Remembering the gay-baiting, deal-making, media-brawling former used car salesman who led the Ohio State Fair for eight unforgettable months in the early 1990s
Editor’s note: With the Ohio State Fair set to kick off on Wednesday, Columbus Monthly takes a look back at one of the fair’s most controversial figures—former manager Billy Inmon, who somehow managed to offend everyone from Stonewall Union to Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas during his short, turbulent tenure.
Even on the day before he was fired as manager of the Ohio State Fair after eight tumultuous months of crises, blunders and botched opportunities, Billy Inmon was still blaming many of his problems on the gays. And, of course, their allies in the media. "My trouble with the press started when I told a homosexual that as far as I was concerned, they weren't going to distribute their pornographic trash at the fair," he said at a bizarre press conference he'd called in a last-ditch effort to save his job. “Shortly after that the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent word that they were coming after me and they were going to get me. Who's going to win? The Plain Dealer or family values? .... I do not regret taking that stand against that trash, even if it costs me my job."
The idea of Plain Dealer publisher Alex Machaskee lumbering down 1-71 from Cleveland to "get" Billy Inmon may resonate with media-bashers. But the truth is, nobody "got” Billy Inmon except Billy himself. He spent much of his brief, unhappy tenure careening from one disastrous gaffe to another, drawing enemies and controversies the way a magnet draws iron filings. And, in the end, he left even some of those on his own political team shaking their heads and muttering, "Where did George Voinovich find this guy?"
Where indeed? And why did Voinovich, normally a cautious and careful politician, cling so fervently and stubbornly to an out-of-control fair manager who seemed to bring the governor's office nothing but headaches? Perhaps it was some bond of born-again religious conviction that kept the governor from moving earlier to cut his losses. Perhaps Billy survived as long as he did because much of what he was doing, however clumsily, was what Voinovich and the Ohio Expositions Commission had told him to do. Perhaps it was that, despite the bungles and brouhahas, Billy Inmon did in the end produce a fair cleaner, prettier, less sleazy than those of recent years. Or was it just inertia?
Billy claimed, as he pleaded on Aug. 27 for an 11th-hour stay of execution, not to know exactly what had turned Voinovich against him. If he'd flipped back through the pages of his 1992 calendar, though, he might have found some clues. In less time than it takes many managers to settle into a new job and lay out a game plan, Billy Inmon had:
• Irritated Downtown leaders with seat of-the-pants proposals for a huge fairgrounds arena and a Downtown-to-fairgrounds railroad;
• Alienated hundreds of thousands of fairgoers by charging for midway rides that had been free for a decade;
• Infuriated gays and civil libertarians with his crude and futile attempt to boot gays off the fairgrounds;
• Tried and failed to get rid of the fair's year-round food service contractor;
• Roiled the Statehouse and driven Wendy's, White Castle and McDonald's from the fairgrounds by signing an exclusive soft-drink contract with Pepsi-Cola;
• Hired a deputy fair manager from Kentucky who proceeded to sexually harass the granddaughter-in-law of former Gov. and fair booster extraordinaire Jim Rhodes;
• Violated Ohio's prevailing wage laws and been forced to dole out thousands of dollars in back pay;
• Lost more than $600,000 on the fair's million-dollar lineup of big-name entertainment;
• Fired his own finance and public relations directors because he suspected they were leaking information to “enemies" in the press.
How could one man wreak so much havoc in so little time? Folks in Willard, a city of about 5,000 that sits a skip-and-a jump north of Mansfield, have some clues. That's where Billy parlayed his used car dealership, Billy Inmon's Motor Sales, into a real estate mini-empire—a motel, a restaurant, a small storage warehouse, a roller rink, an ice cream parlor and a piece of a shopping center. By his own account, Billy left Willard last January a millionaire after selling the car business to his brother.
Whatever Inmon's net worth, it's a safe bet that he's made it all in the past decade. His first automobile venture, a Ford dealership about 10 miles east of Willard in Greenwich, Ohio, went out of business in 1982. That was the one, locals recall, with the fishing pond and the golf driving range, the white columns out front and the prayer chapel inside. The chapel may have worked for buyers seeking divine intercession in the deal-making process, but it didn't help Billy and his wife avoid bankruptcy.
After starting out fresh in Willard, Inmon won a seat on the local school board in 1987 and just about turned the town on its ear. First he tried to ban elementary textbooks he found demonic, occult, or at the very least way too liberal. Rebuffed in his crusade to be Willard's official school censor, Inmon turned on the district superintendent and his fellow school board members. He accused the superintendent of making personal phone calls at school expense, then launched a referendum drive to repeal a school tax levy. “You'll have a hard time finding anybody in this town who wants to see him back," says one man who fought to keep the tax. “He about ripped this place apart. Personally, I don't care if I never see him again."
Inmon says he was just sticking by his moral and religious principles; he doesn't really mind that his levy repeal failed: “That's democracy, I guess.” But soon after the defeat, he began nosing around for a good job elsewhere. And there in Columbus was George Voinovich, looking for a new fair director.
The former fair director, Jack Foust, was a low-profile manager who'd been around for more than a decade. He played his cards close to the vest and was savvy enough about Statehouse politics to survive under both Republican Gov. Jim Rhodes and Democratic Gov. Dick Celeste. But Foust often kept even his own nominal bosses on the Ohio Expositions Commission (OEC) in the dark, and his information-hoarding style didn't sit well with George Voinovich. Foust quit in July 1991, just a month before the Voinovich administration's first state fair.
Although the fair's general manager is appointed by the OEC, commission members are appointed by the governor and must be split politically. Because Ohio's directors of agriculture and development serve on the commission ex officio, the governor is always in control. So last fall, when the commission began the search to replace Foust, close attention was paid to what George Voinovich wanted.
"I talked to the governor about it,” says OEC chairman Fred Johnson, a wealthy, retired businessman and landowner from Summitville. "All he said was, 'Get the best man.' He never once said, 'Get this guy Billy Inmon.' I wouldn't have done it.”
There may not have been an ultimatum, but Voinovich's involvement in picking Inmon from a field of 122 applicants was direct and substantial. Billy was a personal friend of George and Janet Voinovich, and he'd been a hard-sweating GOP fund-raiser in north central Ohio. He'd been there for George in the 1990 campaign, and George was there for him when Billy decided he wanted the fair job.
Voinovich even interviewed Billy personally. "The fact that you were the most qualified person for the job came through loud and clear at our meeting at the [governor's] residence," he would write to Inmon a couple of months later. And so last January, with three Democratic members grumbling a bit and abstaining from the vote, Billy Inmon took over the fair. For $60,000 a year and use of a house on the fairgrounds, he said, he'd work month-to month, no long-term contract needed: "If the commission loses confidence in me, I'm gone."
Voinovich and the OEC had an agenda for Billy—one that was laid out privately even before he'd been hired. Clean up the fairgrounds, they said. Make the fair pay for itself without a state subsidy. Get rid of some of the unbid sweetheart contracts that fatten up people we don't like. Lighten up on the honky-tonk and sleaze and give us more of the family values thing. And Billy, a born salesman who believes with all his heart in the power of positive thinking, said: I can do that.
Then the trouble began. Where Jack Foust had been publicity-shy almost to the point of invisibility, Billy Inmon blew into Columbus like a dervish. Within weeks, and without bothering to touch base with the Statehouse, he created a minor flap by proposing that Columbus' long-delayed, much-debated civic and sports arena be built at the fairgrounds, rather than Downtown. The Ohio State basketball team could play there, Billy said; they'd sell out 22,000 seats every time. It wasn't so much the ideas that shook people up; others have made the case for a fairgrounds arena. It was the new kid in town, popping off.
In the mayor's office, Greg Lashutka backpedaled. Nice thought, he said, but the arena really should be Downtown. At Ohio State, communications boss Mal Baroway said OSU wouldn't likely move its basketball games off campus, thanks all the same. Score: Columbus 1, Billy 0.
But Billy Inmon is nothing if not persistent. Within 48 hours he was back in print, proposing a rail link from the new Columbus Convention Center to the fairgrounds. That should take care of the grumblers who said it would be too hard to get to a fairgrounds arena from Downtown.
Billy said he'd been to see Joe Jester, chairman of the Greater Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau. But Jester, who knows how things really work in Columbus, was noncommittal. “We had a general discussion, and it is a possibility," he told the Dispatch. “But this is something that needs to be looked at by a number of community leaders." Translation: Go away, Billy. And keep your mouth shut.
Billy went away, and so did the arena and railroad plans. But try as he might, Billy just couldn't keep his mouth shut. He'd been hired to shake things up and make big changes, he said, and by God, he was going to do it.
"We were hiring primarily his marketing skills, his enthusiasm, his energy, his salesmanship ability,” recalls: OEC chairman Johnson. They got all of that, but they also got a kind of out-of-control zeal that soon began to worry even George Voinovich. “I know you have the enthusiasm and commitment to turn the Ohio State Fair around," Voinovich wrote to Inmon shortly after his appointment. "If it looks like the Fair Board is going to get into a policy matter which will cause the Governor some problems, I would sure like to know about it in advance. I am sure, for example, when the new policy was proposed regarding ticket costs and amusement ride costs that you tried to touch base with Paul [Mifsud].”
Translation: No sooner had things quieted down about the arena and the railroad, Billy, than people started calling the governor's office and bitching about your plan to help balance the fair's budget by charging for rides. And you hadn't even bothered to warn us. Don't forget who hired you.
Maybe Billy wasn't a good translator, or maybe he thought he was working for a Higher Authority. Whatever the reason, he kept plunging deeper into thickets of controversy. Fairgoers never did accept the pay-per-ride policy, which Inmon insisted would net the OEC $1 million in commissions from Link Carnival. Folks who'd paid $5 just to get into the fair weren't one bit excited about paying an additional 75 cents to $3 per ride. Ten days into the fair, with attendance dragging and midway vendors wailing, the commission was begging the state controlling board for $60,000 to subsidize free rides for two hours daily. The board coughed up the money, but the bad taste lingered.
By that time, though, the pay-per-ride fight was just one more blip on Billy Inmon's cluttered radar screen. In terms of bad publicity, ride charges registered far below Billy's war with the gays. Late last spring, Billy lit into Stonewall Union, the gay and lesbian lobby, and a tabloid called Gaybeat, which covers gay issues, runs ads featuring pictures of young studs with their flies at half-mast and veers off now and then into some pretty raunchy homoerotic fantasies. No homosexual trash at my fair, Billy told the gays, and it was hard to tell whether he was talking about publications or people. Billy's a born again Christian, you see, and homosexuals don't fit into his cosmic scheme of things.
The Ohio attorney general's office jerked Billy's chain on that one, of course. It wasn't long before Stonewall Union had its booth again, and Billy was saying really, truly he never meant to mess with anyone's First Amendment rights. But the Stonewall flap was the beginning of the end for the short, unhappy Inmon regime. It was the fourth time in just a few months on the job that Billy had opened his mouth when he should have kept it shut, and talking out of turn is the kind of mistake that gets noticed at the Statehouse.
Billy's friends in the right-wing American Family Association (“I've never been a member," he says, “but I admire and respect what they stand for.") mounted a letter-writing campaign complaining about Stonewall and Gaybeat, and the expositions commission created a committee to review questionable literature. But Stonewall wound up distributing more than 80 publications—not including Gaybeat—without a murmur from the fair. “They won and we lost," said a fair staffer. "It's as simple as that.”
About the same time he began doing battle with Stonewall Union, Billy was trying, much more quietly, to get the fair out of its food service contract with KFS Inc. The initials stand for Kaltenbach Food Services, and the company is owned by Rebecca Kaltenbach, the widow of Jerry Kaltenbach, a longtime political playmaker who'd been extremely tight with Jim Rhodes. Largely thanks to Rhodes's patronage, Kaltenbach had run the midway and found lots of other ways to make money at the fair. Even after Jerry's death, Jack Foust made sure Rebecca Kaltenbach was well taken care of. In 1986 the OEC gave KFS a five-year contract for year-round concession rights at the fairgrounds. The state controlling board approved that deal, but never saw the five-year extension negotiated by Jack Foust in 1989.
When Billy Inmon took over the fair, he soon heard the beefs about KFS: high prices, mediocre food, no chance for Republican friends of George Voinovich to get in on the action. Inmon got the message. “I was told to clean up the corruption that's existed out here and cut out the sweetheart deals,” he'd say later. “That's what I've tried to do."
OEC chairman Johnson says Jack Foust had allowed political wheeler-dealers like Kaltenbach to run things for far too long: "Everything on the fairgrounds that made money was contracted out to their cronies and friends. The fair manager didn't do a thing. He just sat there while his friends got rich. The very day Billy started, we had to borrow $250,000, just to stay afloat.”
Inmon notified Rebecca Kaltenbach that her five-year extension was invalid because the controlling board hadn't ap proved it. But Kaltenbach had lawyers sharp, politically well-connected ones from Cleveland. In less time than it takes a bungee jumper to stop bouncing, she'd gotten a restraining order keeping KFS on the fairgrounds.
Word of the KFS fight ricocheted around the Statehouse like shrapnel. George Voinovich didn't need the aggravation. “I would like a complete explanation of the recent extension of the contract for food at the fair," he wrote to Inmon. “I would also like to know the changes you've made in the operation out there. Please send me a confidential memo (two or three pages) regarding what you've found and what you've done to correct the situation. ... I would like this information to be personally delivered to me. Perhaps someone could bring an envelope marked ‘Personal and confidential’ to the residence, give it to the patrol officer on duty to be given to either Janet or me. Please prepare it to me as confidentially as possible. I would like to make sure Fred Johnson also signs off on what is contained in the memo."
A savvier manager might have read warning signals in the governor's unusual interest in fair minutiae. Not Billy. He plunged headlong into his next fiasco—the Pepsi follies.
The fair's scores of food vendors had always been able to serve whatever soft drinks they chose. But Inmon, scrabbling for ways to run the fair like a business," decided to take bids for exclusive pouring rights on everything that fizzes. Pepsi, sensing a chance to slam-dunk Coke, submitted a five-year, $2.6 million bid and walked off with the deal.
Billy thought he'd scored a coup. Coke serving fair vendors like Wendy's, White Castle, McDonald's and Donatos thought he'd given them the shaft. Worse, he hadn't even bothered to tell them about the deal before the public announcement. You could almost hear the foreheads being slapped in the governor's office as Democrats on the state controlling board ripped Inmon apart.
State Rep. Pat Sweeney of Cleveland, who rarely passes up a chance to embarrass Voinovich, led the assault. "By entering this contract, you forced longtime vendors and suppliers into a violation of their contracts [with Coke]," Sweeney told Inmon. "Is it common for commissions across the country to show such disrespect for their vendors that you make them violate their contracts?... The expositions commission has no class. They blindsided the existing contract holders."
In June the controlling board's four Republicans locked ranks and approved the Pepsi contract over the objections of Sweeney and the other two Democrats. But the uproar and the subsequent boycott of the 1992 fair by Wendy's, White Castle and McDonald's accelerated Billy Inmon's slide toward oblivion. When you start getting cuffed around by people like Wendy's founder R. David Thomas, who's wandered the fairgrounds arm-in-arm with Jim Rhodes for two decades and spent hundreds of thousands buying champion fair steers, you're in trouble.
To this day, Inmon professes not to understand what all the shouting was about. “I don't think I'm naive," he says, “but I've had some shocks, like Pat Sweeney taking me on. If I believed everything that's been written about me, I wouldn't even like myself.”
Sweeney, who likes nothing better than a good vendetta, made savaging Inmon and the fair board a spectator sport, As the weeks went by, Sweeney had no trouble finding additional ammunition. Mostly, Billy Inmon handed it to him.
In July there was the prevailing wage flap. Inmon had hired an old friend, a rough-edged construction boss from Kentucky named Oscar Green, as the fair's deputy director and told him to make the fairgrounds sparkle. Green in turn hired several dozen out-of-work Kentuckians, put them up on the fairgrounds and turned them loose with paintbrushes and pipe wrenches. But he didn't make them state employees, and he didn't pay union-scale wages. Green paid his painters about $10 an hour, for example, while union painters in Columbus make about $17.
It didn't take long for Sweeney and Ohio union leaders to pounce on that. “We are treating these workers like they are migrants,” said Central Ohio Building Trades Council boss Jim Rarey. “It reminds me of ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ ” The fair's own lawyer, assistant attorney general Kurt Gearhiser, told Inmon he'd better pay prevailing wage rates. The fair wound up shelling out thousands in back pay and laying off two-thirds of the Kentucky work crew.
Then came the really big Oscar Green blow-up. Twelve days into the fair his secretary, Nichole Moore, filed a sexual harassment complaint charging Green had asked questions about her personal life that went way over the line. Green picked precisely the wrong woman to hit on; Nichole Moore, as Green may or may not have known, is married to Jim Rhodes's grandson.
Kaboom! More headlines! Green hired Rocky Saxbe, a well-connected Republican lawyer, but there was little Saxbe could do. By the time the state's equal employment investigation found probable cause to believe Green had indeed harassed Moore, Green was long gone, back in Kentucky.
A week later, as the fair commission was deliberating Billy Inmon's own firing, he was still defending his old friend. “Oscar Green is a fine man," he said. "I believe it was a made-up, cooked-up scam to embarrass me. . . . The governor's office ran a check on him, and he was clean as a whistle. He just happened to be from Kentucky.”
As the fair wound up its 17-day run, Billy Inmon's already tenuous position had deteriorated rapidly. He'd long since declared "the press"—particularly the Plain Dealer, the Toledo Blade and Dispatch reporter Mark Somerson—to be among his enemies. He'd swung from giving long, rambling interviews to giving none at all. But some members of Inmon's own staff were leaking like Bexley basements after a thunderstorm. Poor fair attendance? Zip! The numbers went right to Mark Somerson. You say the fair's heavy-duty entertainment schedule—name acts like Bill Cosby, Reba McEntire, Ringo Starr and Tanya Tucker—lost $600,000 because it wasn't promoted right? Zip! More headlines.
Billy had groused for weeks that even some members of his own staff weren't loyal to him. But when word of the entertainment losses reached Somerson almost before they'd reached Billy himself, it was too much. Three days after the fair ended, Inmon fired his finance director, David Alexander, and his public relations boss, Pieter Wykoff.
That was the last straw. While rumors swirled that Inmon was "cooking the books” to make the fair's money situation look better than it was, Voinovich and Mifsud swung into action. Mifsud had tried for months to tell Billy to shut up, hunker down, lower his profile and just do his job. Meanwhile Voinovich, loyal to a fault, had silenced those on his staff who wanted Billy gone. Even after Inmon had refused Mifsud’s request that he resign, delivered during a three-hour meeting on the night before the fair closed, Voinovich was content to wait until the expositions commission’s regular September meeting to see the ax fall.
Billy’s impetuous decision to bounce two key staff members, though, went too far. The day after Inmon fired Alexander and Wykoff, Voinovich called Inmon to his office and asked him to quit. But Billy, who had said he’d leave whenever the fair board decided he should go, refused.
Still full of himself and apparently unable to see that his position was hopeless, Billy tried to go one-on-one against Voinovich, thereby burning any remaining Republican bridges he might have had. He called two press conferences, both scheduled to give him live exposure on TV newscasts. “What have I done,” he asked publicly, “to deserve deserve losing my job? … I will never, never, never resign.”
“I invite the good people and families of Ohio that have good morals to call the governor’s office tomorrow and ask him to reconsider,” Billy said, and he gave out the governor’s number.
Billy may have hoped his born-again and anti-gay supporters would win a last-minute stay of execution. But when the governor’s staff stopped counting at about 250 calls the next day, the sentiment was running about two-to-one against Inmon. Stonewall Union, some speculated, had its own phone tree.
The fair board’s special meeting on Aug. 28 was almost anti-climatic. Everyone knew Voinovich controlled enough votes to dump Billy. About a dozen Billy-backers showed up; some said they were from the Ohio Coalition of Pro-Decency Groups, others from the American Family Association. One boy about 10 years old wore a red T-shirt; “Air Jesus flies higher than Jordan,” it said.
Billy’s supporters were outnumbered by reporters and TV camera crews, who cooled their heels while the OEC met in secret to formalize Billy’s dismissal.
Right to the end, Billy was defiant. “The guy who’s tearing down the log cabin [a model set up on the fairgrounds to make sales presentations for the cabins] right now will tell you this is the most beautiful fair, the cleanest fair, and he’s got more business this year than ever before,” he said.
And he had a point. Fairgoers entering from the north parking lots had to wonder for a moment if they’d gotten confused and gone to the wrong exposition. Everything was AmeriFlora teal-and-magenta, right down the lightposts and lemonade stands. “If it doesn’t match,” Billy had ordered, “it’s gotta go.” There were more flowers and greenery than anyone could remember at a state fair, even way back when state fairs were still about farms and growing things. Inmon’s crews installed $100,000 worth of huge, timber-framed flower boxes, and plenty of benches from which to admire the array. It was, as everyone told Billy, the best-looking state fair they’d ever seen.
As he waited for the OEC to seal his fate, Billy predicted the 1992 fair would wind up making money, despite all the flaps and setbacks. He read a graphic excerpt from Gaybeat to let everyone know just how disgusting it was. And he in-your-faced his media tormentors. “You and Mark Somerson and the Plain Dealer have been part of the problem all along,” he told Ann Fisher of the Toledo Blade. And, “I don’t intend to answer any questions for you, Mark Somerson.”
Then Billy worked the crowd: “How are ya? Thanks for your support.” It was a gritty performance, but everyone knew the game was over. “They never gave him a chance,” said one of Billy’s supporters as the verdict came down, 8-1 against Billy. Only Fred Johnson voted against the firing, and he made a point of saying he wasn’t endorsing Billy’s performance, only objecting to firing him without an evaluation.
It fell to Fred Dailey, Voinovich’s agriculture director and the first person to bungee-jump at the fair, to deliver the post mortem. “The fair looks better than it’s ever looked,” Dailey said. “I’ve never heard anyone deny that. Things such as the Pepsi deal he should be given a gold star for, rather than criticized. He did not do a good job with his media relations. He had some problems as far as his staff goes. In all fairness to Billy, he was probably better suited to the private sector than the public sector.”
And Billy? “I’m looking for a job,” he said, “if you know anyone who needs a great manager.”
This story originally appeared in the October 1992 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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