Sunday, July 23, 2000

Scandals divide folks in Norwood

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NORWOOD — Once again, Norwood is a town in turmoil.

        Last week, a Hamilton County grand jury was considering whether Mayor Joe Hochbein should face multiple charges of felony theft.

        Meanwhile, a rift has developed between Police Chief William Schlie and Safety Director Cliff Miller. The chief charges Mr. Miller with “micromanaging” his department; the safety director contends Chief Schlie has resisted implementation of an effective management strategy.

  Founded: 1888
  Estimated population:
23,674 (2nd-largest in Hamilton County)
3.1 square miles
  Major industry:
Convergys (marketing and market research); United States Playing Card Co.; Siemens Energy and Automation; Zumbiel Box Co. (packaging)
  Jobs increase since 1990:
4,000 (estimated)
  New business starts since 1990:
  Office, commercial and retail space increase since 1990:
1 million square feet
  Major shopping attractions:
Surrey Square Mall, Rookwood Pavilion, Montgomery Road business district
  Source: Community Development Department, city of Norwood.
        The Republican mayor has acknowledged that he is under investigation by the sheriff but has issued a statement that he has no intention of relinquishing office.

        Part of the investigation involves the use of public employees at the Norwood Car Show, and a $150 check from the car show being sent to Victory 2000, a campaign committee for the Norwood Republican Party. Norwood Treasurer Tim Molony said the scope of the investigation has broadened. He would not elaborate.

        But while suspicions loom and charges fly, two things are certain: People here are used to controversy and they're not shy about taking sides.

        During Mr. Hochbein's five-year administration alone, there have been seven full-time or interim safety directors. And earlier this year, a police chief retired after wrecking his Jeep following a holiday party and filing a false report that the vehicle had been stolen.

Mixed opinions
        Talk from city hall to the coffee shop reflects a citizenry with mixed views. Die-hard supporters of Mr. Hochbein and his appointed safety director defend the administration, while others are livid over the goings-on.

        “We have a name for the Hochbein administration — a regime,” said Rene Dierker, 41, of Floral Avenue. She is a member of a grass-roots citizens group, the Norwood Citizens Association. She claims criticism of the administration makes you “an enemy of the state.”

        “When people from our group speak out, we are criticized in public by members of the administration. We are called rumor mon gers and wackos,” said Mrs. Dierker, a Mariemont High School science teacher. “All I'm trying to do is find out about things such as development. I'm not trying to be political. I don't belong to a party. I believe I have a right to exercise free speech ... without fear of retaliation. It's called the First Amendment.”

        Bill Montgomery, 49, and a 31-year resident who frequents council meetings, said the administration has been plagued by a lack of communication with citizens.

        “The people in city hall do not want to listen to the people of Norwood,” he said. “The mayor wants control of everything. This mayor has to go. There's a cloud of suspicion over him because of the car show,” he said.

        But longtime residents Betty Crum, 66, of Rolston Avenue, and Betty Niehoff, 72, of Drex Avenue, share a different view.

        “I don't think these goings-on affect me as much as some other people because I have that much trust in our mayor,” said Mrs. Crum, who helped lead a petition drive last week supporting the mayor. More than 1,000 signatures were collected. “We talked to people as we went, and people see what he has been doing to improve the city.”

        Mrs. Niehoff said that in Mr. Hochbein, the city “finally has a mayor with the courage to do right by the people. We've had mayors before (practice) nepotism — with everyone and their brother working for them. This mayor wants everyone to work for the good of the city and works hard himself.”

Morale affected
        Mr. Molony, the leading Democrat in office, said the turmoil is affecting employee performance and morale “and, therefore, it affects the city's services. That trickles down to the citizens.”

        Mr. Molony said citizen concern is apparent with crowded council meetings.

        “People are being motivated to attend meetings because it affects them,” he said. “That leads to issues about micromanaging — controling police, fire and other departments. It's true that there are a lot of egos involved with the people in charge” of the administration, Mr. Molony said.

        The other element is the secretive nature of the investigation. It “has been hush-hush and has fueled a lot of rumors,” Mr. Molony said. “I believe people go to the polls looking for someone they can trust in office. When that trust may have been violated ... people become concerned.”

        Law Director Vicki Garry said she sees the problem being Mr. Hochbein's “intimidating style of administration. He has been interfering with everything. Telling everyone how to do things. This is his fiefdom.”

        Mrs. Garry, a Republican who has been ostracized by the Norwood Republican Club for being critical of the administration, used as an example a mayor's directive that he approve all purchase orders. He “has no control over my budget. If I want to spend all of the money appropriated into my (budget) on something, that's up to me. He has no say in that.”

All politics, mayor says
        Mr. Hochbein said much of the investigation has been perpetrated by his political opponents. He said he is confident he will survive the investigation and will continue to lead the community. “I'm going to be here when the clouds clear, and I trust that Norwood's reputation, image and character are going to continued to grow.”

        As to comments that he is a micromanager, Mr. Hochbein said: “I am a hands-on mayor. There have been mayors who have been ribbon cutters. I am not a ribbon cutter.” The mayor said he feels it's his responsibility to oversee city operations and supervision to ensure they are being administered effectively.

        The mayor said it is that kind of oversight that resulted in the rift between Chief Schlie and Mr. Miller.

        Chief Schlie said he received nine directives on May 17 from Mr. Miller, many of which ordered him to direct police officers to specific jobs or change their deployment. The chief said he is prodded by Mr. Miller to implement policy changes without sufficient time to develop criteria for change, or to effect changes that require a significant outlay of resources. Some directives would require an agreement with the police department's collective bargaining unit to implement.

        The chief said he was ordered to complete a departmental internal affairs policy in two to three weeks — a project that took two Kettering, Ohio, police officers three months.

        Law Director Garry said the safety director has the authority to develop budgets, set manpower and goals for the safety departments. However, it is the police chief's purview to assign officers and use available resources to protect the community.

        “I think they are setting me up for a fall,” Chief Schlie said. “They are going to come in with these directives and say: "Look at what he has been told to do and failed.'”

        "I want to work with the administration, but I am not their puppet, or yes man. They want total control of the department. That's dangerous,” the chief said. The chief noted that Mr. Miller has no experience in safety department operations, but has a background in computer technology. Mr. Miller said he has rescinded the May directives until their legality and Mrs. Garry's opinion can be reviewed by an independent attorney.

        The safety director said he has no intention of setting the chief up for removal, but that he is concerned about outdated policies and procedures.


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