Sunday, July 30, 2000

Norwood mayor stays positive

Hochbein forges ahead despite indictment

By Walt Schaefer
The Cincinnati Enquirer


        NORWOOD — Mayor Joe Hochbein contends his indictment on theft-in-office charges last week may turn out to be one of the best things to happen to him and the city he loves.

        “I will not minimize the great risk or fear that I have, nor the stress that has been placed on me,” said the may or since 1995 of Hamilton County's second-largest city. “Sure, I'm losing sleep.

        “But, I have strong confidence this will work out because I'm innocent. In a way, I think, this may accomplish something that needs to happen in Norwood.

Age: 49
Raised: Grosse Pointe, Mich.
Family: Divorced, no children; three sisters, Betty, Calif.; Marian, Norwood; Madeline, Mount Washington
Education: University of Michigan, bachelor's degree in English and comparative literature; University of Detroit Law School
Professional highlights: Clerked for Judge John Weld Peck, 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Cincinnati (1978); associate with Graydon Head & Ritchey, Cincinnati (1985); began independent law practice in 1990, specializing in medical malpractice.
Political background: Independent until joining Republican Party in 1989; elected Norwood councilman, 1990, served three terms; mayor since 1995.
        “There is a long history of personal attacks and dirty politics in Norwood. Yes, I think there is such political motivation behind all of this. The outcome of this may finally bring that to an end.”

        Mr. Hochbein, 49, said his defense attorneys forbade him from talking about the 14-count indictment returned last week by a Hamilton County grand jury on charges of theft in office and falsification that could put him in prison.

        A lawyer specializing in medical malpractice, Mr. Hochbein said he has no intention of stepping down.

        “I thought about suspending myself, but I feel capable of doing my job as mayor, and there is a lot on the table to do in the city.”

        The charges involve incidents that allegedly occurred between Aug. 23, 1996, and Jan. 27, 1999. The indictment culminated a yearlong investigation spearheaded by Hamilton County Sheriff's Detective Bryan Pitchford.

        Mr. Hochbein is accused of improperly using a city employee or employees to do work for a private function, the 1999 Norwood Car Show. He also is accused of using city money for an annual car show that is not considered a city-sponsored event, officials have said.

        Mr. Hochbein is scheduled to answer the charges in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court on Friday.

        Norwood Law Director Vicki Garry is a critic of the mayor.

        She sees him as a “very complicated man. He is very bright, but he wants things to be done only his way. It is a personality trait that Joe wants his fingers in everything and ... he doesn't seem to have much trust in people.”

        Mrs. Garry said that during her interviews seeking and receiving the Republican Party endorsement for her position, the mayor asked if there was anything that might pose a problem to her working with him.

        “I told him several people described him as a micromanager; and, he admitted that he feels a need to control things until he feels he can trust people and allow them to do their jobs.

        “The problem here is that this is not a privately held corporation. It's a municipal corporation with elected offices, appointed officials, boards and commissions, and he wants his fingers in all of that.

        Last year, the mayor faced off with the police department, calling the city a “police state” and describing the department as “an old boys' network.” The rift has not closed and some officers have become Mr. Hochbein's strongest and most vocal critics.

        Police Chief William Schlie said the city has had seven safety directors in the mayor's five years in office.

        “That's because he gets rid of them when he can't control them. He is frustrated because he has been unable to control the police and fire departments and he wants a safety director who will enforce his policies.”

        Still, even the mayor's staunch critics find some good in the mayor.

        “He came in with original ideas, a lot of commitment to benefit the city, but I see that now as being more self-aggrandizement,” Police Lt. Mike Wheeler said.

        Chief Schlie and Lt. Wheeler noted the mayor has continued development within the city, tries to foster a sense of community, has improved housing, beautified parks, paved streets and provided the safety departments with better equipment.

        Terry Hugenberg has been Mr. Hochbein's legal secretary since he started an independent office specializing in medical malpractice. She too, said her boss is a “control freak” but in a much different context than the mayor's critics.

        “I commonly refer to him as Don Quixote because he has a great need to see justice done. He's naturally ethical — has a huge moral compass. He has a great ability to hold on to an opinion but also to listen to your opinion. That's why he's called controlling.

        “We take on cases no one else will touch because Joe thinks it's the right thing to do. He likes to right wrongs,” Ms. Hugenberg said.

        Another person wrestling with Mr. Hochbein's legal and political troubles is Maddy Lyons of Mount Washington, his sister.

        “Throughout his life, Joe has wanted to make a difference (and) do something to contribute his talents. That's why he ran for office and became mayor,” she said. She and another sister, Marian, followed their brother to Cincinnati.

        Mr. Hochbein moved to the Queen City in 1985 with his former wife, Susan, a Norwood native. Mr. Hochbein and his ex-wife, who lives in Indian Hill, continue to socialize and often vacation together. They broke up shortly after moving to Cincinnati. They married in 1977.

        The mayor graduated top in his class from the University of Detroit Law School and won a pres tigious one-year appointment in 1977 to clerk for Judge John Weld Peck in the Cincinnati-based 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

        Mr. Hochbein said he entered politics at a time he was searching for a way to give back to his community.

        “I tried volunteering at the Talbert House — working the suicide hot line. I couldn't do it. It was traumatizing.”

        Since he came to Norwood, the mayor said Republicans had been after him to run for council. He finally agreed and upset longtime Councilwoman Pat Rankin in 1989. He served three council terms before running for mayor. Political office, he said, ended his search for a way to serve the community.

        “There are a variety of reasons I got involved. I was getting to know more about the community and I thought it needed fresh leadership. Norwood has a deep sense of community and ... you can't buy that. It has tremendous resources. It still has great potential and is just beginning to realize it.

        Mr. Hochbein acknowledges he is demanding.

        “I tell people applying for a position — "If you just want a job, I'm not the person to talk to. I need you to care about your job whether you're cutting the grass on a ball field or running a department. If you don't care, we are going to have a problem. I'm committed to excellence. When I perceive people not committed I can be very difficult. That's part of the issue with the police.”

        He said it is difficult to juggle the responsibilities of running a law office and leading such a large city, all while trying to stay healthy following a 1998 heart attack that requires downtime he didn't take before.

        “This is not my livelihood. I serve because I care. I think I'm a very good mayor. I can make decisions. At this time, I hope people weigh what I have done in my 11 years serving our city.”


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