The bombshell indictments of a city of Dayton employee and a former Dayton city commissioner were unsealed Tuesday, exactly one week before the election in the city commission race.
Five people, including two incumbent commissioners, are vying for two seats on the commission, and on May 7, the one with the lowest vote tally will be eliminated and won’t move on to the November general election.
Candidates say they expect the federal corruption charges will be an issue next week and in the general election and could put the incumbents at an unusual disadvantage.
Those on the ballot are incumbents Chris Shaw and Matt Joseph, plus challengers David Esrati, Valerie Duncan and Shenise Turner-Sloss.
“If it doesn’t impact the city commission races, there’s something very wrong,” said Esrati.
Shaw says he was shocked and saddened to learn about the federal indictments alleging corruption and fraud against city employee RoShawn Winburn and former city commissioner Joey Williams.
Williams and Winburn are accused of accepting bribes in exchange for trying to help individuals and companies do business with the city. Clayton Luckie, a former state lawmaker, and local businessman Brian Higgins also were indicted on corruption and fraud charges.
Shaw, who is finishing his first term in office, said he believes these were isolated incidents and Dayton certainly does not have a “culture of corruption” — a phrase used by an FBI agent during a press conference announcing the federal indictments.
But Shaw said the city needs to be completely transparent and forthcoming with the community and needs to closely look at its own processes to identify weaknesses.
He said the city must adopt practices and policies to prevent this from ever happening again.
“I think we need to be very proactive to take steps against it,” he said. “It’s incredibly, incredibly disappointing, but we have to be very open and transparent to build the trust back in the community.”
Shaw said he worries the indictments will overshadow the city’s good work. The indictments were made public less than 24 hours after Shaw and other city leaders attended an event celebrating the financial closing on a $90 million project to overhaul the long-vacant Dayton Arcade.
Esrati, who previously has run for a commission seat, said Shaw and Joseph — the candidates endorsed by the Montgomery County Democratic Party — are part of what he called a culture of corruption that has hurt the community for a long time.
Esrati said the city’s corrupt and unfair activities include spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on properties they then hand over to developers basically for free. He said this creates an uneven playing field for businesses.
Esrati said the incumbent commissioners are “yes” men who do the bidding of the top players in the Democratic Party, which he described as a “monarchy” that takes care of friends.
“This is a real opportunity for the people of Dayton to say, ‘Enough’s enough,’” said Esrati, referring to the upcoming elections.
Esrati said voters should elect two new commissioners this fall because corruption has happened on Shaw’s and Joseph’s watch.
Esrati also said the city cannot be trusted to investigate itself, even using an outside firm because it is still being paid by the city.
Esrati said he supports creating an elected position of chief ethics officer to provide oversight and accountability to government offices and agencies.
First-time candidate Duncan is a retired city of Dayton employee who expressed concern about city resources for housing inspections and health. Like others, she says she’s saddened by the indictments.
“I was really disappointed,” Duncan said Wednesday. “It’s really disheartening. It’s sad for the city of Dayton. Public officials, we take an oath to uphold our laws.”
The four indictments surprised her.
“There was no clue for me,” she said. “I mean, I saw your news accounts. I’m just hearing what the people are hearing around the Miami Valley right now.”
Voters should be able to trust elected officials, she maintains. Asked if she believes that a “culture of corruption” has taken hold at city hall, she said she feels the city should investigate those charges.
“I don’t know how really to respond to that,” Duncan said. “I guess there’s an ongoing investigation.”
“I’m just surprised and disappointed, again, for Dayton in general and its citizens,” she added. “When you take that oath, you’re to uphold the laws, whatever those laws are. And the people put their trust, they elect you to office to carry out those ordinances, those statutes.”
A city resident since 1968, Duncan said she didn’t know if the situation might energize campaigns by challengers who may be seen as city government outsiders. Voters will choose “the person they think will … carry out the ordinances,” she believes.
“I’m not sure because there’s still an investigation going,” she said. “I’d like to see a thorough investigation, a complete one. I don’t know where that will end up.”
Joseph is seeking a fifth term on the commission and currently is the longest-serving commissioner.
While Joseph believes the federal indictments will be on the mind of some voters when they head to the ballot box, he hopes voters haven’t lost faith in him. He said his experience and knowledge of the city’s processes can help the city expose any other corruption going on and take effective steps to fix the problems.
“I hope people know that I fight for them, I’ve been around for a while and I try to do the right thing,” he said.
The city will look at its processes and staff “top to bottom” to figure what went wrong, what to do to avoid future problems and identify anyone else who needs to be brought to justice, Joseph said.
Joseph said the city will have to work hard to regain the public’s trust and prove anyone wrong who think that Dayton has corrupt culture.
Joseph said the city is in the midst of a strong economic recovery and the city needs to keep that going. But he said probing and fixing any issues with corruption is a priority.
“I’d much rather spend my time finding goods jobs and bringing them to Dayton or work on demolishing houses and making life better, but for the next few months, this is what we’re going to do — this is it,” he said.
Turner-Sloss, the other challenger, offered a brief statement.
“I don’t have any comment regarding the situation. My focus is the residents and being a strong voice for the residents, to have a voice at city hall,” she said.