A look inside politics at the Greenfield City Council level


Published: 1/10/2020 9:58:42 AM
Modified: 1/10/2020 9:58:03 AM

He didn’t want the job, but it appears Precinct 7 Councilor Otis Wheeler had a lot to do with deciding who would become the next president of the Greenfield City Council.

As we know, At-Large Councilor Ashli Stempel-Rae was elected to the presidency via an 8-5 vote over now-former Council Vice President Penny Ricketts at the council’s most recent organizational meeting.

The results surprised a number of people, including Ricketts, who clearly wanted the job and was pretty unhappy that she didn’t get it, just based on her public reaction on social media in the days following the vote.

What a lot of people may not know, is that the guy most responsible for helping put the gavel in Stempel-Rae’s hand was Wheeler, who talked to a number of his fellow councilors on the new president’s behalf.

“I talked to a few people about my interest in the vice-presidency, primarily,” Wheeler said. “And I wanted to work with Ashli because I think she is professional and organized and I thought she would do a good job.”

“It wasn’t a knock against Penny,” Wheeler added. “I just felt Ashli was the best choice.”

It was one he had to think about, given Stempel-Rae’s professional commitments in the eastern part of the state, which had, at times, caused her to miss certain key meetings.

“My only concern was whether she’d have the time, but my understanding is that she’s going to be working closer to home, so that wasn’t an issue,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler also said any conversations he had with his fellow councilors were of his own volition, not at anyone’s urging.

“There was no deal here, and no quid pro quo,” Wheeler said. “I just tried to put my name forward and expressed my preference for Ashli (for the presidency).”

At first blush, the effort appeared to be the kind of shady, backroom political submarine job one would never expect from someone like Wheeler. But after talking to him, it was clear that his intention wasn’t to hurt Ricketts, whom Wheeler says he hopes to be able to mend fences with in the coming year, which may be easier said than done.

Ricketts has got to be bent to have lost, and with good reason. You’d have a tough time finding a public official more dedicated to her job and in tune with her constituency than Ricketts. And even though the charter has no succession guarantee for vice presidents to ascend to the presidency, it’s pretty rare for a two-year sitting VP not to end up in the big chair when their turn comes around.

Then again, this is no ordinary situation. Ricketts did have a stroke a year ago, and by her own admission has worked incredibly hard to rehab her physical issues largely in preparation for her ascent to the presidency. Her own public comments after the vote indicated that she felt she had been discriminated against because of the stroke, which Wheeler said was not the reason he voted against her.

“It wasn’t about that for me,” Wheeler said. “I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me, it was because I felt Ashli was the better choice.”

So now Ricketts is not only out of the leadership, she’s not even chairing a committee, which, as I understand it, was her choice. Ricketts says she is putting the leadership fight behind her “and focusing on what’s best for Greenfield,” and while that’s good to hear, how she interacts with the new regime is something that will bear watching over the next year.

As for Wheeler, his star has never been on the rise more than it is now. Not only is he firmly ensconced as the council’s “second banana,” he’s also remaining as Ways and Means Committee chair, which is unusual, as being absolved from subcommittee chair positions is often one of the perks of serving in the leadership.

“We are already into the budget season, as the capital budget was released in October,” Wheeler said.

“There were probably others that could have chaired, like Chris Forgey and Phil Elmer, but the feeling was that I had the experience,” Wheeler said, adding that it was Stempel-Rae who requested that he remain in the post.

Wheeler also believes this new council will be able to put aside the ideological struggles of the past few years, and focus on doing the best for the residents they represent.

“I think we’ve got a good group here, and we have the chance to do some great things,” Wheeler said. “I look forward to doing my part and working with everyone to make that happen.”

Chris Collins has been covering Franklin County politics for the better part of a quarter of a century on various media platforms. He can be reached at sourcechris.collins@gmail.com

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