Ward 4 Councilman Marty Turner said his First Amendment rights are some of the most valuable available to him as an elected official.
Turner, the incumbent Ward 4 councilman, participated in a Columbus Exchange Club-hosted candidate forum on Thursday, along with his challenger, Fredrick Jackson. Both candidates are campaigning ahead of a May 16 runoff election that will determine who wins the seat on the city council.
During Thursday’s forum, an Exchange Club member asked about Turner’s social media posts, and whether both candidates think they help or hurt the city’s reputation. Turner has drawn attention, and even a public reprimand from fellow councilmen, for criticizing or attacking fellow politicians on Facebook, such as Ward 6 Bill Gavin and District 41 House Rep. Kabir Karriem. Mayor Robert Smith ordered Turner’s city cell phone disabled in summer 2016 for his social media outbursts, which were often laden with profanity. Turner has since sued Smith and the city for disabling his city phone.
Turner, who also noted he spent time serving with the Marine Corps, defended his social media use on Thursday.
“I believe in the First Amendment,” he said. “A lot of rights get kind of taken away from you once you come in the public light and that’s the only thing you have, is your speech. Anybody can say anything about me, and I can’t sue them because I’m a public person. The only way I can get it out is social media.”
Jackson said he doesn’t follow Turner on social media and is only aware of his postings by media reports. He agreed Turner has a right to express himself however he chooses, even if he said he might choose a different approach.
“My way of saying what I have to say might not be his way of saying what he has to get off his chest,” Jackson said. “Some of the stuff I saw in the paper, I wouldn’t have said it that way, but I can’t say because I did it, that’s the way he should do it.”
Turner also said he uses social media to bring attention to issues that he feels are important.
“Sometimes things go on that people don’t know about, and I try to be professional and go behind closed doors and work it out with those individuals, but it doesn’t always work out that way,” Turner said. “The only other thing I can do is publicize it.”
Both candidates covered a range of other topics, from how to address crime in Columbus to how to improve the city’s image.
At one point, they were asked about the city’s ongoing work with consultant K.B. Turner, who the council hired for $19,000 in January to conduct a six-month review of the Columbus Police Department.
Jackson said he saw the matter as a leadership issue.
“I understand bringing someone in from the outside to do an evaluation of your police department,” Jackson said. “But at the same time, that was a lack of trust in your police chief to do his job. I can’t sugarcoat it. I can’t put in any other way.”
Turner said the situation wasn’t so severe, noting he believes several of CPD’s issues, such as a high number of officers leaving the department, were “growing pains” after the city hired Police Chief Oscar Lewis in January 2016.
Now, he said, hiring is on track to bring the department back to appropriate staffing levels.
“Crime had gone up a little bit,” Turner said. “As you know, our last police chief quit on us and we brought in Chief Lewis. Any time you have a leadership change, especially if you worked side by side with the same officer and now they’re your boss, it’s kind of hard to take that.
“That’s why they started quitting — that’s what I think — and I know they had problems with Chief Lewis,” Turner added. “That was just growing pains.”
Lewis was not a CPD officer at the time the council tapped him as chief. However, he spent 20 years, between 1994-2014, on the force.
Staffing reached the low 40s late last year and has grown to 60 since K.B. Turner began consulting. The department is budgeted for 67 officers.
Alex Holloway was formerly a reporter with The Dispatch.