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Woodmere Village: Land of Discord

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

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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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