For a political group dedicated to transparency and accountability in Cincinnati government, the venerable Charter Committee is being uncharacteristically secretive about why it won't allow a local blogger to join the organization and is sending mixed messages to his associate.
Jason Haap and Justin Jeffre have been trying to join Charter, the city's de facto third political party, since late last year. After awaiting a response for months, Haap received a letter in March stating his application was rejected and returning his check for the $25 membership fee. Jeffre's status, meanwhile, remains unclear.
The situation raises questions about the membership criteria for the Charter Committee and whether they purposely were changed to keep certain people out of the group due solely to personality conflicts.
The Charter Committee's Web site states, "Charter recognizes and appreciates the strength of diversity. We bring people together across political, racial, economic and every other line imaginable. Their common interest is a desire to improve our cities and communities."
Anyone can join the Republican or Democratic parties, and that affiliation is kept on record at the Hamilton County Board of Elections. The information is readily available to the general public.
But Charter actually is a private group that doesn't have to comply with the legal requirements of a political party.
Technicalities aside, one of Charter's longest serving and most honored members doesn't like the veil of secrecy surrounding membership matters and is dissatisfied with how Haap's and Jeffre's applications were handled. Marian Spencer, a former Cincinnati vice mayor and a prominent civil rights activist in the 1950s and '60s, says she doesn't understand why the applications have caused such controversy.
"Charter has always been about inclusion," she says. "I believe in an open process."
Some observers say the dispute shows that Charter, a group formed in the early 20th century, doesn't know how to respond to the new media voices emerging in the 21st century.
Haap is a blogger who goes by the moniker "The Dean of Cincinnati" and operates the Cincinnati Beacon Web site (cincinnatibeacon.com), which touts itself as an alternative news source. Jeffre is a former member of the 1990s pop group 98 Degrees. He ran for mayor as an independent in 2005 and has remained active in political issues since then. He also is a frequent Beacon contributor.
Haap's rejection letter from Charter Executive Director Jeff Cramerding stated, "Although we appreciate your interest, we feel it would be inappropriate to have a voice in the independent media also function as a dues paying member of the Charter Committee. ... There is undoubtedly overlap between the two roles ... (but) we feel that the two roles are ultimately incompatible."
Ironically, Charter's own history is filled with participation from media types.
Russell Wilson, assistant editor of The Cincinnati Times-Star, ran for council as a Charterite and served as mayor from 1930-37. In 2001, WLWT (Channel 5) news anchor Courtis Fuller left his job to run as a Charterite for mayor. After losing, he returned to his TV post.
Haap says his sole intention in joining Charter was to participate in a group that he believes has drifted too far to the political right.
"I was not trying to take over the executive committee," he says. "We just wanted the right to be members and participate and to know exactly what that means."
When Jeffre applied for membership in September, Charter cashed his check but didn't communicate with him for months. After he made several inquiries, he was offered a spot on one of the party's working committees but still hasn't gotten word on whether he can attend meetings and give his input on the group's policies.
"I've been inquiring about what different committees there are, and it's been like pulling teeth to get any information," Jeffre says. "The whole thing seems very strange to me."
Haap and Jeffre say they've unsuccessfully tried to get a copy of Charter's membership rules.
Haap says he was told by a longtime Charterite that the issue was discussed at a recent meeting of the executive committee. The member told Haap that the group's rules were changed to allow Cramerding to use his discretion and reject membership applications on a case-by-case basis.
Cramerding declined comment. A call to Michael Goldman, Charter's president, wasn't returned.
Haap called his rejection and Jeffre's acceptance contradictory.
"If I am a journalist, so is Justin," Haap says. "And the rule they made to exclude me was made three months after I applied and made retroactive. It's odd."
But Haap and Jeffre's situation isn't unique.
Nathaniel Livingston Jr. — a local activist, blogger and onetime city council candidate — says Spencer invited him to join Charter several years ago. Livingston showed up at a meeting and paid the $25 fee but was blocked from attending the meeting.
"My money was never returned to me, so I guess I was a member for a year," he says. "During that time I was never notified of a single meeting or asked to join a committee."
Livingston believes Charter has become elitist and strayed from its roots.
"The Charter Committee likes having it both ways," he says. "On one hand, they want to hold themselves out as a political party but on the other hand they don't want to be held to the same standards as the Democrats or Republicans. At least the Dems and Repubs have elections for precinct executives, and anyone can 'join' the party by running for that office. Precinct executives have a vote on who leads the party.
"With Charter, you've got to pay to join. Then your membership dues apparently don't entitle you to a vote on the leadership or a vote on policy or even the courtesy of attending meetings. And these are the good government people. They can't even apply 'good government' principles to themselves."
One possible explanation is that Livingston and Haap are known for their outspokenness and in-your-face writing styles, traits common among bloggers but which can rub traditionalists the wrong way.
Haap says personalities shouldn't be a factor when deciding membership. He concedes Charter is acting within the law but says its tactics are contrary to its stated mission.
"I know organizations have the right to keep their (membership) lists private," he says. "But they also have the freedom to have them public. An organization that talks about openness and transparency should, by policy, have open books. They should make that clear to all members who join."
Spencer has been a Charterite since 1940. Even she, however, says the workings of Charter's executive committee, of which she's a member, remain hazy to her.
City council includes two Charterites — restaurateur Jim Tarbell and developer Chris Bortz. Cincinnati School Board Member Melanie Bates and businesswoman Joan Kaup are campaigning for council as a Charterites in this fall's election. ©