For some time, Lee Scott has been saying that Portsmouth’s Home Rule charter (which you can find by clicking online ) is one of the things that has got to go if the city is to end the half century plague of political corruption, chronic unemployment, and rampant drugs and prostitution. I could not see how home rule, considered one of the positive innovations of the Progressive era, could be even partly responsible for Portsmouth’s many problems, but based on what I’ve learned from a close examination of the two recent attempts to recall Mayor Jane Murray, I now think Lee Scott is right. Portsmouth’s home rule charter, generally speaking, is an obstacle on the road to municipal progress. More specifically, it is a document so full of loopholes, archaicisms, and anti-democratic provisions that it is not hard to understand how the crooked clique that controls Portsmouth economically and politically is able, by means of it, to make a mockery of the electoral process.
The Portsmouth charter is an invitation to manipulation, mischief, and misconstruction, and nowhere more than in Sections 27, 28, and 29. dealing with the recall process. For example, the Ohio Revised Code (ORC), which Portsmouth is not obliged to follow since it is a home rule city, states “The question of the removal of any officer shall not be submitted to the electors until such officer has served for at least one year of the term during which he is sought to be recalled” (ORC 705-92). But the Portsmouth charter cuts that waiting period in half: six months was all Murray’s opponents, those braying dogs, had to wait before trying to remove her, though she had defeated two male rivals, Kalb and Skiver, just seven months earlier. And the Portsmouth charter places no limit on the number of recall attempts that can take place during a mayor’s term of office, which is four years Averaging three months a recall effort, as he has so far, the disgraced former Portsmouth police chief and indicted auditor Tom Bihl, along with his fellow circulators, could continue to try to recall Murray over and over again in her remaining three years in office. There is nothing in Portsmouth’s charter to prevent Bihl from starting a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, an eighth, a ninth, a tenth, an eleventh, a twelfth, a thirteenth, and even a fourteenth recall attempt. If at first you don’t recall, the Portsmouth charter allows you to try, try, try again.
Recall elections are no less important than the regular elections whose results they can overturn, and yet the recall process is scandalously unregulated and subject to abuse, at least when city clerk Jo Ann Aeh is involved. The circulators seeking to recall Murray, for example, do not have to be registered voters of Portsmouth, and do not have to be residents either. Ralph Wisniewski, one of the circulators, lives in McDermott, I believe, and he could live in Colorado or China for that matter, and it would not make any difference as far as the city charter is concerned. Unlike voters, the signers of petitions do not have to produce evidence that they are who they say they are, let alone prove they are registered voters. So many of the signers of the recall petitions turned out to be unregistered that it seems possible they were not even told by the circulators that they had to be in order to sign the petitions. The circulators got as many people to sign as fast as possible and left it up to the city clerk and Murray and her counsel to laboriously sort through the confusing and sometimes illegible results. If you throw enough mud at a wall, some of it is bound to stick.
There are other degradations of democracy in the electoral process as it is prescribed in Portsmouth's home rule charter. ORC 705-92 calls for the voters in a special election to choose the replacement for a recalled mayor. But the Portsmouth charter does not give the electorate a say in who their new mayor will be. The Portsmouth charter stipulates that the president of the city council automatically becomes mayor when the incumbent mayor is recalled or vacates the office for any reason. Since the president of council usually gets to be president because he is the most pliable puppet on the council, the city is sometimes worse off after than before a recall. The city was worse off after, not before, Jim Kalb replaced his predecessor, Greg Bauer. I would say, in retrospect, that Bauer was the lesser of two evils, though others might argue they were equally bad. But Bauer did not humiliate the city the way the redneck Kalb did, and the public is not yet aware of the dire fiscal consequences of Kalbenomics, but they will learn soon enough no matter who is mayor.
If Murray is recalled, who would become mayor? Many of those who signed recall petitions apparently do not know that the serial adulterer and hypocritical preacher, David Malone, who is now the president of council, would be the next mayor. It is quite possible, given Malone’s incompetence in financial matters, that Portsmouth will be in a bigger financial crisis than it already is. Malone claims Portsmouth can pray its way to prosperity. Praying is no way to balance a budget. Malone doesn’t have a prayer of being elected mayor. Twice in the past he has run for mayor and been rejected soundly by the voters. If Malone is ever going to be mayor it will by means of the backdoor the city charter affords him. He is waiting impatiently in the wings, hoping that the recall of Murray will succeed so that he can become the puppet mayor and receive his thirty pieces of silver. Is there any other city in Ohio, or America, that has, per capita, more religiosity and less ethics, more churches and less morality than Portsmouth?
ORC 705-92 has a provision to provide financial relief to a public official who wins a recall election. “If, at any such recall election, the incumbent whose removal is sought is not recalled, the incumbent shall be repaid the incumbent’s actual and legitimate expenses for such election from the treasury of the municipal corporation . . .” Since the Portsmouth charter does not explicitly say an incumbent who wins a recall election can not seek reimbursement for the costs of campaigning against a recall, Murray might be able to take advantage of that ORC provision. But Murray's greatest expenses, by far, will her legal fees, and it is a question whether those qualify as a “actual and legitimate [campaign] expenses.” In retaining McTigue and McGinnis, Murray engaged the legal firm that is recognized as one of, if not the best firms in Ohio in dealing with electoral disputes. If she hadn’t hired McTigue and McGinnis, she would have had small chance of defeating the well financed recall effort against her. The bumbling Bihl does not have the dough, but the Gold Dust Twins, Clayton Johnson and Neal Hatcher, do; and presumably they agreed to do more for the recall campaign than pick up the tab for the lunch at the Fork and Finger where Bihl and others on the recall team reportedly dined with them. Even if they are not able to recall Murray, the crooked clique could bankrupt her by repeated recall attempts. Financial grief, not financial relief, is what they want to provide her. One way or another they are determined to drive her out of office, if not out of her mind, and the city charter serves their purpose very well.
Beware the Dragoness
Perhaps no provision of the city charter serves the corrupt clique better than Section 27, which assigns the responsibility of validating the recall petitions to city clerk Jo Ann Aeh. Without her occupying the unelective office of city clerk, it is hard to imagine how the corrupt clique could have exploited the city charter the way they have for so long. Section 27 of the city charter says that the city clerk “shall serve at the pleasure of the Council,” but it is obvious to me that she serves not so much at the pleasure of the council as at the pleasure of the corrupt clique. Having Jo Ann Aeh judge whether recall signatures are valid is like hiring a dragoness to be a census taker in a chicken coop. The Supreme Court reprimanded the egregiously partisan Aeh for her mishandling of recall petitions back in 1997. Let’s hope the Supreme Court, with which Murray's lawyers have filed a complaint on her behalf, will put Aeh in her place again, and that this second recall attempt of Murray is the last one Aeh will ever oversee of anybody.
Home rule can be justified, just as states' rights sometimes are, as protection against the power of centralized authority: the state government, on the one hand, and the federal government, on the other. But states' rights were also used in the South to defend slavery and, after the Civil War, to perpetuate racism and discrimination. Home rule, at least in Portsmouth, is being used to defend not racism but cronyism and corruption. Veterans of the long struggle for honest government in Portsmouth have told me that all too often they were informed by county and state agencies and authorities, to which they had appealed for assistance, that they had no jurisdiction in Portsmouth because of its home rule charter. In some cases, particularly at the county level, that may have been the most convenient excuse, since county authorities are reluctant to do anything to break the stranglehold of the Southern Ohio Growth Partnership (SOGP) on Portsmouth, but in most cases their hands probably were tied legally by the charter. Home rule, which had been created in the Progressive era to empower the people, has become, locally, the means to essentially disenfranchise and electorally defraud the people of Portsmouth. In a special election, where the turnout is notoriously low, a mere handful can repeal the will of the people as it had been expressed in the previous general election. If Mayor Murray is recalled in a special election on December 7, that will be only the most recent reason to rue home rule in Portsmouth.