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."

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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.

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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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The Brockwell fire was the latest in a series of headlines dragging Woodmere through the mud, most of them dealing with the disastrous rein of Yolanda Broadie. The longtime mayor, Broadie was directly responsible for a legal standoff that put the village on the hook for millions and earned the town a racist rap.

The problems began in the mid-2000s, when Broadie, who is African American, fired two white cops for minor reasons but let black officers walk for more serious infractions. When then-Police Chief LaMont Lockhart stood up against the mayor, she criticized his job performance — which until the confrontation had been spotless. The village and Broadie ended up in court. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the village for discrimination, and so did the fired officers. (See "Racism Reversed" at clevescene.com.)

Lockhart, who left the city to take over as the chief of police for Cleveland's Regional Transit Authority, also hit the city and Broadie with a federal suit.

At the time, Brockwell says, she became increasingly isolated on council — and not just because she was the lone Caucasian in the group. She gave a deposition to the Department of Justice about the racism she'd seen from the mayor and her supporters. Throughout 2007, she pushed for a settlement of the Lockhart suit — an option that could have cost the city as little as $50,000. But the rest of council dug in their heels with the mayor.

Brockwell's honesty earned her enemies. She began receiving threatening phone calls to her house. In the middle of the night, she claims, police cruisers would roll by and shine a spotlight through her front bedroom window. Once, when she was coming home from work, she found a cruiser parked in front of her house. Behind the wheel was Masai Brown, a black cop who'd remained on the force despite a track record that included shooting at a hooker from his car, watching online porn at work, and trying to get other cops to cover up for his missteps. Now Brown was outside Brockwell's house, staring her down as she pulled up.

Despite the intimidation, Brockwell went to court every day for Lockhart's trial in December 2008. She sat on the former chief's side of the room, letting her allegiance be known. She was there when the federal jury handed down a verdict in Lockhart's favor. Mayor Broadie, meanwhile, was hit with $1.2 million in punitive damages; the city was on the hook for $800,000.

With the discrimination suits now in the rearview mirror, it seemed Woodmere's political waters would settle. "It was pretty quiet from December to June," Brockwell says today. "Then the fire happened."

After the blaze, Brockwell faced reelection for her council seat in November. She and her daughter were camped out at a local motel, preparing to build a new house on the scorched lot. But the thought of fighting through an election season in embittered Woodmere was too much. So she called it quits.

Brockwell's neighbors had different ideas. They circulated a petition, got the necessary signatures to get Brockwell on the ballot, and asked her to stick it out. She reluctantly agreed, but refused to knock on doors or court the vote.

She was reelected anyway — although, this being Woodmere, the '09 election went down as one of the dirtiest in county history.

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"They could have used a better picture of me," Stu Lecht jokes one afternoon recently, pointing to a single piece of paper.

Short and squat, his bald head and single ear stud reflecting the overhead lighting of a busy coffee shop, Lecht is telling his story as the perpetually scorned suitor of the Woodmere political scene. He's run for office a handful of times in the past decade, always unsuccessfully. When he's not drumming up votes, Lecht is a no-nonsense village hall regular, often vocally bashing council for what he deems chronic ineffectiveness. This gruff reputation has put a target on his back, and anonymous enemies took aim at Lecht when his name appeared on the 2009 ballot. The paper in his hand is the result.

That year, Lecht was up for mayor in a field crowded with three other candidates. Days before voters trucked to the polls, Woodmere residents found fliers stuffed in their mailboxes. Fashioned in the style of an FBI "Wanted" poster but with the word "Unwanted" swapped in its place, the paper displayed the pictures and names of four Woodmere candidates. Lecht's photo topped the list. The text accompanying his snapshot ran: "Ex-convict for Mayor? Why is Stuart Henry Lecht not mentioning his criminal record? He must have been a leader in prison. What's he got to hide?"

"I've never been charged with a crime in my life," says Lecht, who previously worked in law enforcement and totes a binder of certificates and letters of recommendation he considers proof of it. "Anyone can look into that."

Brushing off slung mud was nothing new for Lecht. In fact, mere criminal allegations paled in comparison to the usual race baiting he put up with. Throughout his political career, he says, he's often picked up the phone and heard that "Whitey" or the "Jew" needed to get out of Woodmere.

But the flier took its racial swipes too. One of the other targeted candidates was Brockwell. Instead of her picture, it showed the image of a noose next to the following lines: "Loaded Lisa Brockwell. Tell it like it really happened. School bus driver yesterday. Arsonist today. KKK tomorrow. Will she target your house next?"

The propaganda's tone sent many villagers — including Brockwell — to town hall to file police reports. According to files obtained by Scene, a police investigation yielded a lead from the start: A police report dated November 4, 2009, says that three days earlier, a Woodmere patrolman was parked on the edge of Roselawn, the residential side street branching from Chagrin Road where Brockwell lived. He noticed a black GMC Envoy creeping down the road with its headlights dark and making occasional stops before mailboxes. When the officer turned around to approach the vehicle, it drove off. He copied down the license plate number.

When the officer approached the mailboxes, according to his statement, he found the blue flier slamming Stuart Lecht, Lisa Brockwell, and two other candidates. He ran the license tag of the Envoy; it came back as a match for the vehicle registered to Woodmere's then-council president, Carolyn Patrick.

The Woodmere detective's report concluded that all signs pointed to the female driver of Patrick's Envoy. "The paper appears to be the same blue and yellow paper purchased by the Village of Woodmere for official business and possibly could have been taken from the Village supplies," he added.

As 2010 began, the investigation was forwarded to the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Department, in light of potential conflicts of interest regarding Patrick's position on council. Notes from the investigation show that the sheriff's detective assigned to the case picked up the Woodmere PD's evidence at the end of January and sought the opinion of the county prosecutor, who "indicated that the flier in itself did not warrant a criminal investigation but with the current open arson investigation it should be investigated as a possible connection or lead."

According to the notes, the investigation didn't pick up steam until October, when detectives approached Patrick and her husband about the fliers. Both denied any role. Fingerprints were taken, but the results didn't match a partial print found on the flier. (Reached by phone, Patrick's husband said his wife declined comment for this story.)

The investigation again slowed when the Woodmere prosecutor opted out due to the same conflict of interest and a special prosecutor was assigned in December. Finally, in April 2011, after reviewing the investigation, the special prosecutor concluded "no criminal prosecution is warranted" and that a crime "would be difficult to prove under the existing fact pattern." (The officer who spotted Patrick's car has been placed on administrative leave for undisclosed reasons, according to village officials.)

The whole time, as Brockwell rebuilt her home and tried to move on, she continued to serve on council with people she no longer trusted.

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Following the awkward recall dramatics that opened the July meeting, the Woodmere Village Council meeting plods along. The residents packing the rows remain, even as the proceedings pass into their second hour.

Once recent ordinances have been put to rest, the floor is again opened to public comment, giving residents one last open shot at their representatives. A tall man with a shock of white hair stands, clears his throat, and announces he wants to talk about the fliers. He doesn't need to specify what he's talking about. Sinking chins are angled up again; sleepy eyes in the crowd are now wired wide open.

"Again, it appears the whole matter is being pushed aside way underneath the table," he says, as the others nod. "That was the most disgusting pamphlet I've ever known.

"I've read the police report, and there are two glaring, shall we say, omissions in it," he continues. "If the policeman saw the car without the lights, he could have stopped the car and found out who was in it."

"Uh-huhhhh," the crowd responds in unison.

"The other point is our copying machine was used for that. There used to be a password for any council member or employee to use that machine. They had to log on."

"Uhh-huhhhhh," sounds again.

"So we should know who produced those documents, because they were printed on village paper," the man says. By the time he takes his seat, the nods and uh-huhs have resolved into a steady rain of clapping hands.

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The only mayoral candidate not smeared in the 2009 campaign literature was Charles E. Smith, a Cleveland-born former journeyman Major League Baseball pitcher who hop-scotched around the league and overseas before picking up a business degree and moving back home. Though he was relatively new to Woodmere and with limited political experience, the African American candidate's jock confidence and friendly manner played well with voters. He was elected into office, talking big on change.

The mess he inherited was considerable. Still smarting from the discrimination suits, Woodmere was soon back in the headlines for massive overtime payouts in the police department. The village's commercial vacancy rate was slowly creeping up, thanks to the recession. Throw in a handful of ongoing lawsuits, and the task of righting the village's image would require some serious muscle.

Unfortunately, thanks to Woodmere's charter, the executive doesn't have much clout against a council that's not on board with his plans. And after a couple of months in office, Smith says, he realized the majority of council wasn't interested in his ideas.

"The [council members] are working for individual interests, as opposed to the public interests," Smith says today, referring to the five members of council he sees as being against him: President Jennifer Mitchell Earley, Carolyn Patrick, Benjamin Clark, Shelley Ross, and Glenda Todd-Miller.

"In the past, there hasn't been any leadership here. Of all the things that have gone on in the last ten years, it's been absolutely embarrassing and absolutely regressive instead of progressive. But as you see in council meetings, we don't see eye to eye."

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"For the record, I did not have anything to do with this," councilman Gerald Carrier says at the July meeting, speaking about the recall petition while his fellow council members burn angry looks into the tabletop. "I didn't know or solicit anything or do anything, so I want that on the record. My name was not listed, and I appreciate that, but at the same time I had no involvement."

Along with Brockwell, Carrier's name wasn't included in the petition. The divide between the two standing council members and the other five put in the crosshairs is not an arbitrary line in the sand; the pair were also the only two members to vote against a provision earlier this year that essentially reduced the executive's role to municipal statuary.

The vote was the high point in the latest political saga in Woodmere, an epic pissing match between the mayor and members of council. Much of the tension has settled between Smith and Earley. A former Warrensville Heights council member, she was appointed by the outgoing Broadie to fill a council seat that sat vacant for almost a year. (Earley did not respond to multiple calls for comment.)

It's a grudge match that's played out not so much in tense council meetings, but in the pages of community newsletters. And in contentious Woodmere, everybody has a newsletter.

Rifle through the paper trail that's accumulated over the past two years, and it's hard to see where personal beefs end and valid criticism begins. In September 2010, Earley lashed out against the mayor in a memo for the "personal, verbal attacks" "to myself and the Chair of the Finance committee" that "were numerous, unwarranted, and unprofessional."

In her subsequent "Village Voice" newsletters, Earley schooled residents on the separation of powers and fired shots directly across the mayor's bow, including criticism of his business expenses. In an October memo to council, she asked council to either suspend or reduce Smith's spending authority.

As tensions mounted, defenders of the new mayor were quick to react — most notably Azaadjeet Singh, a Singapore-born sikh who lives in the village and works as a communications instructor at local community colleges. Singh volunteered as the mayor's economic adviser, a role that included working out the first database of local businesses.

But when council problems began, Singh tapped his experience in journalism to put out the "Woodmere Watch." The leaflet railed against the village's "permanent political class"; Earley's personal background and residency status were questioned. Her photo was set next to a picture of African dictator Idi Amin. Lawyers claimed it was defamation. The newsletters continued to come out. A later issue of Earley's newsletter contained a riff on "political weeds" and how "it sometimes takes vigilant and an extra effort to eliminate 'weeds' and prevent them from overtaking the lawn thus rendering the 'landscape' a wasteland, lacking order and productivity."

By March, the persiflage spilled out into the council agenda. Council voted 5 to 2 to lower the mayor's spending authority to $1,000. Moving forward, any amount more would need to be green-lit by council.

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Mayor Smith says the nit-picking about his spending was just a ploy to reduce his power. He stands by the expenses, explaining that his plan to reduce the city's budget has been to shop competitively for new service vendors. That includes business lunches with potential bidders — and the mayor picks up the tab to offset any talk that he's been bought one way or another. Rather than keep costs down, the legislative checkmate has hurt the public, he claims.

"They're trying to gang up on me and make a mockery of everything I'm doing," Smith says.

Thanks to the fencing match of egos, the village can't get much done when it comes to simple civic matters. This summer, when the sliding door on the fire station's garage broke, the cost of repairs exceeded the mayor's spending authority, so the problem went unfixed. Smith obtained a new contract for the city's dispatch services with Pepper Pike that would have saved the village more than $100,000 a year; but the contract wasn't put on the council agenda for three months and eventually was yanked off the table by Pepper Pike. What legislation that does get passed by council is often handled not through the usual procedure, which calls for three hearings, but rushed through with an emergency vote.

And the slowdown is felt in other departments, including the police.

"On certain occasions I've been called by police agencies in New York or Pennsylvania saying they have open slots for new training, can we get a guy there," says Woodmere Police Chief Terence Calloway. "You're talking about $1,200 to $1,300 worth of training that doesn't cost us anything, but we can't go because council decided they want to micromanage where we go."

In terms of long ball, time and money lost may have hurt the village. More immediately, this standoff has run up the annoyance levels of the electorate. Start with a history of racial discrimination, add a lack of results from the investigations of the Brockwell fire and the incendiary flier, and top it off with icy discord and warring newsletters papering the town — the recipe proved to be enough to get residents to forgo their Wednesday evenings to plop into the folding chairs at village hall. It's also why, when the bombastic Singh started circulating a petition for recall and dismissal of certain council members, signatures weren't hard to come by.

"I went around, both days and nights, talking to residents. People are very responsive," Singh says. "We live in a democracy. How can you avoid [the people's] feedback?" Singh collected around 70 signatures, delivered with great fanfare at the July meeting.

But this being Woodmere, it wasn't clear whether the recall drive had been properly executed. The clerk of council identified issues with a number of signatures, leaving the recall effort stranded somewhere between the board of elections and the village.

Singh is still going door to door, but this time he's drumming up votes: He's decided to run for council. Stu Lecht is also dropping into the fray. Gerald Carrier and Jennifer Mitchell Earley are running for reelection. Two of the five targeted by the recall — Carolyn Patrick and Shelley Ross — have decided not to run.

Glenda Todd-Miller, the only council member targeted by the recall election to speak with Scene, was surprised residents went as far as a recall.

"That's their right," she says. "If they don't think I'm the voice for the village, then I respect that."

But it's Brockwell whose tenure at village hall has cost more than anyone else — in terms of sleepless nights, anxiety, and an arson that has yet to be solved. She admits she might not be long for Woodmere politics.

"I'm worn out with all this drama that goes on up there," she says. "Our residents deserve so much more than they've been getting."

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