Torched houses, racial threats, and town leaders at each other's throats — it's just another day in Woodmere

Woodmere Village: Land of Discord 

Torched houses, racial threats, and town leaders at each other's throats — it's just another day in Woodmere

The rusty machinations of civic government aren't much of a spectator sport.

That's not to say you won't see faces in the crowd at council meetings — from the good-government obsessive types bent with paranoia, to the business suits looking to pitch their deals or swing wrecking balls. You might also see a local news reporter stuffing a fist into a yawn.

The rare sight at most community council meetings? The average folks who make the town go. The majority of the taxpaying public is content to let the civic pieces crank slowly behind the doors of committee meetings and legislative sessions, out of sight and out of mind.

But it's exactly those rare regulars who are steadily filing through the doors of Woodmere's village hall tonight for a July meeting. They plop down in metal folding chairs and flick glares at the front of the room. The crowd is diverse: black and white, thirtysomethings and Social Securitysomethings. And they keep coming, so the cops working the room retreat to haul out more seats, doubling the normal capacity.

The crowd is all the more significant considering that Woodmere has fewer than 1,000 residents and can be driven through in the time it takes to finish a coughing spell. But the neighbors are here because they know that in Woodmere, politics is a bare-knuckle ordeal best witnessed live.

"Here we go again," a woman in the crowd says. A knowing chuckle works through the rows as the seven council members and Mayor Charles Smith settle into leather chairs arranged around a semi-circular desk.

The fireworks come quickly. Moments after council president Jennifer Mitchell Earley opens the meeting to the public, a man in a turban pops to his feet.

"I am Singh from Virginia Manor, and I want to raise an issue of public importance," he says, hammering emphasis into every word. "I went down to the board of elections today. I had circulated three petitions: two recall petitions and one dismissal petition. I had them verified, and I want to present them to the clerk of council."

The recall petitions are for council members Benjamin Clark and Glenda Todd-Miller. The dismissal petition is for Earley, Carolyn Patrick, and Shelley Ross. Untouched are council members Gerald Carrier and Lisa Brockwell.

"So I hope the clerk of council will take action," the man concludes. "They have five days to resign."

"Have you any other questions or comments?" Earley brushes past. "Hearing done, go on to our new legislatio—"

"I don't think you can go on, because whatever is going to be held is going to be invalid," Singh barks back. "You've got five days to resign."

An awkward silence balloons in the room. "All right, so we'll go on to our new legislation. Thank you."

%!#$*@

Woodmere Village has a reputation as an island of the black middle class surrounded by the lily-white affluence of the East Side. In its earliest days, Woodmere was home turf for the servants who worked in the wealthy neighborhoods nearby. Later, thanks to its prime location just off of I-271, the village became a hub for commercial properties and businesses. Today, up to 200,000 people shuffle through each week, flocking to high-end retail and restaurant hubs like Eton Collection and the rows of mini-malls flanking Chagrin Road.

But below that footnote of history, the village has become known for its dubious record of civility. If dirty government is an everyday pastime here in Cuyahoga County, Woodmere's own track record over the last decade has more in common with Central American juntas than the kiss-the-ring racket run by Frank Russo. Discrimination, hate speech, arson, and other unneighborly antics have tarnished the town's recent history. And although no one has been publicly brought to task, the echos from it all still resound.

%!#$*@

Although she'd been on council since 2006, Lisa Brockwell didn't learn the full extent of the political game in Woodmere until one evening in the summer of 2009.

A bus driver with Beachwood schools who had lived in the village since '97, Brockwell became involved first as a volunteer fire fighter on the Woodmere department, then decided to run for office. Brockwell shouldered the awkwardness of being the only white member of council during a period when village leadership was accused of widespread racial discrimination.

By that evening, the drama had cooled. Brockwell was at ease as she sat on the back porch of the house she shared with her special-needs daughter.

As she chatted on the phone, Brockwell's pack of three rescued pit bulls became agitated, repeatedly heading for a spot on the fence between the southern edge of her property and the dense woods. The dogs barely blipped on her radar. But every time they would drift back into the yard, they were soon up against the fence, lifting barks into the peaceful air.

Maybe it's a deer, she casually thought.

As the evening settled in, Brockwell put the dogs inside and returned to the porch. She continued to chat, then spotted a man walking up along the tree line near the fence. Black, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he trekked up behind the house and seemed to be cutting across to the next street over. He was an anomaly in a neighborhood of limited foot traffic, but nothing that ransacked Brockwell's sense of safety. Still, as he passed by, the walker kept his eyes pinned to the house.

"He should take a picture," she told her friend over the phone.

Because she had to be up for work at 4:30 a.m., Brockwell was under the covers by 9, leaving her daughter up watching television in the family room. She drifted off, but soon paddled out of the shallow end of sleep: Her daughter had a habit of forgetting to turn off the lights before going to bed, and Brockwell's gut said bulbs were still burning somewhere in the house.

Starting down the hallway in the dark, Brockwell saw her intuition had been right. The walls were soaked with light reflected from the family room. Then she entered. This can't be happening, she thought. I'm not really seeing this.

Where the wall should have been, Brockwell saw flames chewing through the family room.

It was much later — after Brockwell grabbed her daughter and the dogs, and got outside as smoke flooded the rest of the house; after the Woodmere and Pepper Pike fire departments fought the flames to a standstill; after the state fire inspector combed through what was left of the ruined home; and after the blaze was ruled an arson — that a TV news crew pointed a camera in Brockwell's face and asked if she believed the fire was politically motivated.

Despite what her gut was screaming, she answered: "It's too soon to tell."

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