Lawyer for the powerless steps it up in 2020

Ellis Jacobs, lead attorney, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Dayton.
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Ellis Jacobs, lead attorney, Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Dayton.

For nearly four decades, attorney Ellis Jacobs has worked to empower low-income communities across the Miami Valley, helping them take on big corporations, push back against injustices and win consumer affairs fights.

The coronavirus pandemic just added to his workload in 2020.

Mostly without fanfare this year, Jacobs, 67, worked to protect voting rights and answer voter questions; helped persuade area judges to implement eviction moratoriums and pushed the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio to come up with plans to avoid utility shut offs during the pandemic; filed a writ of mandamus to ask courts to force public health officials to step up their response to COVID cases in the Montgomery County Jail; and advocated for low-income broadband support to be included in the federal CAREs Act.

“Ellis is somebody who inspires more quietly and thoughtfully, and is a big thinker. So he‘s always thinking of how things are connected together and how to make them better,” said Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio, who has known Jacobs for more than 20 years.

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Jacobs, of Yellow Springs, knew as a law student at University of Dayton in the late 1970s that he wanted to do public interest work. Early in his career, Jacobs worked at the Montgomery County Fair Housing Center and then the Montgomery County Public Defenders’ office. In 1987, he joined Legal Aid Society of Dayton, Inc., which was absorbed by Advocates for Basic Legal Equality, Inc. in 2003.

Jacobs developed an expertise in landlord-tenant disputes, fair housing law, environmental protection, voter rights and utility regulation.

Community leaders said Jacobs applies his expertise in the courtroom, at the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio and in neighborhood meetings to help the powerless take on the powerful.

“Most groups don’t have that knowledge and expertise and he’s been able to use his skills for community organizations to be able to take on the corporate giants,” said Tom Roberts, a former state lawmaker who now leads the Ohio NAACP. “He’s really a diamond in the rough for neighborhood organizations. And he does it really without compensation. He does it for the greater good.”

In 2000, he won a PUCO order that directed AT&T to pay $8.9 million to customers and into a benefit fund as remuneration for sub-par service. In 2003, he helped residents of Jefferson Twp. beat back a U.S. Army plan to dispose of a nerve gas agent at a plant then called Perma-Fix. In 2011, he filed a complaint against Beavercreek over its efforts to block bus stops near the mall. In 2015, he sued the Dayton Mall to get better bus drop off access for people with disabilities. In 2017, Jacobs pushed schools to test their water systems for lead.

This year, in addition to work on pandemic and voting issues, Jacobs applied for chairman of the PUCO, a powerful board that regulates electric, natural gas and telecom industries. Former PUCO chairman Sam Randazzo suddenly resigned in November after the FBI searched his home and an Akron-based utility disclosed that in early 2019 it paid $4 million to end a long-standing consulting contract with someone who was subsequently appointed an Ohio utility regulator.

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Jacobs, a Democrat, didn’t make the cut for an interview.

“The PUCO desperately needs members that represent the interest of residential customers and I have a history of doing that. For too many years the background of the members is representing the utilities or very large industries,” Jacobs said.