Citizen Phillips

Embittered taxpayers call him a saint. Local governments say he's a jerk. They may both be right.

Phillips believes that making cities pay is sometimes - the only way to make them listen. - Walter  Novak
Phillips believes that making cities pay is sometimes the only way to make them listen.
Attorney Gerald Phillips is arguing in front of the Ohio Supreme Court in a rumpled navy suit and shoes that look suspiciously like Doc Martens. He is representing a citizens' group in its battle with Parma Hospital, playing the puckish David in a chamber of Goliaths. The hospital must release its records to the group opposing its expansion, he argues. Their tax dollars provided its seed money, and they subsidize it through an inexpensive land lease. Seated behind him, group members nod in agreement. The justices will be harder to convince.

After the hearing, the high-priced hospital lawyers disappear into a cloud of legal aides and junior attorneys. Phillips walks out with his motley group of activists, staggering under the weight of a cardboard box packed with legal documents.

"The lawyers for the other side, that was a few thousand bucks just for that half-hour," Phillips says in the elevator, adjusting the box with his knee. "You can count on that."

"And here we have John Q. Public, taking them on," a member of the group says. Phillips laughs. He likes -- indeed, cultivates -- the image.

Beleaguered citizens' groups call Phillips an angel: a lawyer who fights for them, even when they can't afford much in return; an "honest attorney" to people who find the concept an oxymoron. Government officials have a different view. They whisper that he is an "ambulance chaser" who devours tax dollars in the guise of The People, a lone ranger suing government for his own amusement. There is no common ground. Phillips is either a saint or a sinner, a minister or a scourge. Divided by his intensity and his brass-knuckle tactics, people seldom can admit that he may be a little of both.

Phillips sees himself as a fighter for truth, justice, and the contrarian way. "You ask any of my clients. I am not motivated by the dollar. Watching the underdog prevail, that happens so few times. And that's what motivates me, is that ray of hope I give people . . . that they can actually win."

Phillips's quixotic struggle began 17 years ago with a friend's opposition to a plan to privatize Lakewood Hospital. Unable to persuade Lakewood's charter review commission to scrap the idea, the friend started a citywide campaign to stop it. One of the people he recruited was his jogging partner, Phillips, then a mild-mannered accountant/lawyer with degrees from Cleveland State and little civic interest.

Ultimately, the effort to keep Lakewood Hospital public failed. Yet from that unpromising beginning, a zealot was born. In meetings that violated Ohio's Sunshine Law and ballot language that seemed intentionally convoluted, Phillips saw dirty tricks and learned to emulate them. When he heard that Cuyahoga County similarly wanted to privatize its hospital, he entered the fray without reservation. That time, his coalition won.

A slender man with an intense gaze and a shock of gray hair, Phillips, 51, now splits his time between accounting and assisting citizens' groups fighting City Hall. He says he mainly educates the public about their options and rights, but his role is often more leader than teacher. He has successfully pushed tax reforms in Avon, Lakewood, and Sheffield Lake, opposed development in Avon and North Ridgeville, and lobbied for zoning changes in Elyria. He popped up last year in Lyndhurst, to fight TRW's shopping center, and more recently in Parma, to help citizens fight for public records and against hospital expansion. Accustomed to docile commuters, the suburbs he battles are often surprised by his aggression and belligerence.

As his reputation has grown, he's become choosier. "I go to these groups and say, 'I'm evaluating you, and you're evaluating me,'" Phillips says, hammering the words in a staccato clip. "'Because I may not want to take your case.' If they don't have enough fire in their bellies, I walk away." Groups with fire often lack money, but that doesn't matter. Sometimes the city is forced to pay his fees; other times, he toils for hours with little compensation. "I see this as I'm donating my time," he says.

His clients are appreciative. "He has a great reputation with citizens' groups, because he's willing to do whatever he can to make sure his clients win," says Michelle Stys, a Parma councilwoman involved in the hospital battle. That case is still pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. "Some cities call him St. Gerald. And he is a saint to my residents and myself. If I didn't have Gerald, I don't know where this case would be."

"He is motivated by principle," says North Ridgeville Councilwoman Gail Minnick, no friend of the city administration. "People and politicians seem to bend the law to do what they want, and Gerald Phillips doesn't like to see that happen. He is driven by it."

To cities that fail to dot every "i" and cross every "t," Phillips can be a pit viper. Unlike some idealists, he isn't content to lose nobly. He wants to win, and he admits to co-opting some of his opponents' basest tactics in that pursuit. He is an expert at using the media and shopping for a court inclined to see things his way. Perhaps most important, no technicality is too small to challenge. "I tell my clients, you do everything you can to win, and then you have nothing to be ashamed of when you walk away," he says.

Avon faced Phillips three times in 1993 alone. One lawsuit challenged a library bond issue, after officials advertised the election in the newspaper twice -- not three times, as the law requires. Another attacked a school levy for the same reason. A third effort fought a plan to cut income tax credits, arguing that voters who approved it were unfairly confused.

The third was Phillips's only success, but the city's collective legal fees swelled to nearly $100,000. Other costs soared as well. Phillips's clients eventually dropped the school suit, but the delay scuttled the district's original deal on land, costing it $35,000. The Ohio Supreme Court refused to hear the library case, but the library spent an extra $98,000 in rent during the year it waited.

Phillips sees those costs as means to an end. Making a city pay is sometimes the only way to make it listen. But city officials view the expenses with anger. Officials in Avon still smart over the $22,000 check they were ordered to cut Phillips for his legal services after he successfully challenged a zoning decision in 1998. North Ridgeville was no more pleased to pay him $22,000 last year.

"It was terrible," says North Ridgeville Council President Jean Brown. "We didn't ask him to come and fight -- there was a group that called him themselves, and they should pay through the nose for that . . . I hope someone rides him out of town on a rail."

Since arriving in North Ridgeville in the spring of 2000, Phillips has attempted to stop three high-density housing projects by any means possible, including three referendum petitions, two challenges to the Ohio Supreme Court, and a threatened recall effort against Mayor Deanna Hill. After Brown cut off his microphone access at a council meeting, he got the ACLU involved. Thanks to Phillips, council has now instituted strict rules for meeting conduct, including a ban on verbally attacking public officials.

"I was a school bus driver for 31 years, and I never had it as bad then as I have with him," Brown says, her voice shaking. "The kids at least have respect for you. But he doesn't have respect for anyone."

Most North Ridgeville residents just want Phillips to leave, Hill says.

"The people are saying, 'I pay my taxes, I try to be a law-abiding citizen, I want my trash picked up, and I want a road to drive on,'" she says. "Instead, we're devoting all that time and money and effort and hours to Gerald Phillips. And as a citizen, I'm mad, because I know it ties up money that could be expended on something that would serve me as a citizen."

Even people sympathetic to Phillips's causes can sour at his technique. Mary Hagan, Lakewood's clerk of council, remembers first being stirred by Phillips's rhetoric, then irritated by his scathing accusations of corruption. She liked his eagerness to defend the little guy; she didn't like how it translated into harassment of city workers and torrents of "vague" public records demands.

"What I resent is his idea that every single person is a bureaucrat and we're all in a conspiracy," she says. "Sometimes it seems like he's not there to get information, but to flood you with requests that you can't possibly meet -- and then follow up with 'I'm going to sue you, because you haven't provided them in a timely way.'"

Jack Kilroy, an Avon councilman Phillips tried unsuccessfully to recall, agrees. "When government doesn't follow the procedures, that's where Phillips seems to thrive," he says. "But sometimes, he tends to do it without a constituency, a base, or any set of principles. He's also done things so petty that it was just offensive to the community."

And yet, Kilroy says, governments can blame no one but themselves for Phillips's presence. "If these cities were more open and accountable, there would be no room for Gerald Phillips to move in."

Since the nature of government is unlikely to change, Phillips will likely continue to receive urgent pleas from citizens' groups. They know that his style, grating as it can be, can work for them. The housing development that first angered North Ridgeville residents has been scrapped. A lower-density project is now slated to replace it. Activists like Joe Antush have high hopes for challenges to two other high-density developments, although that decision is now up to the courts. "In the end, we got what we wanted," Antush says.

And as long as there are battles to fight, Phillips plans to be there fighting them.

"I've always told my kids, when I leave this world, if I have all the money in the world, so what?" he says. "For some reason, I've been given certain talents and abilities, and I have to be accountable for them. Hopefully, I've picked up some good points by using the talents I have to do good. That keeps me motivated."