In a cozy place like Seven Hills -- a suburb of just 13,000 -- scuttlebutt scuttles quickly. When the question is "Did you hear?", the answer most often is "Yes."
So last summer, when Mayor David Bentkowski plunked down $87,000 for a spacious house on a leafy street -- well, everyone heard. And the rumors soared.
Houses on Crossview Road can sell for more than $150,000, even $200,000. A three-bedroom house with an indoor pool, for $87,000? It seemed like a steal.
"It just doesn't look right," says Frank Petro, a former Seven Hills councilman.
What looks worse is that Bentkowski bought the house from Landsong, which has been developing subdivisions in Seven Hills for years. Just four months earlier, Landsong had paid $131,000 for the property. The company's co-owner also contributed $1,000 to Bentkowski's 2003 mayoral campaign.
"This stinks," says Catherine Turcer of Ohio Citizen Action, a government watchdog. "This smells really bad."
But it appears more likely that the smell comes not from an insider deal, but from the mayor's misadventures in real estate, according to his lawyer.
Bentkowski did not respond to numerous interview requests. But for a 33-year-old mayor who still lives with his parents, moving out of Mom and Dad's is proving costly to both his wallet and his reputation.
Crossview Road is a street dotted with houses of varying size and appeal. There are gorgeous, rehabbed two-stories and small square boxes that look stuck in the 1950s. The mayor's ranch house is large, but when he bought it, its electrical and plumbing systems were a mess, and its wood exterior was ravaged, among other problems.
"It's a cool house," says Chris Matthews, who owned it before Landsong. "But the work that needed to be done was way over my head."
Matthews, the mayor's longtime friend, bought the house in 1999 with hopes of restoring it. His plan, and his budget, quickly disintegrated. After spending $142,000 on the house and borrowing another $70,000 to restore it, Matthews says, he and his wife couldn't keep up with their bills. The banks came after them.
But the property boasted one saving grace: The long, grassy lot backed up to undeveloped land being eyed by Landsong, which wanted to build a new subdivision behind Crossview Road. Landsong was paying neighbors up to $60,000 for the back portions of their lots, says Bentkowski's lawyer, Brent English. Matthews had a crucial piece of land.
County records show that Landsong paid $130,900 for the property. (Landsong owner Thomas Simich did not respond to interview requests.) Four months later, after Landsong divided the property, the developer sold the house to Bentkowski for $87,400 -- $43,500 less than it had paid for the whole lot. Landsong had its land. The mayor had his fixer-upper.
In a letter threatening to sue Scene, English calls the purchase "entirely above board, lawful and ethical." The mayor has no relationship with Landsong, English writes. And, he points out, Bentkowski purchased only 38 percent of the three-acre lot originally bought by Landsong. The mayor's parcel includes the 2,000-square-foot home. But the house, English writes, was "dilapidated and uninhabitable."
"That's hardly a great deal," he says.
Several people familiar with the house say $87,000 was more than fair, considering the work it needed.
"Whoever told you that he got a pretty good deal hasn't seen the house," says Matthews, who now works as Bent- kowski's secretary.
Joseph Andres, a Seven Hills planning commissioner, says the house was "a hell of an eyesore . . . I was happy to see that the house got some money spent on it."
Neighbor Joseph Rencz says that the house probably should have been leveled and rebuilt from scratch. Instead, the mayor went to work fixing it up. He restored the exterior, the kitchen, a bathroom, and a fireplace.
But when he needed someone to upgrade the electrical system, things started to smell funny again. That's when Bent- kowski turned to Mark Moro, whom the mayor had recently hired as Seven Hills' building commissioner.
Moro oversees construction in the city, including building permits. He was going to work on Bentkowski's house on his own time, but he "considered working on the mayor's house to be ethically troubling," he reportedly told The Plain Dealer.
On January 8, The PD reported that Moro said in an interview that he and the mayor "falsified a building permit to hide that Moro repaired the mayor's house."
English demanded that the newspaper retract the story. The mayor "did not falsify a building permit" and in fact "had nothing to do with the issuance of the permit, aside from paying the required fee," according to a proposed retraction sent to The PD by English. He says the mayor never tried to hide the fact that Moro was working on the house.
A company called All City Electric was listed as the contractor. All City owner John Zifchak, who signed the permit, tells Scene that his company intended to work on the house, but pulled out after The PD printed its story. "Nobody tried to falsify anything," says Zifchak, a friend of Moro's.
Moro declined an interview request from Scene. He has denied telling The PD that he and Bentkowski falsified the permit.
The PD has not backed down from the story, and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office is now investigating the mayor's role. Investigators may ask a grand jury to question the mayor, says Sergeant Dave Schilling, who's handling the case.
It may all be much ado about nothing, but Bentkowski's official actions since his election have done little to clear the shadows around him.
Voters made Bentkowski their part-time, $14,000-a-year mayor in November 2003. He made an early splash by announcing that he wanted to move Seven Hills students out of Parma's public schools and into those of nearby Independence, a smaller and higher-performing district. It seemed like a stellar idea, but there was one small problem: Independence wasn't interested. The district's school board would have to approve such a merger, and it rejected the idea. "I'm not aware of anything that would benefit us," says superintendent David Laurenzi.
Bentkowski blasted ahead anyway, opposing tax levies in neighboring districts and claiming to have the remedy for their financial woes. "We could save the day for them," he boasted to The PD when an Independence school levy failed.
The PD, in turn, called the mayor a grandstander who "won't accept reality." Officials in Parma were probably calling him much worse. On top of offending residents, Bentkowski had sounded off without a plan to make the move work, says Sarah Zatik, Parma's superintendent.
"Before you ever throw a proposal out to the public, you do a little research," she says. "Before you get everybody fired up, find out if it's feasible."
But research, it seems, isn't Bent- kowski's strong suit. This might explain why he purchased the fixer-upper that he's found tough to fix up.
Last week, soon after Scene asked Bent- kowski about the house, the mayor used campaign money to publish a newsletter chronicling his "Extreme Makeover" of the home. The "Seven Hills News" includes before-and-after photos of various parts of his bachelor-pad-to-be, along with a picture of the mayor's "Superman Room." The room, which apparently "encourages heroism" and "fun," is where the mayor stores a collection of superhero memorabilia, including a Superman Christmas stocking and a mannequin in full S-man gear. To save money on decor, the mayor even bought $5 garage-sale tables and painted them red, blue, and yellow -- to match his favorite hero's outfit.
The newsletter also praises the mayor for being "smart enough to stay at home and save money until he was 33," so that he could afford to fix up the house. But, it explains, "He has spent around $100,000 trying to make it habitable -- with still plenty of repairs remaining."
"He didn't know what he was getting into," English says.
Neither did Seven Hills.
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