Why Did the Deal for the Metroparks to Take Over East Cleveland's Portion of Forest Hill Park Fall Apart?

Traditional East Cleveland turmoil, including spurious allegations and infighting, have left the park's future uncertain and residents unhappy

click to enlarge Forest Hill Park - Tim Evanson/FlickrCC
Tim Evanson/FlickrCC
Forest Hill Park
The Cleveland Metroparks won’t be partnering with East Cleveland to restore and manage the city’s part of Forest Hill Park following an incendiary exchange of letters and accusations of lying and allegations of a mishandled payment. The turmoil has featured expectant infighting in East Cleveland and vigorous denials from the parks system that anything improper happened.

East Cleveland City Council unanimously passed a resolution in July 2022 for a “partnership” with Cleveland Metroparks to restore and maintain the roughly 175 acres donated from the Rockefeller Estate that make up the city’s portion of Forest Hill Park. The legislation stipulated that money from the American Rescue Plan Act “for Cleveland Metroparks’ expenses authorized by this resolution shall not exceed $2,000,000.”

However, the relationship between Council and Metroparks grew complicated after Metroparks CEO Brian Zimmerman was invited to discuss the proposed partnership in Council but did not appear at two meetings.

“We had anticipated that Mr. Zimmerman or somebody else from Metroparks would be coming to Council to talk with us,” said East Cleveland City Council Vice President Patricia Blochowiak. “And the first time we expected him, I was told later that [former law director] Willa Hemmons knew that he wasn't free to come, but nobody told Council. So the second time, he had asked for written questions and at the last minute he said he couldn't come.”

At the time, some members of Council wanted to bring in a lawyer not connected to the Parks Department to review the lease agreement, which Blochowiak said was incomplete.

“The lease agreement, as I saw it, didn't have seven or eight exhibits that were supposed to be part of it. And one of them related to the use of the park by the Alumni Association that has a huge reunion the day before Labor Day, every year. So that's something that some people were very concerned about.”

In a June email to Metroparks employees, Brewer wrote:

“Council did not authorize the mayor and interim deputy director of finance to transfer $2 million to the Cleveland Metroparks in advance of a lease and the legislation that authorized it. There is an unreadiness among some of the members that the lease may not be in the city's best interests. This is far from a done deal so discussions, now, would be helpful. There are members who want the $2 million return to the city's treasury before any further discussions; and who see the advance money grab as an act of bad faith. There will be no lease legislation if Cleveland Metroparks does not meet with Council.”

In response, Metroparks chief legal and ethics officer Rose Fini denied that Metroparks was, “in the receipt of $2 million dollars from the City of East Cleveland.” On August 14, Council President addressed Zimmerman directly in a scathing letter accusing Fini of lying and Metroparks of breaching Council’s trust.

“As $2 million in public funds was transferred unlawfully by unauthorized municipal officials to your organization, we would have expected the officials on your side to confirm instead of deceiving us about the transfer as your attorney did. The lie makes the transaction appear more like a theft…We demand the return of federal money. It is the council, not the mayor, who controls the finances of a municipal corporation.”
Zimmerman responded with a letter of his own, defending Fini and Metroparks. He acknowledged that Metroparks had submitted an invoice at the request of Mayor Brandon King’s administration but maintained that, despite the administration’s urging to do so, no Metroparks employee picked up a check from East Cleveland.

“CLEVELAND METROPARKS IS NOT IN RECEIPT OF $2,000,000 FROM THE CITY OF EAST CLEVELAND,” Zimmerman wrote in all-caps. He also informed Gowdy that the Metroparks would not be moving forward with the partnership to revitalize Forest Hill Park, “given the gravity of the unfounded allegations levied.”
Some in Council have pointed to King in unscrambling the mess between East Cleveland and Metroparks. Brewer told Scene that he personally witnessed a Metroparks employee in a blue shirt walking to retrieve the check before a finance employee told him that the employee was refused.

He alleges that Mayor Brandon King replaced the employee with a temporary payroll clerk and days later the check was successfully signed out. Gowdy echoed this in a second letter to Zimmerman, saying that the check was written by “temporary payroll clerk Latasha Williams”.
Gowdy described it as a “backdoor deal with Brandon King,” and Blochowiak said, “the mayor is alleged to have said that would pressure the Council to approve the lease agreement,” but did not provide a corroborating source.

In response to requests for comment from Scene to King’s office, an account titled East Cleveland Media responded with the subject line “CHAOS IN COUNCIL.” The email said, “Below is the link to our latest YouTube video. Please like, comment, share, and subscribe so that you don't miss any official East Cleveland updates,” and linked to a video from the City of East Cleveland YouTube account.

In the video, King accuses Council of failing to pass legislation and Blochowiak of causing chaos, alleging that she “led the attack on East Cleveland Black leadership,” and accused Gowdy of having “severe literacy issues”.

In trying to reach East Cleveland’s finance department for clarification, Scene spoke by phone with someone at the city who refused to identify himself. “I'm always getting in trouble with these things so I don't really want to give my name at this time,” the man said. “My best answer to you is that that check has been voided. So that's a good answer. So that's the most I know of it.”

A check sign-out log provided to Scene by clerk of council Eric Brewer appears to show that someone signed out a $2 million check with an illegible signature, listing the payee as Cleveland Metroparks.
In another letter to Gowdy, Zimmerman notes that the sign-out sheet “appears to be an internal log sheet that is signed by both East Cleveland employees and vendors…Nowhere does the log indicate the signor’s relationship to the vendor. This confusing document does not evidence that a Cleveland Metroparks employee signed for” the check.
The Metroparks declined to comment when reached by Scene.

Without Metroparks on board for the park restoration, Gowdy says the city will use the $2 million to fund revitalization efforts.

An online petition renewing calls for investment in restoring Forest Hill Park has gathered nearly 700 signature — including Blochowiak’s — since it was posted last week.

“We are not casting blame or judgement,” the petition reads in part. “We are writing with an urgent invitation from all of us to reset the conversation about the lease agreement and subsequent investment and partnership in restoring the largest single greenspace on the east side of Greater Cleveland.”

Ideastream talked to many residents who simply want the city to re-engage the Metroparks.

“The first emotions were embarrassment and frustration,” said one. “When you think about the politics and dynamics, it’s like, 'How did we get to the point where we’re about to throw away this multi-million investment?'”

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