Thursday, January 13, 2005

"A-Marting We Will Go!"

What does this house have in common with the Marting building?

We should add a new word to Portsmouth’s lexicon, “marting,” meaning “to purchase, at inflated prices, with public monies, white elephant properties from the politically well connected.” Properties were being “martinged” in Portsmouth prior to the purchase of the Marting building, the purchase of which was just the two-million-dollar gorilla that broke the camel’s back, to mix metaphors. Someone who is a student of ethics told me that corruption is so pervasive in Portsmouth that those who behave unethically by "marting" their property really don't think they are doing anything wrong. That's just the way things are done locally and that's the way they have been done for a long time. It's discouraging to think that might be the case, that we are dealing not only with a culture of dependency but with a culture unconscious of its own corruption, that from the cradle they are taught to tap into public monies when they are in a real estate pickle:

A-marting we will go, a-marting we will go,
Heigh-ho the dairy-o, a-marting we will go,
A-marting we will go, a-marting we will go,
We’ll sell our house to some old souse
Or to the public-o, or to the public-o.

The trustees of Shawnee State University have “martinged” property more than once. In 1999, John W. Thatcher, a local attorney, and his wife Jo Ann Thatcher, a former SSU trustee who was active in Republican circles, were having trouble selling their empty, dowdy 82-year-old house at 1828 Franklin Boulevard, pictured above. There are some lovely old houses on Franklin; the stolid Thatcher house was not one of them. The Thatcher house does not even have a front entrance. People visiting it for the first time sometimes circled the house, trying to figure out where to enter. The first time I visited the Thatcher house, I like others had trouble finding the entrance. Rephrasing Falstaff’s words in “Henry IV, part 2, I said to myself, “It’s neither fish nor foul; a man knows not where to enter it.”

Most owners have difficulty selling their property in Portsmouth’s chronically depressed real estate market. Sometimes it seems as if property in Portsmouth is as hard to sell as stinking mackerel, to use a Shakespearean expression. But most people don’t have the political connections the Thatchers have to get their mackerel properly “martinged.” Former Ohio Attorney General and present state Auditor Betty Montgomery was among the Republican bigwigs who reportedly knew where to enter the Thatcher house. Just as the Portsmouth City Council would later bail out Clayton Johnson and the Marting Foundation, and just as Portsmouth Murals, Inc., would bail out George Clayton by paying him $350,000 for his empty properties in Boneyfiddle, the SSU trustees bailed out the Thatchers with public monies, paying them $230,000 in June 1999 for an empty house that was appraised for $163,340. In a chronically depressed real estate market, the Thatchers were paid some $65,000 above the appraised value for a piece of property the university did not need. I was told by a high administrator at the university that state law did not allow property to be purchased by the state at more than 10% of its appraised value. If that was the law, the Thatcher house could have sold for no more than $179, 685. Certainly if the purchase of the Thatcher house was illegal, then the Attorney General at that time, Betty Montgomery, would have disallowed it. Wouldn't she? Anyway, the SSU trustees bought the Thatcher house as a temporary residence for President James Chapman and his wife, even though the Chapmans would have preferred other living arrangements.

The trustees “martinged” the Thatcher house by paying way too much for it as a temporary residence for a president who did not want to live there. At the trustees meeting at which the purchase of the Thatcher house was approved, one trustee is on record as saying the purchase was a good deal for the university, which would have no trouble getting its money back on the property once a permanent house could be found for the president. That president would not be Chapman, who, because he would not play ball with some of the trustees, was not rehired.

3060 Camelot Drive, another "martinged" property

Finding a permanent house for the next president involved more “marting” of property. The trustees hired an architect to design a new house for the SSU president, to be located on campus, as Chapman had recommended; but after a year of planning and expense they thought better of wasting money that way, fired the architect, got rid of Chapman, and purchased another empty house, miles away from campus, on the Hill, for $412,000, paying the doctor who owned it well above any 10% limit. The appraised value of 3060 Camelot Drive was $365,140. George Clayton, who was then chairman of the SSU trustees and who can “marting” with the best of them, engineered that sweetheart deal, bailing out a doctor who had left town and who was having trouble selling 3060 Camelot Drive.

When the time came for SSU to sell the Thatcher house, it naturally had trouble doing so. The unoccupied house was on the market for some time. The university finally sold it, in December 2002, like distressed merchandise, 3 1/2 years after purchasing it from the Thachers, for $180,000. In other words, SSU sold the house for $50,000 less than they paid the Thatchers for it.

In a pontifical letter-to-the-editor in the Community Common (2 January 2005), the same John W. Thatcher, whose Franklin Boulevard house had been martinged, defended the city’s purchase of the Marting building, claiming that it will save money in the long run. Oh, sure, the purchase of the Marting building will save money, just as the purchase of Thatcher’s house saved money. Oh, sure, the purchase of the Marting building was a good deal, just as the purchase of Thatcher’s house was a good deal, even though the Marting building is as unsuited for a municipal building as the Thatcher house was as a residence for a university president. Why waste public money to build a new house for the president or a new municipal building, designed for the specific uses to which it would be put, and in the best location, when a “philanthropic” foundation has an empty downtown store with neither a parking lot or a future, and a politically connected couple have an empty house on Franklin Boulevard, and a doctor who moved has a house on the Hill he could not sell? Those properties needed to be taken off the hands of the politically well connected, and off the tax rolls, and the public needed to pay for it. That’s the way property is “martinged” in Portsmouth. And the experts at "marting," who write letters to the editor defending it, are the same people who want us to believe they are dedicated public servants and philanthropists.