Why are elected leaders in this premier suburb so unhappy? Think gossip, small-town grievances and the confrontational style of the man in the middle of all the misery.
The thing about Bexley is how many people never leave. Unique for a metropolitan suburb, a striking number of its natives raise their families where they themselves grew up. It’s a testament to Bexley’s quality of life—but there’s a downside. High school social dynamics are carried over into adulthood. Middle-aged neighbors remember each other as kids, holding onto old friendships as well as petty grievances. People gossip, and they know a little too much about each other.
“Bexley is a very small, tight-knit community, especially for people who have grown up here or lived here for many, many years,” says Mary Gottesman, a Bexley city councilwoman. That can be a nice thing, she says, but can also add stress in difficult situations. “When you’re stuck in the middle of the misery, it feels like a curse.”
Bexley City Hall is stuck in the middle of the misery. The city itself is doing great: Property values are through the roof; voters overwhelmingly passed a capital bond issue in November; the new food-waste program is a regional model. But long-simmering personal tensions have publicly erupted, consuming city officials’ energy and infusing City Council meetings with bad manners, foul language and open hostility. Council President Lori Ann Feibel said at a recent meeting the controversy has made Bexley “a laughingstock among Central Ohio communities.”
“It is obviously embarrassing to the city of Bexley,” Mayor Ben Kessler says. “I can’t wait for a day when we are again going to council with an open mind, with positive thinking and with healthy interactions so that we’re really focused on what we should be doing instead of shielding ourselves from personal attacks and trying to referee difficult interpersonal situations.”
Most residents figured things were going just fine until video of a tumultuous late November meeting appeared on the Bexley Buzz Facebook page, followed by Columbus media stories about incidents that preceded it. “That’s almost unheard of in Bexley,” Councilman Steve Keyes says. “I can’t believe this one councilperson has pushed us to this point to where we are now, like this is like some game show, or this is just like the Kardashians.”
The councilperson in question is Tim Madison, whose confrontations with his colleagues and Bexley residents over the past 16 months have drawn unwelcome intrigue into the operations of local government. There are different opinions among his colleagues about whether he is solely or only partially to blame for the unhappy state of affairs at City Hall, but there is no question that he is at the center of it. Council meetings are dominated by acerbic exchanges between Madison and fellow councilmembers. He has been publicly reprimanded and referred to anger management counseling. The council president has publicly asked him to resign. Complicating matters is that Madison isn’t some rogue political gadfly. He is a pillar of the community and heir to a beloved icon.
You can’t get much more Bexley than the Madison family. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants who started the defunct Madison’s department store chain, David Madison served two terms on Bexley City Council, beginning in 1968, and then had a 32-year run as Bexley’s mayor. His tenure was not without controversy. In 1995, he was forced to resign after he was convicted of two misdemeanor counts of dereliction of duty for mishandling traffic violations in Bexley Mayor’s Court. Voters forgave him, however. He was re-elected five months after stepping down and served 12 more years as mayor. When Madison finally retired, the city named the community swimming pool after him.
Though he left the office 12 years ago, some residents think he still runs the city, stopping him in the grocery store or even calling his home to lodge a service complaint. The former mayor’s oldest child, Andy, is a boardmember of the Bexley Community Improvement Corporation. Tim, the youngest, has followed more closely in his father’s footsteps.
A real estate lawyer, Tim was known for a variety of Bexley volunteer activities, most notably as chair of the Bexley Fourth of July and Evening Activities Committee, which in 2008 moved the community fireworks display from Columbus’ Wolfe Park to make it an eveninglong festival at Bexley’s Capital University with live music, food and games. With Tim Madison’s continued leadership, the fireworks event has been at Capital ever since. “It was the best thing that could have ever happened,” David Madison says. “The crowds tripled.”
Having grown up with a front-row view of his father’s own Bexley public service, Tim Madison had no initial desire to seek public office. But in his late 40s, he changed his mind, running successfully for the seven-member City Council in 2011 and 2015. “I swore him in both times, and I was quite proud of it,” David Madison says. “I always thought he would be great at it. And he is great at it.”
Tim Madison sought to increase public participation in council meetings, creating the Bexley Blast email to inform residents of city business, requiring audio recordings of every council meeting and posting each council meeting agenda on Facebook. Among his colleagues and the city administration, he also established himself as someone who asked a lot of questions. “I’m a dissenting voice,” says Madison, 54. “I feel it is my job as a councilmember to question people.”
Madison can be “a bulldog,” Councilman Richard Sharp says, “but I took that to be his style, and there wasn’t really anything offensive about that style.” Other city officials found Madison abrasive and insulting. He would express outrage or righteous indignation over a policy or procedural disagreement and sent harsh emails that recipients dreaded opening.
Kessler says he changed his email settings just for Madison’s communications. “He uses all caps, and he uses hyperbolic phrases like, ‘I am beyond shocked,’” Kessler says. Rather than read Madison’s message in real time, “I created a filter so that I would check them when I had the emotional bandwidth to deal with those emails.”
David Madison says tolerance of differing viewpoints may be his son’s one shortcoming. “I think he has trouble if people don’t agree with him,” the former mayor says. “I think he has trouble sometimes listening to other people, and the other people on council feel they do a good job, so you’re going to have that kind of back and forth.”
But even when they were stung by his manner, some colleagues appreciated his keen intellect. “Tim’s always had a short temper,” Gottesman says. “He’s always reacted strongly, but … he’s the best critical thinker we’ve got.” Voters were happy enough to re-elect Madison in 2015 with more votes than any of the other candidates in the council race. His colleagues chose him to serve a two-year stint as council president the following January, and the role seemed to suit him, perhaps even making him a little more collegial.
In 2017, three incumbents—Sharp, Feibel and Deneese Owen—were up for re-election. Monique Lampke, a local attorney, began urging friends and acquaintances to make the election a contested one. When nobody else agreed to run, Lampke decided to seek the office herself. She says she wasn’t running against any particular incumbent. Others, however, believed Lampke targeted Owen.
Gottesman says Owen had ruffled a few feathers by successfully sponsoring an anti-discrimination law in response to a Bexley wedding photography business that denied services to a same-sex couple in 2015. But a far more personal issue, Owen’s relationship with Madison, was the subject of a whisper campaign against Owen.
Madison, who separated from his wife in 2016, acknowledges a past personal relationship with Owen but will not discuss it out of respect for his family. Owen, who Gottesman says was divorced at the time of the relationship with Madison, declined to comment for this story. “There were mistakes made, and I took responsibility for those mistakes,” Madison says. “I apologized to the people I needed to apologize to.” Though he was not on the ballot, Madison’s self-described mistake dominated community chatter about the election. Some residents with Owen’s signs in their yards received disapproving phone calls from their neighbors.
“Deneese became their target,” Gottesman says. “There was a lot of very hostile, negative behavior in this city. It was an ugly, ugly, ugly public relations campaign against her. It also happened that these people were friends of Ms. Lampke, and they may have thought that this was a good way to support her. She may not have known anything about it.”
Lampke says she never spoke a negative word about Owen during her campaign and never heard her supporters do so. “No one mentioned Deneese,” she says. On Election Day, Lamkpe won a spot on council, finishing second. Owen was barely nudged out by Sharp for the third spot. “The city lost a very good advocate when she was defeated,” Madison says.
As the results trickled in on election night, Madison was in a foul mood. “That night was the culmination for me of six months of hearing lots of incredibly nasty things,” he says. At Table, where Feibel was having her campaign celebration, Madison confronted Feibel’s husband, Jonathan, a Columbus doctor who is active in the Jewish community, telling him he was “a sorry excuse for a Jew.” (Madison is also Jewish.) Later, at City Hall, where candidates and supporters were gathered to receive firsthand election results, Madison told Mark Masser, a former councilman, he was a “piece of shit.”
Then Madison ran into Lampke, who was about to treat her children to celebratory ice cream at Graeter’s. “He said, ‘You’re a nasty, nasty woman, and you have run a horrible, horrible campaign,’” Lampke recalls. “I turned around and said, ‘You know, Tim, I’m really excited to work with you on City Council.’ Clearly that wasn’t the response he wanted. That enraged him.”
Madison sounds sincerely sorry about insulting Masser and Dr. Feibel, but shrugs off his slur against Lampke. “If that’s what she said I said, I said it,” he says. “There were a lot of things said about me during her campaign, and residents consistently told me things that she and others were saying about me. Some of them were true, and most of them weren’t.”
There was a time when it seemed that Lori Ann Feibel and Tim Madison might work well together. Feibel had put a Madison sign in her own yard during his first race in 2011. Two years later, she ran with the enthusiastic support of David Madison. Despite being a first-time candidate, Feibel finished first among those elected that year, a feat she repeated four years later. “I think she does a good job,” David Madison says, “and she cares.”
With Tim Madison’s two-year term as City Council president over at the end of 2018, Feibel was chosen to replace him the following January. Feibel made some changes in the agenda that Madison didn’t like, including a three-minute limit for residents offering public comment. Already sore about the previous year’s election, being replaced by a new president with a different style and new rules made Madison more confrontational, both during council meetings and in outside conversations.
“He previously seemed to be generally OK with people having disagreements,” Sharp says. “Especially since Jan. 1 of 2018, it has been more or less constant criticism when his ideas are not implemented or, if previously implemented, ideas of his are modified or changed.”
Tensions already were high when Lampke introduced a code of personal conduct for Bexley city officials. The measure addressed numerous ethical and behavioral issues, including a requirement that councilmembers “maintain appropriate relationships with other councilmembers” that “should not create a conflict of interest or give the appearance of impropriety.” Lamkpe says residents recommended the proposal. “Every place that I’ve ever worked has an ethics and a conduct code,” she says.
The proposal split council. Sharp thought it was duplicative of existing law; Gottesman thought it curtailed First Amendment rights. Madison agreed with these criticisms—and also interpreted it as a personal rebuke for his relationship with Owen. “I was told by countless residents it was to punish me for my mistakes,” he says. The law passed by a 4-3 vote Aug. 28 and became law without the signature of Kessler. The mayor had no quarrel with the substance of the law but believed it was pushed through without consensus or sensitivity to opposing viewpoints.
Council relationships were at what was then an all-time low. Madison says he recognized the sorry state of affairs and made an attempt to mend them. In early September, he emailed his colleagues, requesting a session “to just talk about anything that is on our minds with the goal of trying to get back to working as a group rather than a fractured, divided, constantly fighting mess.” Feibel did not reply to Madison’s request. “There’s a history of communications, emails that have been less than civil,” Feibel says, “and that one seemed super-disingenuous.”
The situation would soon be beyond repair. On Nov. 13, Madison had a social media exchange with a resident named Nate Caplin, an outspoken opponent of Madison’s proposal to prohibit short-term property rentals. As zoning chair, Madison had presided over three discussions of the law, and a fourth had occurred at the previous meeting, which Madison missed due to the death of his mother. “It’s obviously Tim Madison’s strategy to keep the whole process a mystery so he can ram it through with minimal public oversight/input,” Caplin wrote on Facebook.
The remark hit a nerve with Madison, who prides himself on inviting public input. During a recess in that night’s meeting, Madison approached Caplin in the City Hall parking lot. According to a complaint Caplin later filed with the city, Madison told him, “You used your First Amendment rights. Now I’m using mine. You’re a gutless troll.” Says Madison, “I wanted to tell him what he did was wrong. I understand as an elected official that was probably improper, but that was my reasoning.”
For some councilmembers, what had long been an annoyance was now a crisis. Feibel issued new rules for council meeting interactions, requiring members and other city officials to be recognized before speaking. Caplin’s complaint sparked accounts of previous encounters with Madison, including his election night confrontations and a coarse insult to a volunteer on the Jeffrey Mansion Refresh Committee. When David Madison heard the stories, “I was floored, to tell you the truth,” he says. “I told him, ‘Admit you were wrong,’ which he has done, ‘and apologize, and people will forgive you.’”
Madison did not appear chastened at council’s next meeting two weeks later. Within minutes of Feibel’s opening remarks, Madison interrupted her, challenging Feibel’s authority to institute new meeting rules, and a shouting match ensued until Feibel called a recess. Madison says it was another example of Feibel imposing her will without input. But other members, including those who have misgivings about the rules, say after the events of the previous meeting, Feibel had little choice but to try to restore order. “When she first became president, she was collegial, she was trying to be tolerant of different attitudes,” Sharp says. “As time went on, she realized not standing up for herself and her position, she wasn’t getting anywhere, and so she became more stern.”
As bad as things were last fall, the situation has managed to deteriorate. After Madison participated in his first anger management counseling session at Matrix Psychological Services—which he had agreed to as a result of the Caplin complaint—his therapist contacted Keyes to ask him what council hoped to accomplish. Against the advice of City Attorney Marc Fishel, Keyes responded, writing it was “particularly distressing to us that, at least in conversations with us, Mr. Madison appears to believe he has done nothing wrong.”
Declaring that Keyes had interfered in his therapy, Madison asked his colleagues to sanction Keyes for the email. His colleagues absolved Keyes of ill intent but acknowledged the situation had spoiled any progress Madison had made with Matrix and that he would need to start over with a new counselor. Madison isn’t inclined to do so. “Steve sabotaged my counseling,” he says. “By council voting that Steve did nothing wrong, they’re saying it’s OK. Why would I start again if the same thing could happen?”
Whether it began with the confrontation in the parking lot, with the campaign against Deneese Owen or with the Bexley voters’ decision to elect Tim Madison in the first place, there is little hope that the dynamics on council are going to improve anytime soon. Feibel says the community will continue to thrive, but the drama is taking its toll. “Imagine what we could be doing if we weren’t distracted by this stuff,” she says.
Madison is miserable, too. “I dread going to council meetings,” he says. He won’t resign, however, because he doesn’t want to disappoint his supporters. But the battles with his colleagues are affecting his personal life, his health and his emotional state. “I take this stuff really personally—way too personally,” he says. “I’m not what they’re portraying me to be—this angry person who chased down someone in the parking lot. It’s just not who I am. At least I don’t think I am.”
Gottesman notes that in the past couple of years Madison’s marriage ended, his only friend on council was defeated, and his mother died. She regrets that she and her colleagues went so long without addressing Madison’s aggressive behavior and that, when they finally did, it was done without empathy. “He was hurting so much,” she says. “The thing we have not extended to Tim sufficiently is compassion.”