Concerned Citizens Group president Jerry Conkle and CCG member Jim Wilson have told me that it is their clear recollection that on Wednesday, July 28, 2010, Portsmouth City Clerk Jo Ann Aeh told them, in her office in the Municipal Building, that the deadline for them to return the petitions to recall Ward Three councilman Nicholas Basham was August 20. It is possible there was a misunderstanding and that Conkle and Wilson misinterpreted what Aeh said, or that she was confused rather than attempting to mislead them. It is possible, but in light of Aeh’s track record in regard to recall petitions and of her long standing, obstructionist role in city government, it is more likely, in my opinion, that she deliberately mislead Conkle and Wilson, and through them the other members of the CCG, by making them think they had a week less than they actually had to collect the required number of signatures to put the recall of Nicholas Basham before Ward Three voters. The City Charter stipulates they should have had thirty days from the time they took out the petitions, which would have meant that she should have told them they had until August 27 to return the petitions. For the aging and physically challenged members of the CCG, the lost week was a handicap they were not able to overcome and they suspended their efforts shortly before what they believed was the August 20 deadline. In spite of being handicapped and having to walk with a cane, Jerry Conkle collected almost fifty signatures in the record heat wave. Jim Wilson, as a result of working many years installing and repairing heating and air conditioning systems, has Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, which requires him to always carry an oxygen supply, but he did his best in the limited time Aeh led him to believe he had to collect signatures.
What motivation would Aeh have for impeding the recall effort by Conkle, Wilson, and other members of the CCG? As City Clerk, Aeh serves at the pleasure of the city council, which can fire her whenever it chooses. A city clerk's employment depends directly upon the support of members of city council, which puts anyone who occupies the office in a potential conflict of interest in handling petitions to recall council members. Aeh and every city clerk who succeeds her will continue to be in a potential conflict of interest until the charter is changed to insulate them from pressure from members of city council and other elected officials who are subject to recall efforts. In the past, Aeh did her best to bend the rules in favor of council members Jim Kalb, Ann Sydnor, and David Malone, her political allies, when they faced recall. Aeh did for Kalb, Sydnor, and Malone, what she may recently have tried to do for Nicholas Basham: trying to protect his hide to save her own. As long as she is beholden to the city council for her livelihood, such situations will likely occur. As Teresa Mollette wrote on PortsmouthCitizens.info, “The city charter needs to be revised to take the power of approving petitions out of the hands of the city clerk. This is a job for the county Board of Elections.”
Judging by the website of Dickens Pub, Jo Ann Aeh has become a frequenter, if not a habitué, of the pub, which Basham owns. Basham offers reduced prices for drinks to those customers who can prove they are city employees by producing their health insurance cards. The irony of that little detail about health insurance is that Murray has raised the hackles of city employees by calling attention to the high costs of their generous health benefits, which should serve as a reminder of the generous health insurance benefits the city council voted themselves back in 1990 (Ord. 1990-106), which caused one of the most bitter recall campaigns in the history of Portsmouth. If the term of office for council members was two years instead of four, there would be much less need of costly and bitter recall campaigns. If the term of office for the city clerk was not an open-ended, possibly life-time appointment, as it has been for Aeh, but was rather fixed and not dependent on the city council’s approval, then perhaps there would not have been so many shenanigans over the long period of time Aeh has been city clerk. There is a sign on the wall of Aeh’s office that reads, “Lord, Help me hang in there,” but some people might feel that she has not so much been hanging in as hanging on.
Section 7 of the Portsmouth City Charter briefly states the ostensibly limited duties of the city clerk: “The Clerk shall attend the Council as its secretary, shall keep its journal and other records, and make an annual report, giving a summary of its proceedings and shall perform such other duties as are given him by this Charter or which may be prescribed by ordinance.” Doesn't sound like much, does it? But the “other duties” assigned by the Charter include those related to recalls, which are stipulated in Sections 151-153 of the Charter. Those “duties" give the city clerk a lot of opportunity for mischief, which Aeh has made the most of. It may be those “duties" that have enabled her to hold her job longer than any other city employee. Through manipulation, if not malfeasance, she has, in my opinion, helped keep corrupt political officials in office by obstructing citizens’ attempts to remove them by means of the recall. Would she have been collecting a paycheck for a quarter of a century without conducting a kind of protection racket for corrupt cronies, and especially for those members of the city council, without whose good will she would long ago have been replaced? The political life of most public office holders in Portsmouth, especially with all the recalls, has been as short as a fruit fly’s, but for Aeh it has been as long as a turtle’s.
Aeh’s Illegal Removal of Names from Recall Petitions
Aeh’s abuse of the office of city clerk was evident in 1996, when she illegally removed names from petitions whose purpose was to recall First Ward council woman Ann Sydnor and Fourth Ward councilman Jim Kalb. In a decision handed down on September 11, 1997, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that “Aeh had clear legal duty under Sections 151 and 152 of the Portsmouth Charter to certify as sufficient the recall petitions relating to the First and Fourth Ward council members. The petitions had the requisite number of signatures to be sufficient. Aeh was not entitled to remove signatures from the petitions after filing. In addition, relators have established a clear legal right to this certification, and they have no adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law. Based on the foregoing, we grant a writ of mandamus compelling Aeh to certify the recall petitions seeking the removal of First and Fourth Ward Council Members Sydnor and Kalb as sufficient and to notify these council members pursuant to Section 152 of the Portsmouth Charter. In addition, we grant relators’ request for attorney fees and order relators’ counsel to submit a bill and documentation in support of the request for attorney fees, in accordance with the guidelines set forth in DR 2-106” [italics added]. Aeh was caught in the act and the city had to pay for it.
More recently, it was not just the recall of Basham that Aeh may have helped sabotage by supplying misinformation to Conkle and Wilson. She has also either deliberately or, perhaps as a consequence of her advancing years, inadvertently made a mess of the public records she has the responsibility for creating, keeping track of, and preserving. Legal action soon may be initiated against her and other city officials for their failure to produce public records requested by citizens. The fines mandated by state law for failing to produce each public record can really add up, so the cost to the city for Aeh’s failure to create, preserve, and produce public records requests could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. The Columbus Dispatch carried a story recently about huge financial penalties being imposed on public officials in northern Ohio who failed to comply with requests for public records. With all its other financial problems, Portsmouth may be furthered burdened with having to pay large penalties for the failure of Aeh and other officials to comply with requests for public documents. Possibly, some records cannot be produced because they have been destroyed, in violation of state law.
On August 30, Corey Columbo, an attorney from the Columbus-based McTigue Law Group, representing Mayor Murray, filed a challenge to the petitions that have been filed with Aeh for the recall of the mayor. McTigue himself represented Damon Fite and the Concerned Citizens who successfully challenged the legality of Aeh’s removal of signatures from recall petitions back in 1996. Just as Aeh can abuse the powers of her office to frustrate those seeking to recall her political cronies, she can abuse those same powers to abet petitioners who are trying to recall a political enemy from office, in this case Mayor Murray. Whether or not she shortchanged Concerned Citizens a week, she extended the time the Recall Murray Campaign had to collect signatures, as she is allowed to do by the Charter. Columbo has compiled fifteen objections to the petitions for the recall of Murray, most of which appear to put Aeh right at ground zero of the legal mess that is unfolding over the recall of Murray. Columbo explained that the McTigue Group deals almost exclusively with election disputes, and it was evident at the Election Board meeting on August 30 that the recall of Murray looks very shaky legally. In spite of bluster from the Election Board chairman Rodney Barnett, the rest of the Board seemed chastened by Columbos’ remarks to the board, and Sayre, the attorney from the Country Prosecutor’s office, admitted he was unfamiliar with protested recalls and would need to do a quick study of the subject, which, given the time frame he has to operate within, will have to be really quick. All the confusion is not surprising given the twelfth-hour timing of the Recall Murray Campaign, which began when former indicted City Auditor Tom Bihl threw his hat in the ring, or rather, more accurately, put his head in the wringer when no one else had been brave or foolish enough to do so. Because of the half-assed, half-gassed way in which the Recall Murray Campaign has proceeded, with the Dickens Pub serving as unofficial campaign headquarters, it is not surprising that there are at least fifteen reasons why the State Board of Elections may rule the recall petitions invalid. I have seen McTigue perform before the Ohio Board of Elections, and I would not want to be in Aeh’s shoes, or Tom Bihl’s either, if and when they testify before the board.
Where Southern Hostility Begins
The snarling Aeh at a City Council meeting
Aeh became involved in city politics back in the early 1980s, when the city was in turmoil over the recall of three members of city council who were vilified and demonized because they were allegedly against a shopping mall, just as Mayor Murray is being vilified and demonized now because she is allegedly against just about everything she can be accused of being against. The hatred being whipped up in the campaign to recall her is reminiscent of the hatred stirred up in the South and Midwest against Negroes by the Ku Klux Klan. As recently as the late 1970s, the Klan had a presence in Portsmouth, and some first-hand observers thought the movement to recall the three councilmen in 1980 had the characteristics of a KKK rally. Marchers did not carry a burning cross but they did carry a casket with the picture of one of the councilmen, Harald Daub, as I wrote about previously in “The Mauling of Harald Daub.” Daub is still the target of hate mongers. His house and automobile were pelted by eggs late one night not long ago, perhaps by those who had been drinking firewater earlier at a Happy Hour at the unofficial headquarters of the Recall Murray Campaign.
Jo Ann Aeh’s husband Roy was reportedly active in the Klan in the late 1970s, and was said to be recruiting for the KKK among the employees at the state prison in Lucasville. In a letter dated April 29, 1978, the authenticity of which has not to my knowledge been disproved, the so-called Grand Dragon of the KKK, David Duke, welcomed Roy Aeh as a new member and invited him and his wife to a KKK national convention in Jackson, Mississippi, where there would be seminars on “how to stop the rising tide of the forces that mean to end White Supremacy.” The Grand Dragon concluded the letter to Aeh by writing, “You and your wife JoAnn are cordially invited to be with us in this great crusade.” The letter specifies who the great crusade was against: “Niggers, Jews, Catholics, and Puerto Ricans.” I am not suggesting Jo Ann Aeh was a member of the KKK or that she championed White Supremacy. But of her political activities since 1980 it can be said, on the basis of the available evidence, that she is a supporter of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership, the SOGP, which has had, under several names, a stranglehold on the economic and political life of Portsmouth for the last thirty years. It is not the KKK we need to worry about: it is the SOGP, a so-called Community Improvement Corporation, and it is no secret who the “Grand Dragon” of the SOGP is. “Portsmouth: Where Southern Hospitality Begins,” one of the city’s slogans, perhaps should be changed to, “Portsmouth: Where Southern Hostility Begins.”
The hatred being generated in Portsmouth today is not against “Niggers, Jews, Catholics, and Puerto Ricans.” The hatred today is against “domestic terrorists” and “CAVE People,” that is, against the community activists who serve as the watchdogs of local government; but the hatred is directed above all against Mayor Murray who has challenged the corrupt status quo as perhaps nobody has in the history of Portsmouth, with the possible exception of the three councilmen of thirty years ago. That was when Aeh, not coincidentally, began her political career, a career she continues to carry on, having been transmogrified into something of a snarling, fire-breathing Grand Dragoness who not only illegally alters recall petitions but who has become increasingly unwilling or unable to carry out her record keeping responsibilities as required by the City Charter. She has reportedly become irate when asked for minutes of various public meetings and contemptuous of the principle of open public records, or at least of those who approach her with public records requests. It remains to be seen how much snarling and fire breathing she will do before the Ohio Board of Elections, if and when she has to testify about the recall petitions. It remains to be seen also whether northerners will get a better idea of what it’s like to live in the Deep South of the Grand Realm of Ohio.
Letter from Grand Dragon inviting Aeh and her husband to KKK Convention
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Update: 1:45 Tuesday, September 7, 2010
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Update: 1:45 Tuesday, September 7, 2010
I attended the hearing this morning at the County Court House, where Jane Murray's attorney Corey Columbo made a thorough, meticulous, and convincing case that the recall effort against the Mayor should be invalidated for numerous violations, particular and procedural. The Scioto County Board of Elections agreed, so the campaign to recall her has failed. Let us hope this is the last recall over which Aeh will ever preside.