My eldest son was a freshman at Akron Early College High School the same year I provided educational outreach at a similar high school in the region. While both schools had the same model — high schools on college campuses whose students take some classes at the host university — the difference between the two schools’ faculties was striking.
Most evenings my son, Claude, regaled me with stories about his teachers. Doc Hensley, a former nun and Army officer who had her PhD in math, replaced Claude’s fear of advanced math with a joy for how numbers do not lie. Larry O’Neil taught world history so energetically and passionately that Claude later wrote a college application essay about him.
At the school where I worked, however, far too many teachers lacked energy or enthusiasm. One teacher, whose students I worked with for several months, never got up from her desk in my presence except to head to the faculty lounge where I’d overhear her complain about the students.
In a discussion with the then-principal of Akron Early College I learned that, unlike the school where I worked, Akron’s school refused to hire teachers based on seniority. This didn’t mean some of the faculty didn’t have seniority — Doc Hensley retired not long after Claude had her. But they were all chosen strictly on their qualifications.
Marco Sommerville has entered the upcoming Akron mayoral race as the hand-picked successor of current mayor, Dan Horrigan and is endorsed by former mayor Don Plusquellic. Plusquellic also tapped Horrigan when he first ran.
Sommerville’s more than 35 years in local politics is touted by his supporters as a reason, if not the reason, for him to be the next mayor. Yes, Sommerville understands how Akron’s government currently works, but few Akronites are pleased with how it currently works.
In the results of a poll released last week and published in this newspaper, “Akron residents resoundingly said they want a leader with high ethical standards, fresh ideas and a clear vision for the city, by margins of 71% or better.” Fewer than half of the respondents prioritized prior city experience in a new mayor, underscoring the desire for change.
According to a political scientist at the University of Akron who reviewed the poll’s numbers, the emphasis on reform in Akron politics is stronger than the emphasis on economic growth. Which makes sense — if our current government officials are inept, ineffectual or worse, how can they successfully plan for and enact sustainable economic growth?
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Yet if Sommerville is Akron’s next mayor that’s just what we’ll get — we’ll get four more years of stagnant leadership.
In remarks at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event this year at the Akron-Summit County Main Library, Sommerville pointed out a problem in our community: approximately 10% of Akron’s police force and fire department are Black.
Good governance would have the percentage of Akron’s Black police officers and firefighters closer to 30%, which is our percentage of Black residents. Sommerville’s solution? The empty aphorism, “We have much work to do.”
Why, in 35 years in local government, including several years with his hands on the levers in high-level positions, hasn’t Sommerville developed and deployed a comprehensive plan to rectify the lack of Black representation on our police force and in our fire department?
Perhaps he was just too busy.
Sommerville was the city council representative for the ward I live in when I moved here in 2003. On a mild afternoon a couple of years later, my adolescent sons called to tell me that I could not come home because the police had barricaded the street on our block. Using bullhorns, they told residents to stay in their homes.
Just five houses down from our home, a young man who appeared high on drugs waved a handgun out of a second-floor window for the better part of half an hour. Because our street curves, the man had a clear shot at our front yard.
I have witnessed excellent police work in my neighborhood many times in the past two decades, but none better than that day. The Akron police controlled the situation, successfully protected residents and ultimately accessed the room the man was in and then tased, cuffed and arrested him.
In the days that followed, I repeatedly called my council representative, Marco Sommerville, and left multiple messages at his council office and at his business office. I never, ever heard back from him. Nor did any of my neighbors.
In 2022, several events highlighted leadership problems in Akron’s city government, police department and schools. But calls for Sommerville to return us to the halcyon days of Mayor Plusquellic are like Russians waxing nostalgic for their former Soviet dictators when the often-embarrassing Boris Yeltsin was their democratically elected president.
Akron’s Democratic city government reminds me of Ohio’s Republican state government. Both have been ruled by one party, and many of the same faces, for decades. As a result, officials who do not fear losing their seats pay little mind to the needs of the communities they purport to serve.
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Under a Sommerville mayorship our city’s potent promise might as well be placed in a lead vault that is then coated in rubber and buried in the deepest part of Summit Lake.
Like some of the high school teachers I witnessed counting down their days to retirement, there’s plenty of reason to believe Marco Sommerville is running for mayor because he believes after 35-plus years in Akron government, his ascension is his reward.
Whether Akron’s voters truly want new leaders with fresh ideas or just more of the same will be determined on May 2.
This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 5, 2023.