Ottney: Bully pulpitWritten by Sarah Ottney | Editor in Chief | firstname.lastname@example.org
Fifty years ago, on a cold day like ones we’ve had recently, my grandpa would have bundled up in several layers of heavy work gear for his shift at Woodville’s lime plant. My mom, his youngest daughter, said it made him look like a teddy bear.
By the time my mom was born, Grandpa had already been on the job almost 30 years, having dropped out of school after eighth grade to work at the plant, where he was later promoted to foreman.
My parents were part of the first graduating class from Woodmore High School, my dad from Elmore, my mom from Woodville, thrown together their senior year when the two villages consolidated into one high school.
I, of course, came along years after all this. By that time, Grandpa was retired. Grandma, too, from working full-time at the family insurance business in Woodville, but was still heavily involved in the community as a Girl Scout leader, which she did for 60 years.
I never lived in Woodville, but for years we visited my grandparents there almost daily and my memories of the town are fond ones.
Riding the Scrambler at the Fourth of July fair and watching fireworks from the backyard, where we staged watermelon seed-spitting contests.
Ordering pizza from Beck’s.
Eating ice cream cones at Faye’s Whippy Dip after T-ball games.
The warm glow of the fireplace while opening presents on Christmas Eve and sipping Ginger Ale on New Year’s Eve.
I once met one of Woodville’s famous native sons, astronaut Tom Hendricks, in the driveway of my grandparents’ house.
When we spent the night, it was hard to sleep. The pullout couch squeaked, the clocks chimed, there was always a cat ready to claw your feet and headlight beams from U.S. Route 20 traffic shone into the windows and slowly crossed the walls, all night long.
But I felt cozy, loved, at home, safe.
Which is why a Feb. 15 Blade column about Woodville caught me by such surprise. The worst little town in Ohio? Had I really been away so long?
A recent visit showed me nothing much has changed. That’s the charm and frustration of quiet small towns. It’s what makes teens declare they’ll leave for good at the first opportunity, only to move back years later to raise their own kids.
But “worst” is quite the heavy-handed qualifier.
Worst because it’s a “speed trap”? Hey, we all speed. Me especially. We all hate to get tickets. But speed limits are set by the Ohio Department of Transportation; they are clearly posted and local law enforcement simply enforces them.
According to a recent Blade investigation, 14 percent of the village’s general revenue came from traffic violations last year. That’s much higher than other local municipalities. But simply respect the laws and you won’t have to worry about contributing.
Woodville police issued 2,735 speeding tickets from 2012 through 2014: 598 in 2012, 964 in 2013 and 1,173 in 2014. That’s 3.2 tickets per day in 2014, or 2.5 per day on average over the past two years. For a “speed trap,” that doesn’t seem that excessive. The Blade also found the average speed for a ticket is 15.76 mph over the limit. That doesn’t seem unreasonable.
Woodville Police Chief Roy Whitehead said he stands behind his department. Tickets aren’t written out of malice or to artificially enhance village revenue, and each will show a “clear and just violation,” he told me.
Whitehead told me skepticism about Woodville’s reasoning for such strict enforcement — protecting kids crossing four-lane Route 20 — doesn’t bother him. He sleeps well at night knowing Woodville’s citizens are as safe as he can make them.
“I’ve had to knock on a few doors over the years to tell a family their loved one isn’t coming home,” Whitehead told me. “If enforcing traffic laws saves just one child’s life or person’s life then we’ve done our job.”
Worst because an officer shot a dog? A chocolate lab named Moses was shot Nov. 3 just outside Woodville after approaching a traffic stop from his owner’s business on Route 20. Steve Gilkerson, 29, a K-9 officer and nine-year Woodville Police veteran, said the dog had a “look in its eyes” and seemed to be intent on a target, not veering from his path even when yelled at. Moses has been in and out of hospitals since being shot and ended up losing a leg.
The incident was unfortunate, there’s no doubt about it. No one with a heart could feel otherwise. It’s one of those he said-she said situations that’s nearly impossible to resolve to the satisfaction of all parties.
But is Woodville really home to a “trigger-happy cop run amok”? An officer who shoots dogs because he thinks “that’s what cops get to do — shoot if and when they please, at anything or anyone they please,” as columnist Keith Burris wrote.
As much as I’m fond of it, Woodville is, well, boring. But that’s the way residents like it: quiet and peaceful.
That bullet that hit Moses came from the only line-of-duty discharge of a firearm by a Woodville Police officer in recent memory, at least as far as Whitehead can remember over his 21 years on the force and Mayor Richard Harman can remember in his more than 50 years in the village.
Worst because the officer was not punished? Four police chiefs, a firearms instructor and the Sandusky County prosecutor weighed the facts, including witness statements, and cleared Gilkerson of wrongdoing. Whitehead assured me if Gilkerson had shot in malice he would no longer be employed. I believe him.
In the wake of the incident, the department added vest cameras in December and dashboard cameras in January. Officers attended a seminar on dog behavior in February.
The dog’s owners, Thomas Bischoff and Lauren Meyer, are upset, of course. Meyer, a Woodville native, said she thinks the officer made a “bad judgment call” and should have been disciplined. But she told me she still supports her hometown and its police department. She isn’t happy about the “worst small town” moniker.
“I’m upset with the way things were handled. But I’m not upset with the town or the police department. This town has always been safe,” Meyer told me. “When you slam the town like that, it just makes us look bad. Forgive and forget. We can’t forget. But we’re not out for blood.”
A few years ago, Burris moved back to his native Ohio after 25 years in Connecticut, and wrote a column (“Just a guy from Ohio — and glad of it,” April 28, 2013) in which he marveled anew at how nice Ohioans are.
He was happy to be in a place where being kind and neighborly is valued. Hey, that sounds a lot like Woodville. Where there’s a lack of pretension and people don’t take themselves too seriously. That’s Woodville, too. Where neighbors say “Hi” and invite you over. Check. Kindness and community? Yep, Woodville again.
I sat near Burris at Scott High School several months ago. We were there to hear a panel discussion about police-community relations, but toward the end the topic veered to media and how it covers only the bad stories and only superficially. Media was offered the opportunity to respond, and Burris spoke.
“I think the ‘side’ thing is what kills the conversation,” he said. “This idea that you pick a side ahead of time and you know the cop was bad before you even heard the story or you know Michael Brown was the bad guy before you have any evidence or any facts. So I think this whole idea that you join a team and you’re predisposed toward one set of answers before you even have any data, that’s what kills the conversation and what makes the division you were talking about even deeper. We’re never going to have that conversation because we already know.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The Blade decries Woodville as an “authority structure built on the culture of bullying.” All I see is a columnist calling for the resignation of two people he’s never sat down and talked with. A newspaper hypocritically outraged by bullying. And a town being vilified over one isolated incident.
Like most people and places, Woodville is neither perfect nor fatally flawed.
But I see a town that took the initiative to install cameras.
I see a town that arranged and continues to arrange training opportunities for its officers on interacting with dogs.
I see a police chief who years ago ended the petty practice of issuing tickets for 2-6 mph over the limit to where it sits today at 12-18 mph over.
I see a mayor who took the time to answer each concerned email and phone call from citizens and dog advocates in the weeks following the incident and who is truly pained by the negative press.
That doesn’t sound like the worst little town in Ohio to me. It sounds like a place where I’m glad to say I have roots.
Sarah Ottney is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press. She can be reached at email@example.com.