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Michael Bowen:

All right. Welcome to another Calfee Now series with the esteemed Columbus City Attorney, Zach Klein. Zach, how you doing today?

City Attorney Zach Klein:

I'm doing well, Michael. Always going to see you, my friend.

Michael Bowen:

Hey, always a pleasure. Always a pleasure. I'm glad we can sit here and talk for a minute. The question we always try to start off with is, what made you be crazy enough to get into politics and what was your story to come from Zach Klein, the boy, to Columbus City Attorney, Zach Klein?

City Attorney Zach Klein:

I grew up on the river, down in Southeastern Ohio in a little town called Belpre, 5,000 people across from Parkersburg, West Virginia, and we got excited when Parkersburg got an Outback Steakhouse, because that meant we could go get cheese fries. That was a highlight for us. Growing up in a small town, really gives an important sense of community. I didn't grow up in a political household, while my parents were very civic minded and stressed the importance of voting, for example, they were very much more community oriented.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

My mom and dad, I think, volunteered and raised their hand for almost everything associated with our school, specifically with athletics because my brother and I both played sports, primarily basketball, and so just watching it, my parents getting involved in their community, I think, it really instilled a sense of purpose and drive in me to want to make a difference, to see how individual people collectively can really help others in their own neighborhood or in their own city.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Not that you have to be an elected official to do that because the road is paved with a lot more not elected folks that are doing that in their communities than elected, but I felt that the way that I wanted to serve was to maybe run for office and be an elected official and a policymaker for the betterment of my community. I've had that fortune here in the city, being on council, being a council president, and now the city attorney of really being able to give back and make a difference for the better, to improve people's lives and build strong and safe neighborhoods for their families to be able to raise their children in.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

I've been very fortunate to do that, and certainly understanding the dynamics and perspectives of growing up in a small town, but being an elected official in the 14th largest city in the United States, and I can tell you, Michael, there's a lot more similarities that unite us than there are that divide us. I know that it's easy to try to nitpick on the division in the world that we're living in, of like us versus them, but I'll tell you, whether you grew up in Belpre, you grew up in Columbus or Cleveland, there's a lot more that unites us as a people than there really divides us, that common purpose of success and providing a real opportunity for families.

Michael Bowen:

That's great. No, fantastic. You mentioned a little bit about your time on city council, so let's go back to way, way back when, when you were on city council, and you're city council president, talk to me a little bit about what that role entailed. Obviously, as you know, the business community thinks that this political world is one thing, sometimes it is that, sometimes it's something different, describe to me about your role in that, and actually how you interacted with the business, being both as a regular council person and city council president.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We pride ourselves on building relationships in the City of Columbus, whether that's with neighborhood, faith, labor, business, community groups, it doesn't really matter as long as you have a common purpose of wanting to do community good. I really give credit to our previous mayor, Michael B. Coleman, who was a long time mayor of the City of Columbus, and he coined the phrase that I think sometimes it's often overused in the city, but it's called the Columbus Way.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

The Columbus Way, that phrase, what that means is, we work together to solve complex community problems. Working with the business community is an important part of that. We have to have strong economic development so that we have good paying jobs and a strong tax base to be able to provide important services in our community. I value my relationship with all groups, including the business community, and really value those partnerships to make a difference.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

That's something that when I was on council, I never shied away from, and certainly as council president and trying to set an example to work with others in the community, even if there's not an agreement or alignment on an issue, it's important to have those different voices around the table and forge consensus when possible, but make the best decision when practical, to get stuff done. That's why I ran for office.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

I like to get stuff done. I don't want to sit here and talk about issues, I want to act. Sometimes it's not as quickly as I think the community wants. Sometimes it's not as quickly as sometimes I want it, but I would rather act and figure out how to get things done to improve the community than just sit around and talk in theory about what can be done. It's the art of the possible, and that's what makes elected service so exciting.

Michael Bowen:

Right. As you know Zach, I'm a Clevelander, so this city attorney thing is foreign to me. Obviously we have a-

City Attorney Zach Klein:

It's foreign to a lot of people.

Michael Bowen:

It really is. I guess walk us through really what your duties or responsibilities are as city attorney and describe your office to me a little bit.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Yeah. I'm independently elected and there are some independently elected city attorneys in Ohio, some in Cuyahoga County, but it's certainly rare, it's not the norm. San Diego, Seattle, LA, and Columbus are the largest cities in the United States that have independently elected city attorney, and I think that's a good model for checks and balances. Now, if you talk to mayors in cities that have independent elected city attorney, they may think that we're headaches, because we don't report to them, but that's good for independence and that's good for government.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

My responsibility is, I'm the lawyer for the city, whether that's the police department or the fire department, we're their lawyer by charter, or our city's constitution, our city's charter. The utilities' department, rec and parks, the mayor, the council, we represent all 9,000 employees in their official capacities. If a dump truck runs into a building when it's backing out of an alley, that's our responsibility to make sure that that situation is remedied from a legal perspective.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We also get involved in shutting down drug houses and bad businesses in neighborhoods. Since I became city attorney, we've taken a more proactive stance in litigation. We're suing the Trump administration to preserve the Affordable Care Act. We're leading a group of cities, Baltimore, Chicago, Cincinnati in a case called Columbus v. Trump, to make sure people have protections for preexisting conditions.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Children can stay on their parents' insurance until the age of 26, especially in the state of Ohio that we have Medicaid expansion. We're taking a more proactive stance to stand up for civil rights, for human rights, for women's reproductive healthcare rights, and it's really an exciting part of the city attorney's office. Then the last part, which is about half my staff, that's the prosecution division. We prosecute all misdemeanors in the city limits, ranging from traffic violations all the way up to something as serious as domestic violence and everything in between.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We do about 110 to 120,000 cases a year. It's a very busy docket, but I'm a big proponent of criminal justice reform and improving the criminal justice system for equity and fairness. I think we've really led the way in Ohio to be a progressive, thoughtful prosecutors while balancing public safety in making sure we preserve justice. I think we've really struck the right balance there to do that. I have about 150 people in my office. They range from those divisions that I talked to you about, but it's a really good group of people. It's very exciting.

Michael Bowen:

Great. Let's talk about how the City of Columbus, as it is today, what it could be in the future, how far it's come. What are some of the major challenges you see for the City of Columbus? What are some of its best assets and what does the future hold, in your mind, for the City of Columbus?

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Look, we're very fortunate in Columbus. Columbus has a lot of great things going for it. It's a wonderful city. Obviously, I'm biased. I love Cleveland too, Michael, make sure you know that I love me some Cleveland, but Columbus is well positioned for the future because of just the balance of our portfolio, of what we have in the city. We have state government, we have the Ohio State University, we have large insurance companies, like Nationwide.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We have a banking center with Huntington and Fifth Third, and Chase, with a significant presence here, and we have a large retail base. Now retail has its challenges these days, but L Brands, Victoria's Secret, DSW, Abercrombie and Fitch, all of those and more, are based in the City of Columbus. But with that, and being the 14th largest city in the United States, we're not immune from real challenges. Real challenges that affect people's lives every day, whether that's the lack of affordable housing, whether that's crime.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Unfortunately this year we're on set for a record number of homicides, and crime is something in the City of Columbus that we continually have to deal with and grapple with. Police community relations and protests following the murder of George Floyd. We had our share of protests, like other cities. We had things that we did right and things that got wrong, that we now have to go and we have to improve and fix because protests, they're not going to stop. They're not going anywhere.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We have the opportunity, I think, to be a nationwide leading example of how to balance first amendment and give space for protesting, no matter what the issue is, but also protecting public safety. We have this opportunity to learn from our mistakes, celebrate our successes, and get it right in the future. We're not immune from what other major cities across the United States, as far as challenges are concerned, we're not immune.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We're taking hits just like everyone else because of COVID, and the lack of income tax revenue that funds police and fire, that funds rec centers, that funds the city services that are so vital, but I think we are poised because of our relationships and our desire to work in a collaborative way, to move this city forward. I truly believe as with the country, Columbus's best days are ahead of it, that we can overcome this collectively by working together.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

We can't do it in a silo. It cannot be solved at city hall, just like it can't be solved in DC or at the State House. We have to have a sense of collective purpose to deal with these major issues, and that's why working together is so important, and having that comradery and that collaborative spirit to solve these major problems.

Michael Bowen:

Great answer. No, that's great. Zach, you mentioned that you're the attorney for the City of Columbus. I asked you earlier about your interactions with the business community as a city council person, as council president, how is that different? How is it similar as city attorney? As you know, a lot of Calfee clients are corporations and businesses, whether that's small, mid, or large size, what is that interaction now compared to what it was when you were on city council with businesses?

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Our office represents the department of development, so when it comes to crafting economic development deals, we're working with our client to make sure that the deals that are memorialized and ultimately voted on by city council and signed by the mayor are ones that are reflective by all parties, just like Calfee does on representing your clients.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

My position, my default of being open-minded and collaborative and welcoming the partnership with the business community, that hasn't changed just because I need to cross the street as the city attorney, and that will never change because I don't think government is successful, nor are you a good government elected official if you do not have that collaborative approach. You must have that, so that certainly hasn't changed.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

The role I play has changed. Instead of voting on the economic development deals, we're working with our client to help craft them, make sure they're reflective of all parties, intents and desires, and what can we do when it comes to, from the legal perspective, to ensure that we have the best atmosphere for equitable and fair economic development in the City of Columbus. We have to have good paying jobs, which means we have to have a robust business community. Both those, they occur at the same time, or one doesn't exist without the other.

Michael Bowen:

That's great. Zach, we really appreciate your time today. Is there any closing remarks you want to make or say to anybody who's watching out there?

City Attorney Zach Klein:

Yeah. No, look, I just appreciate everything that Calfee does and what you do, Michael. Calfee is a wonderful law firm. We work in Columbus with the lawyers down here. I'm not afraid to pick up the phone if I have questions. I think all the practice areas that I've dealt with really are top-notch people, who understand city business, city government, but also the legal side. I think that what Calfee has done in areas like representing cities, and what Calfee has done in areas involving technology are certainly robust in nature and provide great counsel for clients in collaborative sphere with people like me and the city to get things done.

Michael Bowen:

Fantastic. City Attorney, I'll let you get back to fighting the good fight and get back to the rest of your day, so always a pleasure to talk to you, Zach, and we'll be in touch soon.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

All right, Michael. Thanks, man. I appreciate it.

Michael Bowen:

Thanks. Have a good one, now.

City Attorney Zach Klein:

You, too.

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