Sunday, May 21, 2000

Lebanon's other growth: controversy

As stakes rise, every battle big on emotion

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — Politics in this long-sleepy crossroads burg have taken on a nightmarish quality — like one of those bad dreams in which you keep running and running but you can't escape. And you can't wake up.

        It's been like this for the two years since residents ousted a city councilwoman in Lebanon's first-ever recall, opening up — or exposing — rifts that haven't closed.

        “I think there's still bad feelings from that,” said retired schoolteacher Mary Jane Weikert, a city resident for five of her six decades. “I don't know, maybe we should throw everybody out and start all over again.”

        A consultant hired late last year to help City Council find a new auditor later backed out of the job, saying he couldn't in good conscience tell applicants Lebanon's a good city to work for.


        The latest scandal — depending which side of the white picket fence you're on — is either the campaign of a council minority to get rid of the city manager, or the city manager's spotty memory and rule-bending.

        Council members James Reinhard and Amy Brewer are drafting legislation to fire City Manager James Patrick on Tuesday night, although it's doubtful they have the votes to pass it.

        The frequent clashes, observers say, occur because Lebanon is still a small city in which most of the major players have long histories with each other and because growth has brought scrutiny to old ways of doing business.

        “I think all seven of our council people are very much for Lebanon, and they are very emotional about it,” said Jim Baldwin, the city's telecommunications director. “We have these controversies that everybody becomes so emotional about that they become impossible to solve.

        “Most of the people that are involved here are lifers. They all know each other,”

        Mr. Baldwin said. “So when you get disagreement, heck, it might result from something 30 years ago that we might not even know existed.”

        Meanwhile, the city's growth and turnover in city government and politics have brought challenges to long-accepted practices.

        “There are two ways of looking at it,” said City Attorney Mark Yurick. “The first is, things keep happening. The other way of looking at is when things happen, they're not ignored. ... The town is changing.”

        It was two years ago this month that residents recalled Mary-Ann Cole, and City Council has been on a roller coaster ever since:

        „James Mills threatened to sue for racial discrimination if he were removed as mayor in a post-recall reorganization of council. He kept his title.

        „Longtime City Manager Richard Hayward resigned under pressure.

        „Members were criticized for bungling several 1999 projects, including the drawn-out Silver Street reconstruction, the razing of planned parkland on Deerfield Road for an apartment complex and the purchase of several properties at twice their value.

        „Three top city employees — only one a full-fledged member of the electric department — took early-retirement buyouts meant for electric employees without council's knowledge.

        Many council members have not survived the ride. Gil Jarrard, Michael Coyan and Joe McKenzie have quit in the past two years. John McComb was a casualty of the 1999 election and Jackson Hedges did not seek re-election.

        Now Mr. Patrick, Mr. Hayward's successor, is facing his second vote of confidence in just 10 months on the job.

        At Mr. Reinhard's request, Mr. Yurick has been investigating possible wrongdoing by Mr. Patrick in changing the new electric director's time sheet.

        Mr. Yurick also is investigating who authorized GPD Associates, an Akron engineering company, to begin work last September that was never approved by council.

        GPD Vice President Brad Cramer said now-retired Assistant Electric Director Robert Newton authorized the work and Mr. Patrick attended three meetings on the project. Mr. Patrick said he does not remember knowing the work had started.

        “I'm looking for somebody who will tell us the truth and tell us all the same thing ... and not bend the rules,” Mr. Reinhard said. “For the city manager to make up the rules as he goes along or do his own thing despite council, I have a problem with that.”

        But others on council continue to support Mr. Patrick.

        “When he says he can't remember, I can understand that,” said Councilman Ron Pandorf. “I have that problem, too.”

        “They're trying to hang anything around that poor man's neck that they can, and it's not going to happen,” Mayor Mills said.

        Mr. Patrick survived the first confidence vote and seems likely to survive this one, but employees' morale is hurting.

        “When we see things going on in our city, it bothers all of our employees,” Mr. Baldwin said. He tells his telecommunications staff, “Let's not worry about what's going on elsewhere in the city.”

        And there's more going on than scandal and controversy and infighting, Councilman Ben Cole — son of Mary-Ann Cole — wants to assure residents.

        “There's a perception that all we're doing is going around investigating each other, and that's not true,” Mr. Cole said. “Real things are getting done.”

        He cites the recent signing of two companies for the city's new industrial park, the grant Lebanon received to repair its railroad tracks and the face lift the cemetery's getting.

        “The city's bigger than Jim Patrick, and it's bigger than Jim Reinhard, and it's bigger than me,” Mr. Cole said.

        Lebanon, the Warren County seat, is located between Interstates 71 and 75 midway between Cincinnati and Dayton.

        • Founded: 1802.

        • Population: About 14,000.

        • Form of government: City manager/weak mayor system, with five City Council members elected every four years.


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