NORTON: Perhaps it was a sign of things to come.
When Norton first became a village in 1961, nine offices were up for grabs — and 83 residents threw their hats into the ring.
A full 2 percent of the village’s voting population wanted a seat at the table.
Lawns sprouted campaign signs like weeds, and two citizens groups, the Norton Development Committee and the Norton Improvement League, drew battle lines.
More than 50 years later, the city is still a fiery constituency, although the result has done more to foster bitter infighting than to effect positive change.
Central sewer and water has been a campaign message of candidates since the beginning, but to no avail. Without utilities, development has lagged. And the lack of commercial and industrial revenue keeps the city budget stressed.
What Norton has managed to do is achieve legendary status for municipal dysfunction.
Few mayors have been able to hold onto their post for more than a term. Kicking out the incumbent is a Norton tradition.
Since 1961, Barberton, the town’s neighbor to the east, has had nine mayors. Wadsworth, to the west, has had 10. Akron, the county seat, has had five.
Norton has gone through 20.
The comparison isn’t exactly apples to apples. Barberton, Wadsworth and Akron have strong-mayor forms of government while Norton’s mayor shares responsibilities with a city administrator.
So here’s another perspective: In the past 20 years, Summit County, home to 542,000 souls, has seen 12 elected officials targeted by recall petitions.
Norton — a town of just 12,000 people — was responsible for seven of them.
In the early 1990s, Norton voters stopped waiting for the next election cycle to kick out the incumbents. Disgruntled residents prevailed in their first attempt to eject a sitting council member.
Though no recall effort has been successful since, residents got a taste for it and never looked back, each time forcing the cash-strapped city to spend thousands of dollars to hold the special elections.
Patience has worn so thin that in 2010 a citizens group even circulated petitions to try to unseat two council members who were nearly three years into a four-year-term. They didn’t even want to wait the six months for a regularly scheduled primary, although ultimately they missed an election board filing deadline.
We’re not making this stuff up.
Here’s a peek at some of the city hall battles that kept Norton in the headlines for half a century:
1960s-70s: Charter fights
The city has had heated battles about charter amendments in recent years, but it’s nothing new.
News clippings from the 1960s and 1970s show charter review commissions constantly threatening legal action against the city for “mangling” ballot language or refusing to comply with approved amendments. In some cases, charter amendments that got the nod from voters went straight back to the ballot the next election, courtesy of groups seeking to repeal them.
1970s: Democrats support GOP
Town Democrats divided themselves between the Norton Democrat Club and the Norton Progressive Democrats, a feud that grew so bitter Norton Progressive Democrat President Leonard Belka endorsed a Republican to replace him on the council when he decided to give up his seat in 1976.
The following year, the clubs gave the mayor’s seat to a Republican rather than unite.
1981: Pay raise dispute
A group of residents collected signatures in an attempt to repeal a pay raise given by the City Council to Law Director Joseph Miller. Voters declined to repeal the raise.
1988: City sues itself
A citizens group succeeded in getting the city’s new zoning ordinance repealed.
With no official guideline in place, City Administrator John Sanders and Zoning Inspector Donald Bolender doled out permits to 22 businesses who asked to open a new establishment or erect a new sign.
Angered at the action, the City Council decided to sue the city officials and the business owners. It had to hire its own counsel, as the city law director defended Sanders and Bolender.
A judge ruled that when the zoning code was repealed, the city was left without any zoning laws at all.
Norton Citizens for Good Government, generally supportive of Mayor Timothy Crawford, sought to recall council member Patricia Biggs, who said she was targeted because she liked to question the mayor’s actions.
Biggs lost her seat by 24 votes. She challenged the vote in court and lost, but a new fight was brewing. When the mayor appointed David Yanke, one of the recall petitioners, to Biggs’ seat, the council said the mayor had no right to make that appointment.
Three council members took their case to court and lost. Yanke kept his appointment, but died later that year of a heart attack.
Months after voters recalled Biggs, they were back at the polls on the question of whether to recall council member Charlie Lemon, also for opposing Crawford’s position on several matters.
But first, it took a court battle to establish the date of the recall election. A judge finally set the date, and Lemon survived the effort.
Embattled City Council President Chuck Luff also was targeted by recall petitions, but avoided a vote by being promoted to mayor. Mayor Timothy Crawford was leaving after being elected to the County Council, and Luff automatically succeeded into the job by virtue of his job as council president.
Luff served for two months as mayor, then quit.
Even if he had not avoided the recall by changing posts, the issue may never have made it to the ballot.
Many residents demanded to remove their signatures from recall petitions, saying they were misled about the reasons for Luff’s removal.
1993: Residency question
Three residents filed suit seeking to kick newly appointed council member Don Lindeman out of his council seat, saying he lived in the wrong ward.
A citywide redistricting confused the issue, and the courts ruled against Lindeman.
An outraged council president Charlie Lemon said he wanted the council to retain him anyway.
“I don’t care what that judge says,” Lemon said. “As far as I’m concerned, some judge from Akron shouldn’t be telling our city what to do.”
In the end, the council voted to remove Lindeman.
1997: Fax vs. cruisers
The City Council wanted its own private fax line, but City Administrator John Morgan would not sign the purchase order, saying the council should use the existing line at city hall.
Calling it a “symbolic” trade-off, the council refused to authorize the purchase of four police cruisers.
Norton Mayor Terry Jones ordered a battered police cruiser to be wrapped in police tape and parked in front of city hall to draw attention to the squabble.
The council eventually approved the purchase of two cruisers even though $80,000 had been budgeted for all four.
1999: Chief sues city
Mayor Tim Crawford fired Police Chief Tom Walters in 1991, saying he didn’t meet the city’s residency requirement. After civil service hearings, Walters won his job back, but in 1993, he resigned.
In 1999, Walters named the city in a $3.5 million harassment suit, claiming that his resignation was the result of city hall pressure based on his efforts to reform the police department, and because he asked the county sheriff to investigate the Mayor’s Court.
His suit also accused his own officers of threatening his safety, rifling through his desk and videotaping his home. The City Council agreed to a settlement.
Amy Addis was a part-time city hall secretary in the summer of 1999 when she resigned and filed to run against her boss, incumbent Mayor Terry Jones. She won on a campaign message that charged city hall was in turmoil and change was needed.
After taking office, Addis controversially adopted the title of city administrator as well as mayor and began collecting the salary for both jobs.
That, among other things, caused City Council President Joseph Kernan to appoint a committee to investigate whether Addis should be impeached.
That action went nowhere, but a petition to recall Addis made it to the ballot. Addis survived the recall by a couple of hundred votes, but she lost her re-election bid to Kernan a couple of years later.
2007: Mayoral race
In March, Mayor Joseph Kernan quit after being charged with driving under the influence of alcohol on a St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
His successor, James Price, the council president, found his run for the office derailed after word spread about a 31-year-old felony record.
When the seat was left up to voters that November, there were four candidates: Tom Jones, David Koontz, Amy Addis and Norman Kendall.
Of those, Addis had been the target of a recall during a previous stint as mayor, Jones would face a recall election the following year, and Koontz would become the target of unsuccessful recall petitions in three years.
2008: City sues itself again
Citizens initiated a charter amendment aimed at reducing the number of at-large council members from three to one.
After the issue passed, the council instructed Law Director Pete Kostoff to challenge the amendment in court because the language called for eliminating two council members before their terms were up.
As a result, Kostoff represented the City Council while the city had to hire a special counsel to defend the people’s vote. The courts ruled that the two council members caught by the reduction should finish their terms.
Before the deadline arrived, one of the councilmen slated to lose his job asked for another crack at the ballot. The council agreed to offer a new charter amendment restoring the two doomed positions.
Voters approved the increase, meaning the two-year court fight in which the city had to pay for both sides was for nothing.
In January, some Ward 1 residents attempted to recall their 15-year veteran councilman Tom Jones. Among the reasons his opponents gave: He led a failed effort to eliminate the Norton Police Department and contract with the Summit County Sheriff’s Office as a way to save the city money.
The petitions were ruled invalid because of ballot language problems.
The residents tried a second time and succeeded in getting a special recall election in July. Jones survived by 52 votes, then lost his re-election bid the following year by 143 votes.
2010: Recall two people
Two businessmen set their sites on Mayor David Koontz and Council President Mike Zita for recall. The petitioners complained that Zita supported everything Koontz wanted to do, so there were no checks and balances between the branches.
Needling issues included an income tax increase for those who work outside the city, and eliminating council meetings from cable television.
The attempt fell short. The group failed to meet the deadline for getting the issue on the ballot. Koontz did not run the following year. Zita ran for mayor and won.
2010: Recalls harder
The Norton City Council sought a charter amendment to increase the number of signatures needed on recall petitions. Law Director Pete Kostoff said recalls were costing Norton about $15,000 a pop.
“Yes, people have a right to recall, but instead of recalls being used as a personal vendetta tool by a minority of the population, council wants to make sure the number of signatures is a true representative of the number of people who want the recall,” he said.
The amendment passed by just 50 votes.
2013: Sewer fight
With the Ohio EPA on its back for failing septic systems leaking into a public lake, Norton officials formed a plan for installing water and sewer lines in one troublesome neighborhood and assessing some of the cost to homeowners.
When residents realized they could be facing bills of up to $13,000 each, they fought back, putting an issue on the ballot that would force the city to foot the entire bill.
The issue was defeated, but the petitioners weren’t. They collected enough signatures for another charter amendment, this time capping assessments at $5,000.
Some council members resisted holding a special election on the matter, saying it could cost up to $40,000 to stage an offseason vote, but the council eventually approved a date. Norton voters will decide the matter on Dec. 10. (An earlier version of this story had an incorrect date.)
Meanwhile, Norton’s legislative body was shaken up at the Nov. 5 general election. Four council seats were up for grabs, three of them with incumbents seeking re-election.
Voters said no.
In all three cases, the incumbent netted less than 34 percent of the vote. Come January, four of the seven council posts will be held by new members.