Friday, December 14, 2012

Linndale's mayor's court nears abolition; senator cites Cleveland Magazine

Could the Linndale speed trap be nearing its end?

Ohio's legislature voted this week to ban towns of less than 201 people from operating mayor's courts. It's a law aimed directly at Linndale, the microvillage that raises four-fifths of its $1 million budget  from tickets issued on its small stretch of I-71.

Sen. Tom Patton, the new rule's sponsor, says Cleveland Magazine's August 2011 story "Greetings From Linndale" helped him rally support.

"All of the facts you uncovered were facts we used to go along with some of the other data we had," Patton told me today.

My story, co-written with former Fox 8 investigator Mark DeMarino, revealed serious questions about the microvillage’s all-important population count in the 2010 U.S. Census. 

Cleveland Magazine reporters knocked on nearly every door in Linndale last year and discovered that the village's official census count of 179 people appeared inflated. That count was key to Linndale's future because state law already bans towns with less than 101 people from operating mayor's courts.

We discovered one block where nine phantom residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone, and a block that officially doubled in population but didn’t have nearly that many people a year later, and one block the census counted that’s not really in Linndale. Village officials should have notified the census about its mapping error, but didn't. A village official we interviewed said he wasn't sure where Linndale's western boundary was.

"When talked to my colleagues, I pointed out that the clerk of courts, he gets confused about boundaries," Patton said.

Linndale police officers personally encouraged residents to answer the census, the magazine found. The Census Bureau says police involvement in the census interferes with the census’s confidentiality and could intimidate people. That also came up in debate over Patton's bill.

"It has been reported that in a particular village, the officers assisted citizens in filling out census forms," Mark Drum, state secretary for the Fraternal Order of Police, said in his Senate testimony supporting Patton's bill. "It is difficult, if not impossible, for our members to understand what professional law enforcement purpose filling out census forms could possibly have.  This is the type of unprofessional behavior the FOP would like to see eradicated with [the bill]."

Patton noted that Linndale issued 2,800 traffic tickets per 100 residents in 2010. Strongsville, which also polices a stretch of I-71, issued eight per 100 residents.

"When you hide under a bridge in the shadows, instead of 'Protect and Serve' on the outside of your vehicle, it should be, 'Will that be cash or credit?'" Patton said.

Linndale's next move is unclear. In the 1990s, it took a different challenge to its speed trap all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court and won.

Linndale clerk of courts Mike Toczek told me and DeMarino last year that if the mayor's court were ever abolished, the village might approach Brooklyn's mayor's court about sharing court functions. Or it could cut down to basic services and patrols.  "We have always found a way to exist," he said.

To read Cleveland Magazine’s article, “Greetings from Linndale,” click here. To link to it on social media, use this shortlink:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

FitzGerald plan: sell Ameritrust Tower for $27 million, have new county HQ built next door

The Ameritrust Tower and rotunda, ghosts on downtown Cleveland's landscape since 1996, could be revived if Ed FitzGerald gets his way.

Cuyahoga County's executive wants to sell the Brutalist high-rise and the classic bank building for $27 million to Geis Co., which would build a new county headquarters next to the tower and lease it to the county for about $6.5 million a year.

The new, eight-story headquarters at East 9th Street and Prospect Avenue would share two parking garages and a new pedestrian bridge with the 29-story tower, which would be converted into apartments. The rotunda would house stores and possibly a public space.

If the county council approves the deal next month, construction would start right away and could be finished by July 2014, FitzGerald says.

The Geis Co. proposal could exorcise a controversial deal that has haunted the county since 2005. The previous government bought the Ameritrust complex that year for about $22 million as a site for a county HQ, then spent an equal amount ridding it of asbestos, paying its broker and buying a second parking garage.

With the sale, the county would recoup more than half of its $45 million investment. It would also move out of the 1950s-era administration building at Lakeside and Ontario and other offices around town.

"The building we're in now is outdated, inefficient, and duplicative," FitzGerald said during an interview today. His consultants project that the county could lower its annual occupancy costs by $6 million by moving. So the county would recoup its losses on the Ameritrust complex over time.

In a way, FitzGerald is bringing the county full circle, back to East 9th and the same headquarters site that Jimmy Dimora, Tim Hagan, and Peter Lawson Jones picked in 2005. But there are big differences between the old and new plans.

Dimora and Hagan wanted to tear down the tower and build a much larger headquarters than the 222,000-square-foot building FitzGerald and Geis envision. The old plan also had the county constructing and owning the headquarters. Geis' offer is a sell-build-lease deal with an option to buy after 26 years.

FitzGerald is confident the county will lower the cost of government by moving. But that could depend on a lot of things going right. That includes his hopes of selling the current administration building site, which is right next to the medical mart and convention center, to a hotel developer.

But FitzGerald doesn't have a buyer for the site yet. He didn't get an offer he liked in this round of bidding. He hopes to try again in the new year, perhaps after the convention center opens.

The county has for-sale signs on 13 properties, including the old juvenile justice center and the county archives building in Ohio City. Announcements about the sale of several more should come in January or February, FitzGerald said.

The public will have about 45 days to examine the Ameritrust and headquarters deal and the alternatives the county rejected. County council president C. Ellen Connally says the council will hold meetings on the proposal tonight and Jan. 2, 8, and 22.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Last Man Standing: My interview with Bill Mason

Just before Bill Mason left the Cuyahoga County prosecutor's office this fall, he and I sat down for a final interview.  It got tense.

Others had already asked Mason why he didn't catch Jimmy Dimora or Frank Russo in the act of pocketing bribes and exploiting their office.  So I drilled deeper.  I asked about the times Mason's name came up at the Dimora trial, the wrongdoing ex-sheriff Gerald McFaul carried out in the Justice Center (where Mason also had his office), and Mason's longstanding alliance and friendship with Pat O'Malley, the former county recorder who served federal prison time on an obscenity conviction.

Mason, I discovered, remains loyal to O'Malley even today. "I'm a pretty trustworthy and loyal guy," he said. "Period." Mason said he didn't know that sheriff's deputies were illegally selling tickets to McFaul's clambake fundraisers in the Justice Center. And he denied any involvement with Frank Russo's successful efforts to push J. Kevin Kelley out of the 2003 Parma mayor's race.

The interview ranged across Mason's 14 years in office and touched on his dual reputation as a tough law-and-order prosecutor and shrewd political insider.  We talked about Mason's aggressive pursuit of the death penalty, his work fighting mortgage fraud and child porn, and his memories of the 2000 Sam Sheppard case.  As the spotlight turns to his successor, Tim McGinty, my last talk with Mason provides a look at the state of the prosecutor's office during a time of transition.

You can read my interview with Mason, "Last Man Standing," here and in the December issue of Cleveland Magazine.