By the people: How Ohio citizens better their communities through direct action

The way Tish O’Dell of Broadview Heights, Ohio sees it, there aren’t just three branches of government in the United States — the executive, legislative, and judicial. “We forget that people are the fourth branch of government, above them all,” she says.


Under the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, all powers not given to the federal government are given to the people or to the states.


“We have the power, but we have to realize it and do it ourselves,” she says.


O’Dell is one of many Ohio residents making a difference in their communities through direct citizen action. She co-founded a grassroots organization in her suburban Cleveland community that successfully campaigned for an environmental Community Bill of Rights banning shale gas drilling and fracking.


And while the courts have sided with the energy companies against Broadview Height’s home rule measure and dozens of others around the state, O’Dell says her group has sent a strong enough message against fracking that drilling in their backyards has ceased.


“The Declaration of Independence says we have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” she says. “If (energy) corporations are poisoning our water and our air, aren’t they interfering with our right to life?”


Ordinary citizens can make extraordinary changes for the better in their communities if they are organized, persistent, and savvy in the ways of government and how it works, community activists say. Here are some examples from around Ohio that might inspire others to seek a do-it-yourself approach to solving community problems.

 

Beavercreek and Bus Access

To get to their jobs, classes, and doctor’s appointments in the fast-growing suburban city of Beavercreek, residents of nearby Dayton — most of them black or Latino — were being forced to walk a mile and a half from the last bus stop in Fairborn through heavy traveled thoroughfares and over dangerously narrow sidewalks.


So, in 2010, the greater Dayton Regional Transit Authority (RTA) applied to the city of Beavercreek to extend an existing bus line from Dayton to new stops in Beavercreek near a popular mall, a community college, and a new regional hospital before looping back to Dayton.


But Beavercreek council members, who represented a largely white population, adamantly opposed the expansion. In response, citizen activists in Dayton — with the help of a network of local churches and a partnership with RTA — began to organize.


“We started with just a few congregations, less than 10 or 15, of diverse background,” says Ronnie Moreland, a former president of Leaders for Equality and Action in Dayton (LEAD), a church-based social action group.


LEAD first tried to negotiate with Beavercreek city leaders and, failing to reach an agreement, began a letter writing campaign to local media and to representatives in Washington that led to a groundswell of public support. The Dayton Daily News, which extensively covered the issue, wrote an editorial titled “B – creek vote against RTA embarrassing” and ended by saying “many recognize the objections council gave as a ruse for some people’s prejudices.”


But Beavercreek leaders insisted that RTA meet increasingly stringent requirements for the new stops, including heated and air-conditioned shelters, video surveillance, and oversized concrete pads. That’s when LEAD turned to Advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE), a network of Ohio law firms devoted to serving the poor in civil matters.


Attorneys at ABLE decided it was time to appeal to a higher authority. They discovered that Beavercreek could lose up to $10 million in federal highway funding if it could be shown the city was violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act by denying people of color transportation access to their community.


ABLE filed a complaint in 2011 with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (U.S. DOT), which launched an investigation and held public hearings in 2012. And while department officials mulled their decision, LEAD organized a variety of public protests, including a massive march over the dangerous route leading to the Mall at Fairfield Commons.


In November of 2013, transportation officials found Beavercreek in violation of Title VI. Not long after, city officials agreed to the new stops. Moreland says persistence was a key to the group’s success. “Don’t be intimidated, because that’s what they want.”

 

Cincinnati and Wage Theft

At the Interfaith Workers Center in Cincinnati, the non-profit labor advocacy group was hearing from a growing number of workers who had been cheated out of their pay by local employers.


Bars, restaurants, and cleaning services were paying less than the required minimum wage. Contractors at construction sites were failing to pay overtime and the prevailing wage rates required under federal and state laws for publicly-supported projects.


Meanwhile, federal and state labor officials, understaffed and overworked, were unable to stem the tide. What was needed, the workers center decided, was a local anti-wage theft ordinance to put new teeth into protecting workers’ pay.


The center started by consulting with its clients as well as local union officials and other experts in drawing up a model ordinance for city council members to consider.


“We decided (the law) should come from the direct experience of our community members,” says Brennan Grayson, director of the workers center.

Labor attorney and former Cincinnati mayor, David Mann.
Volunteers at the center dropped off copies of the proposed ordinance to all nine city council members, and one, David Mann, took the lead in pushing the law through council. Mann, a former Cincinnati mayor and a labor attorney, saw the need for both the ordinance and further modifications to make it compatible with state and federal laws, Grayson says.


The center followed up with both public and private lobbying of the council members, Grayson says. By a vote of 8 to 1 in February of 2016, Cincinnati became the first city in Ohio to pass an ordinance to improve enforcement of existing wage laws.


There was some real give and take in its passage, according to Grayson. “At the end of the day, some people were disappointed because it covers only construction projects and not all of the employment in the city,” he says. “But we’re seeing an improvement in compliance and faster recoveries (of lost wages).”

 

Yellow Springs and Green Space

Whitehall Farm just north of Yellow Springs on Route 68 had long been part of Yellow Springs’ identity as a college town where agriculture and green space provided the buffer from suburban development eschewed by the town’s diverse, highly educated population.


But in February of 1999, that identity was threatened to its core when heirs to the 940-acre farm decided to sell their land to the highest bidders. Most likely that would have been developers looking to capitalize on the town’s charm and cultural amenities as a bedroom community for commuters working in nearby Dayton, Springfield, and even Columbus.


With just eight weeks before the auction, the town’s citizens and its local government mobilized to raise $1.2 million to compete at the auction. The village council threw in $350,000 and the rest was generated by residents through flea markets, concerts, silent auctions, and garage sales. One resident, Frank Staley, sold off his Wheaties box collection and donated the proceeds. Another, 7-year-old Tyler Johnson, collected nearly $200 in money jars around town.


The money was pooled into what was called the Tecumseh Land Trust. With the auction just days away, the trust hadn’t the funds to purchase all or even most of the land at auction until residents Dave and Sharon Neuhardt stepped in, a lawyer couple who had purchased the Whitehall mansion five years before. The Neuhardts approached farmers in the area about leasing and cultivating the land and raised an additional $2.1 million. With the larger amount, the trust was able to purchase the entire 940 acres.


Today, the trust not only preserves the land but also educates farmers and residents about better conservation practices and finds the funding to support them. Krista Magaw, executive director of the trust, says communities need to have detailed land use plans and update them regularly if they went to protect themselves against suburban sprawl.


“It’s very hard to get people to focus on land use planning until a crisis occurs,” she says. “But if you can (develop a plan), you’re in much better shape if a crisis does occur.”

 

Colerain Twp. and Clean Government

Colerain Twp., just west of Cincinnati, is the largest township in Ohio, covering 45 square miles with a population of nearly 60,000 residents. But its three part-time trustees were governing as though the township were a backwater village, according to residents Kathy Mohr and Stephanie Wright.


Trustees were failing to keep records in a timely fashion, keep tabs on township expenditures, and hold open meetings on new hires as required under Ohio law, Mohr and Wright say. Worse, a former township administrator was “wining and dining himself from Boston to Texas” on what he claimed was official business, Mohr says. "All those things have been corrected because of our public records requests and comments at meetings,” she says.


Mohr, a former fiscal officer for the township, and Wright, who first met Mohr three years ago when both spoke out at a trustee meeting, decided that somebody had to do something. That somebody was them.


“There’s just no oversight, not even from the media,” Wright says. “Somebody has to step up and say that’s wrong,” Mohr adds.


The duo regularly attend and ask questions at trustee meetings and frequently request township records and expense reports. They have filed a lawsuit against the trustees for holding secret meetings; a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission for one trustee’s apparent conflict of interest in a recent vote; and have petitioned the Ohio Court of Claims to secure records they feel should be open to the public for inspection.


“What’s happening in our township is not just happening here,” Wright says. “There are things in each community that aren’t being handled correctly.”


The watchdogs use social media to draw attention to their local government, including a Facebook page they have dubbed “Everything and Anything about Colerain Twp.” They have even held up signs at busy intersections telling motorists that “Colerain Twp. is Wasting Our Money.”


Neither says they have political aspirations. “This is a hobby for me,” Wright says, “and a passion.”


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Support for Ohio Civics Essential is provided by a strategic grant from the Ohio State Bar Foundation to improve civics knowledge of Ohio adults.
 

The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Ohio State Bar Foundation.

Read more articles by Jim DeBrosse.

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