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."