The life and times of the best little speed trap in Central Ohio
Editor’s note: It’s been 14 years since the fall of New Rome, when state officials dissolved the tiny West Side village after years of nepotism, legal wrangling, missing money and countless traffic tickets, often more than a dozen a day on a 1,000-foot stretch of West Broad Street. In 2002, Columbus Monthly profiled the notorious community—and the stealth political outsider who attempted to take down its old guard.
A trio of newly appointed council members emerged from the double-wide trailer that serves as New Rome's municipal hall and police station. You could tell they were council members; the flannel shirts and angry faces gave them away. The burst of a photographer's flash illuminated the scene as they descended the wooden steps bolted onto the double-wide "You're all assholes!" Patricia McCormick hissed at the pair of reporters lingering outside.
It may have been Valentine's Day, but love didn't live here. The past hour had been filled with insults, angry outbursts, physical confrontations and general incivility while television cameramen jockeyed for position to capture footage that looked more like Jerry Springer than a village council meeting. In the course of the evening, the village's new mayor had been called a carpetbagger and had his notes ripped off the podium as he read from them; they were taken by the wife of the former mayor, who, along with her sister, had been appointed to council seats by their nephew moments earlier.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
The new mayor, however, didn't recognize their appointments. In fact, he talked over the group as he appointed his own set of council members.
That was OK with the sisters and the nephew, though. They didn't recognize him as mayor either.
Welcome to New Rome. For weeks, government in this tiny WestSide village of 60 people has been Central Ohio's favorite spectator sport, meriting almost daily front-page coverage in the Dispatchand commercial-break teases from the local newscasts. And like a good soap opera, the plot just keeps thickening.
There's the village police force, sometimes numbering more than a dozen—or roughly one cop for every five residents—vigilantly patrolling its quarter mile skid mark of West Broad Street, running radar, calling in plates and itching for excuses to write citations.
Which might constitute little more than a costly irritant, if every few years the village kitty didn't come up thousands of dollars short, leaving the impression that the tiny police state of New Rome was crooked as a dog's hind leg. All of this happened under a village government in which the mayor appoints his wife and kids and nephews and in-laws to council seats—without ever bothering to notify the county board of elections about these appointments. Predictably, there were those who thought this ornery map dot had held its bit of Broad Street hostage for too long. Something had to be done.
Last summer, a tall man on a white horse (OK, so it was a red Corvette) slipped into town under the cover of anonymity, leaving only a paper trail in his wake. By the time the New Rome old guard picked up the trail, it was too late. Jamie Mueller, a dapper 48-year-old businessman and owner of the nearby Lincoln Lodge retirement home, had earned himself a spot as the only candidate on the mayoral ballot in New Rome's November election.
The old New Romans cried foul, claiming Mueller was a fraud with destructive intent.
The battle lines were drawn, Mueller was elected mayor. Then the old-guard council appointed its own mayor, as if the election had never taken place. Mueller appointed his own council, as if the old guard officials were little more than scabs to be flicked away.
Other officeholders in far larger offices were forced into the fray, their groans at the prospect almost audible. Suddenly, State Auditor Jim Petro and Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien and board of elections head Guy Reece were faced with sorting it all out. It wouldn't be easy.
Any discussion about New Rome starts here. The cops are New Rome's raison d'être. Virtually all of the village's revenue is generated by the police force, and virtually all of it is spent on the police force. Even the village's very identity—as a speed trap—revolves around its cops. During the first half of 2001, New Rome police wrote 2,249 traffic tickets, or more than a dozen a day, on a stretch of road not quite four blocks long. There were another 842 warnings issued.
“They say we're a speed trap, but only about 10 percent of our tickets are for speeding," says Police Chief Larry Cunningham. Maybe that's because everyone knows you don't speed through New Rome. The citations, however, haven't slowed. They most often are written for expired tags or no proof of insurance, some for no operator's license.
Cunningham started the New Rome police force in 1972, left in 1980, returned in 1990—“They called me, I didn't call them," he says—and has been chief ever since. It's a part-time position that pays him $769.23 biweekly; he also serves as village administrator, without pay. By many accounts, he's New Rome's de facto ruler.
Last year, in fact, Cunningham instigated an attempt at a massive land-grab. New Rome proposed an annexation of a vast area of Prairie Township that included Westland Mall, Doctors West Hospital and Lincoln Village—some 3,000 residents and 72 businesses in all.Cunningham is candid about the reason: He wanted a bigger playground for his cops.
“The reason for the annexation—our whole intention—was to use our police force to its full potential; to deal with the armed robberies and homicides and thefts; to be real policemen, if you know what I mean," he says. One can envision the chief gazing hungrily down Broad Street at all those businesses and homes, dreaming of crime, real crime.
"Our men are getting sick of being traffic cops, even though we get some pretty good pinches out of them," says Cunningham.
The petition virtually was laughed off. “It was an absurdity to the people I knew in the Westland area," says Mueller. However absurd, the ploy illustrated the kind of arrogance that grated on New Rome's neighbors.
The Village Treasury
There is a purpose for such police vigilance, of course: money. All those traffic citations bring in thousands of dollars, money that keeps the village coffers well stocked. According to New Rome's 2000 audit, $361,969 of its total cash receipts of $380,481 came from fines.
In its annual appropriation ordinance for 2002, the village budgeted expenses of $408,675 from its general fund, of which $327,800 was earmarked for the police department. The more aggressive the ticketing on Broad Street, the bigger the pay days, the bigger the police force, the more aggressively it can ticket on Broad Street.
Except that people keep stealing money almost as fast as the cops bring it in.
More than $100,000 has gone missing from New Rome's purse over the past decade. “They just don't seem to care," says Petro.
The village's biennial audits have become a veritable scavenger hunt since former State Auditor Tom Ferguson first seized the village's records in 1989, uncovering a number of bookkeeping irregularities. Mayor's court clerk Patricia Kinder pleaded guilty to swiping $7,000. Ferguson also noticed that longtime Mayor Bob Lee and former police Chief James Bell had charged almost $2,500 worth of gasoline on the village credit cards for their personal use. Lee resigned.
Then big money started disappearing. A 1993 audit revealed that $56,563 was missing from the village. Court clerk Sandra Bell—the widow of the former police chief—later pleaded guilty to theft in office. Three years later, a 1996 audit uncovered another, nearly identical loss of $56,456. In the wake of that discovery, two police dispatchers and the court clerk resigned. No one was ever charged with that theft.
Last year’s audit was more of the same: “Loss of funds, destruction of records, inadequate bookkeeping, and that’s not inconsistent with what’s been the case for the past decade,” says Petro. “It’s not one of our favorite public entities.”
Charges were filed last October against the new clerk, Joyce Johnson, for tampering with public records and theft in office. The case is still pending.
Petro apparently has had his fill. Sloppy bookkeeping and rampant thefts, coupled with New Rome’s small population and big police presence, “Is not the kind of system that inspires trust,” he says. “No one can say definitively that government has an underlying corruption problem. But you do wonder what they do with $400,000. Functioning largely as a speed trap to generate revenue to outfit an inordinately large police force is not a very good reason to exist. I’d recommend they consider dissolving the village.”
Others—perhaps even the mayor himself—may already be working toward that goal.
Jamie Mueller’s campaign to become mayor was unlike any mayoral campaign in the country. The key to its success was total secrecy. If any of his prospective constituents would have caught wind of his intentions to become mayor, he was done for. “I was guided underneath the radar screen by good legal counsel and a good political adviser,” he says.
Once elected, by a 6-0 margin, Mueller was all but run out of his first village council meeting in January. The council refused to recognize the election and named Councilman Chris Gamble mayor. A few days later, County Prosecutor O’Brien said, “You can’t do that.”
Mueller says he didn’t necessarily want to be mayor, and now that he’s won the seat, “I feel like I’ve punched a bully in the nose, and he’s looking for me on the playground.” But the village, he says, is "reflective of an inappropriate behavior of a democratic government."
Mueller's furtive campaign to take control of New Rome began a few years back, after he'd become a business owner and active member of the Westland community. In 1995, he closed on the purchase of the dilapidated Lincoln Lodge motel on West Broad Street, just east of New Rome, and began a two-year renovation that turned it into a gorgeous 53-unit retirement residence.
He soon became a member of the Westland Area Business Association and served as WABA's representative on the Westland Area Commission, as well as taking an active role in the Westland Area Advisory Group, a neighborhood family violence initiative funded by the United Way. One thing he noticed quickly was how New Rome was a recurring theme among his acquaintances, and the talk, he says, often centered on "the oppressive nature that New Rome's image brings to the area."
Two years ago, Mueller caught New Rome's act firsthand. As the newly named chairman of WABA's annual Fourth of July parade, he approached the New Rome council about participating. Their patriotic response: “Pay us." New Rome insisted that WABA pay for police protection as it passed through the village. Protection from what, Mueller never understood—especially since the parade's grand marshal was Franklin County Sheriff Jim Karnes.
Anyone who tries to deal with New Rome is met with a "wall of frustration," says Mueller. There was a growing feeling that not only was New Rome disinterested in contributing to the greater good of the entire Westland area, it was a detriment, alienating prospective consumers and developers with its hawklike watch over traffic and continuous incidents of theft.
The talk turned toward change. “We started about two and a half or three years ago," Mueller says, “talking with the board of elections, talking with the secretary of state and the state auditor, trying to figure out how that place operates."
While Mueller was requesting information from the Franklin County Board of Elections, a clerk told him that he should talk to Prairie Township Trustee Jeff Nourse. Nourse, she said, was about two steps ahead of Mueller, headed down this same what's-up-with-New-Rome avenue.
Nourse, too, had become fed up with New Rome after learning in late 2000 that a major corporation, capable of providing 1,000 jobs or more, as well as some much needed commercial tax revenue, had been interested in locating in neighboring Prairie Township. Nourse declines to name the company.
After visiting the site, says Nourse, a carload of the corporate brass driven by the chief financial officer was pulled over in New Rome. “There was no traffic citation issued, but they were not happy campers," he says. “I heard then and there they basically said, 'We hire professional, upstanding people and provide them with a safe and secure work environment. We can't have our employees accosted every day by this little speed trap on their way to and from work, or to and from lunch.’ And that was that. We were out of the running, forever and ever, amen."
"A little later, I'm whining about this, and I hear the same thing happened a year or two earlier, when supposedly the Andersons was looking to build out here. For me, that was it," says Nourse. "It was an embarrassment, as a township trustee. I just thought, ‘If these guys are that bad, why not do something about it?' ”
He'd already begun to fashion his plan to do away with New Rome when he was approached by Mueller, who said he and a handful of disgruntled area businessmen had decided the only way to change things was from the inside. "Sometimes you have to get into the swamp to drain it," says Mueller.
But who was going in? “There were no volunteers," says Mueller. “It wasn't that I wanted to be the fulcrum for change. But I was in that position. I'm a single guy, no wife, no children, so I wasn't going to embarrass somebody else, and there'd be no one else for anybody to threaten. Basically, I was low man on the totem pole. The people I was talking to all had families, stable lives. I had the least to invest."
The plan came into sharper focus when Nourse jumped on board last August. Nourse has long been a political wonk, assisting the campaigns of Franklin County Commissioner Dewey Stokes, former State Rep. Bill Schuck and his successor, Larry Wolpert, and he knows election laws. He also knew from his prior investigations that New Rome's mayor's office was vulnerable. New Rome's incumbent, Charles Chapman, had been elected to office in 1995. To serve another term, Chapman needed either to file a candidacy petition to get on the ballot, or file his eligibility as a write-in candidate. He did neither. The door was open for Mueller, or anyone, to unseat Chapman for the remainder of the term, which expires at the end of 2003.
Nourse says he agreed to put his own plan aside temporarily. “I decided I'd step back and let an honorable man try the honorable thing." says Nourse, “knowing full well that if it doesn't work, I could can them like tuna!"
For Mueller's endeavor to be successful, he would have to file a petition to get on the November ballot. He'd also have to do it quietly. If Chapman, or anyone in Chapman's corner, were tipped off, they could have filed, run against Mueller and likely outpolled him.
Mueller filed his petition on Aug. 25—the day before the filing deadline. He needed 10 valid signatures from New Rome residents for the petition to be approved. He turned in 15. The board of elections, however, determined that six of the signatures on Mueller's petition were from people who lived just outside New Rome. But in another strange twist in a strange saga, the board of elections subtracted six from 15 and got 10, and certified the petition.
The New Rome old guard still had a few more opportunities. Sept. 1 was the last day anyone could have protested Mueller's petition, and there was room for dispute. Not only did he lack the 10 valid signatures, but there was some question as to whether he'd satisfied the state's residency requirement, which says a candidate must have lived in the area he will serve for at least a year before his election. Mueller says he had, having rented two different village apartments from his WABA associate, Realtor Bill Saxton. Some of the townsfolk disagreed. They didn't, however, disagree before the deadline to challenge a ballot petition.
The second deadline that hung over Mueller's chances was Sept. 26, the last day to file as a write-in candidate. Had Chapman, or anyone else, filed for write-in status, Mueller could have been defeated at the ballot box. The date passed without notice. At that point, Mueller says, he knew all he had to do was to vote for himself, and he'd be New Rome's new mayor.
“If those yahoos knew what they were doing, they might have been able to do something," Nourse says. “Those people have effectively grown so lax over the last seven years they are unrecoverably out of step with the Ohio Revised Code.”
Not surprisingly, the New Rome imperium felt duped. They saw Mueller as a devious shill for the WABA's and Prairie Township's own commercial interests at the expense of their tiny village. “I'm scared of what he's trying to do, and the potential of what he could do," says Nancy Chapman, who has lived in New Rome for nearly 30 years.
To some, Chapman is the very epitome of New Rome's empire of nepotism. She's one of the council members embroiled in the current melee, and has, at various times over the years, served on council and as clerk/treasurer. Her husband, Charles, was the mayor Mueller deposed. Her nephew Daniel Plants and her sister Patricia McCormick both serve on council, while her son Charles Jr. and her daughter Alisa are former village council members. None have ever been accused of any wrongdoing. “I'm emotional about this," Chapman says. “This is my home, and if we have to, we'll take this to court. The only other option is to roll over and say, ‘Here, take it!’And I can't do that."
Chapman says New Rome's reputation is largely fallacy. “It's a myth that's gotten bigger and bigger and bigger over time," she says. “It's just something to sensationalize over."
She also says people misunderstand the apparent nepotism. With only nine single family homes in the entire village, it's largely those families—many of whom are related—that have been serving as New Rome's officials. The rest of New Rome's residents live in apartments, and have traditionally not been active, says Chapman.
"Everyone thinks we're just a bunch of stupid hillbillies," she says. “But we can't find people interested in serving on council. We go begging door to door. As soon as someone moves in, it's practically the first question we ask them. And because nobody ever ran against us, we just never went down and paid the 35 dollars to register as a write-in. All this is our own fault. In that sense, I guess we were stupid hillbillies.”
Many of the residents also agree there are problems—but they don't want any outsider telling them what to do. “I don't trust Jamie Mueller. He came in and said he lived here, in a house I see every day, and I'd never seen him," says Glenn Dyer, a New Rome resident for some 20 years. "Sure, there are problems. We're losing a lot of money that's getting stolen—money that could be used on the streets, or on cleaning up around here—and that's embarrassing. In the alley by me, there's a pile of brush, and an old car that's been there ever since I was in high school. And I graduated in 1971. If Jamie had come in and been honest and told us he was going to try to work to improve the village, maybe it might have worked. But he snuck in, and then lied to us about being one of us. How can I trust anything he says?"
The New New Rome
Mueller may have taken the mayor's office, but the old guard isn't without its victories. Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien's ruling on behalf of the board of elections allowed Plants to appoint four of the five open council seats; Mueller, one. Nourse acknowledges that council could effectively ignore Mueller while they go about business as usual, before unseating him at the polls in November 2004.
Either side could file suit to appeal either O'Brien's decision or Mueller's election, which could effectively shift the power.
Others believe the power already has shifted—and in a village of 60, power can shift quickly. Villagers are choosing sides and Mueller is gaining ground quickly, as evidenced by the number of folks who readily offered to serve at his request on council. "I've been watching it for 20 years," says Ed Anthony, owner of Our Barber Shop in New Rome and Mueller's one council appointee. “It's like a little mafia—two families running everything with a police chief as a mastermind who pushes out crumbs to the rest of them. There's one voice—their voice—and that's the way they want to keep it."
The real power in New Rome may ultimately lie with Realtor Bill Saxton, who is also a Grove City councilman. Saxton owns about 12 rental units in three buildings inside the village, with the potential to house 20 or more adults—a considerable voting block in a village of 60. Chapman thinks he's up to something. “I heard Saxton has a bunch of empty apartments he's going to put people in to vote us out," she says. Saxton balks at the question. “You won't get me in that box," he says, before quickly adding, "Well, I'm sure you'll get it all figured out soon. It's been nice talking to you."
Then there's the "can them like tuna" strategy. Still waiting to see if Mueller can bring about change is Prairie Township Trustee Jeff Nourse. If it looks as if Mueller's effort is going to fail, Nourse says he'll be ready to jump in with his Plan B, detachment, or Plan C—dissolution. "I'm hot to trot just to flush the whole place altogether," he says.
His initial plan was to dissolve the village. To do so would require a vote of village residents, which he acknowledges might be difficult—though the times may be changing. Getting a dissolution petition on the ballot, however, would be a cinch. Only six voted in the last election, which means he'd need three signatures to bring the issue to a vote. Nourse knows anything is possible where apathy reigns.
His favorite idea, however, is detachment. It's an obscure notion, gleaned from the depths of the Ohio Revised Code. Basicaly, it's the opposite of an annexation. Instead of adding property, detachment says any landowner has the right to detach his property from the incorporated area in which it's located. Nourse's novel idea is to get the business owners on West Broad Street to agree to petition to detach from New Rome. He says he knows most of them, and most are tired of New Rome's act as well. “We get the majority of landowners on West Broad to detach from New Rome, and what are the cops going to dor Run their radar on Green Street?" Slice New Rome's primary artery, Nourse says, and the village bleeds to death.
The law states the detachment petition would need the approval of New Rome's village council, which seems unlikely. But Nourse says, “If the village council says no, then you go to the Franklin County commissioners for a detachment hearing. You present the resolution supporting the detachment that Prairie Township would no doubt draft, and the case law,Smith v. Granville Township Board of Trustees, which basically says the test for approval is what's in the best interest for the property in question."
Nourse also says that to his way of thinking, the Franklin County commissioners would be crazy not to pounce on the public relations opportunity to do away with the obstinate West Broad Street village with the wayward government and the overzealous cops.
It's no wonder residents like Nancy Chapman are nervous. “We just want to be left alone," she says.
This story originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Columbus Monthly.
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