Editorial Roundup: Ohio

Sandusky Register. Oct. 16, 2021.

Editorial: State quiet in death investigation

We’re concerned with the state prison department’s sense of obligation.

A Sandusky man who was sentenced to serve 2½ years in prison in 2018 died in an isolation cell in early July. It’s been three months and prison officials, the Lorain County coroner and the Ohio State Highway Patrol all have failed to provide any explanation for his death.

Officials have not provided updates since confirming that Shamar Stevenson died July 6. One after the other, they reply to inquiries with non-responsive answers as if his death was routine and matters very little, if at all.

Stevenson was placed in isolation that same day, but when guards checked on him in his solitary confinement they found him non-responsive. They used Narcan to try to revive him, a drug used to revive people who have overdosed on an opiate drug, which raises numerous questions about why that was suspected, how a prisoner could take opiates while in custody, while in isolated confinement and why Stevenson was put in a disciplinary cell in the first place.

It’s not as if investigators need to call in Sherlock Holmes to determine what killed Stevenson. He was in a state prison the day he died. Every hallway and every view from everywhere is monitored by surveillance cameras. Prison officials were in total control of his whereabouts, of who was in contact with him. The autopsy was performed three months ago.

We’re concerned with a bureaucracy that is unable or unwilling to tell Stevenson’s family what happened to him, why their loved one died, how he died. They are owed that much. He was there to serve his sentence, not to die alone in a cell. If he’d lived, Stevenson would be released from prison by about now.

The least that should be expected is that prison officials can explain by now what happened and if there is a lesson to be learned from it to learn it. The way this is being handled to date is appalling.

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Newark Advocate. Oct. 17, 2021.

Editorial: Parks levy a good investment for growing Licking County

There have been many lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of them clearly has been how valuable local outdoor recreation opportunities are.

We hope that through quarantines and event cancellations, residents of Licking County have had the opportunity to explore the many options available here. We also hope that people don’t take those amenities for granted.

Licking County is growing thanks in part to the quality of life it offers next to a major metropolitan area. Now is the time to take care of our open spaces and save more of it as the county develops.

We believe the Licking County Park District levy request would help do that and we encourage voters to support it this fall.

The district is seeking to increase their levy from 0.25 mills to 0.375 mills. The small increase, along with the rapid growth in Licking County, means the district would see revenues jump from a little over $1 million annually to a little over $2 million each year.

We understand some might cringe over a government requesting to double their tax revenues - especially in still largely conservative Licking County. We hope people look past the percentage to see the true value this levy still represents.

If the increase is approved, the cost of the levy would be $13.13 for the owner of a $100,000 home. That’s still just $65 a year for people with a half-million-dollar home.

The district plans to use this extra revenue to further enhance its existing facilities. Director Richard Waugh said while they would look to hire one seasonal maintenance worker, the vast majority of the money would be spent on capital improvements.

Those upgrades include restrooms at Lobdell Mounts Road parking lot and Disc Golf Course, a launch ramp and parking at Brownsville Road for the Licking River, as well as money set aside for bike trail work. It was noted one mile of trail can cost up to $130,000, but the trails are also some of the most popular amenities offered.

In addition, should the levy pass, the county has committed to setting aside $150,000 annually to help municipal park systems across the county and $75,000 annually for major bike trail repairs.

Waugh also noted the county is working to ensure residents in the western county are also included in its plans. For example, the new levy would help pave a walking path at Foundations Park.

The county park district is a small operation, and would remain so even should the levy pass. Fortunately, they provide a wonderful value for the cost.

Parks offer health and well being for the community, not to mention increased property values. Failing to maintain them will hurt us all - especially as we hope to receive more visitors should the Newark Earthworks achieve World Heritage Site status.

Asking taxpayers for more money is never a simple thing, and with turnout expected to be terribly low this fall, its passage will depend on park supporters making the effort to vote.

We encourage you to do so and support what we believe is a wise investment for Licking County’s future.

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Akron Beacon Journal. Oct. 17, 2021.

Editorial: State could learn from Summit County’s attempt to involve public in drawing council map

As leaders draw up maps for legislative districts, we’re pleased to report they are sticking close to a legal framework and creating fair maps in a transparent way.

We’re not talking about what’s going on in Columbus, of course, where gerrymandering is valued over the will of the people. We’re talking about Summit County.

Under a draft map released this month and possibly to be voted on Tuesday, Summit County Council’s eight districts would change, but in a manner few residents are likely to find jarring or nonsensical. The five members of the Summit County Nonpartisan Independent Council Fair Districting Commission are reconfiguring the districts because of population changes revealed by the 2020 U.S. Census.

The independent panel is striving to keep communities together as the county charter mandates. Cuyahoga Falls, for example, would no longer be parceled out in three districts. One council representative, in District 2, would be answering to Falls residents and a small portion of Akron.

Akron, which has too many residents to be in one County Council district, would continue to have residents in six of eight districts, including one exclusive to the city. Akron residents are lumped in with other communities so that the county’s total population of 540,428 can be spread out relatively evenly.

While the county’s population actually declined slightly from 2010 to 2020, the census noted population gains in such northern communities as Macedonia and Twinsburg and losses in some southern communities, including Barberton and Coventry Township. Making District 1 more compact and District 7 larger reflects those attempts to redistribute population.

The good news for minority residents of Akron is that in years to come, County Council might become more diverse as a result of map changes. In a discussion with the editorial board, commission member Irving Sugerman and consultant Todd Book of By the Book Advisors said that the panel aimed to act according to the county charter while also honoring the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

That concern for minority voters is unlike what we heard from Senate President Matt Huffman, a Republican member of the Ohio Redistricting Commission, who falsely said it was “illegal” to take race into account when drawing state legislative maps. In response, critics said it’s proper to look at race, as long as it’s not the only criteria.

Giving underrepresented people a chance is not gerrymandering.

We’re pleased that when district council races are held, in 2024, Black candidates might have a better chance (at-large races will be held next year).

County Council, with eight district and three at-large members, currently has one African American, Veronica Sims, who represents District 5. Two of the districts in Akron would have at least a one-third Black population, giving minority candidates a greater chance of winning a seat. The census shows 14.75% of Summit residents identify as Black or African American alone; the figure is 31% in Akron.

Meanwhile, the Summit panel has been seeking public comments. A report last week said the vote scheduled for Tuesday could be pushed back, depending on the feedback received. Public comment will be accepted at the meeting at 6 p.m. in County Council chambers in downtown Akron.

This outreach to citizens is also different from what the state has done. Ohio’s final legislative maps were released with only a week left for action and short notice of when public meetings would be held. The Ohio commission held 10 public hearings in August without releasing a draft map. Sept. 1 was the constitutional deadline for a draft map; the panel missed it.

The local panel has until Dec. 28 to prepare and certify to the county’s Board of Elections a detailed apportionment of the eight districts.

We encourage residents to contact the panel with any suggestions for improvement. Public comments can be sent via email to feedback@summitoh.net.

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Cleveland Plain Dealer. Oct. 17, 2021.

Editorial: After Cleveland Issue 24 on civilian police oversight passes

Clevelanders are likely to wake up soon to a new reality, after voters adopt the 24-page civilian police oversight charter amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot, Cleveland Issue 24. The amendment -- which will take effect upon “adoption by voters” -- will transfer authority over the Cleveland police from the mayor, safety director and police chief to a reconstituted Civilian Police Review Board and Cleveland Community Police Commission, with complicated new rules and million-dollar budgets governing reformed civilian oversight of the police.

The charter amendment is awkwardly written, full of flaws and gaps and likely to land in the courts to parse the legality of its impacts on the city’s collective bargaining agreements and arbitration, and on City Council’s control over its own budget, among other matters.

Yet Issue 24 almost certainly will pass, despite its flaws.

It will pass because Cleveland officials and the police themselves flubbed their chances to reform, fully and comprehensively, how Cleveland police interact with the community pursuant to the 2015 U.S. Justice Department consent decree aimed at ending excessive police use of force.

The federal consent decree has accomplished change, significant change, in police oversight and accountability. But that change has not been enough, nor have reforms been sufficiently visible and concrete to transform how the community sees the police.

Issue 24 will pass because City Hall failed, until very recently, to impose consistent and adequate discipline on rogue officers. It will pass because local prosecutors and courts have failed to hold to account wrong-doers in blue, even when those wrong-doers have been the exception, not the norm. It will pass because, for decades, too many members of the city police force did not reflect the community they served or stood aloof, inspiring mistrust, not gratitude.

It will pass because the emotions driving Issue 24 have become so virulent -- a crisis of moral conscience supercharged by the families of those who’ve been abused, neglected or killed by police, and by the insistence on achieving change so long promised, but never adequately delivered.

But above all else, Issue 24 will be propelled to victory by the sense, so palpable, so important among average Clevelanders, that suddenly they have the power to enact that change themselves. Simply by marking “Yes” on their ballots.

In truth, the voters’ wishes will not be so easily achieved in practice. Change pursuant to Issue 24 will be complicated. That’s why planning needs to start now for what happens after Issue 24 passes.

Proponents of Issue 24 scoff at warnings that police will quit en masse or that Cleveland will have a hard time recruiting police. But the Cleveland police will face a lengthy period of rebuilding and reconstitution should Issue 24 become part of the city charter. It’s important that Cleveland prepare now for whatever that new reality might be.

The city’s current mayor, safety director and police chief -- and those running for mayor this year -- all need to start work now on charting out how most faithfully and responsibly to answer the voters’ expectations of police change.

Issue 24 may not pass or it may emerge on the other side of lawsuits significantly changed. But reforms in how the Cleveland police operate cannot wait.

It’s important that the next mayor and council work in good faith to implement Issue 24, if it passes. That starts with the challenging process of nominating diverse, experienced and fair-minded board and commission members who will be able to exercise, with due diligence and care, their outsized responsibilities. For commissioners, that includes a power that must not be abused -- the ability to eliminate all police on the commission via a simple majority vote.

No matter what happens on Nov. 2, Cleveland officials must show their commitment to police reforms. That’s critical. Should Issue 24 prove unworkable, re-establishing that trust will enable the next Cleveland mayor and council to propose charter revisions that can still help achieve the voters’ mandate for police change. Planning on that needs to start now, too.

Luckily, the charter amendment allows current members of the Civilian Police Review Board to serve out their terms, offering some breathing room.

Nor will the amendment’s budgeting requirements be accomplished quickly or easily. At current police budgeting levels, those requirements, if unchanged, could total more than $4 million per year -- more if additional police are hired. The amendment provides that “at least 1.0% of the budget allocated to the police force” must go to the Civilian Police Review Board and its Office of Professional Standards; 0.5% to community grants; and no less than $1 million a year to the Community Police Commission. Should the issue pass, final budgets will likely need to await next year’s Cleveland budget deliberations, and may have to be delayed until the courts weigh in on whether these requirements impinge wrongly on City Council’s budgeting authority.

The people’s expectations for police reform will make this a fraught period for Cleveland’s leaders. But creating a bedrock of trust to reassure citizens that police reform and accountability are shared goals with City Hall is what will drive constructive change, no matter what happens on Nov. 2, or thereafter.

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Columbus Dispatch. Oct. 15, 2021.

Editorial: Zoo, Equitas, Shelter Board must work to re-earn trust after disgraceful scandals

A “best zoos in the United States” list cannot be taken seriously unless it includes ours along the eastern banks of the O’Shaughnessy Reservoir on the Scioto River.

Opened in 1927, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is among Ohio’s most renowned institutions.

It has long held this community’s trust and money.

The nonprofit organization sits on city owned land and draws $19 million of its annual $92 million budget from Franklin County taxpayers.

More than that, Greater Columbus roots hard for the zoo and wants it to win.

It is for these and other reasons that the board of directors of the zoo — one of three respected Columbus nonprofits now in the middle of embarrassing and disgraceful scandals that have rocked public confidence — must take aggressive action to maintain public trust and support. The board of the other two organizations must do the same and increase and sustain their vigilance.

News that the zoo was stripped of the accreditation it has held since 1980 from the industry’s top accrediting bodies came one day after it named Tom Schmid, president and CEO of the Texas State Aquarium, as its next leader.

He and the Zoo’s board will have their hands full rebuilding public confidence that they are watchful stewards of our money and are deserving of admiration.

Honesty and transparency to the public will be key with leaders of the zoo, as it will be for leaders of the Community Shelter Board and Equitas Health.

Ebony Wheat, a Community Shelter Board employee has pleaded guilty to three counts of federal program theft and is awaiting sentencing for cutting $352,769 in checks to friends who were not landlords and did not provide any services to the agency’s homeless clients.

Equitas Health’s board of trustees plans to investigate claims of racial discrimination within the Columbus-based health provider after The Dispatch interviewed 15 former Equitas employees who say they experienced or witnessed mistreatment of Black employees.

They called out discrimination in hiring, promotion, and discipline from Equitas, a non-profit health system that serves LGBTQ+ healthcare needs in 13 Ohio cities including this one. It generated $56 million in revenue for the year that ended June 30, 2020.

Of the three, the zoo perhaps has given the Capital City its most noticeable shiner.

The bruised eye is described as an “overall culture of entitlement” in a forensic report that found misspending and questionable business practices cost the zoo at least $631,000.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the international gold standard – cites concerns about the Columbus Zoo’s acquisition from non-AZA members of baby tigers and snow leopards for entertainment as highlighted in the documentary “The Conservation Game,” and the inappropriate financial management issues by former leaders.

The financial details were forced into the light by a series of Dispatch articles about their personal use of zoo resources.

Tom Stalf, then zoo president and CEO; and Greg Bell, then chief financial officer, resigned after the newspaper’s investigation showed they sought zoo tickets for their family members to attend various entertainment events and allowed relatives to live in houses owned or controlled by the zoo.

The zoo board at first refused to divulge details of its investigation into the matter but changed its tune following public outcry.

Officials with the Ohio Ethics Commission and the offices of Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and Ohio Auditor of State Keith Faber are investigating.

The zoo says it already has taken several corrective steps, including changing the reporting structure of the Animal Programs department to the vice president of animal care instead of the chief financial officer, ending relationships with all vendors highlighted in the Conservation Game, and updating all non-AZA institutional profiles and enhancing oversight of approvals.

It plans to appeal the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s decision by the Oct. 30 deadline.

In a statement, Jerry Borin, interim CEO and President of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, said the zoo met the Association of Zoos and Aquariums standards when inspectors visited in July.

“The poor decisions of a handful of people should not negate the good work this team does and how much staff members contribute to the AZA through committee work and leadership roles,” he said. “Nobody currently working at the Zoo had anything to do with the position we find ourselves in today. We’ve acknowledged the wrongdoings of the past. We’ve also made changes and updated policies to ensure those cannot happen again.”

The zoo can apply for reaccreditation in September if the Association of Zoos and Aquarium rejects its appeal.

We hope they do not have to.

Institutions like the Columbus Zoo, Community Shelter Board and Equitas Health provide critical services to our community.

They cannot be allowed to self-destruct and the members of all of their boards of directors – where the buck stops – must be called on the carpet when they make bad and costly decisions or are sleeping on the job while others make bad and costly decisions.

There is far too much at stake for such lackadaisical oversight, which allows for recklessness, and in some cases, unabashed thievery.

END