. Because it’s irritating. You know, who likes to waste their time? And it was a whole lot of wasted time.
Mary Jo Zorb was elected to council in 2015. Her biography on the Change*nch website says she is a lifelong resident, an electrical engineer, and system analyst. Almost immediately, she was made the chair of the Finance Committee--arguably the most important council committee.
Nick Link: And early on, she asked me to give her some guidance because she was having things given to her that she didn’t understand.
Nick Link: She asked if she could come over and sit at our table and bring paperwork and pick my brain and probably that was a two or three-hour session. Since then, she has tended to call me when she had other questions, rather than coming over and taking up two or three hours. She’ll call me on specific items. And I do my best to give my input to her on those items.
Michael Karlik: Okay, so it still continues to this day?
Nick Link: Occasionally, yes.
Michael Karlik: Do you remember ever talking with her about concerns over “fluff” in the budget?
Nick Link: Over what in the budget?
Michael Karlik: Fluff.
Nick Link: “Fluff” did you say?
Michael Karlik: Yes, sir.
Nick Link: Uh, I don’t necessarily remember. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but I don’t specifically remember the use of that term. I’m sure--I’m sure that every budget has a little bit of that in it. It gets snuck in here and there.
In yet another paradox, the council would often complain that the administration gave them legislation at the last minute and expected them to pass it right away. I never heard any examples where this was done purposefully to spite council, but oftentimes that was true. If it took three council meetings over a month and a half to pass something and the state or the county needed it in half the time, I can see how that's upsetting.
But the flip side is that some council members would wait until the third reading to talk about what bothered them. And in a similar frustration, noncontroversial items that made little or no changes to city policy--
Maureen Mason: I don't think there is a large swell of citizens who would be opposed to having a mutual aid agreement for fire and emergency medical. So I make a motion that we suspend second and third readings on this and have it in effect as early as possible.
--would often fail to get the supermajority needed to pass. Clerk: Mr. Hartzel?
Pat Hartzel: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. Nichols?
Tracie Nichols: Yes.
Clerk: Ms. O'Shea?
Shawna O'Shea: No.
Clerk: Motion fails 5-1, Madam President.
It's not unique to North College Hill that a city council member will wait until the last minute before objecting to something. It's also not unique to North College Hill that a council member will refuse, on principle, to speed up the process.
But to put this in context, there are plenty of other cities that don't have three readings. They regularly pass legislation with only two. I don't know why it was important for three readings to be the magic number in the charter to begin with.
Most other city councils have something called a “consent agenda.” It lets the council pass noncontroversial legislation in one motion. In North College Hill, you can make the argument that nothing is truly noncontroversial. But to insist on three readings for everything that comes before council is not only unusual, but it implies the council cannot differentiate between things that are big and things that are small.
A lack of understanding is apparently what led to another misstep in early 2017, when moments into a committee meeting, Renee Stiles and Mary Jo Zorb decided to hold a joint session between Zorb’s Finance Committee and Stiles’s Rules and Laws Committee.
Renee Stiles: --kind of make it a joint meeting.
Mary Jo Zorb: Yeah. Heck yeah.
When the finance director walked in midway through, she calmly tried to reference the fact that something might be wrong.
Mary Jo Zorb: --as you just walked in.
Finance Director: Is this--I'm sorry, is this finance committee?
Mary Jo Zorb: We kind of overlapped it a little bit but we're talking about the salaries.
A week later, Mayor Mason chewed them out for failing to follow the publicly advertised committee schedule. She called it a violation of Ohio's Sunshine Law. Sheryl Long, the city administrator, played the good cop.
Sheryl Long: This position is new to some of us. Mistakes can be made. So the only thing I think that would be an injustice is if we don't learn from those mistakes. I'm gonna make mistakes. The mayor's gonna make mistakes. Heck, I make them all day. That's why I have amazing staff members with me. But instead of taking this time and saying it wasn't or it isn't, let's just move on, acknowledge what was done, and be respectful to the residents.
This raises a question--one that arises not out of the story, but about the story. Why am I the one telling it to you?
Why did an amateur city council member, sitting next to other amateur council members, working with an amateur city administrator, come to an amateur city council observer with her concerns?
From my point of view, the answer is: who else even cares?
Michael Karlik: Can you think off the top of your head of a reporter, someone with a media outlet, who would regularly come to your meetings and report on the decisions of the government?
Sean Feeney: No. We--the only time I got the media there was when we installed Maureen Mason as the first female mayor. And we had multiple outlets for the inauguration or whatever you call it.
But that was it. They did not come back at all. The time before that was when Shawna O’Shea did her lawsuit. She got the local Fox station to do a piece on that lawsuit. So there’s a gap of several years of media attention and all you hear is negative.
Well actually, when Amy Bancroft, who was the mayor--but she wasn't elected. That's why Maureen got the media. She was the first elected one. Amy had been appointed to finish out Dan Brooks's term. When she resigned, the reasons for her resignation were brought up to the media. Basically the vitriol that you've seen and heard directed toward Sheryl Long was similarly directed towards Amy Bancroft--
Brittany Feeney: And her family.
Sean Feeney: --and her family. That’s the main reason she dropped out. But the media did cover that, but it was the local newspaper, The Enquirer, and it was really just the typical, like, “DID somebody leave for this reason?!”
Like, it didn't do any investigative journalism whatsoever. It just put a, put a question mark on it so that we didn't have to actually verify anything. “Here's two opposing stories and lets just run those.”
Michael Karlik: Right, and the consequence of that is now I have to come in and sift through eight years of stuff to actually answer that question.
Amber Bailey: The news outlets, they only see North College Hill for drugs, crime, murders. Drugs, crime, and murders. But they don’t see that the leadership in North College Hill are only out for themselves. They’re only out to help them and their people and everybody else are “you people” or “those people,” better known as the area that I live in in North College Hill. They don’t--they don’t get it. They choose to think that we’re just a little city like Mayberry, when in all reality, we’re not at all. Or anything close to it.
What Amber Bailey refers to are the news articles that come up if you search for North College Hill. Robberies, shootings--almost always with the faces of black suspects. Fairly or unfairly, what's covered hardly ever are the regular actions of the city's white leaders inside the City Center.
Amber Bailey: But that's the gospel today. Call me in six months, I'll tell you the truth again.
Michael Karlik: [chuckles]
Amber Bailey: Call me in a year, I'm gonna be here. That's the thing. It's like, that's how it goes.
Michael Karlik: Yeah, well, you'll have to call me because I'll be long done with North College Hill by then, hopefully!
Amber Bailey: I know. It's been a lot, but I'm glad that you've taken the time to and you've gotten all the sides of the story and I really hope that you--I really hope that you do magic with it. Just create some fuckin' magic.
Let everybody know. Put the truth out there. Dear god, put the truth out there.
The final loose end to this story is: whatever happened to the O'Shea lawsuit? Well, after three years--
Matt Wahlert: --if we really feel that the individual that did harm is going to pay for that harm. In the case of this lawsuit, that's not the case. The people that are gonna pay for the harm are gonna be the citizens.
--the council voted 4-3 to settle the lawsuit. The city paid $100,000--$75,000 out of its own pocket--to Shawna O'Shea's lawyers. It also agreed to never hire former city administrator Mark Fitzgerald again and to only pay employees at or below the amount the city council agreed to.
Michael Karlik: How do you feel about the legacy of that case for North College Hill?
Matt Miller-Novak: The legacy?
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Matt Miller-Novak: It has a legacy? Um….
Michael Karlik: I would argue it does, yeah.
Matt Miller-Novak: You think so?
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Matt Miller-Novak: I think in 30 years no one will ever know it ever happened.
Matt Miller-Novak was Shawna O'Shea's attorney.
Matt Miller-Novak: You know, in general when, you know, you file a suit against the government, you know, the legacy of suits period are to ultimately have a long-term effect on government and how it behaves….
I mean ultimately, if no one brings an action when they recognize something is wrong or governments overstep their power, there's nothing to stop them from doing it….You know, there's obviously consequences that people don't like about lawsuits, but there's long-felt consequences that they don't even necessarily realize. Without--without people bringing action, what's to stop government from doing anything that it wants to do?
In the summer of 2017, months after the settlement, Council Member Matt Wahlert introduced a resolution of no-confidence in Bill Deters, the law director. Wahlert felt that Deters had given the council conflicting advice. And
Matt Wahlert: --is that he admitted he did instruct Linda Fitzgerald to write the letter dated September 9, 2013. There were a number of depositions given in the lawsuit involving the city….“Question: you instructed her to write this, didn't you?” “Answer: I can't answer the question. But the answer would be no.”
--Deters's involvement with Dan Brooks, Mark Fitzgerald, and the salary was again being litigated.
Mary Jo Zorb: The tone that he sets in this meeting every time he is in here and he berates council and...he just sets an image and a tone that is inexcusable and unacceptable.
Bill Deters: Matt, if you're gonna do a vote of no confidence, I think that the person you're doing it has the ability to ask you probing questions about it and that you would stand up to scrutiny about it.
Matt Wahlert: I'm willing to stand up to scrutiny--
Bill Deters: Well, okay, we disagree. What's the other point? You said you had numerous points. I'm here to listen to all of them.
Matt Wahlert: I don't think you've listened once, sir. I think you've interrupted every single time I've tried to say--
Tracie Nichols: Excuse me--
Matt Wahlert: --and I--no, excuse me!
Tracie Nichols: Mr. Wahlert!
Matt Wahlert: I've given motions under 6.6. Right now I have a point of privilege for 6.6….
Matt Wahlert: At that point, I just kind of thought that this relationship has just gotten to the point where it's just--it's just not, it's just soured to the point because I'm getting different perspectives, different points of view on things. And I felt it was time--which, it has no power, to do a no-confidence vote.
I mean, I knew that the mayor wouldn't say, “all right, we're gonna get rid of him.” I didn't--I could have sent out press releases and things like that. I intentionally kept it quiet for it to be a “hey, I'm not happy here. Figure out a better way to serve us on this.”
Tracie Nichols: Mr. Deters, is that acceptable for you?
Bill Deters: That would be fine. I'd have preferred that to happen before we got to this point, Madam President.
Matt Wahlert: See--Madam President. I have to--again I have to interrupt here. Because we again have a personal attack here. I would've prefered to have consistent advice. I mean, we don't have to end everything with a personal attack.
Chapter 8: "The Game Changer"
Chapter 8: The Game Changer
It’s December 27, five days before Amber Bailey will be sworn in to her four-year council term.
Amber Bailey: There was a little bit of a battle of where we’re gonna be sworn in at, the City Center versus the senior center.
Michael Karlik: Yeah, yeah. So it’s still happening for the senior center on the first?
Amber Bailey: Yeah, it still is happening for the senior center on the first, although ICRC won’t be able to provide audio. And we have to go into a council meeting after that because Lynda, our clerk, is resigning. No one got that memo….they went ahead and decided who our next clerk would be--
Michael Karlik: Wait--okay, why can’t ICRC do audio? Because I remember from your last council meeting, the fact that ICRC was there was a big point for some of the council members in being able to do this.
Amber Bailey: Because there is no--they don’t have any audio feeds available. There’s nothing for them to plug into and they don't have that much portable stuff to move it, so--
Michael Karlik: So it’s not going to be either televised or audio recorded?
Amber Bailey: The swearing-in ceremony will be on ICRC. They will be filming that. But then the council meeting following that will not be….
I don't wanna sound like I'm being, like, a conspiracy theorist or that I'm being crazy because you know I have a problem thinking that I'm crazy. But clearly I'm not crazy. They're the crazy ones.
We have no budget going into 2018 at all because they wouldn’t suspend the third reading on the temporary budget that we had to work on in October. We had that budget since October. Like, they wouldn’t suspend the readings on that. We have an unknown clerk at this point. We have a few pieces of legislation that died in committee. We’re supposed to reappoint committee chairs, go over our rules of council, which clearly need to be updated because some of those are just ridiculous...all in a meeting with no microphones.
Michael Karlik: I thought back in, you know, September, October when we first started talking, that the biggest disaster would be, they don’t fix the roof on the City Center, the insurance runs out, you have to find another space, and then I lose track of your council meetings. And while that hasn’t happened, the second-worst thing is that you're not having that very first meeting with the budget, with the unknown clerk, with everything you mentioned--you’re not having that recorded.
So, I was kind of worried about that happening and now it’s happening.
When Amber described to me all of these high-stakes decisions that needed to happen in five days, I remembered the New Year's Day council meeting two years earlier, when the new city council began zeroing out salaries and blocking the mayor from having her administrator. I remembered the disgusted people in the audience, the mayor accusing the council of hostage taking, and the law director calling their actions “despicable.”
What surprise would the Change*nch council pull in 2018? How would the mayor respond? And how would that make the city look?
With no budget and no cameras, I was expecting the worst.
And then nothing happened.
Tracie Nichols: Good morning, everyone, and Happy New Year. I would like to welcome you to our first meeting for 2018.
The first meeting went pretty smoothly. And so did the next one. And the next one. And the next one. For the first time in a long time, they were laughing.
Matt Wahlert: And I will note, I will make the note here, that Ms. Long did say that the most stressful job is working the prize table at the Easter Egg Hunt. Which now puts council in at least second place [laughter]. And I'm so proud that we're falling in those rankings!
They were getting along with the mayor and administrator.
Sheryl Long: Start stretching because it's a competition, okay?
Mary Jo Zorb: It's going down.
Maureen Mason: I'm heading up the cheerleading squad for it! [laughter]
Matt Wahlert: Let me know when it's the Nathan's hotdog eating and I'll be available for that. [laughter]
Mary Jo Zorb: I need to know how much mutual aid will be available that day! [laughter]
And they were actually legislating.
Matt Miller-Novak: People just wanna make sure that the ordinance has language that sufficiently does not make it apply to people who have the car running without their keys in the ignition.
Even Nick Link, the Change*nch co-founder, showed up to compliment everybody.
Nick Link: I am seeing a spirit of cooperation that I have not seen for quite some time. That is among the members of city council and in addition to that, a spirit of cooperation between city council and the administration that hasn't existed for a long time. So kudos to you all and thank you.
One person behind the change in tone is none other than Amber. The young mother who caught the mayor's attention by showing up at meetings, asking pointed questions, and being critical of the council; the one who, as a council member, said things like:
Amber Bailey: Also, I know that there were some snide comments made via email this last week. And I do wanna say that I will not be belittled by any means. And if those are directed toward me, those need to come to me face to face because I'm not gonna be--I'm not gonna be belittled. It's not a joke. The end.
At some point, Amber stopped taking the bait. She won her election and proved that people wanted her to be there. She established an arts task force and a special arts fund for the city. And with all of that came respect.
Mary Jo Zorb: So let's tie two of your little thingies together and go--let's build garbage cans and then we have the art commission paint them.
Amber Bailey: I'm down.
Mary Jo Zorb. Like the pigs. So we have garbage cans--
Amber Bailey: Awesome.
Mary Jo Zorb: Instead of flying pigs we have litter--come on, we'll come up with a slogan. Come on, what do you got? Instead of flying pigs we have...?
Amber Bailey: Trash bins! [laughter]
Mary Jo Zorb: Good meeting, Amber.
Amber Bailey: Thank you.
And she was getting compliments from the people she used to complain about tirelessly to me.
Amber Bailey: One thing, I can say, too, is back in the day I wasn't completely comfortable in my role as a councilperson. Being the youngest one, being always left out, being always bullied, being always harassed.
But then one day, I don't know what it was and I can't tell you which meeting it was. Before I walked in I was like, you know what? I'm gonna be on one today and I'm gonna let them have it in the nicest way possible.
And I'm gonna continue to let them have it in the nicest way possible. And I'm going to tear down their arguments every single time because I can. Whether I agree on an issue or not, whether I'm completely for the whole thing or completely against it, I'm still gonna play devil's advocate and tear it apart on them. Every time….
This is--you have some really, really, really arrogant and very strong--and even me--I'm an asshole--people sitting up there with you who--here's the thing. I don't care if they like me. I don't care if they don't like me. I don't care if they personally wanna be my best friend or don't wanna be my best friend. I really don't care.
I care about 1.8 by 1.8 square miles of a city….
And you know, back before all of this even went down, I would tell you that that's what half of them was there for. Just the thirst. Just a piece of the power, a piece of the pie, if you will. I would tell you that absolutely.
But I think now their mindsets are changing. I think now they're being pushed. I think now that they understand that there's a new dynamic happening. And either they can go back and look like a fool to everybody or they can get with the program.
Al Long: If I’m being honest, right? I think the issue is understanding and communication. You know, I have known the O’Sheas on multiple levels, right? And I do not think personally these people are hate-filled or angry or racist or whatever negative term you wanna use. I think our issue has always just been understanding and communication.
Al Long, husband of the city administrator.
Al Long: I have to take responsibility for my actions, right?...You know, I don’t know what’s in their head, so...it would be interesting if one day again in the future she runs for council. Maybe we could have a better relationship as a citizen and as a council member.
But to this day if I see her, I’ma say hello. If I see somebody talking to her crazy, I’ma get in their face. You know, she’s a North College Hill citizen. At the end of the day, we’re still family.
Michael Karlik: Several months ago I asked you what Change North College Hill’s goal was and you said, make North College Hill white again. Do you still think that?
Al Long: Yeah, the mindset that I had at the time about my views of Change when we had the falling out; knowing some of the things that I’ve heard them say off the record, in meetings when they didn’t think I was paying attention; knowing some of the direction they were going in; knowing some of the things that they thought; watching some of the things that they blogged; at that time when it was at its height with me leaving, I might have had that belief about Change at that time.
But that is definitely not a belief I share now because I’ve since had conversations with Nick...and I do not believe that to be their truth now.
But you know, ten years ago, when I was very raw and looked at things from a clearly black-and-white point of view...you know, I thought like, “oh, my god. This is just a blatant, subliminal racism through and through.” And again, this was partly because, you know, we never really sat down and talked about the things that had transpired and their beliefs.
If I can share something--all this is on the record--you’re telling me stuff now that, you know, their recollection about events and things that happened that had I known that that was their take, had I known that they felt that way, you know, I think things would have been different a long time ago….
So I know that I have rubbed folk the wrong way. So it's interesting to hear your take on that, so-- [chuckles]
Michael Karlik: Do you still have an interest in being a council member?
Al Long: That’s actually a good question….Oh, man. Do you?! [laughs] No, I have no interest in being a North College Hill city council member.
Michael Karlik: Okay.
Maureen Mason: I’m sure some people that don’t realize how politics works. There’s the good and the bad. There are people in politics who do it for the best of reasons, who do it because they want to be a part of the solution. They want to be there to give back to the community. And there are people that don't understand, you know, you are going to be attacked.
Not everybody is going to agree with you all of the time and you have to be able to take that and you know, and live with it.
Maureen Mason, the mayor.
Maureen Mason: I’m sure I’ve been called all sorts of nasty, vile things, but that’s what I’ve been told. It doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t make me wanna run away and leave. It kind of makes me just wanna stand up. I don’t like bullies, either verbal or physical. So it’s not gonna make me back down…
But there are some that would back down from that and leave. I guess I have a thicker skin or see it as that but whatever they say about me, I know why I do what I do. And I know what my intentions and goals are. And I’m not gonna quit.
So what happened? Why after so many years of power struggles, personality clashes, and distrust, has the attitude in North College Hill changed so drastically?
There is no way to know for sure, but from what I've seen and heard, I have some theories. I can point to four possible reasons for why after so long, people appear to be getting along.
First, many of the people sitting in that council chamber have grown professionally. It's not just that the workplace is more pleasant. It's more productive.
Matt Wahlert: And I think early on I had a tendency to be that person that would engage in a debate until I realized my place was not to debate the person there. That they had a legitimate concern that they wanted--and I think that some of the back and forth that happened, I'll be honest, I'll take part of the blame here.
The closest the council came to relapsing was on March 19 when the issue was, predictably, the budget. With little under two weeks before they absolutely had to pass a full year's budget, council members spent nearly an hour stressfully but calmly trying to get a single set of numbers down on paper.
Amber Bailey: I'm just concerned that if attachment--this is B and this is A--and they don't match correctly, when we go to post them on the Internet, it will really show some confusion.
Mary Jo Zorb: I thought you were voting on the amendings. Not on the ordinance.
Amber Bailey: No, ma'am….
Matt Miller-Novak: But you need to restate the motion to include the amendment and then it needs to be seconded. You can't amend--you can't have a motion to amend that's stated in the second, so...
Matt Wahlert: I tried to broker some type of agreement here and it doesn't seem to be that there's any interest. So I'll just withdraw the whole thing.
Amber Bailey: No I'm just confused. Like, I don't know, because--
Matt Wahlert: You guys figure it out.
On a series of 4-3 votes, the budget did fail because there was a special clause that needed a supermajority to pass. Although there was even disagreement on whether that was really true either.
Mary Jo Zorb: Ms. Long, perhaps you could verify with our law director to see if appropriations need to have emergency clauses on them. So we're not in that barrel again. Thank you.
But when that happened, no one blamed each other. They agreed to figure it out in committee. And most notably, Mayor Mason and the city administrator sat by silently, letting the council figure out what to do instead of telling them what needed to be done.
Michael Karlik: Well, at the last meeting of December when the council failed to suspend the rules and pass the temporary budget, what stuck out to me was how the administration responded. Sheryl Long did not browbeat them. You did not scold them. And that would’ve happened in previous years, but it didn’t happen this time. So why the change for you?
Maureen Mason: We were prepared for a fight on January 1. If they hadn’t suspended the readings on January 1 to pass that budget--and if you remember, I think I did say something about unless they did pass that, there would be no money to run--so I didn’t do it coming off heavy and scolding or yelling at them.
It was just a gentle reminder. You know, you have to use all sorts of the carrot and the stick, and so--
Michael Karlik: And they really did understand because they passed the budget.
Maureen Mason: Correct, yeah. So, you have to have more than one tool to use to get the job done and at that time the reminder and more gentle nudge did work.
Maureen Mason: I'm just pointing out the importance of that. Of being able to suspend the second and third readings on that because otherwise there will be no budget.
Mary Jo Zorb: It's understood. Thank you.
As for city administrator Sheryl Long--the former property manager with a marketing degree who some people in Change*nch felt was unqualified and overcompensated--no one I spoke to cast any doubt on her job performance.
Nick Link: My feeling for sure is that Ms. Sheryl Long has every good intention there is in the world to do an effective job as city administrator.
Sheryl Long: We are at Clovernook Center for the Blind and we are about to have an awesome candidate forum to find out what these candidates can do for North College Hill residents.
Matt Wahlert: And I think that there's a trust that we build. And I think that she's done a great job, too, of kind of reaching out and working on that as well.”
Amber Bailey: I wanna give a thank you to Ms. Long for being the greatest city administrator that we've had in a long, long time. Recently it was alluded to that she was like a previous city administrator and I felt really, really, really, really bothered by that over the past couple of days because she embodies North College Hill. And I'm not putting her on a plug, you guys. But she eats, sleeps, and breathes this place.
Maureen Mason: And we have a letter here from the OCMA that was sent to Ms. Long, our city administrator. “It is our distinct privilege to inform you that the nominating committee is recommending you, Ms. Sheryl Long, to the membership of the Ohio City/County Management Association as our newest board member….We feel that providing you this opportunity to serve on the OCMA board will help the city of North College Hill regain confidence in the value of professional city management because of your honesty and commitment to our professional ethics. Simply put, you are a rising star in our field and you impressed us all as the right person for this position for these reasons.”
Not only has Long proven herself to the council, but compared to how her predecessor treated them--
Mark Fitzgerald: I'm not gonna sit here and listen to this nonsense from you.
--she does care that they trust her.
Sheryl Long: Moving forward I always look and like to be critical of myself and I think that I did not do a good enough job to bring this to the attention of council….Moving forward, that we make sure we address these reports that go through and we have a thorough discussion about them.
Even the two people who used to be at the center of so much acrimony, Shawna and Jim O'Shea, have come and gone at council meetings without it becoming a major incident.
Shawna O'Shea: I also tried to call and cancel them for several neighbors of mine. I can't. I figured I couldn't. But I've thought I'd give it the Johnny go-for-it….
Jim O'Shea: Please, besides this fiasco, Ms. Bailey attempted to abstain from her vote. Would someone explain to me why she was not permitted to abstain?
Amber Bailey: I'm pretty sure I can only abstain if I have a personal vested interest. Vested personal interest, I think. Once again, there are things that I clearly need to learn. But I thought that that was the only way I was allowed to abstain.
The second factor: council meetings were always the most visible expression of mistrust and acting out. But in fact, before the new council and as far back as the fall of 2017, things had started to settle down in the City Center. I believe that has something to do with who now runs the meetings.
In North College Hill, the position of council president is weak. The president doesn't have a vote and does not sit on committees. The big responsibility is being in charge of the meetings. Past council presidents chose to sit back and not exercise their authority when meetings got out of control. That is not the case with Tracie Nichols.
Maureen Mason: Propel was responsible for the maintenance and repairs--
Matt Wahlert: Point of order! Point of order!
As a council member, she was quiet, almost disengaged from the meetings. Maybe that was just because of the other big personalities in that room. When she became president, nothing drastic changed. Until one day--
Maureen Mason: Oh, I can't answer anybody? Is that what you're saying, Mr. Wahlert? I can't respond?
Tracie Nichols: Can I make a comment? I'm sorry. For the past few meetings we've had a whole lot of outbursts. And they are really unnecessary. Quite frankly I think they're rude to not just me, but to our residents, to the other council meetings. If you want to address one another, if you would address me first, please.
Can we stop with the interruptions? If you wanna talk to Mayor Mason, Mayor Mason if you wanna speak to council, if you would address me first, please. I would appreciate it. Thank you.
Michael Karlik: How much does the behavior that you sometimes see at meetings bother you?
Tracie Nichols: To be honest, not as much as before because since that, I have not had very many more of those type of outbursts. There may have been one other one. And as soon as I gaveled, they stopped.
It’s been more--and to be honest, just out of routine because they’ve done it so long prior to me, this outburst thing--it’s been a whole lot of, “Madam President, may I?” So after that particular meeting, it almost, like, put a stop to it.
Mary Dewald: Madam President?
Tracie Nichols: Mrs. Dewald.
Mary Dewald: That includes cover page, too. Correct?
Tracie Nichols: Yes, ma'am.
Amber Bailey: Madam President?
Tracie Nichols: Mrs. Bailey.
Amber Bailey: As far as this--the North College Hill part goes at the top, if you want it, and I know it might be a hassle to you now….
Third: the decisions the council faces now are entirely different than in the past several years. The city has not needed a new finance director or a new administrator. Therefore, there's been no battle over who to hire and what to pay them. In fact, the city administrator's salary increased again at the end of 2017 and this time no one complained about it.
The City Center has a new roof on the administrative side and the recreation side remains closed off. It wasn't the decision everyone wanted. But what's important is that they made a decision and they moved on. And now, what people take away from the meetings is not the lack of respect shown in their government. But instead, things like this:
Maureen Mason: Our North College Hill Bakery is in a nationwide contest now for “sweetest bakery in America”….I think we can all get behind a local business and put a positive spin on North College Hill. Let's promote the positive things and support our businesses here.
An optimistic way to look at it is that they've learned to leave the past in the past. A more cynical view is that there's really nothing left of former Mayor Dan Brooks's legacy that's worth reversing. Although at a recent committee meeting:
Planning Commissioner: So one of the things we've been talking about is what might be possible with the other half of the City Center, the part we're not in here.
Michael Karlik: The City Center might be coming back? That it's not a done deal for demolition? Is that true?
Amber Bailey: Bro, it hasn't been a done deal.
Then there is the final reason why things have gotten better: it's the people. The people running the city today are not the same people who were there at the beginning of our story, or even when I started paying attention last year.
Everyone elected during Change North College Hill's takeover of the city council is gone. Mark Fitzgerald, the former city administrator, is no longer an issue. In fact, in August of last year, Fitzgerald resigned his seat as a council member in the city of Loveland. The people in Loveland were about to recall him, partly for his behavior there and in part for his salary in North College Hill.
Compared to the people they replaced, the new city administrator and council members bring a different attitude and level of competence.
When Matt Wahlert took the seat of Shawna O'Shea, Amber Bailey saw him as someone who would give her the time of day:
Amber Bailey: Matt Wahlert has really been like a very, very, very strong supporter of me. But he's also been like the gatekeeper of me if that makes sense.
Like, he'll just--he'll tell me, “Amber, don't do it.” He'll tell me. Because when something comes through that I just wanna get shitty about, he'll just be like, “don't do it, Amber. Don't do it.” And I won't.
And that's because--and this is gonna sound really, really crazy at the end. It's gonna sound crazy. Out of everybody on that council, if there are two people that I feel like will work their asses off for North College Hill and only have the best interest of that city no matter who it pleases or who it displeases, I think it's me and Matt.
Matt Wahlert: And the last thing is--this was so awesome that Saturday, I called Ms. Long up as soon as this happened. At two different events I ran into two people--two people that said to me “oh, I've been wanting to ask you. I'm thinking about looking for a house in North College Hill.” And I've been here since what? December of '16? Is that right? And it's the first two times I've been asked that.
And there's an excitement, there's a buzz out there. And it think it's because of all five of these tables and the citizens, everybody working together. And I was so happy….
Matt Wahlert: I'm sure there's distrust pointed at me, you know? And I tell council members this all the time, I'm like, look: you can tell me anything. I've been a high school teacher for over 20 years. You're not gonna be any more inventive than a 16 or 17 year old. I’m not gonna take it personally…..
I have no problem--this is how I am in the classroom. I have no problem saying, “hey, I was wrong. I screwed up on that.” And I think that helps disarm people a little bit. And I think that we're starting--and I see others doing that as well, too. I'm like, “okay, I was wrong. Let’s go on [chuckles], you know? What, are we gonna relitigate the whole thing?”
I am very proud of everybody from all ilks, including the mayor, who I've had issues with in the past, and Ms. Bailey and my own--my own Change people. That the past two or three months--I do think it's made a big difference.
Amber Bailey: I've apologized for saying things I didn't really have an idea about. But all that I had was the information that one side would give me that the other side wouldn't. But now that I have both sides, I've grown up a lot….
This whole idea of, “oh, they're only out to get me. Oh, they're only out for power,” all that does is create a rift and nobody trusts one another and no one will talk to one another. And then you see the same stuff over and over and over and over again, meeting after meeting.
And then when two people from opposite sides of the playing field finally come together, that's the game changer.
The other important substitution came when Renee Stiles, one of the original Change*nch council members who had vicious--but sometimes valid--critiques of how the city was run--resigned. Her replacement, strangely enough, was someone who had run unsuccessfully for city council in the past; who once challenged Dan Brooks and lost; and who, as Shawna O'Shea's lawyer, had sued the city: Matt Miller-Novak.
Matt Miller-Novak: I think anything that involves budget and money we should discuss if possible. But at the same time, there's going to be things that are pressing in need. It takes us a month and half to go through three readings. So I mean, what we'd be signing on is that everything that we do in this city will take two-and-a-half months….To get our tax money that belongs to us, that we're basically saying that's gonna take two-and-a-half months. And I think that's a bit of an issue.
As unconventional as it may appear on paper, Miller-Novak walked in with an awareness of law and local government that the other council members did not. Compared to past members of Change*nch, he wasn't simply, as one person put it to me, “mom and pop.” Miller-Novak talks to the administration. He votes more often with Amber Bailey than against her. And like the other Matt, he also has a sense of humor.
Matt Miller-Novak: Madam President? Thank you. [laughter] I do invest a lot of time in my appearance. [laughter]
Clerk: Show 'em your socks!
Matt Miller-Novak: Part of my reservation about doing this to be completely honest is that there are wounds that are healing right now and are mostly healed. So if I sounded a little bit standoffish on some of the answers, I do want to probably suggest to you that it has a lot to do with the fact that people are healed to a large degree and people are moving on together and working together extremely well. And--
Michael Karlik: Matt, if I may, I mean, you've been living this in real time since you moved to North College Hill. I've lived it in a condensed period for the past eight months. So to see at the end--and I'll be honest, around the time you came onto council--things turning around 180 degrees, it's been a little whiplash-inducing for me. Just because I've seen--I mean, this 500-page lawsuit next to me--I've seen that. I've seen everything else that's happened in the meetings.
And you're right. I have noticed that, too: things are working much differently. Dare I say like a normal city council now. So that to me is a happy ending. And I like a happy ending. I think most people do.
So I am conscious of that when I'm doing the story, is the fact that well, hold on. This is a whole different group of people with perhaps a different agenda now. And to focus 90 percent on what happened in the past? Is that really fair?
But ultimately that's where the story is. And I don't think you could understand the importance of how people are getting along today unless you also see how truly foreign that was not too long ago. So does that make sense?
Matt Miller-Novak: Oh, no. It does. But from my perspective, I think it is important. And I, no, I--you know, listen, there's a lot of validity in what you said. But you know, I mean, it is actually quite amazing….
And the reality is, is that what's tough about this--this interview--as far as I'm concerned, any bad actor that ever existed is gone. They're not coming back. And the people that are there are all there for the right reasons….
So I mean, things are going extremely well. They are healing. I daresay that they've really pretty much healed. No one's talking about what you're reporting on right now. No one's arguing about that. No one's talking about it. It's done. The bad actors are gone--
Michael Karlik: I would agree with everything except your use of “bad actors.” I think everyone thought that they were doing the ethical thing, that they were standing up for the best interest of the city. And to the extent that that caused chaos, it's just because that there was such a differing perception of what the right thing was to do.
Matt Miller-Novak: That's your perspective?
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Matt Miller-Novak: Okay. I mean, I just--trying to clarify your statement there so I understood it. Yeah. Yeah, that's your perspective.
Bill Deters: You know, the last time I came--I'm pretty blunt, so i'm just gonna be blunt, right? The last council meeting I came to, I walked out going, “oh, my god. I don't believe that's the same North College Hill council meetings I've been going to for the last couple years” because I was really excited with how the decorum and how people treated each other. So I wanna give you kudos for that and again, I feel the same way tonight. You don't need my blessing; I know that. But i think you're doing much better than we did in the past. So for whatever it's worth.
During his final campaign, Dan Brooks appeared on public access TV. I have the transcript of what he said. And I'll read you a portion of it.
We've tried a lot of things, and we've not been always successful, but let me tell you something. I would much rather fail at trying to do something than to be wildly successful at doing absolutely nothing….
After 28 years as Mayor, people asked, "Aren't you a little tired of it?"
Well, I'll answer that question--I'll start--by telling a little story that I heard:
There was a young girl with her dad eating breakfast one morning, and she said, "Daddy, how do you eat an elephant?" He said, "Well honey, I don't know." She said, "No really, Daddy. How do you eat an elephant?" Well, he put the paper down and said, "Okay, well, I guess with a very big plate," and he thought that that would kind of go along with her joke. And she said, "No, how?" And he said, "Honey, you can't eat an elephant. Nobody can eat an elephant. So what's your joke?" She said, "It's no joke, Daddy." She said, "You know how you eat an elephant?" He said, "No, how?" She looked at him and said, "One bite at a time."
In North College Hill, it looks like people have figured out how to eat the elephant.
Michael Karlik: Let me play you something that you told me when we first started talking over the summer.
Amber Bailey: Four years? Hoo. I--hmm. A four year term....Let me be completely honest: I don't think anybody could last four years sitting next to the people that I sit next to.
And the reason is because very few of them decide to read a book. Very few of them understand what is happening because they don’t do the research and they just vote or they just make decisions based off I don’t know what. Maybe their dreams. I don’t get it. So I…
Hmm. Hmm. To think of four years as a term...gosh. It is very stressful. Oh, just the sound of four years of dealing with them sounds so stressful. But North College Hill has no hope at all.
Michael Karlik: Do you still feel that way, that North College Hill has no hope?
Amber Bailey: Absolutely not.
There is a lot of stuff going on that's not really, like, going on. But I think that there's a lot of different ideas being bounced around like in committee meetings, in council meetings, and nobody has really, like, taken it to the next level yet.
But I think that when start adopting these ideas and really getting behind them, people are gonna see a whole lot of change in North College Hill. And I don't mean “Change North College Hill.” I'm just saying, I think people are gonna see a whole lot of good stuff happening here.
I mean, I know you've talked to Nick Link. I know you've talked to the Feeneys. I know you've talked to Maureen. I know you've talked to Al. I know you've talked to Matt….I know that you've talked to other Matt. So I know that now you have a really good, like--
Michael Karlik: Is there a discussion board where people are saying whether they've talked to me or not? [chuckles]
Amber Bailey: No, absolutely not. But you have to realize: I've become the person that everybody confides in now.
Michael Karlik: Hmm.
Amber Bailey: Mmhmm. I know.
Michael Karlik: That's a bit strange to me, but I get it. I get it.
Amber Bailey: Mmhmm. And they confide in me. I think that people confide in me now is because number one, they know I'm not gonna sugarcoat the truth. And number two, I'm gonna take full accountability and responsibilities for my words and my actions. Period.
Michael Karlik: Yeah.
Amber Bailey: Now, nobody knows that I was the one who contacted you. You do realize with all of the progress that I made, this whole interview's gonna give my life hell. But that's okay. It's cool.
Michael Karlik: Yeah, it's kind of unavoidable that they find out that you contacted me and--.
Amber Bailey: I don't care. I do not care. And so what? So what? What are they gonna do? Shun me again? Now, don't make me look too horrible. Just keep me honest. That's all I'm saying. But what are they gonna do? Shun me? They're gonna bully me? You think I'm afraid of them at this point? Absolutely not.
And I think that there was a lot of stuff that the narrative was wrong on, like the O'Shea lawsuit. I don't know if I've talked to you since I went to coffee with Matt Miller-Novak. Have I talked to you about that?
Michael Karlik: You have not.
Amber Bailey: I went to coffee with Matt Miller-Novak. He sent me all of the evidence from the O'Shea lawsuit. All of it. Both sides. Hundred and sixty-seven pages. Every deposition. Every piece of everything. Everything. Every sign-in sheet from business meetings. He sent me all of it.
None of that information I had ever had before he was appointed. And he emailed it to me. At the end of it, the O'Sheas were justified.
What that administration did was wrong. I know that now. I've told them that now. But without the communication and without the information, I can't just go off of what one side is saying versus what the other side is saying.
And I've let them know. I've let them know. No, I didn't have any of that. Nothing. The narrative that I had is that they sued and got a bunch of money. If anything, I feel bad for Jim and Shawna.
I have to confess: I can't help but wonder if maybe there is something else to why things are different. You see, a lot of things changed while I was doing this story. And that's just it: I was doing the story. For years, there were accusations, hot tempers, and acts of revenge happening in plain view of the city's residents. It's not like no one was watching.
But now that someone outside North College Hill was in the picture, was it possible that I had anything to do with it?
Michael Karlik: I guess my last question is, you know, when you contacted me last summer and said, “I need help,” was this--what you're experiencing right now--the outcome that you wanted?
Amber Bailey: I think we're getting there. I think that--I think that by you contacting the people that you've contacted and hearing all of the different stories and all of the, you know, the fun stuff, I think that by you contacting them that it, yeah, it has helped.
Let me say this: I don't think they're acting because you have contacted them. But I think that somebody from the outside looking in, asking your own objective questions, have probably made them contemplate on some things. And now they're starting to change the way that they once were in a routine and a repetitive way of being whatever they were being, into evolving into something better. An actual leader for their community.
So yes, I do think that you've helped tremendously. I that think without knowing it, you might've been a Dr. Phil, if that makes sense. But I don't think they're acting because you have been poking around. I think that it's a whole new dynamic. Mmhmm.
Of course, there's always your story, my story, and their story, and then the real story, too. So yeah, I mean it's--it's been a process. It has and it's been. It's been rocky and it's been smooth and it's been rough. It's worth it every day.
A four-year term still scares the shit out of me. Just because I know that it's really, really, really hard to build us up. And that's what we're doing. We're building. We're building relationships. We're building ties. We're, you know, we're building community relationships. We're trying to pair this up, pair that up. We're trying to match people. We're trying to really, like, build a good foundation.
But it's so easy to tear it down.
Longtime mayor, elected in 1983 and resigned in 2013
Council member elected in 1991, elected mayor in 2015
Former city administrator appointed by Dan Brooks
Wife of Mark Fitzgerald, economic development director
Current city administrator and former assistant to the mayor
Council member elected in 2011, appointed mayor in 2013, resigned in 2015
Husband of Sheryl Long, school board member and recreation commission member, co-founder of Change*nch
Council member elected in 2013, appointed president in 2017
Council member appointed in 2015, appointed president in 2016
Wife of Sean Feeney, organizer of City Center fundraiser
Council president appointed in 2012, resigned in 2015
Husband of Amy Bancroft
Council member appointed in 2017
Former council member and auditor, co-founder of Change*nch
Council member elected in 2013, sued the city over Mark Fitzgerald's salary
Council member elected in 2009
Council member elected in 2009
Council member elected in 2013
Mary Jo Zorb
Council member elected in 2015, chair of the finance committee
Clerk of council appointed in 2016
Council member appointed in 2016
Husband of Shawna O'Shea, chair of the charter review commission
Council member elected in 2015
Attorney for Shawna O'Shea, council member appointed in 2017
Law director appointed in 2012
Former football player who managed the City Center from 2012 to 2016
Biographer for Dan Brooks
Former finance director
Republican former council member appointed in 2014