By Alissa Paolella, The Buckeye Flame
The city auditor of Nelsonville — who spearheaded a Herculean effort to save his city earlier this year — has a message for his fellow LGBTQ+ Ohioans: do not write off small towns.
Taylor Sappington’s family has deep roots in Hocking County going back generations. When he was in the fifth grade, Sappington’s mother moved their family from Columbus “back to the hills” to live with his grandmother in Nelsonville.
The small city in the Appalachian foothills has had its share of struggle, perhaps most significantly affected in recent years by the opioid epidemic. Combined with the loss of resources — including the U.S. 33 Nelsonville bypass and the recent closure of a state prison — the casualties have led to a city of people full of mental anguish, indifference, and cynicism, Sappington said.
He knows this grief intimately. Sappington, an out gay man in the community, lost his partner to suicide the week before Christmas of 2016. Eight months later, his cousin died by suicide. His cousin’s mother died by suicide one year later.
Sappington’s experience has mirrored so many in Nelsonville who have struggled to exert control when outside circumstances have weighed down the local community.
Thus when an opportunity arose for Sappington and Nelsonville residents to take matters into their own hands, they leapt at the chance. And not only did they leap into the fray, but they emerged victorious with a hero auditor — yes auditor! — at the helm.
And it all started with the 2020 U.S. Census.
Nelsonville city officials and residents were shocked and dismayed earlier this year when they were informed that their municipality was being downgraded from a city to a village. Their reported 4,612 residents was a 780-person drop from the 2010 census, and fell below the required 5,000 residents required for city status under Ohio law.
Sappington, the Nelsonville city auditor, described the census as chaos under the Trump administration. “The administration was not helpful, if not openly problematic.”
Sappington said the community could not believe there was a nearly 20% drop in Nelsonville’s population. In fact, city officials poured over records that indicated population growth, not loss.
“Our impression was that the national count was not effective,” Sappington said.
Sappington said his next move was “such a Millennial story.” He went to Google to search online for challenges to the Census. What he found was an obscure Ohio law from 1953 that granted localities the opportunity to reject the official results.
After reviewing his findings with the city attorney, Sappington realized it was a concrete action that residents could take — together.
“It gave folks something to work for — a common purpose,” Sappington said. “This was something we could take into our own hands. Even if we ‘lost,’ it was important to say that we tried. As a city, our self-worth was atrophied, but this was a chance to fix our own problems.”
And they sure did.
Sappington and community members collected signatures from the town’s 5,373 residents. In October, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose restored Nelsonville’s city status.
Sappington knew from his own experience that it may have been tempting to throw in the towel. When he knocked on the very first door in his neighborhood to seek support for his bid for city council in 2015, he recalls the neighbor saying, “I’ll tell you the problem with this town … the faggots.”
“I could have quit then and said, ‘This (serving on city council) is not for me’ or ‘this town is not for me.’ But I’m so glad I continued on to knock on the next door.”
Sappington has since learned that Nelsonville’s LGBTQ+ community has long provided leadership in city government. Kevin Dotson, an out gay man, spent a decade as council president. Anita Mondo, another council member and out lesbian, served for about six years.
“I’m glad I stuck through the worst days of politics to learn about them,” Sappington said. “For those who are running for office, keep fighting. If I would have given up then, I would not have known the town that loved us for who we are as people. The first few steps may be rough, but it’s worth it. Every day, I see reminders of that.”
And where does he see those reminders? That would be in the city of Nelsonville, and don’t you forget it. 🔥
- Because representation truly does matter, the Victory Institute is always looking to identify out LGBTQ+ leaders to run for public office. Check out their next available training.
The Buckeye Flame is an platform dedicated to amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ Ohioans to support community and civic empowerment through the creation of engaging content that chronicles their triumphs, struggles, and lived experiences.
Copyright 2021 The Buckeye Flame. Reprinted with permission by The Buckeye Flame.