Tale Of Two Lakewoods
There seems to be two different Lakewoods: the one that currently exists and the one that is currently being crafted by an ecosystem of political and economic interests. The first Lakewood is eclectic and doesn't shrink from different people, ideas, cultures, or music. It is neighbors who can lean over while sitting on their porch and talk with each other. It values homegrown businesses. It is this paper. It is Birdtown. It is the beautiful library. It is the bars and music scene.
In contrast, the second Lakewood is uninspired corporate health care and luxury condominiums built on the rubble of century old homes and hospitals with what amounts to taxpayer funded corporate subsidies. It is “health and wellness foundations” with little to no oversight. The second Lakewood is the vision currently being pursued by this confluence of political and economic interests who think only their vision of Lakewood is viable; the transfer of the Hospital to the Cleveland Clinic and the rash of luxury condo building are just recent examples. It is to this nexus of power that we now turn.
According to the 2015 election campaign filings, Mayor Michael Summers received 40% of his funding from 26 donors who gave over $1,000. This is 318% above the median single donation at $239. The single largest donor, Diane L. Coury of Westlake gave $5,000. Her address listed in the campaign filing is the same address as a Thomas J. Coury who has been a Lakewood Hospital Association (LHA) General Trustee since December 2000. This means he would have been privy to information regarding the management and future plans of the hospital. Thomas J. Coury is also the founder and CEO of a software development company called Pointe Blank Solutions that develops software solutions for businesses. Clients include the Coury family business, Generations Healthcare, and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor.
It was this latter engagement that led to Pointe Blank being implicated in a public corruption case when it was granted the contract to provide the Prosecutor's Office with a case management and document imaging system. Allegations claimed that the contract was ultimately steered to the software company by insiders working in the Prosecutor's Office: a former consultant by the name of Peter Szigeti and the first assistant prosecutor Robert Coury, Thomas Coury's first cousin. According to Ohio Checkbook, the Ohio State Treasurer's online account of city finances, Pointe Blank Solutions was cut a $10,000 check from the City of Lakewood to provide the police department with “an interface that will automate the importing of jail booking records to the SunGard ERP system.”1
But if three additional $1,000 contributions of other members of the Coury family, seemingly related through marriage, are included the total contribution number balloons to $8,000. For example, $1,000 was plunked in the Summer's election chest by a Traci Landino aka Traci Coury, an RN and a licensed nursing home administrator who works for Pharmed Corporation. Pharmed Corportion is a medical supply company that has received $51,490.55 from the City of Lakewood since 2010 from the public safety budget. The CEO of Pharmed Corporation? Eli Coury.
This begs a number of questions, the most pressing being were contributions funneled to Summers from the Clinic via the Coury's? This is not far-fetched. Summers had been one of, if not the most, vocal cheerleader for the transfer of the Hospital to the Clinic and the point man in City Hall for the execution of the Definitive Agreement. The dogged research of concerned citizens have revealed that Summers has lied on at least two occasions regarding the interest of two hospitals in acquiring Lakewood Hospital. Coury was an established fixture in the LHA, all of whose members at least tacitly approved of the transfer, and based on his business dealings with the County is familiar with greasing political skids. The Clinic even admits in their 990, the form required by the IRS for non-profits, that $673,136 was spent in 2014 on activities that “attempted to influence foreign, national, state or local legislation, including any attempts to influence public opinion on a legislative matter or referendum.” It was in the Clinic's best interest to have Summers re-elected, especially when his opponent in the 2015 General Election, State Senator Michael Skindell, publicly vowed to scuttle the deal. In the run-up to the 2015 General Election, public opposition to the deal had hardened considerably. Citizens filed a class action lawsuit, formed Save Lakewood Hospital, and were conducting their own investigations and publishing their findings. Evidence of bid rigging, conflicts of interest, and withholding of public records was being uncovered.
The next largest donor is the Realtor Political Action Committee (PAC). This is hardly surprising considering City Hall's historically cozy relationship with a related industry: luxury condo developers. Not only did Lakewood taxpayers bear the cost of demolition for the former McKinley School, Liberty Development received a cool $99,777 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money. The skids on this deal were greased by former Director of Planning and Development Dru Siley. Siley shortly thereafter resigned to accept a VP of Development position at the aforementioned Liberty Development.
The townhomes in Rockport Square are being funded by a $4.3 million municipal bond on which there was $417,885 of debt service payment in 2016. The bond is part of a tax increment financing (TIF) agreement where redevelopment projects are funded with annual increases in property tax. The idea behind TIF financing is that the redevelopment increases the value of surrounding property. But this ends up being a corporate subsidy. Not only because the realty company only pays a tax rate frozen at the year that it was built, if they pay property taxes at all, but also because the cost of demolition of existing structures on the property is borne by the taxpayer.
None of this is new to Lakewood. The notorious West End project under Mayor Madeleine Cain attempted to invoke eminent domain to declare structurally sound homes “blighted” so they could be bulldozed to clear room for developers.2 Again, more questions sprout than answers harvested. Is the recent spate of home foreclosures and demolitions in Birdtown ripping a page from the Lakewood Mayor playbook in a bid to attract developers? Are developers kicking back money or favors to City politicians out of the purview of the public?
What was this campaign money used for? Again, according to the campaign filings, $41,640, or 40% of Summer's cash contributions, was given to a PR management firm, R. Strategy Group, that has built their reputation on providing their clients with a desired outcome:
"We specialize in designing and implementing strategies that build support, educate and mobilize key constituencies, inform the public and public officials, and ultimately achieve success. Our clients seek us out because we have a reputation for solving complex problems, winning campaigns and issues, and being insightful, creative and innovative strategists who work effectively and efficiently [emphasis added]."
"We create and implement effective, customized strategies that engage stakeholders and produce desired results... We know how to build a potent and influential base of supporters and how to mobilize them to take action...Our clients gain access to a vast network of unique and influential leaders who we draw on for ideas and different perspectives and who often serve as our partners [emphasis added]."
This puts the 2015 and 2016 ballot initiatives in favor of the transfer of the Hospital to the Clinic in a broader context. On one hand are a loose affiliation of citizens who were suspicious of the Clinic's proposal and City Council's lemming march behind it. At the very least, calls were made for an open discussion of the financial state of the Hospital and to entertain all available options. On the other hand were LHA members, Clinic administrators, and City Council members who, since January 2015, stated that the Clinic deal was the only one on the table, had at their disposal a relatively infinite amount of combined resources, and hired PR firms to create a message using social engineering principles all while withholding public documents. Would the results of these initiatives have been different if Lakewoodites had access to solid sources of information?
Here are the takeaways:
There exists in Lakewood a political ecosystem of political and economic interests that thrives on the protein-rich augur of taxpayer money. Economic interests such as vendors and developers access this honey pot via campaign contributions or as-of-yet unknown “dark market” transfers.
This nexus of political and economic interests craft their preferred narrative by withholding information and paying PR management firms to strategically disseminate this narrative.
The Lakewood citizen not tied into this ecosystem faces unfair competition from not having the same access to county and state monies or an equal voice in shaping the community they live in.
1 Schuster, Keith. “Re: Services Rendered.” Received by Jared Denman, 24 Apr. 2017.
2 Leung, Rebecca. “Eminent Domain: Being Abused?” cbsnews.com/news/eminent-domain-being-abused/, accessed 24 Apr. 2017.