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After five-hour meeting, Akron council fails to pass civilian oversight board nominees by deadline

Imokhai Okolo, a 27-year-old Black lawyer, addresses Akron City Council.
Anna Huntsman
Ideastream Public Media
Imokhai Okolo, a 27-year-old Black lawyer, addresses city councilmembers and residents in council chambers on Feb. 27, 2023. Dozens of residents packed the chambers to call for approval of Okolo's nomination to the Akron civilian police oversight board.

After discussing the candidates and taking multiple votes up until midnight on the city's deadline to seat the board, Akron City Council failed to get consensus and approve nominees to the city's new citizen police oversight board.

Council voted 8 to 4 on a slate of six nominees multiple times, each time narrowly missing the nine votes needed for a supermajority. Even though just 12 of the 13 members were present, law director Eve Belfance confirmed nine votes were still needed, due to the language of the charter.

Councilmembers Jeff Fusco, Brad McKitrick, Mike Freeman and Phil Lombardo voted against the board members. Councilman Donnie Kammer was absent from the meeting.

They were divided on one candidate in particular: Imokhai Okolo, a 27-year-old Black lawyer. A few councilmembers took issue with a social media post Okolo made previously, in which he reportedly referred to police as “pigs.” Other councilmembers said his legal experience and perspective as a young Black man were critical for the board.

Monday was the deadline for the board to be seated, according to the charter.

"If this body cannot come together to make a decision, then yes, we are in contempt," Sommerville said. "What does that mean? We don't know, and we got to find that out, and we'll let you know when we know."

Per the city’s charter, council is responsible for six nominations to the board while the mayor picks three. Aside from Okolo, council's proposed picks were: Donzella Anuzskiewicz, Imokhai Okolo, Diane Lewis, Caitlin Castle, Robert Gippin and Kemp Boyd.

When council’s regular meeting wrapped up around 9 p.m., Councilwoman Linda Omobien called for council to vote on its slate of six nominees to meet the Feb. 27 deadline. The vote was once again 8 to 4.

Around 9:30 p.m., council took a recess and caucused among themselves in the chambers for about an hour. Dozens of residents stayed in the chambers, eventually ordering pizza as they waited out the decision.

Akron City Council Public Safety Committee votes Monday afternoon to replace Okolo

akron review board change web.mp3
Akron City Council Public Safety Committee vote on Okolo

The proposed nominees for thenine-member board were announced three weeks ago, but on Monday afternoon – just hours before the deadline to seat the board, as required by the city’s charter - members of the public safety committee voted 3 to 2 to eliminate Imokhai Okolo, a young, Black lawyer and community activist, from the list.

They initially replaced Okolo with Renatta Griffith-Hambrick, an Akron resident who works for a police department in Craig Beach in Mahoning County. However, Hambrick later withdrew her application to make way for Okolo to be on the board, council president Margo Sommerville said during the council’s regular meeting Monday night.

Dozens of residents packed council chambers, many expressing support for Okolo during the public comment period of the meeting.

Tristan Reed and Beverly Richards, two of the mayor’s picks for the board, were at the meeting and spoke in support of Okolo.

"Unfortunately, that's not enough. It's not enough to have several degrees. It's not enough to pass law school. It's not enough to serve the community. One post, that was explained, can disenfranchise you from an opportunity of a lifetime," Reed said.

During council’s recess, Okolo said he was thankful for the community’s support and never expected this reaction.

"I think it just shows you that [council's] stuck in their ways," Okolo said. "I didn't expect this sort of contention from city council."

While speaking during public comment, Okolo played an audio clip of Councilman Jeff Fusco telling him in a previous conversation that there were "commitments made" early on in the process of deciding the review board, which is why he could not vote for Okolo. Fusco declined to answer questions about such "commitments" during the meeting.

Okolo, who was permitted to address council during the safety committee earlier in the day for about three minutes, touted his experience as an attorney and said objectivity wouldn’t be an issue.

“It’s truly a slap in the face to me and the rest of the community,” Okolo said. “What do you want us to do? You ask us to be a part of the solution, and we want to be a part of that solution, and then you say no.

“You slam the door in our face and you say ‘one social media post defines you. One social media post says you’re not allowed to be in this room anymore,’” he added.

Public safety committee chair Donnie Kammer introduced a substitute to the list of proposed nominees during the meeting. The legislation was not listed on council’s agenda for the meeting. Councilman Shammas Malik said he was emailed the change to the legislation during the meeting.

Malik was frustrated by the last-minute change.

“It’s so disrespectful to the council, to the city, to the over 60 percent of residents who passed this charter amendment, to Imokhai Okolo who is so accomplished and doesn’t even get a vote. So, I’m beside myself,” Malik said.

Akron residents approved Issue 10, a charter amendment which created the nine-member review board, in the 2022 general election. Under the charter language, the board must be seated within 90 days of the election certification – making the deadline Feb. 27.

Speaking at the committee meeting, Councilwoman Linda Omobien said aside from Okolo’s experience and knowledge as an attorney, his lived experiences as a Black man in Akron make him a good candidate for the oversight board.

“All of the killings that have happened at the hands of the police across the United States of America, and even in our own community – the ones that are impacted the most are young Black men. We do not have one represented on this committee,” she said.

Councilman Brad McKitrick, one of the three public safety committee members who voted to replace Okolo with Hambrick, brought forth concerns about Okolo’s social media.

“There’s been some issues in the city of Columbus with their oversight board where they actually made a motion to remove somebody because of comments that were made, and I really don’t want that to happen here," McKitrick said.

Councilmembers Donnie Kammer and Phil Lombardo also voted to replace Okolo while Malik and Mosley voted against.

Updated: February 28, 2023 at 1:14 AM EST
This story has been updated to include votes taken by the full council Monday night. It was originally published earlier on Monday after council's public safety committee voted to replace Okolo as a nominee to the review board.
Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.