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January|February 2005
Identity Crisis By Andy Latack
Parliament of Dunces By James B. Goodno
The Fall of New Rome By Geoffrey Gagnon
The King of Plots By Aaron Dalton
the Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

The Fall of New Rome

Ohio motorists mourn the town that tickets built.

By Geoffrey Gagnon

CARRYING A HOMEMADE COFFIN ON THEIR SHOULDERS, four mourners marched from the parking lot of a shuttered grocery store in central Ohio to a pair of empty metal posts. The pallbearers and another two dozen sympathizers had gathered to pay their respects not to a man but to a town. Many of them wore white t-shirts emblazoned with a tombstone to mark the moment. "Here we lay to rest the remains of New Rome," Jim Bussey intoned as he put the coffin on the posts. The crowd cheered.

Those posts once held a sign announcing the western entrance to New Rome—a patch of highway two-tenths of a mile long, 10 miles west of Columbus, crammed with purveyors of automotive parts, liquor, and lotto tickets competing for the attention of motorists. Beneath that sign was another that dropped the speed limit from 45 to 35 miles per hour in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it town.

But thousands of motorists found themselves slapped with tickets that generated upwards of $400,000 in revenue for the village each year. In 2001, Bussey was given a $103 ticket for driving 7 miles per hour above the 35 mph limit, or 3 mph below the 45 mph limit that he thought he was supposed to observe.

Bussey fought the ticket, arguing that the sign hung below the legal standard of six feet above the ground. He lost and was steamed enough to create a website dedicated to ending New Rome's run as one of the country's most notorious traffic traps.

A quirk in Ohio law allows so-called mayor's courts to enforce traffic fines in small towns. In these courts, the mayor acts as judge and decides the appeals of motorists nabbed by cops who are dispatched by the mayor. No state agency monitors the mayor's courts, and the system creates an incentive for tiny towns with no real tax base to line their streets with police who pounce on speeders in order to line the town's coffers with cash.

Incorporated in 1941, the New Roman empire was eventually destroyed by its own corruption. Rather than provide the hamlet's 60 residents with the best civil services a ticket trap can buy, New Rome's cash cow became a piggy bank for village officials. Jim Petro, then state auditor, decided in 2002 to investigate New Rome because of the mounds of money sloppily accounted for, calling it "the per-capita corruption capital of Ohio." In 2002 a former New Rome clerk was jailed for siphoning off $56,000. In the last decade, state officials estimate that $120,000 improperly disappeared from New Rome. In roughly that same time span, a cop pled guilty to forgery, a mayor paid $2,500 in fines for stealing gas for his car, an ex-police chief pled guilty to felony theft after stealing a shotgun, and a clerk copped to destroying court files.

Despite the reputation New Rome was earning for itself, the police force had the gall to ask for federal funds to beef up its patrolling. In 1998 the Department of Justice gave the town $72,000 to help enforce the speed trap. "New Rome has identified traffic control as a major duty," the DOJ's office of community policing reported in an agency audit. As many as three full-time officers patrolled their 1,000-foot beat, but the town's police department deputized a handful of volunteer officers to offer more help.

Scores of angry drivers posted their own stories to Bussey's website, Plenty of the posts come from out-of-towners who were ticketed, cuffed, or arrested over violations like poorly lit license plates, coin-size cracks in windshields, and faulty license plate holders.

But road rage of this sort isn't enough to erase a village from a map. It took the lawmakers of Ohio to make that happen. In 2003, they passed House Bill 24, which allowed the state to dissolve a village with fewer than 150 people and "less than two square miles" if it suffers from fiscal or election difficulties. Two months after enacting what became known as the "New Rome Bill," state officials determined that the village met the criteria for dissolution. The auditor found that the town hadn't adopted a tax budget in nearly a decade and had violated state election laws as many as 23 times since 1988.

Connie Tucker, a village clerk who was elected mayor just before the state's decision to dissolve the town, presided over New Rome's final gasp. A judge granted Tucker time to hire lawyers and appoint council members (including her 18-year-old daughter) to appeal the dissolution order. She claims to have had a plan to rein in the police. But with public opinion stacking up against the town and Ohio officials bearing down on her, Tucker abandoned office and the chance to appeal the fall of New Rome. "I wanted to make things better here," Tucker said. "We just ran out of time."

Before leading the funeral procession, Bussey admitted that the turnout of less than three dozen "mourners" was lower than he had expected. Previous demonstrations had brought one hundred or so marchers to rally against the village. But those marches also brought out the New Rome police, who threatened Bussey and others if they strayed too close to the street, or if they marched too near the double-wide trailer that housed the village court. This time, though, there were no police cruisers, and the only person resembling a uniformed officer was Bussey, who had donned a cop's black cap for the occasion.

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