Thursday, January 18, 2001

Mayor cancels packed meeting


No explanation from mayor for Villa Hills firings

By Cindy Schroeder and Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        CRESCENT SPRINGS — Five minutes before a standing-room-only meeting of Villa Hills City Council was to begin Wednesday night, embattled Mayor Steve Clark canceled the meeting — to boos from the crowd.

        “This room is in excess of the fire code,” Mr. Clark said. “What we're going to do is get together in a week and a half or two weeks, and have a meeting at River Ridge (Elementary). We would all like to have (the meeting), but I cannot deny anyone access to the meeting, and will not.”

        What brought out the crowd — estimated at 300 by fire officials — was the Dec. 28 firing of Police Chief Michael “Corky” Brown and City Clerk Sue Kramer, the wife of Councilman Bob Kramer.

[photo] At Villa Hills City Council meeting, Gail Losekamp (above) supports fired police chief Michael “Corky” Brown and city Clerk Sue Kramer.
(Jeff Swinger photo)
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        Neither of the fired employees attended Wednesday's meeting. However, the crowd spilling into the city building lobby included Mr. Brown's lawyer, Steve Wolnitzek, and several of the police chief's relatives, as well as Mr. Kramer.

        Mr. Clark has denied the firing of Mr. Brown and the dismissal of Mrs. Kramer were in retaliation for anything done against him, but he also refused to say why the two long-time city employees were fired.

        “They should hold the next council meeting at Paul Brown Stadium,” quipped 20-year Villa Hills resident John Robinson. The 45-year-old man was among many in the crowd who said they were attending their first city council meeting ever to show support for the fired police chief.

        Roy East, assistant chief of the Crescent Springs Fire Department, said it would have been unsafe to hold the meeting because of the size of the crowd and the number of exits in the city building.

        “The capacity of this room is 200 standing, but we have chairs in here and there must be 300 people in the (meeting) room and in the hall,” Mr. East said. “It's not a safe situation.”

        Some members of council and dozens of residents believe that Mr. Brown and Mrs. Kramer were dismissed for cooperating with investigators probing allegations made last year against the mayor.

        The Kentucky Attorney General's office and the Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney's office spent several months last year investigating allegations that Mr. Clark broke state bidding laws by sending a concrete company a $25,025 check for sidewalk construction.

        Council was not informed about the spending and it is against state law to spend $10,000 or more on projects without putting it out for competitive bidding, which the mayor failed to do. But a Kenton County grand jury refused to return an indictment against Mr. Clark.

        Wednesday's meeting had been moved to the Crescent Springs city building because its meeting room had a legal occupancy of 110 — double that of Villa Hills City Council meeting room, Acting Villa Hills City Clerk Mary Breetz said earlier this week. The city had looked into holding the meeting in River Ridge Elementary's cafeteria, but was told the building would have to be vacated by 9 p.m.

        Councilman Tim Sogar, who is part of a council majority that has often been at odds with the mayor, was upset that Wednesday's meeting wasn't moved to the nearby St. Joseph's Church hall.

        “I told the mayor before he canceled the meeting that we have a gentleman from St. Joe's who said the meeting could be moved there tonight,” Mr. Sogar said. As a taxpayer, Mr. Sogar questioned how school officials could set a time limit on the use of River Ridge Elementary.

        “I walked in and the mayor said it was over,” said Councilman Mike Sadouskas. “We have to have a meeting, and we have to meet soon. We have a lot of business to act on. We have to adopt our budget that was due in July.”
       

Opponents organize
               Mr. Kramer, the former president of the International Arson Investigators Association, said he told the mayor Wednesday that he would support his decision to cancel the meeting because “you cannot put the public safety at risk.”

        Shelly Espich, a Villa Hills resident and one of the leaders of a newly formed citizens group, said she wished the meeting could have been scheduled at a place large enough to accommodate the expected crowd.

        “I think that it was very shortsighted on (the mayor's) part, not to understand the furor of the citizens,” Ms. Espich said.

        Before the meeting, “Citizens to Make Villa Hills the Most Livable City ... Again” — named after the 1994 title that Cincinnati Magazine bestowed on this suburban community of 8,000 — circulated petitions in support of the fired police chief and city clerk. They also announced creation of a Web site, www.govillahills.org, to keep residents updated on recent events.

        Many residents and council members were miffed that Mr. Clark fired Mr. Brown and Mrs. Kramer on the same day an audit critical of city spending was released by the state auditor's office.

        That left the impression that the two were responsible for the questionable spending by some city officials mentioned in the audit.

        Mr. Clark said Wednesday that the timing of the firings was “irrelevant,” that the dismissals weren't related to the audit, and that the firings “were a year in the making.”

        “Maybe in retrospect I should have done some things a little different,” Mr. Clark said. “But I'll be the first one to admit I'm no political genius.”

        Among those who showed up to support the police chief were his sister, Kim Gemmer, 41, of Crittenden, and his sister-in-law, Karen Smith, 43, of Peach Grove.

        Ms. Gemmer passed out dozens of “no Clark” stickers that she'd printed on her computer Wednesday, while Ms. Smith sat in the front row with a small sign read ing, “Clark You can take Corky's uniform, but you can't fill his shoes.”

        “I've never been to a council meeting in my life, but I felt that this was important,” Ms. Smith said. “Corky's an honest man, and I believe that someday the truth will come out.”

        Over the weekend, Mr. Clark had demanded that Mr. Brown turn in his police uniform, a uniform the former chief had hoped to be buried in. Members of the chief's family turned the uniform over to the city on Monday.

        On Wednesday afternoon, the mayor called Ed Niewahner, one of the leaders of the citizens' group, and said he is going to allow the chief to keep the uniform, Mr. Niewahner said before Wednesday's meeting.

        Mr. Clark said he was following city regulations when he asked that Mr. Brown's uniform be returned.

        “I had to tell (Mr. Brown) to return the city property, and he refused to do it initially,” Mr. Clark said.

        “I had to remind him that he needed to or there are consequences, the mayor said. “I didn't want to go there.”
       

An unofficial badge
               Mr. Clark said he was initially concerned about potential liability to the city. He didn't want a disgruntled employee who had just been fired with a police badge and uniform.

        “Is that fair to the city? No,” Mr. Clark said.

        “(But) I have no problem giving him the uniform back and the badge if it's stamped on there that it is an unofficial badge,” he said.

        Mr. Niewahner said steps will be taken to mark Mr. Brown's badge and indicate he is retired or is no longer on active duty.

        But Councilman Denny Stein, the former mayor whom Mr. Clark defeated in 1998 to become mayor, said Mr. Clark is playing hardball with Mr. Brown.

        “It's always been the custom around Northern Kentucky for a retiring officer to get to keep his uniform, his badge, and his weapon,” Mr. Stein said. “This went too far.”
              



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