There's a democratic mutiny afoot in Goodyear Heights as dozens of disaffected voters call for the ouster of their councilman, whose party won't defend him.

Fed up with what they call the incompetence of Councilman Zack Milkovich, residents of Ward 10 created the Goodyear Heights Community Action Group (GHCAG) two years ago to tackle local crime, blight and jobs — on their own.

They've chalked up Milkovich's first term on Akron City Council to a dereliction of duty. Milkovich, a registered Democrat, dismisses the criticism as the kind of political hit job he's faced in recent elections.

In the Democratic primary election this May, the Yugoslavian immigrant faces community organizer Sharon Connor, who is endorsed by the mayor, and labor leader Jack Hefner. Each hopes to ride the anti-Milkovich sentiment. The three-way race might favor Milkovich, who campaigns with precision and persistence on the front porches of people who handed him a victory four years ago.

For now, the Goodyear Heights group promotes economic development and solutions-oriented discussions with its 356 followers, and counting, on Facebook. Online, the group's leaders are apolitical. In person, they rebuke Milkovich.

During multiple public meetings at City Hall in the fall, they asked the mayor and city council to help Milkovich help them. They explained how he "filibusters" at his community meetings, killing time so they can't ask questions. Several constituents said he doesn't return phone calls as retribution for supporting his opponents in past elections.

Milkovich sat stone-faced through the public admonishments. He doesn't flinch at confrontation. Once asked about how he voted, he shuffled papers at his desk and pretended a reporter didn't exist.

As for those residents who comb through public records to find information on their councilman, Milkovich's attorney sent them all a letter threatening "any and all legal action" if they continue to make "defamatory accusations ... callously spread regarding Mr. Milkovich's birthplace, residence and character."

 

Trouble brewing

Rancor and political turmoil have been building in Ward 10 for months.

At his monthly "town hall" meetings in the Goodyear Heights library, Milkovich leaves no time for audience questions. Instead, there have been shouting matches, subtle insults and even an argument late last year between Bruce Kilby, one of Milkovich's few friends on the council, and David “DJ” Luciano, a resident who's campaigned against Milkovich.

“It’s all a political hit job,” said Kilby, who lives in Goodyear Heights and represents Ward 2, which includes Chapel Hill and North Hill. The residents are “crazy and dangerous,” added Kilby, who often stands with Milkovich in opposition to Mayor Dan Horrigan.

“What you’re seeing is an organic bubbling-up of frustration,” Luciano said. “All we want is our questions answered.”

Making a beeline for the door after one raucous meeting, Milkovich hung his head. He looked back as the woman he came with shouted down boisterous voices. “This is what I have to deal with,” he said.

 

Political origin

Milkovich, who owns a construction company and manages rental properties, was 2 when his Yugoslavian parents immigrated to Barberton.

Like his father, he worked at a tire factory for nearly 20 years. A Korean firm bought the plant and cut his job. Since then, he’s kept close to childhood friend and former Akron City Councilman Ernie Tarle. The two share rental properties, campaign strategies, even a cellphone plan.

Milkovich narrowly won the Democratic nomination in 2010 to represent Barberton, Firestone Park, Goodyear Heights and Ellet in the Ohio House. Democrats gave him a primary pass in 2012.

In 2013, while living in Barberton, he ran unsuccessfully for clerk of the municipal court. By 2014, his party turned on him. He’d caucused with Republicans. He was deemed ineffective as a lawmaker. “A lot of our members saw him as a Democrat in name only, a fumbling goofball,” said a Democratic strategist in Columbus who spoke about internal criticism on the condition of anonymity. “A lot of folks weren’t sure why he was there. Frankly, I think a lot of people in the caucus were happy to see Greta Johnson beat him in the [2014] primary.”

Summit County Party Chair Tom Bevan echoed the "Democrat in name only" label. .

“It’s always been me against the party — the Democratic Party and the Republican Party,” Milkovich said. In a rare moment of talking to the press, Milkovich opened up about his perceived David-and-Goliath fight with the mayor and the party. “This city administration can’t be trusted,” he said.

 

Rise in Akron

The self-employed Milkovich launched an aggressive campaign in 2015 with ethics and tactics questioned by election officials and voters.

Like Kilby in 2008, Milkovich offered to pay the postage for voters who mailed in their absentee ballots. Like other savvy politicians, he targeted early voters using lists posted by local boards of elections.

One voter later complained that Milkovich had been "hounding" residents to fill out ballots he hand-delivered. His actions were ruled suspect but not illegal. And they were effective.

In that 2015 Democratic primary, early votes accounted for 42 percent of Milkovich's overall support. Kilby had 32 percent. None of the other 24 candidates for council or mayor got more than 22 percent.

Hefner, the longtime president of the United Steelworkers Local 2 who'd been appointed to the council, filed a complaint about Milkovich's handling of absentee ballots. He had come out on top at the polls but lost the race in a landslide of early votes for Milkovich.

Since losing twice to Kilby more than 20 years ago, Connor has inspired volunteerism from her wheelchair as president of Residents Improving Goodyear Heights Together, or the RIGHT Committee. She now serves on the Akron Civil Rights Commission.

Mayor Horrigan is a fan and has endorsed her for the Ward 10 seat.

"Sharon's successful track record as a neighborhood advocate combined with her passion and knowledge of her ward make her an ideal candidate for City Council," Horrigan wrote in an email. "Sharon has proven that she is all action. Her well-established relationships, both in the neighborhoods and in City Hall, will enable her to be immediately effective in meeting the needs of Ward 10 residents."

At-large Councilman Jeff Fusco endorsed Connor before Hefner entered the race. “And I really like Jack Hefner,” he said.

“I’ve known Sharon for 25 years. She has a very impressive body of work within Goodyear Heights,” said Fusco, who grew up in Goodyear Heights and got more votes than anyone in the 2015 Democratic primary, even the mayor. “I could go on and on about all the things she’s done over there.”

Odd meetings

Between guest speakers, Milkovich, 53, preaches throughout his community meetings, professing his love of God, country and community.

The style works, on some people. "He knocks on doors and promises God. For old farts like me, that's all you have to say," said Barb Williams, a lifelong Goodyear Heights resident who is not among the community action group actively opposing Milkovich. Williams has said for years that the councilman's meetings are "pointless."

Attendees roll their eyes at meandering monologues about his work as president of the West Akron Kiwanis Club or how he reveres his girlfriend’s brother, who works for the FBI, or the long moments of silence and prayer for first responders, or sermons about helping the poor.

Milkovich calls the meeting format "information-only." Elected and non-elected public officials invited to speak present on an issue then answer audience questions. But not Milkovich. He hurries out the door, telling constituents to phone in their questions.

Emily Cooper, who started a block watch, said Milkovich told her, “I’m not going to help you because you campaigned against me." Once, she said she asked for an answer to all the litter. “He said, ‘You know, Emily, you could be a good citizen and go out and pick up the trash yourself,” she recalled.

“His response to me, in front of this whole [Goodyear Heights Community Action] Group, is ‘You campaigned against me so I will no longer help.’ That was a year ago. I haven’t asked him a question since,” said Bill Horsfall, another resident.

 

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivignston@thebeaconjournal.com.