Sunday, September 17, 2000

Town's image goes from antiques to angst

Mayor under recall: Some take sides, others don't care

By Randy McNutt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        WAYNESVILLE — Welcome to Waynesville, town of many dramas. All year, one after another has played against a postcard-perfect backdrop in a town where you can still buy an ice-cream soda and a 19th-century hutch in the same block.

        But for many residents, 2000 has been a sour time in the home of the annual fall Sauerkraut Festival — the self-proclaimed Antiques Capital of the Midwest.

        At issue is the attempted recall of Mayor Charles Sanders, a black man with an engaging smile who has held public office for about nine years in this overwhelmingly white town in northern Warren County.

        “It saddens me greatly,” said Patrick Irelan, a former councilman who carried recall petitions this summer but did not actively pursue anyone to sign them. “I've known Charles since we were young. Our fathers worked at the same place. I've backed Charles and voted for him. He's an outstanding person.

        “Then he started attending meetings for his congressional campaign, and he forgot Waynesville. It was no longer an interest.”

        Momentum for a recall grew after a Feb. 26 incident in which two village police officers stopped three black men for alleged traffic violations. The men said they were held at gunpoint and handcuffed while officers searched for drugs. The men were released and not charged.

        Mr. Sanders, one of Waynesville's three adult black residents, publicly accused Chief Allen Carter of condoning racial profiling. The charge, which police denied, spilled over into a hot council session on March 6, when Mr. Sanders rejected demands to resign from two council members.

        Soon, the Dayton chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People took the mayor's side and put Waynesville on the nightly news.

        On Nov. 7, Mr. Sanders will have the unusual distinction of appearing on the ballot twice: as the Democratic opponent of U.S. Rep. Rob Portman (R-2nd District), and as the subject of the mayoral recall.

New faces in town

               How many villagers care is anybody's guess. People are moving to Waynesville for a quieter lifestyle and slower pace. In 1990, the population was 1,949. Since 1995, the number has increased from 2,382 to more than 2,500.

        The village is now home to newcomers, the old guard and the in-betweens. Many people work in Dayton and Cincinnati, and the last thing they want is to come home to small-town infighting. To many of them, the recall is an unwelcome distraction.

        Yet behind old storefronts, in large and small Victorian homes, “all politics is local.” Neighbors criticize neighbors. Old friends agree to disagree. Others don't care.

        Left unspoken is the realization that the national issue of race profiling has collided head-on with friendships and small-town values — and community trust. On some primal, deeply personal level, old Waynesville may never be the same.

        Unaccustomed to acrimony, the village has shaken its collective head and walked on.

        This spring, council passed an ordinance that prohibits village police from using race to decide whether a driver should be stopped.

        In an investigation that ended in May, Warren County sheriff's deputies cleared the two officers of engaging in racial profiling, but questioned why the stop was not videotaped.

        Meanwhile, Mr. Sanders has continued to reject calls for his resignation. Warren County elections officials said 209 registered voters — more than the required 25 percent who voted in the last election — signed recall petitions. Among them: council members Ernest Lawson and Phil Day and council President Sandra Stemple, who lost a race against Mr. Sanders last fall.

        Recall petitions stated: “Mr. Sanders has failed to conduct himself in a manner that demonstrates that he has the best interests of the citizens of the Village of Waynesville as his main objective.” It asks that he be recalled from office on the grounds of misfeasance, nonfeasance and malpractice.

        Mr. Sanders remains undeterred. “I will not be dissuaded by a few people who have their heads stuck back in the '50s,” he said in a recent interview. “I think that it's sour grapes. They don't defeat me at the polls, and they saw an opportunity to come in and accomplish the task through some other means.”

        Mr. Irelan predicts that the mayor has a 50-50 chance of surviving the recall election.

        “If people vote on personality, Charles will win,” he said. “If they vote on job performance, he'll lose.”

Campaign a distraction

               Those familiar with village council say Mr. Sanders has been out campaigning a lot recently in the sprawling district. (He greets callers on his home telephone answering machine with, “Hello, this is Charles Sanders, political challenger for U.S. Congress.”)

        They say he faithfully attends regular council meetings but few council committee sessions, during which members learn about future legislation and issues.

        This bothers Mr. Irelan, a white-haired school crossing guard who is retired. He discussed his friend's chances on the recall while waiting for children to leave school.

        “This isn't a racial issue,” he said.

        “Charles has been elected and re-elected. This is a performance issue. His performance is zero.”

        Despite the controversy, some people say the recall isn't a major topic in town.

        “I haven't heard much about it on the street,” said Pam Barnett, who owns a shop called Days Gone By. “It's just not talked about, except on television. I think people are tired of hearing about it.”

        Joanna Fowler, owner of the Scarlet Thistle, isn't surprised. She said the issue is divisive and sad, and many people want it to end.

        “Even when I was asked to sign a (recall) petition, the matter was handled professionally and without harassment,” she said. “I didn't sign it because I feel that these issues are over with and we should make the best of a bad situation until the next election.

        “Actually, I wouldn't vote for him (Mr. Sanders). I don't think he's qualified. But as for the November election, I haven't made up my mind yet. I'll have to see how he — and the village — conducts himself.”

"Too much take'

               Bill Stubbs, a prominent Waynesville resident and a Sanders family friend, believes the mayor “made a tradeoff — he courted the newspapers to get name recognition in the Congressional district. When he went to the papers (about the traffic incident) without discussing the matter with police and the people, it was unfair. He even said he was going to fire the chief. That was highly inappropriate.”

        Under the charter, the mayor has no administrative authority. He is a part of council.

        “We're not talking good people and bad people,” Mr. Stubbs said. “We're simply talking about what is appropriate and proper for the mayor to do. Charles has lived in the area all his life, and is liked. It's a shame. We live in a good town of well-meaning people, but this thing was just a little too much for the town to take.”

        Chief Carter said he was surprised by the mayor's charges. He said he signed a recall petition, but he preferred not to discuss the matter.

        “I've lived in town for 10 years and in the area for all my life,” he said. “I've got the right to vote this way if I want. That's what this whole thing is about. If elected officials don't do what they should, the citizens have the right to recall them.”

        The mayor's situation is but one of several distractions in Waynesville this year. Last month, a teacher filed a libel lawsuit against six people — including the mother of last year's valedictorian — for allegedly making statements that he engaged in inappropriate behavior with female students. He claimed the statements were an effort to have him fired.

        Earlier this year, an important local benefactor, the American Legion, was closed after a racketeering investigation.

        Now, Mr. Irelan said, the American Legion issue is history and the village should be looking forward to better things, including community improvement and progress in the new century.

        “Personally,” Mrs. Fowler added, “I think we should put this behind us and get on with life — and the Sauerkraut Festival.”


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