Hidden Village lawsuit depositions show city’s aggravation with youth re-entry program

A youth re-entry program member exits his room

A May 22, 2007 unannounced joint department city inspection of the Hidden Village apartment buildings occupied by the youth re-entry program helped to spark the lawsuit. Above, a screen capture of surveillance video from the incident shows a program member exiting his room during the inspection.

In this day and age, racism is one of the ugliest accusations that one person can make against another person. It is, therefore, particularly distressing to read the details of the dispute between the City of Lakewood and Hidden Village, LLC, the owner of the Clifton Blvd. apartment complex that houses a youth re-entry program.

The primary events at the core of the lawsuit occurred almost five years ago, but they remain relevant for a couple reasons.

First, the youth re-entry program is still operating at Hidden Village and its members continue to run afoul of the law. A 19-year-old male, for instance, was arrested and convicted of disorderly conduct after a January 4th incident. The same male was charged with inducing panic on January 10th after program personnel spotted him with a handgun and called police. Current and former Lakewood officials maintain that while the program is a worthy endeavor, it is not located in an area especially conducive to its mission.

Second, although many of the people involved in the matter are no longer employed by the city, it is worth examining the city’s response to the conflict and consider how to best deal with similar situations in the future. The recent Mental Health Services zoning dispute on Bonnieview Ave., for example, shares more than a few commonalities with the Hidden Village case.

In addition, some of the events described in the lawsuit were the basis of a 2008 racial discrimination investigation of the city conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice. The city turned over 5,000 pages of documents to the federal government in the course of the process, but no charges were filed.

The lawsuit’s accusations

The lawsuit was originally filed against the city in federal court on December 1, 2008. The plaintiff then withdrew it on July 31, 2009 in order to conduct more research.

Hidden Village, LLC, re-filed the suit on April 23, 2010 against the City of Lakewood, former Mayor Thomas George, retired Building Commissioner Charles Barrett, and retired New Lakewood Project Administrator Edward E. Fitzgerald (not to be confused with the former mayor of the same name who succeeded George).

Police Chief Timothy Malley, Sergeant Edward Favre, and recently retired Fire Chief Lawrence Mroz were named as defendants at various times, but have been removed from the complaint.

Hidden Village, LLC, owner of the Hidden Village apartment complex located at 11849 Clifton Blvd., accuses the city of subjecting its African-American residents to “a pattern and practice of government intimidation and coercion based on race” with the intent to “diminish, interfere with and/or otherwise make unavailable equal housing opportunities on account of race.” (see complaint .PDF)

Among other things, the plaintiff also accuses the city of unlawfully taking actions “designed to result in the loss of the income and frustrate its business.” Hidden Village initially alleged the city had interfered with its contractual relations with the youth re-entry program, but retracted the claim.

Hidden Village uses strong, sometimes sensational, language in its legal complaint to describe certain events that they believe support their claims. The city has thus far denied all wrongdoing.

City asks to have lawsuit thrown out of court

On December 10, 2010, the city asked the judge for a summary judgment and dismissal of the case (see .PDF). Hidden Village responded with a brief in opposition on December 27, 2010 (see .PDF). Then on January 3rd, the city filed an item clarifying some information it felt Hidden Village misconstrued (see. PDF.). Taken together, these documents provide a good overview of each side’s perspective of the case.

Newly appointed United States District Court Judge Benita Y. Pearson hasn’t ruled yet on the city’s request to dismiss the case. The discovery phase of the case is scheduled to be complete by February 14th. The pretrial conference will be held on February 17th, and a jury trial is assigned for February 21st.

A background on the conflict

The depositions of many of the key players were filed and made public last month. The testimony adds some color and depth to the key events of the story, but is by no means comprehensive.

There are a lot of facets to this situation, probably enough to fill a book. What follows is a sketch of the story based on the information contained within publicly available depositions and e-mails.

For the purposes of simplicity and clarity, the three main groups at play in this conflict are the City of Lakewood, Hidden Village, LLC, and the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry’s youth re-entry program.

At their core, they are each well-intentioned groups, but in hindsight it is easy to find fault in their actions in terms of leadership and communication.

Two guys who wanted to protect their investment in Lakewood

Pepper Pike lawyer Gary Lieberman has had an ownership stake in Lakewood apartment buildings since 1986. At one time, he owned The Shorehouse on Edgewater Dr. and The Clifford on Lake Ave. as well as three buildings on Clifton Blvd, including The Cynwyd, The Sheffield, and The Drake.

Lieberman’s real estate partner is Michael Priore, who operates the Euclid-based real estate management company Windsor Realty & Management, and oversees their Lakewood assets.

The Drake was one of their best performing properties, but they found it was losing good tenants because of a trouble-making next-door neighbor.

Lakewood Gardens, as it was then known, was owned and operated by the Ohio Diesel Technical Institute. The four apartment building complex served as a dormitory for its students, and had the kind of atmosphere where a rooftop couch and beer can-clogged gutters were not out of place. By most accounts, it was party central.

Lieberman and Priore purchased Lakewood Gardens in 2001 for $1.4 million in order to protect their investment in The Drake. They renamed it Hidden Village, gradually removed the diesel school students, and made $1 million in extensive renovations to the property. There were 97 units in total; all but 12 of them were efficiencies.

Hidden Village

Demand was tepid when the refurbished units went on the market in 2003. One city building official thought it would have been wiser to convert the efficiencies into single or two-bedroom apartments. Hidden Village struggled to find the right price point. When $400 per month leases didn’t draw enough interest, they lowered the price to $375, but Lieberman recounted, “the quality of the applicant was very low and unacceptable.” They boosted the price to $425 and found better success, but still had a high vacancy rate.

A group who believed their program would flourish in Lakewood

The Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry (LMM) is a church-related social services organization funded by two local Lutheran church groups. One of its programs focuses on transitioning young adults between the ages of 16 to 21 into an independent lifestyle. This includes providing life skills training and temporary housing.

The program was composed of two distinct groups: children who were on the verge of aging out of the Cuyahoga County foster care system and kids who were released from Ohio Department of Youth Services facilities – basically prison for juvenile felons. Members could be in the program for as little as one month, or as long as a year and a half.

After operating the program for six years out of a building located in Cleveland, near the intersection of E. 100th St. and Cedar Ave., LMM decided it was time for a change. They wanted to relocate to a safer neighborhood and a larger facility, one capable of offering private residences for each program member, who had been living two and three to a room.

Marilyn Watts, the leasing agent at Hidden Village, was visiting an affiliated property in Cleveland and had a chance encounter in late 2005 with a youth re-entry case manager who was in process of helping his client sign a lease. Watts learned about the program, and, more significantly, got a hot sales lead. She thought Hidden Village would be a great fit for the youth re-entry program.

The city raises its first red flags

The city first caught wind of LMM’s interest in Hidden Village in January 2006 when Reverend Mark Brauer, LMM’s director of youth programming, reached out to an acquaintance, Mary Hall, assistant director of the city’s Division of Youth. He wanted to meet with Lakewood city officials to explain the program.

Hall forwarded the request to her boss Dorothy Buckon, director of human services, who began to arrange the event. In preparation for the meeting, Buckon distributed an informational pamphlet describing the youth re-entry program. It raised the first red flags with some city hall officials that there could be problem.

Sergeant Edward Favre, who was in the first month of a special assignment designed to assist the mayor with the inter-departmental coordination of housing and nuisance-related issues identified by the Grow Lakewood report, was concerned with what he saw.

Building Commissioner Charles Barrett testified Favre told him that he was concerned that some of program’s juveniles had criminal backgrounds. Barrett said Favre also mentioned that, “There are some blacks in the program.” Favre denies making the comment.

On February 14th, 2006, several members from LMM and Hidden Village met with city representatives in the mayor’s conference room on the second floor of Lakewood City Hall. Absent from the meeting were Mayor Thomas George and Police Chief Tim Malley, who spent the first three months of the year at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

It was not a long or happy meeting. Hidden Village co-owner Michael Priore expected a small gathering. He walked into the room, and saw 15 to 20 city officials. “I was absolutely shocked,” he recounted.

After Rev. Brauer explained the program, Sgt. Favre shared his concern that the neighborhood had a high concentration of crime and registered sex offenders and was ill-suited for what LMM envisioned.

Commissioner Barrett presented another issue. He said the youth re-entry program would not be in compliance with the city’s zoning code for that section of Clifton Blvd. Assistant Law Director Tom Corrigan suggested the program consider instead a commercial area on Madison Ave. or Detroit Ave, where the zoning codes allowed for a wider variety of uses. One site in particular, Sgt. Favre remembered, was the apartment building on Detroit Ave., across the street from St. Edward High School.

Youth re-entry programs moves to Lakewood over city’s objections

Rev. Brauer described the meeting as being civil in nature. “But the tone definitely from Mr. Favre and Mr. Barrett, in my impression were one of, we don’t want you to come here,” he recalled in his testimony.

A month later, Rev. Brauer e-mailed Ward 4 Councilperson Mary Louise Madigan an update on the situation. “We will likely make the move,” he wrote.

Brauer said LMM’s lawyer had discussions with the city’s law and building departments about the zoning issue and found their position “untenable.” Brauer wanted to have another meeting with Director Buckon to begin the process of establishing relationships with the city.

On April 13th, the Thursday before Easter, LMM took possession of 25 units at Hidden Village. They paid $400 per month per efficiency, and would eventually completely occupy two entire buildings, 40 units in all.

The move prompted Mayor George to send a message to his staff warning them of the situation. “As no member of the Lutheran Metro Ministry has been in contact with me regarding this issue, so let me be clear as to the Administration’s policy,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Zoning laws in this city will be strictly and uniformly enforced. Attempts to circumvent or ignore such laws will not be tolerated.”

He concluded the e-mail with a bluntly worded declaration: “As the proposed location of the Lutheran Metro Ministry facility is not located in the properly zoned area, nor is it an existing Lakewood establishment looking to expand, the Administration opposes the 11849 Clifton location.”

City cites Hidden Village for zoning violation due to re-entry program

Sgt. Favre, Commissioner Barrett and building department administrator Fitzgerald visited the Hidden Village complex the following week. In an e-mail to Assistant Law Director Corrigan, Favre described the location and number of units the youth re-entry program occupied. He told of an encounter with the program’s office manager. She was under the impression that “the attorneys” had worked the situation out. She asked if they had a search warrant and then refused to answer any other questions.

After additional conversations between the city’s law department and LMM’s legal representatives proved to be unsuccessful, Commissioner Barrett issued a zoning code violation notice to Hidden Village management. In it, he referenced the February meeting at which he warned them that the program was not appropriate for the property. Barrett called LMM’s action “disappointing,” and ordered Hidden Village to remove them from the property.

Lakewood Planning Commission overrules building commissioner

Hidden Village appealed the notice. There case was transferred from the Lakewood Board of Zoning Appeals to the Lakewood Planning Commission.

Just prior to the Commission’s July 5, 2006 meeting, signs were anonymously posted and distributed around the Clifton Blvd. neighborhood near Hidden Village. They announced the meeting date, warned residents of the youth re-entry program – that convicted felons were living in their backyard – and suggested citizens could keep the neighborhood safe by attending the planning commission meeting.

The signs had their desired effect in one sense; the meeting room was packed with people. However, the Commission ruled unanimously that the presence of the youth re-entry program at Hidden Village did not constitute a violation of the zoning code. It could stay.

The Planning Commission’s decision ended the conflict between the city, Hidden Village, and the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, but not for long.

Neighborhood crime problems linked to re-entry program emerge

New tensions formed within a matter of months due the misbehavior of certain young men and women in the re-entry program. Where city administrators saw a crime problem that needed to addressed, Hidden Village and members of LMM’s program saw racism and police harassment.

Outside of a curfew violation, the first five months of the youth re-entry program’s stay in Lakewood was crime free. But then the problems began. 30 program members were arrested or cited between September 8, 2006 and February 11, 2008 for crimes ranging from jaywalking to aggravated robbery with a gun.

Mayor George e-mailed Assistant Law Director Tom Corrigan on September 11, 2006, and asked him to contact Mike Sapell, the owner of Sapell’s Bi-Rite on W. 117th St, in regard to problems he was having with LMM program members. Three of them, none of whom was of drinking age, were caught shoplifting alcohol on two separate incidents on the same day.

George wrote in is e-mail: “As you are aware, many of us had real concerns about the Lutheran Ministries program coming to Hidden Village. And despite these concerns, the Planning Commission approved their move. At the time of the approval, I questioned whether we could bring the issue back to the Planning Commission for further review. Is that possibility? Regardless, I feel it is very important to document this program the programs this problem is having for future reference.”

Ward 4 Councilperson Madigan tries to improve program’s image

In response to a couple of neighborhood complaints about the youth re-entry program, Councilperson Madigan organized an October 11, 2006 meeting at Hidden Village to try and clear the air. It was part of her ongoing effort to help the program change its negative perception among some members in the community.

She invited Police Chief Timothy Malley, but he sent narcotics detective Lieutenant Anthony Ciresi in his stead. Also present were Sgt. Favre, Director Buckon, Rev. Mark Brauer, LMM’s director of youth programming, and Kandi Withers, LMM’s re-entry program director.

There was some discussion at the gathering about how the city and LMM could forge a strong working relationship, but it was overshadowed by crime-related accusations against the youth re-entry program.

Rev. Brauer recollected that Favre objected to program members using the railroad tracks as a shortcut. Brauer agreed to address the concern.

Sgt. Favre recalled in his deposition that a custodian from a nearby building who was at the meeting complained that he saw program members crawling in and out of their windows dealing drugs. The custodian, a recovering addict, said he was familiar with the signs of drug activity.

Kandi Withers remembered that the police presented a log of crime statistics directly related to residents at the Hidden Village apartment complex and claimed that her program’s members were responsible for a crime wave.

Withers, who is African-American, said Sgt. Favre asked her at one point, “Do you know what it’s like to live in a suburb?” Favre has denied making the remark.

Lt. Ciresi, according to Withers, said he observed program members use the car belonging to the youth re-entry program’s office manager to conduct drug transactions at Wendy’s on W. 117th St. The office manager later denied the claim.

Lakewood police take aggressive approach toward Hidden Village crime

After the meeting, Withers began a log to track the number of police visits to the program and also posted a notice on the interior doors at the youth re-entry program that read:

“Lakewood Police will be arresting anyone walking on any railroad track in the city of Lakewood. If you usually use the tracks to get to your destination, you must use a safer, alternate route.

Lakewood Police have also made it very clear that they are going to be watching our program very closely and clients may be subject to a search at any time. Please make sure that you always present yourself in an appropriate manner and avoid any unnecessary harassment!!! Also, if you are approached by the police, be cooperative.”

Lt. Ciresi wrote a police departmental memo immediately after the meeting to emphasize the need for patrol officers and dispatchers to detail and document any contact with youth re-entry program members. The purpose of the communication was to help create a clear distinction between the trouble caused by LMM program members, and the trouble caused by others unrelated to the program.

Near the bottom of his memo, Ciresi directed patrol officers to take off the kid gloves: “Citations and arrests are the preferred course of action for any violations encountered on or off site, in the vicinity of 11849 Clifton, particularly Williamson and Hird Ave.”

The next day Captain Edward Hassing issued a similar memorandum to police shift commanders. He wrote: “Over the past year the activity in and around 11849 Clifton has doubled. Reviewing the details we cannot pinpoint if the opening of the Youth Re-entry program is a definite cause. In order for us to use the nuisance ordinance and to determine if the program participants are contributing to the increase in activity we need documentation, including specific names and addresses.”

The rank and file, according to Police Chief Malley’s deposition, did not properly follow Ciresi and Hassing’s requests and their order had to be repeated three months later because the data collected lacked detail.

Sgt. Favre agitated by Madigan and social services grant

Aggravation in the mayor’s office surfaced with Director Buckon’s participation in Councilperson Madigan’s meeting. In an e-mail from Mayor George to Buckon the day after the event, he said he was “surprised” to learn she took part in the meeting and reminded her that Sgt. Favre was the administration’s point person in the matter.

Favre forwarded the e-mail, which he was copied on, to Lt. Ciresi and commented, “This is a reflection of how ticked off he was at having Mary Hall and Youth Services help change the ‘perception.’”

About a month later, Councilperson Madigan tried to set-up another meeting with Director Buckon to discuss how to help the youth re-entry program’s transition at Hidden Village.

Director Buckon referred the request to Sgt. Favre, who didn’t understand what Madigan was doing. Mayor George sent an e-mail to Favre clarifying the councilperson’s intent, and added his two cents to the discussion. “As far as I’m concerned, Hidden Village is on probation,” he wrote, “And unless major changes occur in their operation, their future in Lakewood is dim.”

Favre replied: “All [Mary Louise] wants to do is make nice and keep them here. I’m not interested in being a part of that and would prefer not be involved in any such meeting.”

The source of his frustration, he explained at his deposition, was that the left-hand didn’t know what the right-hand was doing. Favre said that although he got along well with Madigan, “simple issues tend to become very complicated” with her involvement.

Favre was also irked that the city was providing social services to some of the youth re-entry program members as the result of a grant it received in late 2006. He felt it was one of the reasons LMM chose to locate in Lakewood. He even reviewed a copy of the grant to see if the program had violated any of its terms.

Mayor George orders re-entry program out of Lakewood

From late 2006 to early 2007, the city administration grew increasingly unhappy with the amount of crime it believed was attributable to the LMM program at Hidden Village. Discussions were held to examine ways the program could be removed from Hidden Village.

On February 28, 2007, frustrated by continuing crime problems and a lack of communication between the city and Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry, Mayor George fired off a testy three-page letter to Jan Roller, president of LMM.

He outlined the situation’s unsatisfactory history, and served notice that he was going to “seek to have the program removed from Lakewood at the earliest possible time.”

Mayor George later explained that while he did sign the document, he didn’t write it or read it in its entirety. More than anything, he said, the letter was a saber-rattling effort intended to get LMM’s attention.

The letter — described by Police Chief Timothy Malley at his deposition as “ridiculous” and “unenforceable” — had its desired effect. LMM representatives met with city officials on May 16, 2007.

The message from the city at the meeting was essentially this: Members of your youth re-entry are causing a lot of crime. We’re very unhappy about the situation. Have you considered moving elsewhere?

LMM disputed the claim that their program was responsible for increased crime levels, and had no interest in relocating.

“And I know it ended up being very disturbing from our point of view,” Rev. Brauer, recalled about the meeting. “It had something to do with the police and there was kind of a blaming this victim sort of mentality that occurred that I recall. It was very upsetting to me and to Director [Carol] Fredrich.”

Mayor George and Sgt. Favre make clear in their depositions that their intent, despite what was written or said to the contrary, was to relocate the program elsewhere within the city, not to have it leave altogether.

City conducts unannounced, unplanned inspection of Hidden Village

Six days later, the city conducted a joint departmental inspection in response to criminal activity and resident complaints at the Lakewood Club apartments, a troubled complex located across the railroad tracks and directly south of Hidden Village.

After the inspection was completed, the team gathered in the parking lot and someone, possibly Sgt. Favre – no one recalls for certain, suggested they visit Hidden Village.

The group agreed to go to 11849 Clifton Blvd. and directly to the two buildings at rear of the property occupied by youth re-entry program. Recollections of the exact reason behind the unannounced inspection are varied and somewhat vague. It was a completely spontaneous event that not even the mayor or police chief knew about until after the fact.

Kandi Withers, LMM’s re-entry program director, said the crew from the city was initially “rude” and unwilling to explain why they were there unannounced. While the inspection was underway, Withers and her staff members placed several phone calls to Hidden Village and LMM management. They advised her to comply with the city’s requests.

Accounts of the incident differ, but surveillance video of the event shows a contingent of city personnel from the police, fire, building, and health departments walking through the halls of Hidden Village accompanied by LMM representatives. Staff members are seen knocking on the doors of program members before entering with city inspectors. Her presence is not noted in any of the depositions, but it looks as if LMM President and Director Carol Fredrich was present during the proceedings. (Additional video clips of the inspection can be seen here.)

Considering the circumstances of the surprise visit – it was less than a week after the meeting where the city complained to LMM about problems with their youth re-entry program – the mood captured in the video is calm and business-like.

The inspection covered both buildings occupied by the program, and a portion of another building in the complex. Inspectors did not observe any major violations.

Sgt. Favre noticed one LMM unit with an odd rectangular hole cut into the ceiling said to be due to a leaky roof. Fire Marshal Gilman saw several smoke detectors that were disabled. He would return to the property weeks later with a state fire marshal to try and determine if the Hidden Village buildings occupied by LMM had proper fire protection in relation to their use.

The spur-of-the-moment joint departmental inspection irritated the owners of Hidden Village. From their perspective, the apartment buildings had undergone recent extensive renovations and didn’t warrant such attention. They saw the city’s actions as another form harassment in an effort to drive away the LMM program. They had also heard anecdotal evidence trickle in that the police were harassing their LMM tenants based on race.  The owners sent a sternly worded letter to the city advising it not come onto the property unless it was an emergency.

Tension dialed down with Fitz administration, but problems remain

In August 2007, Sgt. Favre prepared a draft letter charging Hidden Village and the LMM youth re-entry program with violating the city’s nuisance laws. It was never sent.

Sgt. Favre assignment in the mayor’s office ended in December 2007, after Mayor George lost his re-election bid to then-Councilperson Edward O. FitzGerald.

The change in mayoral administrations improved relations between the city and LMM. Mayor FitzGerald, according to testimony provided in the depositions of LMM employees, was less prosecutorial. He visited the program, held several meetings with them at city hall, including one to introduce ward police officer Michael Fritsch.

Crime problems with LMM residents, however, have continued unabated. “The arrests of Youth Re-entry participants has risen obviously since the program started,” Police Chief Malley said in his November 2010 deposition. “But each year we’ve had more arrests.” Oddly, Malley noted that he could not recall having a discussion  specifically about Hidden Village with Fitzgerald at any point in 2010.

Depositions

Depositions were taken in November and December of 2010. Attorney Richard Haber represented Hidden Village. Attorney James Climer represented the City of Lakewood. The conversation mostly revolved around the Hidden Village situation, but sometimes touched other areas of curiosity.

City of Lakewood

Thomas George: Former Mayor

Edward Favre: Police Sergeant, assigned to mayor’s office.

Timothy Malley: Police Chief

Charles Barrett: Former Building Commissioner

Edward E. Fitzgerald: Former New Lakewood Project Administrator

Scott Gilman: Fire Marshal

Dorothy Buckon: Director of Human Services

Emma Petrie Barcelona: Development Officer

Hidden Village, LLC

Gary Lieberman: Co-owner

Michael Priore: Co-owner

Marilyn Watts: Former Leasing Manager

Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry

Reverend Mark Brauer: Director of Youth Programming

Kandi Withers: Youth Re-entry Program Director

Wanda Jacobs: Program Office Manager

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