Preface: One of the reasons Reconstructing Dayton exists is the number of “unopposed ballot choices” voters are presented with in Montgomery County. It’s not that people don’t want to run, it’s that the party insiders have made deals. One long standing “deal” in Montgomery County it that Judges can only be challenged in their first re-election (An exception was when Dick Skelton spent $250K to unseat Dem Party Favorite Frances McGee-Cromartie who had a reputation for bad docket management and overturned decisions). The only other time we have a judicial race is when judges “age out” and are forced to retire- at 70. Alice McCollum is aged out, and her pick, an employee, Arvin Miller, will only be able to sit one term before he ages out. That’s why there is a race.
We recently interviewed David Brannon, candidate for Montgomery County Probate Judge. You may have noticed Brannon’s big billboards or his television ads, which his opponent Arvin Miller and others have criticized, accusing Brannon of trying to buy the gavel for nefarious reasons. Brannon contends that, while he is spending quite a bit in pursuit of the position, it’s because he’s young and he would like to hold the job for years to come. And while Miller and others have criticized that much of Brannon’s campaign cash comes from his family and his personal account, Brannon asserts this as another positive—he’s willing to invest so much because he’s passionate about holding the position and he’s not beholden to big donors who may want something. This is probably a case where both sides have good points. Arvin Miller is right to feel disadvantaged because of his opponent’s ability to buy name recognition, but assertions that Brannon is seeking to enrich the family business seem unfounded. The Brannon Law firm does work with probate law, but David functions as the resident expert in probate law. In our interview, he told me that he first became involved in probate law because the other lawyers at his firm disliked it. If Brannon were to win, it seems like the family firm would actually take a hit by losing their ace probate lawyer.
Perhaps what makes David most unique among candidates for judge is that he has some specific policies he would implement if elected. Judges are restricted from discussing how they would rule in particular cases on the campaign trail, so it is not often that one hears a candidate for judge discuss much beyond their credentials. Perhaps the most one will get, from candidates such as Chris Epley, is a promise to “interpret the laws,” which is about as tautological as a potential trashman promising to “collect the trash.” Brannon’s proposals are specific and promising.
First, he wants to partner with nonprofit organizations and the University of Dayton law school to organize a law clinic for the probate court. Our primary concern was whether the judge had the authority to allocate the resources necessary to make such a thing happen. Brannon contended that the only things necessary were space and access. Being intimately familiar with the probate court, he assured me that the former was available and the latter could be provide by the judge. Another potential issue with such a proposal is that it’s hard to build awareness of such projects, especially for those who might stand to benefit the most from them. Brannon conceded that would be a challenge, but said that his partner organizations could help with that, as could the court. We know from speaking with lawyers at ABLE & LAWO, that making key services available is only half the battle. Without awareness, no one can take advantage of these types of services. Still, we like that Brannon is searching for ways to make the probate court work better for Montgomery County citizens. The law clinic would do that.
The next problem Brannon addressed was a need to modernize technology. Again, we wondered how much influence a judge has over this. He conceded that the judge would not directly make those decisions, but he plans on working with Clerk of Courts Mike Foley to address these issues. Mike Foley is probably not the best person to consult when it comes to technology. We have endorsed his opponent, Zach Dickerson, who seems to be much more technologically savvy. For Brannon’s sake, he better hope Dickerson wins if he wants this initiative to be successful.
Brannon’s final big proposal is to support greater communication between police departments and the probate court, so that issues of mental illness can be better handled by the police. He argues that police do not always have the proper resources to deal with mentally ill individuals, and sometimes are not aware that they are dealing with a person with a history of mental illness. By providing police officers with more information, Brannon hopes that the mentally ill will be better identified and taken to treatment facilities rather than the jail. If I understood Brannon correctly, he asserts that because of patient confidentiality rules (HIPAA), police do not have access to a database to inform them whether a person has a history of mental illness. Brannon’s solution is to ensure that the police can contact the probate court 24/7, which would prevent them from temporarily housing mentally ill or incompetent adults in jails. This sounds like a good solution. Whether the county will provide the resources necessary to make this happen is an open question, but having the probate court judge push for it will certainly help.
Brannon did acknowledge the problems with electing judges, especially on a partisan basis. As some Ohioans push to place party affiliation on the ballot, it’s important to realize that judges are already partisan positions. The two candidates that appear on the ballot are each selected through a partisan primary, and then the Democrats and Republicans endorse accordingly. Brannon’s opponent, Arvin Miller, recently sent out a chain e-mail to remind the citizens of Montgomery County that he is an endorsed Democrat. Brannon agreed that ditching the partisan underpinnings of judicial selection would be a good idea, but he did not have any specific ideas for how to do this (our suggestion: ranked-choice voting or, better yet, have the Bar Association recommend judges for appointment). When asked whether the probate court judge should be appointed, Brannon answered that any method of selecting a judge will be imperfect, and that it’s a matter of deciding which compromises to accept. That could be viewed as a non-answer, but it’s also hard to argue with.
Overall, David Brannon appears to be a qualified candidate with some novel ideas. He also liked the idea of a single municipal court for the county, which is an important issue for Reconstructing Dayton. During our discussion he emphasized the importance of his experience as a probate lawyer, and contrasted this to his opponent, who has not practiced probate law despite serving as a probate magistrate for the last twelve years.
We have decided not to endorse any candidates for judicial positions because judges cannot enact policies. However, hopefully this information about David Brannon will be useful for undecided voters. Brannon mentioned how so few people even bother voting for judges because they don’t know what or whom they’re voting for. He filled out our candidate questionnaire and, although as a judicial candidate he was unable to answer many of the questions, he provided quite a bit of commentary at the end. Judging by the signs in people’s yards, it seems that people have aligned themselves with Brannon or Miller for the wrong reason: party. We encourage voters to do a bit more research, as neither political party has a platform—nationally or locally—relevant to probate court.
John McManus is not from Montgomery County. He’s from Tennessee. He has run for public office as both a Democrat and Republican. Like his opponent, Russ Joseph, McManus has a B.A. in political science. For some reason there are no formal requirements to run for county treasurer in the state of Ohio beyond being a registered voter. Unlike Russ, John has a law degree. It’s not an accounting of finance degree, but it’s something. More importantly, John has voiced his commitment to transparency, which he also pushed for as a member of the Dayton City Public School Board. He now works for the Montgomery County Clerk of Court’s office, where we have endorsed his boss’ opponent.
After sitting down and talking with John for an extended interview, we believe he has the temperament and integrity to earn a formal endorsement. John McManus is a local political outsider, and we mean that as a compliment. He spoke at length about local party hegemony and his desire to contest it, including some personal anecdotes about getting bamboozled by the local Dems. And while the treasurer is not a position one normally thinks of as much more than an administrative role, John promised to enact some specific policies. First, he promised to conduct an audit of the treasurer’s office. He also wants to implement a personal finance education program for Montgomery County citizens. Most importantly, John McManus is the right man for this job because of his commitment to transparency. He views the office as a position that will allow him to hold other local government officials accountable, arguing that our current corruption problems are rooted in a local government where everyone agrees to play ball.
When it comes to some of the issues most important to Reconstructing Dayton, McManus does not grade as favorably. His support of regionalism was tenuous at best, demonstrating a skepticism of structural changes. He is a circumspect politician, one who hesitates to commit to major structural changes. It’s good that he’s not reckless, but his cautiousness epitomizes why structural change is so difficult: although many politicians recognize structural problems, they are more afraid of a solution failing than allowing those problems to persist. For example, when considering the prospect of a change to county borders, McManus’ primary concern was how records would be dealt with. Minor details that can be easily worked out are generally the complaints lobbed against structural change.
McManus was much more receptive to structural change when he had personally seen the benefits in action. As a former employee for the Franklin County Clerk of Courts, McManus personally attested to the benefits of a single county municipal court system and he wholeheartedly endorsed such a proposal for Montgomery County. McManus is a skeptic, but seeing is believing. That’s a major step up from Russ Joseph and his local cabal of party insiders, who are indifferent to any benefits to Montgomery County citizens that do benefit their careers. John McManus isn’t going to save the world, but the county would be a whole lot better if it had more politicians like McManus and less like Joseph. Vote John McManus for County Treasurer.
Check out the full interview below. To see more candidate interviews check out our YouTube channel. We would like to continue providing in-depth looks at local candidates so the citizens of Montgomery County can stay informed. To support more content such as these interviews, please donate to Reconstructing Dayton.
Some American principles are so ingrained in our political consciousness that even mentioning them seems quaint and cliché. “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” chief among them. “No taxation without representation” comes in a close second. Overuse has made such slogans sound trite in serious discourse. All this is to say that we are aware that complaints about taxation without representation typically elicit eye-rolls usually reserved for people demanding to “keep government hands off my Medicare.”
Nevertheless, we’re here to talk about taxation without representation. Specifically, the crazy quilt of municipal income taxes. The slogan will be used several times. Bear with us. Despite the stale phrase, we are not an old man yelling at a cloud.
In Ohio, local income taxes are collected by the government where your employer is located rather than where your home is located. This means that if, say, you live in Brookville but work in Dayton, the government you vote for is not the one that sets or collects income tax from you. If you don’t like the tax then too bad. You don’t even get a vote to voice your opposition. In some cases the local governments will find ways to double dip so you pay income taxes for both where you work and where you live. Brookville is a prime example, where they refuse to forgive anything over 1%, so that Brookville residents who work in Dayton pay the 2.5% Dayton income tax, plus an additional 1% to Brookville—making their effective income tax 3.5%. Brookville residents who work in Brookville only pay 2%
The argument for such a system—where individuals are clearly being taxed without being represented—is that the cities provide the infrastructure and services necessary to support these jobs. We, at Reconstructing Dayton, somewhat agree. However, just because the employer’s city needs the money more than the locations where employees live doesn’t mean the city is entitled to that money.
Much of the competition for jobs is tilted by local governments subsidizing businesses as “Economic Development.” Others businesses (who don’t make the appropriate campaign donations), are forced to fend for themselves. We’re seeing Kettering take a 1-2 punch with Synchrony Financial sending 1,700+ employees to work from home instead of the old DESC on Wilmington Pike. Kettering may lose those tax dollars. Similarly, WilmerHale is moving from the Research Park to Miami Township, where most of the workers pay zero income tax (except for in the JEDD at Austin Landing, where the retail workers pay a 2% income tax while the white collar workers pay nothing).
Now that work from home because of the coronavirus has become the new normal, people are questioning why their taxes are being exported. In March Governor DeWine signed House Bill 197, which provided coronavirus relief. One provision, Section 29, ensured that income taxes would continue to go to the government where an employer is located rather than where the employee lives (and now works). With the backing of the conservative Buckeye Institute, Senate Bill 352 and House Bill 754 have been introduced, which will repeal Section 29. It’s estimated that Ohio’s six largest cities, Dayton among them, could lose up to $306 million in tax revenue. Of course Mayor Nan Whaley has voiced her opposition:
Here we are in a period of great uncertainty and to be messing with the tax policy amidst it, we think is a really bad idea…There’s so much transition going on and it would be a nightmare for folks to manage when they’re trying to manage everything else.
Unfortunately, Nan just can’t be honest. No one would fault her if she just said she opposed the bills because Dayton stands to lose a ton of tax revenue. As the county seat, the city of Dayton has relied on collecting taxes from many high-paying jobs held by lawyers, corporate chiefs, and CareSource employees who were lured to work in Dayton with tax incentives while they safely live in Oakwood or elsewhere. That doesn’t make it right, but at least it’s honest. The Greater Ohio Policy Center makes this argument, showing that these bills will be disastrous for Ohio’s metropolitan areas and have devastating effects on our infrastructure. None of that can be contested. But it doesn’t make taxation without representation right.
What no one seems to consider—not the Buckeye Institute, The Greater Ohio Policy Center, and especially not Nan Whaley—is that our dependence on a system of taxation without representation is an indictment on the system itself. If we had a more regional focus with a county-wide government, it wouldn’t matter if someone lived in Germantown and worked in Dayton. The income taxes would go to the county and the county could spread that money appropriately to ensure that Dayton has the infrastructure necessary to attract large employers. It would simplify the tax structure, preventing suburban municipalities from acting like parasites, and, most importantly, eliminate taxation without representation. It would also simplify the calculus and collection for small businesses, like plumbers or HVAC technicians, who may have employees who work throughout the county.
All these lines on a map don’t make us stronger. They make us fuel sprawl as each community tries to one-up their neighbor in pursuit of jobs. Each time forcing more overhead as infrastructure requires upgrades, schools shrink, and farmers get squeezed out. When someone asks where you’re from, it’s Dayton, Ohio to anyone from outside our area. Because, no matter how self-important people think their city is—Oakwood, Kettering, Centerville, Brookville, etc.—it’s Dayton that counts.
We applaud Senate Bill 352 and House Bill 754 and will support their passage, but we do think they should go one step further and send all taxes to the government where one lives rather than works. As the Greater Ohio Policy Center points out, this will make things exponentially worse. But if we stop allowing tax dodge jurisdictions like urban townships, we could create a system that works for everyone. Income taxes should be county-wide and allocated based on factors such as population density and poverty reduction. Our fragmented system with dozens of tax districts in a single county is undesirable and unsustainable. The only reason these nearby municipalities, townships, and villages compete for tax dollars is because they were fragmented for the days of the horse and buggy. Back then nobody commuted to work and Kettering was farmland. Now that commuting has become trivial and urbanization has sprawled throughout the entire eastern part of the county, our economic regions have grown and merged into one large metropolitan area. By maintaining our antiquated boundaries, we create cannibalistic competition between these municipalities as they fight for business and revenue. Instead of trying to hold it together with the duct tape and glue of unfair tax rules, parks districts, school districts, health districts, water conservancy districts, educational services commissions, Joint Economic Development Districts (JEDDs), Tax Increment Financing Districts (TIFs), and Special Improvement Districts (SIDs), we need to focus on creating a local government that is efficient and modern. Most importantly, it has to be fair, transparent and sustainable.