Civil Rights · Uncategorized

Akron’s stagnant status quo has got to go

Coaches do it. CEOs do it. Teachers do it. Parents do it. And, ideally, elected officials do it. They routinely ask: What worked? What would work better? What failed, and why?

Sometimes the limitations of an approach are revealed when implemented, particularly in situations that are uncommon. An unwillingness to consider that a different response may have yielded better results all but guarantees that past failures will be repeated.

It’s hard to find Akronites who think our current mayor and his administration responded perfectly to last summer’s killing of Jayland Walker by eight Akron police officers.

And yet five days before a grand jury chose not to indict Walker’s killers, mayoral candidate Marco Sommerville claimed the current mayor’s administration, in which he serves as deputy mayor for intergovernmental relations, “handled [the Jayland Walker killing] the best way we could have handled it.” He spoke as if it was all in the past, as if the horror and outrage over Walker’s killing had magically dissipated.

After the grand jury decision, Sommerville issued a call for change that was too little too late. “I do know that community safety and police reform go together, and Akron needs both,” he said. “We need our law enforcement members and our community members to commit to lasting change.”

Wounds left to fester do not heal. Even before the grand jury announced last Monday that they would not indict any of the eight officers who shot Walker, freshly boarded windows downtown signaled the tension that remains 10 months after Walker was shot 46 times.

Peaceful protests understandably resulted in the days after the grand jury’s decision. At a march last Wednesday, reporters filmed police pepper spraying the crowds while also deploying chemical canisters.

Because too many Akron leaders like Sommerville think everything was handled just fine last summer, nothing was learned and here we are again.

In polling, Akronites claim to want new leaders with fresh ideas who will move the city forward. Unfortunately, the May 2 primary likely will be the de facto general election for who becomes Akron’s next mayor as there are no Republican candidates.

Akron mayor’s race:Akron mayoral hopefuls answer citizen questions in latest debate

Is Akron truly ready to pivot to a new direction and away from the stagnant status quo?

Consider the fraught White Pond Drive development. Issues include the viability of the land for housing given the soil’s toxicity and the destruction of wetlands and trees that the city itself identified as essential to managing Akron’s stormwater, pollution and summer heat.

There also are concerns about pursuing high-priced housing on the edge of town when so many neighborhoods in the inner city are filled with vacant lots.

But more concerning was Mayor Dan Horrigan’s peevishness when citizens learned of the secretly planned development and quickly organized against it. Horrigan’s open disdain for these citizens, and the council members who opposed the development, revealed an administration whose members flout accountability to the people they have sworn to serve.

Shortly after the trees on the future development site were cut down, the Beacon Journal informed readers about Section 56, a provision that has been in Akron’s budgets for 57 years. It has effectively given mayors a legal way to work around the checks and balances outlined in the city’s charter, which requires expenditures of $50,000 or more to be approved by City Council.

Learning about Section 56 was an “Ah-ha” moment. With Section 56, the option for a mayor to legally ignore the charter, essentially the constitution of our city, has been baked into every budget for six decades.

As a result, consultants have been paid huge sums to do work that city employees are also paid to do. Contracts are awarded without public bidding. And in the past two years alone, Mayor Horrigan has awarded contracts worth more than $121 million without city council oversight.

That is not good governance, but last month enough members of City Council voted to approve the current budget that contains, yet again, Section 56 with no modifications. Two who voted “yes” were council-at-large members Jeff Fusco and Ginger Baylor. Both are running for re-election and have latched their campaigns onto Sommerville’s.

Last fall, Fusco proposed a City Council resolution opposing citizen-backed police reform. It was directly aimed at thwarting Issue 10, a ballot initiative to create a citizen-led police review board whose members are chosen by City Council. City Council never voted on Fusco’s proposed resolution and in November’s election Issue 10 passed with 62% of the vote.

When City Council voted to seat the members of the police review board earlier this year, Fusco was chief among those opposing Imokhai Okolo, a 27-year-old Black attorney, as one of the board’s nine members. Young Black men are disproportionately the victims of police brutality in this country, making their inclusion on the review board not just important, but essential.

Fusco said he opposed Okolo, who was also opposed by the FOP, because last summer, in the wake of Walker’s killing, the young attorney had referred to police officers who aren’t held accountable for their violence as “pigs” on his Facebook page. Baylor switched her vote from supporting Okolo in early rounds to abstaining in the final round. She and Fusco now have campaign signs listing both their names and Sommerville’s.

Fellow Akronites, reflect on those who are currently in office. Many are honorable servants. But far too many others are comfortable conducting the city’s business in ways that may work for them, but clearly do not work for all the people of Akron. We can move our city forward only by voting for officials who support good governance that includes transparency and sorely needed checks and balances.

New faces with fresh ideas running for mayor and City Council in the May 2 primary can be found at the League of Women Voters voting guide.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 23, 2023.


Malik, Mosley and Greer offer best hopes for Akron’s next mayor

In the recent Akron mayoral debates, Marco Sommerville‘s performance has underscored my position, outlined in my March 5 column, that he should not be Akron’s next mayor. Luckily, these debates have also shown voters they have a strong slate of candidates to consider. 

At the first debate, Sommerville was hubristically ill prepared, as if the debates are a pretense he must endure before becoming Akron’s 63rd mayor. He also churlishly mocked another candidate by raising his hand and making it “talk” like a sock puppet when the other candidate spoke.

At a subsequent debate, in which the questions were provided in advance, Sommerville read prepared answers. For rebuttals to other candidates’ comments, his six opponents (all seated at the same table) watched in astonishment as Sommerville received text messages on his cellphone, which he quickly read before responding.

Adding important voices to the debates are candidates Keith Mills, a high school teacher, and Joshua Schaffer, a cellphone store manager. But neither have the experience to run a city with $772 million annual operating budget and roughly 2,000 full-time employees.

Interestingly, Schaffer routinely doles out pointed criticism of the candidates who’ve worked in local government, with the glaring exception of Tara Mosley and Jeff Wilhite.

Wilhite, a Summit County Council representative, has a command of the issues, an engaged demeanor and, frankly, the dignity that Sommerville lacks. He might have been a serious contender in previous elections, but after decades of white, middle-aged men being mayor, Akron voters are demanding change and his chances of winning seem a long shot. 

Malik had the admirable chutzpah to announce his candidacy not only first, but before the current mayor, Dan Horrigan, announced he would not seek re-election. A 2009 graduate of Firestone High School, Malik has an impressive resume, work ethic and detailed plans for Akron’s future. 

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 2016, Malik worked with every department and at every level of Akron’s government for two full years as an assistant director in the city’s law department. He’s now in his fourth year as a city council representative. Concerns about his lack of experience are specious.

Two months after Malik announced his candidacy, Ward 5 council representative Tara Mosley threw her hat in the ring. Ward 5 is a long, skinny ward that runs through the heart of the city and encompasses some of Akron’s most diverse and lowest income neighborhoods. 

For 10 years, Mosley has exhibited calm and effective leadership while addressing difficult problems not faced in every ward. The past year has proven that Akron can no longer avoid addressing systemic issues of race and policing and Mosley’s time representing Ward 5 gives her a clear-eyed perspective on what needs to happen.

And then there is Mark Greer, who was until recently the Great Streets administrator and Small Business Program manager for the city of Akron. He filed his paperwork to run for mayor just before the deadline. 

Greer was very hands-on in his roles at the city, and many small business owners are on record as enthusiastically appreciating his leadership. While his late entrance in the race meant an uphill battle for him to break through the crowded field, his performance in the debates shows he can win that battle.

Like Malik and Mosley, Greer has a deep knowledge of the city’s issues and promise, and well thought-out plans on how to address the former and maximize the latter.

Greer also brings an element of gravitas to the race, which was prominently displayed after Sommerville made a tone-deaf statement at the social justice debate at Garfield Community Learning Center just a mile from where Jayland Walker was shot and killed by police last summer.

That night, Sommerville described — as he has in every debate — technology that allows police to shoot a tracking dart onto cars that flee. Police can track that vehicle without a chase and then, as Sommerville put it, “move in for the kill.” His comment surprised the audience, and yet Sommerville didn’t acknowledge the horror of his own words until asked about it after the debate.

When Greer next spoke in that debate, he stated, “First of all on behalf of anyone who has experienced violence or trauma at the hands of law enforcement, when I heard one of my colleagues say ‘move in for the kill,’ I apologize,” he said. “That is not the language that is going to move this community forward.” 

Greer’s response to Sommerville’s painfully gross language — he was the only candidate to do so that night —showed another side of leadership our community desperately needs: someone who facilitates healing.

Akron, we have a group of strong mayoral candidates who are forward thinking. I emphatically encourage everyone to watch the debates on April 5 and April 12 hosted by The Akron Press Club, Ideastream Public Media, Akron Beacon Journal and the Ohio Debate Commission. These will be the most rigorous of the election cycle.

How the candidates perform is not a one-to-one ratio of anyone’s ability to run our city, but it’s as good a test as there is before May 2.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, April 2, 2023.


Model teacher leaves lasting impact on children’s lives

Wise women have guided me through some of the most difficult journeys of my life. My Ohio State undergraduate mentor and thesis adviser, Susan Huntington, who remains a dear and esteemed friend, is one. Another is Barbara Roman, the attorney who represented me through a more than three-year-long contentious divorce.

But there is a special place in my soul for the woman who immeasurably helped two of my sons.

We lived in central Pennsylvania when my first son, Claude, was old enough to go to school. I enrolled him in the nearby Friends school, which taught the peaceful resolution of conflict alongside reading and math.

The teachers and facility were engaging and warm. There were chicks hatched in classrooms, field trips to farms and a full-time assistant in each kindergarten classroom. And yet my boy didn’t like school. He wasn’t catching on and he was smart enough to know it.

Claude’s peers took to reading the way my second son did three years later — like a switch that flipped. Claude’s teachers told me not to worry. Boys develop slower than girls, they said. He’s bright, they said. He’ll get it in his own time, they said.

But he didn’t. Something wasn’t right. The same boy who could tell me everything about the habitat, habits and life cycle of beavers could not read a flashcard word just seconds after I’d told him the word.

When we moved to Cleveland in January of his kindergarten year, I did not enroll Claude in a school because of his anxiety. Two months later, I filled out an application for him to attend Ruffing Montessori School. After the required evaluation of prospective students by teachers, they rejected Claude because he couldn’t read. Maria Montessori grimaced in her grave.

Claude began first grade at Urban Community Catholic School, which was close to our home and recommended by friends. Once again, he was miserable.

I tried several schools — public, parochial and private. At every school, I asked the educators and administrators, “Why can’t Claude decipher letters and numbers?” They knew, but did not answer truthfully. Private and parochial schools can exclude children who need more help. Public schools saw him as bright and not a behavior problem and, therefore, ignored my concerns.

We ended up at Spring Garden Waldorf School in Copley. I drove my children from downtown Cleveland every school day for over two years before finally moving to Akron.

Claude’s stress evaporated at the Waldorf school, but by the end of second grade, he could barely read. A mother is most concerned about her child with the greatest need and I regularly told myself to focus on my other two children.

The following summer, while on vacation at a Buddhist family camp we’d attended for several years, I met a woman who was a pediatric occupational therapist.

“My son holds his pencil like a violin bow,” I told her.

“You need to get him tested immediately,” she replied, which was something I didn’t know I could do. “Poor pencil grip is a red flag for learning disabilities. And don’t be afraid of diagnoses. Remember, with every diagnosis comes funding for supports.”

Claude was tested the fall of his third grade year and diagnosed as severely dyslexic. I called the local chapter of the American Dyslexic Association and asked for a tutor referral.

“The best person is Pam Kanfer. I’d send my own child to her in a heartbeat,” the woman I spoke with said.

Pam was a teacher at the Lippman Day School and I imagined her country address belonged to a quaint farmhouse. But when we arrived, there was a gate with an intercom pad to request entry. Beyond it was a lengthy driveway that meandered past a pond to a modern mansion.

At the time, Pam tutored students in a home office she shared with her husband, Joe. Many of the books on Joe’s shelves were about Judaism. For my undergraduate degree in religious studies, I was required to study a major Eastern and Western religion. I chose Buddhism and Judaism.

“Is your husband a professor of Jewish studies?” I asked.

“No, Judaism is his avocation. He’s the CEO of GOJO.” My face revealed my ignorance (I’d just moved to Akron), so she told me, “We make Purell hand soaps.”

Within three months of working with Pam, Claude went from not being able to spell his name correctly to devouring early reader chapter books. In 2016, he graduated cum laude with a degree in English literature from the University of Michigan. Last year, he received his master’s in public policy from Texas A&M and today he is a congressional liaison for the EPA in Washington, D,C.

By the time my third child, Jules, was in kindergarten, I recognized that he, too, was dyslexic. His father, with whom I was in the midst of that long divorce, disagreed. I took Jules to Akron Children’s Hospital for testing. They confirmed what I knew. And yet his father refused to help.

Pam reduced her rate for me and, like Claude before him, saw Jules for several years.

In all, I went to the Kanfer home multiple times a week for the better part of 10 years. I watched her children grow up, get married and have children. Joe and I talked about Judaism, shared books and once he asked me which of a few mock-up hand-sanitizer bottles I preferred.

I sat in their kitchen on Pam’s 60th birthday while Jules was in session. The next day, I gave birth to my fourth son. Around that same time, Pam asked me to write a recommendation letter for her as part of an application to a graduate program in reading remediation. The teacher kept learning.

A woman who worked in the Kanfer home, and with whom I often chatted, was impressed that Pam never reacted in anger. Pam was firm, but not dour. She believed in people and in my mind embodied the Buddhist concept of maitri, or loving kindness.

This past January, just a few weeks shy of her 73rd birthday, Pam left this life after a long battle with cancer.

A saying that is (mis)attributed to several people goes something like: Of all the things you can do with your life, none is more important than helping a child.

Were we all to model ourselves after Pam Lewis Kanfer, nirvana might be obtainable.

This column was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on March 19, 2023.