By "Automania" I refer not to the car stereo installation business of that name owned by a Portsmouth city councilman but rather to the mania for big automobiles on the part of Portsmouth public officials, such as the mayor, who wants a new Ford Expedition and the police chief who drives a Cadillac Escalade and who wants fifteen new Ford Crown Victoria police cruisers. I learned about these wants at a Portsmouth City Council special meeting on Monday afternoon, May 15, 2006, that should be remembered as a Mid-May Mid-day Automobile Salesman’s Dream. The opening sentence in Jeff Barron’s report on the meeting in the next day’s Portsmouth Daily Times was “Passing the capital improvements budget is one of the more tedious things the Portsmouth City Council does each year.”
The meeting was tedious, I agree, but it will also be painfully expensive for Portsmouth taxpayers, especially when they get the bill for Police Chief Charles Horner’s automania.
In the May 2nd primary, Horner had asked the voters to approve a tax increase to help fund his war on drugs. Portsmouth is notorious as the drug capital of Southern Ohio and as one of the most crime-ridden cities not only in Ohio but reportedly the nation, as the chief frequently pointed out in making his case for higher taxes. But the voters rejected his call for more money for the police dept. They turned him down, I believe, not because they disagree about Portsmouth’s ignominious standing in national crime rankings. They turned him down because they don’t think Horner is the solution to Portsmouth’s crime and drug problems. Some even believe he is part of the problem.
Horner has not been any more successful dealing with drug-dealing in Portsmouth than he has with drug dealing within his own family. As Austin Leedom and John Welton revealed in the Shawnee Sentinel, the chief’s own son was arrested for using and selling drugs. The chief’s son was dealing drugs at Damon’s Restaurant, directly across the street, less than fifty yards from the Portsmouth Police Department. Horner accused Leedom and Welton of crucifying his family by releasing this information about his son, but if they hadn’t, very few people would ever have known of the younger Horner’s drug arrests. The Portsmouth Daily Times does not investigate crimes by the over-privileged of Portsmouth, and all references to the young Horner’s drug arrests were subsequently expunged from public records at a judge’s order.
Horner cites the high crime rate and drug dealing in Portsmouth in particular to justify his requests for more money for the police dept. But he does not stop there. He has also warned publicly that there are “domestic terrorists” among us, by whom he means the Concerned Citizens of Portsmouth and Scioto County. What form of terrorism is this group of largely senior citizens engaged in, other than revealing the drug arrests of the chief’s son and recalling incompetent and corrupt officials from office? The chief doesn’t say, perhaps because it’s classified information in his war on “domestic terrorists.”
Though he himself precipitated the 2004 successful recall of former Mayor Bauer, who was reportedly preparing to fire him, Horner unleashed a full-scale investigation of one of the Concerned Citizens, native American Russell Cooper, who was trying to mount a recall campaign against councilman David Malone. There are good recalls and there are bad recalls, Horner told the city council a while back, by which he meant that the recall that got Bauer out of office and kept Horner in as chief was good, and that the recalls that tried to remove Malone and other current council members from office were bad. The Portsmouth police swooped into Cooper’s neighborhood and did a dragnet investigation on the basis of several alleged forged signatures on Cooper’s petition ballots. Cooper is awaiting trial and faces possible jail time. Don’t look for any suspended sentence and expunging of records for Cooper.
Those Concerned Citizens who dare try to recall Horner’s allies on the city council are treated like domestic terrorists, but those who deal in drugs do not warrant a full-court press, especially if they have relatives or friends in positions of influence. At Ted Journey’s West End Auto, which is located less than a mile from the police station, stolen cars until recently were chopped up and oxycontin distributed. Ted Journey is a friend of councilman Tim Loper, who was renting a house from Journey, not far from the chopshop. Claiming that house as his legal residence was Loper’s way of keeping his seat on the city council. Loper was living in the Sixth Ward, but this being Portsmouth he didn’t think the residency requirements in the city charter applied to him and the city solicitor agreed. Anyway, it was other law enforcement agencies, not the Portsmouth Police Dept., that cracked down on Journey’s West End Auto operation. Horner claimed that he was just about to pounce on West End Auto when others beat him to it. Sure.
15 Crown Victorias
At the special May 2nd election, Portsmouth voters declined to be panicked by Horner’s scare tactics, but the city council at the May 15th meeting gave him what he asked for: the lease of 15 8-cylinder Ford Crown Victorias at a cost of $410,000 over a period of five years. Horner wanted these vehicles and he wanted them now. He asked the council to suspend the rules that required three readings of an ordinance, because he had to act before Friday the 19th to close the deal. We’ve all heard this one before: “Hurry, for you must act now to qualify for this amazing offer!” With the exception of Councilman Mollette, the rest of the council fell for it like sleepy couch potatoes watching an infomercial.
It is not clear that the city needs fifteen new police cruisers or that leasing them for five years for $410,000 is the best way to obtain them. It is no secret that leases are more expensive than purchasing, and that five-year leases are more expensive than three-year leases, especially since manufacturer warranties run out after three years. Since these vehicles will be driven to and from work by police, including police who live outside the city limits, the fuel costs were of concern to councilman Mollette, but in Horner’s view in the war on drugs and domestic terrorism we can’t afford to count the cost of gas. “Have you considered gas mileage on the cars?” Mollette asked Horner, as reported in the Daily Times. “No, I haven't,” Horner replied.
But what are the gas costs we can’t afford to count? Using EPA estimates of gas consumption of the Ford Victoria, I calculate that over a period of the five-year lease, if gas prices remain about where they are, and the vehicles are driven an average of 12,000 miles a year (the mileage limit on most leased automobiles), the cost of gasoline for the 15 vehicles alone, not counting oil and maintenance, will be hundreds of thousands of dollars. When we add the cost of fuel to the $410,000 cost of the 5-year lease, we get a figure that would cause sticker shock among voters if it were made public. Councilman Mollette told the council that other Ohio cities do try to seek economies on the purchase of police vehicles, but presumably those cities do not have as high a crime rate or as many "domestic terrorists" as Portsmouth does, so they can be more cost conscious.
Just how many cruisers are there in the department? Jeff Barron reported that “Police Chief Charles Horner wants to replace all 15 police cars with new ones.” Is fifteen the total number of cruisers, as Barron seems to imply? There are about 40 officers in the department and I have heard they each have a cruiser that they drive to and from the police station. So the department may have a fleet of about 40 cruisers. The rationale I have heard for what seems like a very expensive arrangement for the taxpayers is that the cruisers that are parked all over the city in front of the officers’ homes are an effective crime deterrent. That might be the case if officers live in high crime neighborhoods within the city, a big if, but in any event it does not sound like a cost effective way to wage war on crime. Perhaps Jeff Barron could look into this matter, at least to the extent of finding out whether there are 15 or 40 cruisers sitting parked at various times in front of officers’ homes.
City Auditor Trent Williams recently wrote a memo to Horner indicating the chief had to follow state laws in administering this fund, which he has apparently not been doing. Williams wrote, “As a result of our recent discussions of and exchange of information with the Athens Regional Office of the Auditor of State regarding the checking account currently being held by the Chief of Police known as the ‘Portsmouth Police Department Special Account,’ it has been advised and therefore necessary that all funds in this account be deposited immediately with the Portsmouth City Auditor’s office.”
Like a certain prominent politician in Washington, Horner uses scare tactics, everything from domestic terrorism to bird flu, to escape accountability, while the chief crime problem in the city, drugs, continues to plague the community. The trouble, I believe, is that Horner is too much of a politician and not enough of a police chief. Unfortunately, he is not much better as a politician than he is as a police chief, as the police vehicle that he drives, a Cadillac Escalade, illustrates.
Tony "Escalade" Soprano
A politician should be concerned not only about reality but also about appearance. In fact, most politicians care more about appearance than reality. What then is the chief doing driving a fucking Escalade? Pardon my English, but I’m falling under the influence of Tony Soprano. Doesn’t Horner have a clue that the Escalade is known in the trade as “Tony’s Car,” meaning Tony Soprano, who owned not one but two of them? Hasn’t the connection between Tony and the Escalade been made clear on the Shawnee Sentinel website, which Horner monitors closely? The New Jersey TV mobster can afford to drive a gas guzzling Escalade SUV, but can the police chief of a perennially depressed and crime-ridden city in southern Ohio’s Appalachian region with gas at about $3.00 a gallon? The story I’ve heard is the chief obtained the Escalade in a drug bust, so it fell into that controversial Special Account of his for which there has been no accounting. We hope the chief will sell the fucking Escalade to help defray the cost of those 15 new cruisers, and please no bullshit about how that account has to be reserved for real emergencies, like the bird flu. Give up the gas-guzzler. A remote-controlled toy Escalade was advertised on e-Bay for $400 bucks, if the chief wants a memento of his salad days.
Not only did Horner request $410,000 for new cruisers at the May 15th council meeting, he also requested $30,000 for new furniture for the old Adelphia building, which he will be moving into when it is renovated at great public expense. (The voters killed the Marting’s renovation on May 2nd, but unfortunately they were not given the opportunity to vote on the Adelphia renovation.) There are rumors out of the Municipal Building that when the chief gets mad he goes into his office and busts up furniture. Let’s hope, if he has to give up his Escalade, he doesn’t take it out on the new furniture in a fit of automania.
drawing by Susanne Muel