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The Merle of Free Sandwich: How Beachwood Mayor Merle Gorden and His City Council Pals Created the Worst Suburb in Northeast Ohio 

BEACHWOOD, OHIO—You'd think it were Abu-Dhabi. You'd think it were Venice. You'd think, with its bulbous budget and a mayor collecting more annual dough than his counterparts in Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus—not to mention the governor of Ohio—that Beachwood were paradise.

Turns out it isn't.  

It's a shock, frankly, as you thrum along Fairmount and pass from Shaker Heights into this verdant five-square-mile realm, that the air isn't scented with rotating exotic fruits; that the water fountains aren't stocked with San Pellegrino, that the streets not only aren't bedecked with red carpets for motorists' individual tires, they're not even paved with gold.

What they are, in point of fact, are totally standard suburban streets, paved with, you know, asphalt. In the winter they're dutifully plowed. In the summer, they're maintained according to their needs. They're often clogged with cars though, make no mistake, cars that jockey onto Richmond and Cedar from the hellish exit ramps of I-271 and the sundry residential tributaries as they (the cars) make their honking, sluggish way toward Beachwood Place and Legacy Village, the commercial hubs that have brought this affluent community untold sums in tax revenue.

The homes here are smaller than in neighboring Shaker Heights, and also newer, on average, built in the 60s and 70s after Beachwood attained "city" status and grew to its current population of 12,000.

At 13.5 miles east and slightly south of downtown Cleveland, Beachwood slithers just beyond the inner ring 'burbs, small and distant enough to avoid the scrutiny of anything other than a boilerplate annual audit.

That is, until very recently, when Plain Dealer columnist Mark Naymik took it upon himself to alert Beachwood residents that their mayor, a 67-year-old former volunteer firefighter without a college degree named Merle S. Gorden, a man who's been firmly installed as mayor since 1995, was engaging in practices most folks in Cuyahoga County had grown woefully accustomed to back in 2009.

Except In Beachwood, they don't call it corruption. In Beachwood, they call it Economic Development.

First, it was the food. On June 6, Naymik's column took Gorden to task for using city funds to dine out with city employees and businessmen. Since December, 2010, Gorden and his guests had consumed $18,000 worth of meals (and iced tea, notably) at restaurants like Moxie and Maggiano's. Naymik also referenced a PD story from 2005 that reported $20,000 of taxpayer money used for Gorden's grub since 2001. Also questioned were the mayor's purchases of personal office supplies and a $42,000 GMC Arcadia on the taxpayer's dime.

"The rumors have me driving an Escalade," Gorden told Naymik. Wouldn't that be outrageous?

Next, it was the charity events. Naymik bashed Gorden the following week for his $30,000 annual blank check, authorized by Beachwood City Council, which permits him to attend events, conferences and garden-variety galas with few strings and little oversight.

Then it was the vacation pay. Naymik was flabbergasted after digging through public records later in June to learn that Gorden was cashing in on five weeks of "unused" vacation days every single year, what amounted to a nearly $20,000 annual bonus. According to Gorden's records, he literally didn't take a single day off between 2003-2009, and again in 2012. The Mayor's time-tracking methods were also revealed to be far from transparent—he tracked all his time personally and "reported" to Finance Director David Pfaff "should he ever need a day off."

Ironically enough, in a Sun News story from May 23, Beachwood City Council was scheduled to discuss the Mayor's salary at a May 20 meeting, but Council President Mel Jacobs announced before the proceedings that Gorden was out of town at a family function (a wedding in Arizona). May 20 was a Thursday.

Via email, David Pfaff indicated that Gorden has used 2 ½ days or 20 hours of vacation so far in 2013—his first time off ever, it would seem.

Underscoring (and dramatizing) Naymik's critiques were the active discussions in City Council about increases to the Mayor's salary, which believe it or not were actually happening. For context, when Gorden was elected mayor in 1995, his salary was $48,000. In 2012, his base salary was $175,000.

Councilman Brian Linick, the newest and youngest member of city council, has been the only member to publicly question Gorden's extravagant pay, especially in light of the city's other budgetary issues (more on that fun stuff in a moment). To reiterate—for perfect clarity—Gorden currently makes an annual base salary of $175,000. That includes compensation for both the position of Mayor and Safety Director (which is of course standard among suburban mayors). Gorden also collects $122,000 in retirement benefits and $34,500 in social security, not to mention additional fees for performing wedding ceremonies and his fat vacation bonus. He is far and away the most lavishly paid elected official in the state.

Via Naymik:

"Council President Melvin Jacobs announced [Monday, June 17] that council will freeze the mayor's salary. He almost sounded sad about doing so. Jacobs credited Gorden for making the request to save the city..."

In further heroics, Gorden "self imposed" an ordinance passed by council which will take effect next year, cutting the mayor's cashable vacation time from five weeks to three. Gorden announced his decision to adopt that policy this year  -- he's up for re-election after all—and did so with all the imagined solemnity of a man donating a limb or infant grandson.

Perhaps it's time we take a few concerted moments to unpack a sampling of Mayor Gorden's official statement in response to what he has dismissively dubbed  "this distraction."

He submitted said statement last week via the Cleveland Jewish News, the only media outlet to which he granted an exclusive in-depth interview and is, by the way, a paper with a circulation in the 9,000-ish range.

For the sake of space, time and their mutual continuum, I'll limit this close reading to a single paragraph. (A PDF of Gorden's full statement can be found on the Cleveland Jewish News website).

Wrote Gorden: (or, more likely, Wrote Gorden's ghostwriter(s)):

"I am disappointed in some aspects of what has been reported, as it is my opinion—and I am not alone—that what you have read or heard has been incomplete and at times not entirely fair or accurate. We are not perfect, but want to point out to you as well that this is an election year, and we understand that this may be convenient material for those running or considering running for mayor or council. It's almost certainly not a coincidence that this is happening now."

An ill-conceived and flailing defense on first blush, granted. But let's take a closer look:

I am disappointed in some aspects of what has been reported...

"Some" aspects, eh? Foremost those that impugn his credentials, integrity and ethics, I'd wager; and "disappointed," in all likelihood, by the fact that he got caught at all.

...as it is my opinion—and I am not alone—

At least four of his buddies on the 7-member all-white-male Beachwood council share his "opinion." That's about it.

...that what you have read or heard has been incomplete...

True that. Only documents from the past few years have surfaced via public records requests, but Gorden has been Beachwood's mayor since 1995. It's reasonable to suspect that this type of outlandish excess has been a staple of his tenure since President Bill Clinton's first term.

...and at times not entirely fair or accurate...  

Once again, Gorden principally just sounds upset that he got caught. And it's worth noting that Beachwood government leaders are overly fond of calling statements inaccurate. That's like their go-to defense. But when pressed—what exactly isn't accurate?—they claim to be lacking key documents, proper files, etc. and tell you to email them about it. Note also above the "at times" without any indication as to which.

We are not perfect...

Go-to tactic for corrupt politicians everywhere. As if spending tax dollars with licentious abandon the way Gorden has is in any way tantamount to making difficult legislative decisions. Also, mark the shift to first-person plural. Suddenly, "we" are not perfect. It's customary for politicians to absolve themselves via deflection, but what's comical is how predictably Gorden asserts his authority and responsibility when it's profitable and pleads ignorance and/or impotence otherwise.   

...but want to point out to you as well that this is an election year...

Aha! (Immediately pointing fingers, serving up limp, circumstantial rationalizations).

...and we understand that this may be convenient material...

More like "slam-dunk opposition ammo."     

...for those running...

Gorden is the only mayoral candidate to have filed a petition.

...or considering running for Mayor or council. It's almost certainly not a coincidence that this is happening now."

Come on, Merle! What a preposterous assumption. Gorden has been the focal point of all media scrutiny, and seeing as no other candidates have begun campaigning (or even announced campaigns), the orchestration of a public thrashing this far in advance of the November race would presuppose an extremely long and unorthodox con. This is the type of dirt people dig up during campaigns, not before.

And to implicate all those considering running for Beachwood political office represents what is probably the most fundamental misunderstanding of the current situation. It's not as if qualified, civically minded Beachwood residents are digging up Gorden's improprieties to bolster their own fledgling campaigns. If they're considering running at all, it will be largely because of Gorden's improprieties.

Not only ill conceived and flailing, it would seem; but also utterly backwards.

Gorden went on to mention how his dining practices were totally different from Jimmy Dimora's and listed some of the important steps he'd be taking to stem the tide of all this negative publicity, using strong phrases like "make every effort" and "encourage council to review."

Gorden also lamented that lost in all these attacks on his leadership style are the many accomplishments of his time in office. Lest we be remiss in our neutrality, Beachwood has a truly magnificent pool.

The Beachwood Pool, effervescent with wee Yarmulkes and canvas umbrellas striped blue and maize, sits next to the city's illustrious municipal complex. Last Tuesday evening, concerned citizens navigated through the parking lot's traffic cones to attend a public meeting about the expansion of Beachwood Place and the procedure by which residential property is rezoned. Snoozer alert!

(Worth mentioning that the traffic cones are on account of the new parking lot and heated sidewalks being rigged up at City Hall. Let that sink in for a moment. A government currently under pressure about the spending of public dollars has opted to make heated sidewalks its most pressing capital improvement. Awfully boldfaced. I mean not even your richest friends have heated sidewalks.)

Unlike the raucous attendees at public meetings on Parks and Recreation, for instance, Beachwood citizens, as a rule, are courteous, articulate and strikingly germane. Only one commenter made a subtle jab at Gorden.

"I like restaurants. I go out to restaurants all the time," said the 40-year resident when talking about proposed new eateries on Richmond Road. "So does our Mayor." Through laughs, someone in the crowd wanted to know who paid.

But underneath residents' questions and comments about deed restrictions and points of egress was a cumulative distrust of Gorden and council. It's the same sort of abstract moral anxiety that may be familiar to those of us with family or close friends on Wall Street. Several residents wanted council members to firmly state their position on the rezoning before the November elections. Others were concerned about the financial implications.

"I'm sure we'll hear over the next [several] months that without this development, we'll be losing tax revenues," said a Haliburton Road man. "And I'd like to gently remind, with all due respect, that a couple years ago we were in a difficult tax situation where a tax increase went through. And through that process, with no ostensible public opposition whatsoever, it only passed by a 52-48 margin. I only ask that you take into consideration the best interests of the city, which include its taxes. We should not only look at a balanced budget, but actually reducing expenses going forward."

That tax is a continual source of frustration for Beachwood residents. Not because they're footing the bill—it was an income tax increase, affecting only those who work in Beachwood (and the percentage of those who live and work in Beachwood is incredibly small)—but because it represents just how fat the government has become with little to show for it.

Councilman Brian Linick voted against the tax increase. His central argument at the time was that before taxes should be raised, government should be doing everything in its power to cut costs. Residents agree with him.

"The standard defense has been to tell everyone that Beachwood has great services," wrote resident Mike Burkons in an email to council Vice President Frederic Goodman after he brought up financial concerns at a July council meeting. "No one is denying that. I have spoken to many people and almost all of them have said that while the services are great, outside of the pool, they are no better or worse than they were 20 years ago."

That's distressing especially because government spending has lately seen exponential growth.

According to city budget documents, Beachwood's total spending as recently as 2007 was $34 million. Projected expenses for 2013: $61 million.       

Much of Beachwood's spending, if you ask Gorden, is tied up in 'economic development.'   It's a concept the mayor and council don't seem to fully understand. The business lunches that Gorden has been paying for, illustratively, have been deemed appropriate by the Beachwood legislature because it eliminates the perception that the Mayor's guests might be trying curry favor with him by treating (a la Dimora).

The Mayor's records indicate, however, that close to 75 percent of those meals were with city employees—many of them with Gorden's Executive Assistant Tina Turick who, with a salary of $92,000, makes more than most area suburban mayors and has an assistant of her own). What possible development purpose could those meals serve?

The fact that those meals have now been outlawed suggests above all else that Gorden and co. knew they were wrong. They were willing to burn public money on private meals—but not alcohol or entertainment!—up to the point at which the public found out about them? I mean that's literally what happened.

Seemingly in defiance of their development initiatives, Beachwood purchased property that became its service garage in Commerce Park.  It's one of the most lucrative taxable commercial parcels available out there, yet the city snagged it and refurbished it for $5 million—according to Councilman Goodman—and now has so much empty space that they're planning to house Lyndhurst and South Euclid's bus fleet in an auxiliary storage area.

"I don't know why anyone would be upset with us for being neighborly," professed Goodman in a phone interview after residents raised concerns about the garage at a recent council meeting.

That's not what people are upset about. They're upset because a reliable source of tax revenue has been effectively cut off and is now utilized with gross inefficiency. It's more space than they need and it's an eyesore. At least one business has been compelled to move from Commerce Park because they've now got garbage trucks and salt trucks keeping them company all day long.

"That area was supposed to be a catalyst for economic development," said councilman Brian Linick.

On Friday, July 12, theCleveland Jewish News published the SEO-friendly story "Top paid Mayors in Ohio."  Odd editorial move, given their recent exclusive with Gorden.  Except their top getter wasn't the Beachwood mayor, but Columbus Mayor Michael B.Coleman with a salary of $172,981 (pop: 797,434). Of the 11 Mayors featured, Gorden was listed as #11, making $106,659 (pop. 12,000 approx.)

It's unclear whether this is deliberately misleading or just bad reporting, but the fact that Gorden makes an additional salary for his role as safety director wasn't even mentioned, never mind his additional compensation and ludicrous benefits. To reiterate, performing the role of safety director—titular head of police and fire—has always been a component of the Mayor's duties and wasn't even a separate position until Gorden's opportunism. And it's not like being the safety director for a community of 12,000 people (many of whom are elderly) could be causing manyheadaches.

The glaring Cleveland Jewish News typos may be yet another case of Beachwood government forming a protective membrane around Gorden, their CEO and 'brand representative.'

Mark Naymik, in email correspondence, said that he'd been treated with professionalism by Beachwood staff. "They process records requests without question or delay," he wrote.    

And that's been my experience as well, but some city hall employees suggest that anyone seeking information had better be very specific with the wording of their requests.

"If you ask for the mayor's salary," said one staffer close to the finance department, "you'll get the 'mayor's salary.' They won't go above and beyond to get you what you're really looking for."

When the city of Aurora did a study of mayors' salaries in Cuyahoga county this May—Aurora went about the pay-increase process much more traditionally, by the way: you know, asking the public what it thought, measuring its practices against suburbs of comparable size—it ranked Beachwood's mayoral salary below both Solon and Berea.

Aurora Clerk of Council Donna Hawks, who worked on the survey with her assistant, said that Beachwood told them the Mayor made $98,000.

"[My assistant] was certain she got the number right because Beachwood was the first one she called. She was doing it alphabetically," said Hawks over the phone.

But David Pfaff—who didn't handle the call personally—said that Beachwood would have no reason to misreport or consciously give out false information.

When Hawks called back to verify once she learned of the Mayor's actual compensation through the PD's stories and resident emails, someone in Beachwood's finance department told her the mistake was on her end.

"They said we must have misheard or copied it down wrong," Hawks said.

Whether or not intentionality played a role in the Aurora reporting is a he-said, she-said, ordeal, but it's clear that Beachwood government takes cues from its mayor, who lives on the defensive and actively refuses to meet with those who don't play ball his way:

Resident Mike Burkons, who has taken on Beachwood with great personal fervor, has been trying to meet with council members and Gorden since the news of financial lassitude broke.

In a bizarre email exchange with Gorden's secretary Debbie Noble (the assistant's assistant), who among other things seems to handle all of Gorden's personal correspondence, Burkons asked to meet with the mayor to bring some things to his attention.

"If we meet I am going to listen and try to understand why the spending in Beachwood has increased at such a rapid level.  I will have an open mind but I am going to warn you advance, I am also going to try to convince you there really needs to be a rethinking of how Beachwood operates.  While I have been openly critical, I don't think you are corrupt but I think after 16 years it is easy to get a little sloppy in certain areas. Our meeting will be between you and I.  Most likely at the end we will agree to disagree on certain issues but I think a lot can be gained by both of us hearing the other's perspective," Burkons wrote.

Gorden, via Noble, and Burkons set up a tentative meeting time for July 11th at 8:30 a.m. But Burkons was still waiting on public records that he'd requested some time earlier. He asked if the meeting could be postponed until after he received them.

The next email from Noble was the punchline:

"Mr. Burkons,

Per Mayor Gorden, he agrees with your June 28th email comment that should you meet, the two of you will agree to disagree in the end.  As such, your request to meet is no longer approved."

Aint democracy a bitch?

Media entities are indispensable for aggregating, assembling, and disseminating important information, but it's often people like Burkons who do a great deal of the legwork. He's been a public records piranha. One thing that's continued to irk him as he's dug deeper and deeper is the question of "legality."

"Both the Mayor and some council members have been on record defending Gorden by saying, he hasn't done anything illegal," Burkons wrote in an email, which in itself is a fragile defense. And it turns out to be objectively untrue.

Here are some illegal activities Gorden has engaged in, if you're keeping score:

a.  It was disclosed that a complaint was filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission because the Mayor hadn't filled out his required public disclosure forms completely or accurately. Gorden's excuse was that he forgot minor things like his marital status. Turns out he also forgot to add his sources of income. Had he filled it out, the fact that he retired in 2009 to collect lavish benefits would have been public knowledge. That wasn't known until this year, however, when a complaint was filed with the Ohio Ethics Commission.

b. When the Mayor went to Florida with three people from the fire department, he used the City's credit card for meals. However, he also applied for and was granted a $54 a day per diem.

c. The Mayor applied for and received a $100-per-month cell phone bill allowance in 2006 to cover his personal cell phone plan. However, in 2008, a bill of his plan made it into his public record that showed his personal plan costs only $78-per-month and it covers a phone for his son.

These are tax dollars, here. Public dollars.

Beachwood city council is "totally transparent," according to Frederic Goodman.

"We're just not hiding anything," he said. "We're well organized and well run. That's all we're guilty of."

Hm. That doesn't jibe with just about everything that's being reported about their processes and spending.

The case in point, of course, has been the issue the mayor's escalating salary. Gorden's pay was never discussed in public meetings. It was an agenda item in private "executive sessions," with only vague references online.

Council even works hard to make public meetings inaccessible. Councilman Brian Linick said he's personally had a videographer come for the past 3 years to record meetings to make them available for seniors who might not otherwise be able to attend.

Linick feels some of the negative publicity's heat and as an elected official, he knows he has to take the good with bad. But he also acknowledges that council only works part time, and they can't be responsible for Gorden's every last receipt. Linick admits that council gave Gorden a certain amount of leeway with spending because in many respects it increases efficiency.

"But when you pass certain ordinances you do so with the expectation that the mayor is going to use discretion with how he spends the money," said Linick. "It has become clear that he has failed to use that discretion."

Some council members—in particular, council leadership—don't seem to care though. And some of these gentleman go way back. Council President Mel Jacobs was Gorden's best friend in high school, according to at least two separate resident accounts.

Vice President Goodman, also, justifies the mayor's spending from a business perspective.

"First of all, it's not a wild amount of money we're talking about," Goodman argued. "And we're running the city as a business, so we present that brand and look at that brand and adjust the brand as we need to. So when [Gorden's] taking out the business community, we think it's the right thing to do. That's a conscious policy."

The brand is key, according to Goodman.

"People generally want to come to Beachwood," he said. "We've worked hard to create that brand. Beachwood residents are proud of it. It's the Beachwood brand."

A brand is only as good as its representative. But is a city only as good as its mayor?

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