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Collapse of Eastern Civilization 

Lessons learned from the burning of Eastlake.

King Nothing: Dan DiLiberto's decade as mayor was - disastrous for Eastlake. - THOM  ZAHLER
  • Thom Zahler
  • King Nothing: Dan DiLiberto's decade as mayor was disastrous for Eastlake.
Eastlake Interim Mayor George Spinner is ready to haul ass. He's been cursed with the job since April, when Mayor Dan DiLiberto retired for health reasons -- the kind that arise when you drive your city to ruin, the state declares a fiscal emergency, and the FBI comes a-calling.

What amazes Spinner is that six people are vying for the job. Asked what advice he'd give them, Spinner doesn't hesitate: "Run!" he answers.

There's more stability on Mt. St. Helens than in modern-day Eastlake. Besides the state auditors poring over books, there are cops and firefighters furious about being laid off, and residents looking for blood over soaring taxes and declining services. It's so bad, the city can't even afford a mayoral secretary. The poor bastard will have to make his own coffee. And if things get any worse, he'll also need a shovel to help what remains of the city's road crew.

If Eastlake -- and its intrepid new mayor -- have one chance at salvation, it's this: to learn from the many, many mistakes of DiLiberto.

Democracy is your friend
DiLiberto didn't take Eastlake by force. He took it by default. In 1993, Morris Becker, mayor for 18 years, retired. DiLiberto was the only guy who wanted the vacancy. Not exactly Great Moments in the Electoral Process. That Becker had beaten DiLiberto in the two previous campaigns made the victory all the more hollow, but it didn't prevent DiLiberto from making grand pronouncements about an Eastlake renaissance. "We're going to change the image," he said before taking office. Ten years later, "For Sale" signs are the image that has endured.

Beware of cronies
So what if DiLiberto didn't have to campaign for office? He still had a campaign manager -- and Joseph Farone needed post-election work. As one of his first acts, DiLiberto invented a new city job for Farone. He created another for his chief council ally, Donna Vaughn. After two more council-members resigned and the body appointed pro-DiLiberto replacements, Eastlake suddenly found itself being run largely by people who had never won contested elections, and all were beholden to the mayor. "He kind of had his own little empire here," says Councilman Ted Andrzejewski.

Empires are great -- for emperors.

Ignorance is not bliss
Nixon had executive privilege. DiLiberto had executive session. City business was conducted behind closed doors, and officials were forbidden to discuss it with the outside world. If that weren't enough, DiLiberto was in the habit of submitting long, complex documents just before council voted on them.

But DiLiberto's true stroke of genius was a little show on Eastlake cable TV titled Mayor's Corner. A woman masquerading as a journalist lobbed softball questions to DiLiberto, then pretended to be awed by his leadership and vision. In a move Mao would have appreciated, the propaganda repeated itself every two hours -- water torture to any dissenting mind that might bloom in the city.

Baseball is not a panacea
Lost tax revenue from electricity deregulation, manufacturing decline, and the stagnation of retail businesses had city finances reeling by the late 1990s. Eastlake needed a minor-league baseball stadium like East Cleveland needed another street gang. Nonetheless, DiLiberto took out loans amounting to roughly twice the city's annual operating budget, which were supposed to be paid back with federal and state funds, as well as corporate sponsorships. All are still missing in action. Worse, the stadium price tag swelled past $30 million -- up from the original estimate of $20 million.

How does that saying go? If you build it, they will crucify your ass on the scoreboard for bankrupting the city? Something like that.

Media should bite -- not roll over
Lake County's News-Herald was an unequivocal supporter of the stadium, and why not? DiLiberto credited the paper's brain trust with helping to conceive the idea. The closest Editor Jim Collins ever came to criticizing the mayor is when he kidded DiLiberto about placing his cigar on the green while he putted.

The Plain Dealer, meanwhile, wallpapered DiLiberto's office with puff pieces and an endorsement. As DiLiberto bolted for an early retirement -- just ahead of state auditors and FBI agents -- he still received praise for his contributions to city and region. Here at Scene, he's a leading contender for an Art Modell Award.

Blank checks ain't cheap
It's hard to blame John Chiappetta. He needed a sucker and found one in DiLiberto, who was willing to co-sign Chiappetta's $2.4 million loan from the state only if E&W Services would move from Mentor to Eastlake. Chiappetta defaulted on the loan. The jobs and taxes are gone, but the state is not -- it wants Eastlake to repay the money. As any good Shylock will tell you, empty pockets won't get you a pass.

Shit happens
The thing about sewer levies is that they're supposed to be used for sewers.

Eastlake approved one back in the '80s, but after improvements were made, the money kept coming in. So DiLiberto, who promised that no tax money would be needed for the stadium, had Finance Director Jack Masterson quietly steer the money to the stadium fund and the new city hall. Alas, this was a few shades shy of legal. Now it has to be repaid. Anyone seeing a theme here?

Begging doesn't pay
"Lend me some money. I just need a little something to get by. I'm good for it, baby."

Sound familiar? Then either you know a crackhead or you live in Eastlake, where the city's bail-out pleas have fallen on deaf ears. It appears that residents finally realize they've been subsidizing a mayor's grandiose dreams and a council's serial bungling. In March, a $3 million levy to save police jobs was voted down nearly two to one. Call in the Marines. Unlike Iraq, it appears that the people of Eastlake are ready for regime change.

More by Thomas Francis

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