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Opponents blast city-county merger plan

Community leaders lashed out Monday night against a proposal to combine the city of Dayton and Montgomery County, warning that a merger would disenfranchise voters, eliminate self-governance for city residents and fail to meaningfully improve services.

At a packed church in west Dayton, a panel that included political officers and representatives from labor and civil rights groups portrayed Dayton Together’s merger concept as divisive and providing no clear benefit.

The event was the first of three town hall meetings that organizers say will educate the community as to why the city-county consolidation plan is a flawed, hostile takeover.

“All other municipal jurisdictions in Montgomery County will be allowed to vote on this plan, but they will get to continue governing themselves,” said the Rev. Xavier Johnson, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, which hosted the event.

But one of the merger’s architects said criticism of the charter proposal is off-base and premature because the document is still under development and much remains undecided, including whether additional jurisdictions will be included.

Also, pursuit of a ballot measure will occur only if a study concludes that a consolidation will ease the local tax burden, said Paul Leonard, co-chair of the charter development committee.

“Our side is absolutely committed — if the cost study justifies it, which is a big if — of letting the people of this community have the final voice,” Leonard said. “We want it on the ballot so the voters can decide this issue, and not political elite.”

Dayton Together is the nonprofit group that in February released a draft of a charter outlining how to combine the governments of Dayton and Montgomery County.

Monday’s event, which lasted less than two hours, featured a panel including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, city commissioner Joey Williams, NAACP Dayton Unit President Derrick Foward and Mark Owens and Phil Plummer, the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties of Montgomery County.

Speakers lambasted the charter and the process by which it was developed, which they described as deliberately nontransparent. Rev. Johnson said the entire Dayton City Commission and every elected county official oppose the merger, except for county commissioner Dan Foley, who is spearheading the initiative.

Every elected administrative county official who responded to a question from this newspaper said they oppose the merger initiative, including the clerk of courts, engineer, auditor, treasurer and commissioners Judy Dodge and Debbie Lieberman.

The NAACP’s Foward said he is helping circulate a petition opposing the merger because it will disenfranchise voters, allow county voters to make decisions that exclusively impact services and issues in Dayton and will negatively impact the diversity of elected leadership. His goal is to collect 100,000 signatures by the end of the year.

The merger plan fails to address any of the issues it purports to remedy, including poverty and job and population loss, said Owens, the Democratic chair.

Owens said the plan would replace the county’s elected offices with appointed positions, which would harm accountability.

Plummer, county sheriff and chair of the Republican Party, said people in his position must be accessible and responsive to citizens because they answer to voters.

“Being in an office where I’m elected every four years, if my people mistreat you, you can get rid of me,” he said. “I hold my people very accountable because I work for you guys.”

Whaley said the plan will not reduce the cost of government because it will not result in a meaningful consolidation of services. She said the city and county already work closely on issues of mutual interest.

Some at the meeting questioned the motivations of the group pushing the merger and asked how it might impact control of the city’s revered water supply, as well as its airport.

Leonard, a former Dayton mayor, said the document is being evaluated by an advisory committee to determine if it can be improved.

He said there have been no public input sessions because the final product is not available.

He said the committee may decide to include additional jurisdictions in the merger. Communities possibly targeted for consolidation could include Trotwood, Riverside, Harrison Twp. and Jefferson Twp.

Leonard said no African-American has ever been elected to the county commission, but minority representation at the county level could improve through a new metro government.

He said Dayton Together’s advisory committee is looking at raising private funding to pay for a cost study to analyze if a merger would reduce the local tax burden, either through lower taxes or fewer tax levies.

He said the motivation to explore a merger is to determine if there is a better system that could improve service delivery and efficiency and make the region more competitive to lure and retain jobs and residents.

“This is a debate between those of us who want to change for the betterment of the future and those of us who want the status quo,” Leonard said.

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