Saturday, November 18, 2006

From the Archives, A Golden Oldie

Here's that 1991 profile of Adele Eisner I mentioned yesterday:

The Right to be a Pain in the Ass
Adele Eisner Challenges Business as Usual in University Heights

By John Ettorre
October, 1991
Cleveland Edition

On the cover of the 1989 University Hts. annual report, in large print, is the headline “To Establish Justice—Government under the Constitution.” Below, a robed figure holds aloft the scales of justice. Inside city council chambers, meanwhile, hangs a six-foot-high framed proclamation: “University Heights Declaration for an American Community,” signed by perhaps 400 to 500 residents.

But for all its hosannas to the Constitution and the concept of community, some dark undercurrents run through the political life of this suburb. The city government is run as a kind of private club, where residents are largely made to feel unwelcome. With no serious media attention focused on it—and precious little of any kind—and a well-entrenched 13-year mayoral administration installed as something of a low-grade political machine, the situation only grows worse.

If you were Adele Eisner, certainly you’d be less than impressed by the soothing platitudes about democracy in University Heights. Vice-mayor Jeffrey Friedman has publicly called her a fool and a hovering bird for aggressively pressing her demands for information on how the council conducts city business. A former councilman, Leonard Davis, turned his back to her when she spoke before council, and even tried to drown her out by crumpling papers near a microphone when she talked.

But that was only a warmup. Earlier this year, the University Heights Council unanimously passed an ordinance limiting total citizen comment at council meetings to 15 minutes, and individual speakers to five. It has come to be known as the Adele Eisner rule. Council members have informally acknowledged that it will be enforced selectively—meaning solely against her.

“Last Monday night, the University Heights Council killed the basis of the democratic process in this city: the right of freedom of speech and the right to dissent,” she later wrote in one of her frequent letters to the Sun Press. And at a council meeting last April, she stood in what has become her customary bi-weekly spot at the microphone and bitterly addressed members of council seated in a semi-circle before her: “I stand here holding a picture of a room where Nazis stored confiscated books that reminds me of the direction of the University Heights city government.”

The League of Women Voters, several shades less florid in its language, later sent a letter, politely—perhaps too politely—asking that the rule be reconsidered. Even the Sun Press momentarily awoke from its slumber to label the time restriction “chilling.”

Far more chilling, though was the final blow: a defamation suit that Jeffrey Friedman slapped on Eisner late last year after she sent a letter to another councilman, seeking details on the bidding process for the three police cars the city buys each year. For months, she had demanded to know why Marshall Ford is awarded the business each year despite never offering the lowest bid. She raised the possibility that it could be linked to the fact that Fridman’s law partner is related to the owner of the dealership, and that Friedman should thus completely remove himself from any involvement in the selection. This time, her agitation landed her on the wrong end of a lawsuit filed by Friedman, who charged that she had damaged his professional reputation by suggesting a possible link between his council position and his role as a private attorney.

Her search for an attorney to defend her against the suit didn’t foster in her much additional confidence in the political/legal system. The first one she talked to told her to trash every record in her possession that might have some bearing on the libel suit. Do what Nixon forgot to do, he told her. Then she visited prominent civil rights lawyer Terry Gilbert, a locally celebrated defender of the unpopular and outrageous (including flag-burning Cheryl Lessin). But he quickly lost interest in representing her when he learned it would involve taking on one of his landlords, Friedman, whose firm also refers him some business. “I don’t shy away from anything,” says Gilbert, “but…” Finally she found an attorney who got the suit dropped, though only after she wrote a three-sentence apology that seems to have struck in her throat like a dinosaur bone.

You don’t have to be a legal scholar to know that Adele Eisner has a constitutional right to be a pain in the ass. And when I suggest to her that the odds would have been long for a public official to win such a case—involving something said concerning city business—she agrees. But her vision was something less than 20/20 at the time.

“Everyone said, ‘You’ve got to look at the practical side of life,’” says Eisner, a single mother who owns her own marketing/advertising business. “I was scared,” she says, crying. “I didn’t have the money and I didn’t have the time.” And so she wrote her apology.

But she’s since made time—to carry her battle to the source, by running for a seat on the University Heights City Council. “They pulled me into it—I’m really an apolitical person,” she says. When her full attention is engaged, she can be formidable. At one recent neighborhood block party, she says she persuaded five people to scratch their names from other candidates’ petitions, and to instead sign hers.

The timing of Friedman’s suit suggests the possibility at least that Eisner was a scapegoat for his mounting anxieties over his professional reputation. Only days before he sued her, Friedman had been publicly reprimanded—slapped on the wrist, actually—by the Ohio Supreme Court for a technical violation: failing to disclose why the Florida Supreme Court had reprimanded him for a transgression in that state. Ohio officials apparently never looked into the case, and he got off with a brief notice published in the Ohio Bar Journal.

According to a clerk at the Florida Supreme Court, however, the disciplinary case there arose after Friedman sent a letter to the parent of a teen killed in a traffic accident. Along with a letter offering his legal expertise, Friedman sent the parents a clipping from the Plain Dealer about a similar case in which he had won a $600,000 judgment for his client. With scant information on the case involving their son, he suggested that he might be able to win for them a similar settlement.

Years ago, before attorneys won the right to advertise in 1977, that letter might well have been sufficient grounds for permanent disbarment. Now, it’s merely considered operating on the fringes of legal ethics, which seemingly grow murkier by the day. Florida, in fact, disciplined him on the slimmest of technicalities: state law obligates attorneys to stamp the word advertisement on both the envelope and each page of such a correspondence, and Friedman’s warning appeared only on the envelope. Legalisms aside, though, it seems a dubious method for soliciting business, ambulance-chasing carried to troubling extremes.

Eisner isn’t the only political agitator in University Heights who has collided with Friedman. Two years ago, the target was Gene Fixler, a University Heights policeman who ran for mayor, the first serious challenger for the office in eight years (his campaign manager, not coincidentally, was Adele Eisner).

The night before the election, Friedman informed the Sun Press that he had received phone calls from five merchants who, he said, had lodged complaints with him that a uniformed Fixler intimidated them by visiting their shops and requesting them to replace Mayor Beryl Rothschild’s campaign posters with his own. Friedman later said he hired a private investigator—a former FBI agent—to look into the matter, and then forwarded his findings to the Ohio Ethics Commission (which he said eventually ruled it out of their authority). Later, he said the investigation was handed over to the county prosecutor’s office. But after two years, there is still no word on the outcome of what by all appearances would be a straightforward probe.

When pressed for details and an update, Friedman is fuzzy. Could you give me some names so that I could privately confirm their intimidation complaints? I ask. No, he says, they were made anonymously. If they were made anonymously, then what, precisely, did he pass along to the ethics board and later to the prosecutor’s office? I ask. “Uh, let me see…” he says, followed by some shuffling of papers. But he offers no answer. Nor can he recall the name of the private investigator he says was hired by the city. “We hired blank, and I can’t think of the name.”

Given all that, picture the following alternate scenario: there was never any real investigation because there never were any bona fide complaints.

But because of all the press coverage merely parroting Friedman’s charges, in the mind of the average University Heights resident, there was one very tangible result from a seemingly intangible investigation: Gene Fixler—wasn’t he the one that used strong-arm tactics in that election? It has at least partially helped to remove Fixler as a serious electoral threat in the future. Adele Eisner’s case is different, but she seems to have suffered at the hands of not unsimilar tactics.

In many respects, Jeffrey Frieman is a most unlikely tormentor of gadflies. A one-time Ohio student coordinator for Bobby Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he ran his own aggressive council race in the early ‘70s as a 21-year-old law student, vowing to pry open the governmental process in University Heights. His campaign manager was his political science professor, a Jesuit priest.

You might, in fact, say that 20 years ago he was this city’s Adele Eisner. Friedman, as one Plain Dealer reporter wrote soon after the new councilman’s election in ’71, “is not a cigar-smoking, closed-door politician.” Rather, by Friedman’s own reckoning, he was an idealist—the new type of politician who is concerned about the people.”

But like his hero Bobby Kennedy—a hard-nosed pugilist in Senate hearing rooms whom revisionist Kennedy groupies and the family’s publicity machine have labored to remodel into a crusader for the little man—Friedman’s iron-fisted means are difficult to reconcile with his romantic self-image.

After breaking his neck in a car crash in 1964, two days after his 17th birthday, Friedman is now a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair made famous by the television commercials run by his firm, Friedman, Domiano & Smith (another local personal injury law firm—Nurenberg, Plevin—responded with its own series of ads depicting a man in a wheelchair, but they didn’t seem as effective—largely because he was obviously an actor).

Friedman, on the other hand, is no actor. “The world warped for Jeff Friedman on a soft summer night before his senior year in high school,” the eloquent Dick Feagler wrote 20 years ago in the Cleveland Press. “Molehills had become almost unconquerable mountains. A flight of steps was the Alps. A one-inch-high threshold in a doorway was a great deal to reckon with. A narrow doorway was a vice.”

And so the man in the wheelchair launched a crusade, suing to open public buildings to wheelchair access. He had a gift for theater that helped attract media attention. When he filed a lawsuit to force Cuyahoga County to add ramps to buildings and enlarge entrances to bathrooms, for example, he arranged to have three friends hoist him up the 15 steps leading to Lakeside Courthouse to dramatize the plight of the wheelchair-bound. A judge eventually ordered the county to make $100,000 in ramp construction and other changes to the new Justice Center.

The resulting publicity seems to have stoked his political ambitions, arching them a few degrees beyond municipal politics. In 1980, just one month after becoming vice-mayor of University Heights, he announced his candidacy for Cuyahoga County Commissioner (though he later pulled out of the race for lack of funds).

But his long wait for higher office might be tantalizingly close to an end. Some in this suburb predict that in 1993 Rothschild, who by that time will have served as mayor for 15 years, will step down from office. The inside track to her job would then belong to Friedman.

“I was certainly the one rocking the status quo,” he says, acknowledging some curious parallels between himself and his current nemesis. “But I did it responsibly. I didn’t say, hey, you, Mr. Banker, you’re a crook.”

Responsible, of course, has as many meanings as people prepared to formulate a definition. One person’s irresponsibility is another’s outraged demand to be heard. It’s far easier to sound and act responsible from behind a council bench than while parked in front of a microphone owned by the city, with the clock ticking off the seconds you have remaining to speak.

Decorum is a prized trait in this community, which, Friedman boasts, “probably has more attorneys per capita than any city in America.” But the suburb’s demographics are more complicated than caricature would allow: It publicly bills itself as the City of Beautiful Homes even as it privately worries over the creeping advance of less savory classes (next-door neighbor to the east, Cleveland Heights, now has a 10% poverty rate. And the western edge of University Heights is beginning to look far different than what residents in the more prosperous eastern portion of the city often call “upper” University Heights).

In this orderly, striving community, the brassy Adele Eisner—with a mouth seemingly powered by the world’s most advanced diesel engine—can come off a little like fingernails on a chalkboard. She smokes too much, peppers her conversation with expletives, and hastily covers up erotic sketches scattered around her office, demanding that that element be omitted from the story. Her second-floor Cedar Center office is an agreeable mess, crammed full of documents from both her marketing work and her after-hours political crusade. “Sam, do you know where the 91-25 files is?” she calls out one evening in her office to her daughter Samantha, who helps distribute campaign literature. Eisner, in fact, spent last Memorial day aboard her bicycle, distributing her desktop-published jermiads (The only proven choice for getting truth, democracy and citizen choice back into University Hts. City Hall reads one of her recent fliers).

One political observer remembers how at a candidate’s forum two years ago, televised by local cable TV, she showed up in a too-tight dress, walking back and forth in front of the camera—without ducking.

If she’s a touch rough around the edges, Eisner also shows more than a few indications of genius. In the early ‘80s, WVIZ officials noticed her uncommon energy while volunteering on a phoneathon and hired her to publicize a program on computer use. “She just made all kinds of community contacts,” remembers Beth Brown, who directs educational services for the public TV station. “I think we got maybe 1,000 people to show up.” Results like those have become imbedded in the memory of local marketing types, even though the project was competed nearly a decade ago. “I was just very impressed that she got a lot of PR out of it,” says Carol Rivchun, a vice president of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. She’s considered a master caligrapher: her work hangs in Mayor Beryl Rothschild’s office in University Heights City Hall, as well as in the Holocaust Museum in Israel.

While she has her admirers among some members of the establishment, Eisner’s roots seem more firmly planted in what you might call the mystical intellectual fringes. She belongs to something called the Possible Society Institute, a loose alliance of doctors, politicians, writers and others (the only well-known name is actress Ellen Bursytn) who share an admiration for the writings of Jean Houston, a Margaret Mead disciple and the author of such books as The Possible Human and The Search for the Beloved. A great-granddaughter of Sam Houston, the founder of the town that still bears his man, Houston, says her assistant in Pomona, New York, “is on call to over 35 countries around the world, and will frequently organizes seminars and meet with the little people who will become agents for change.”

It would be safe to say that Adele Eisner falls in that category. The taped message she leaves on her phone answering device (“Just remember that every thought that you have is creating your future, so have a day filled with wonderful thoughts”) could just as easily be found in the pages of self-help books as in the pep talks delivered at the conventions of Amway distributors.

But her style—marked by almost manic fits of free association and bursts of verbal pyrotechnics—has only made it easier for the smoothly professional, even reassuringly dull, council members to isolate their antagonist. As she has escalated her demands for information on city business, council members have mostly succeeded in painting her as a crazy lady. And the more they’ve done that, the harder she digs in. Wich only confirms their original diagnosis, silently delivered with eyes rolled heavenward: we’re dealing with a nut case here, folks.

No one in the city administration can fathom my acute interest in Adele Eisner and her complaints. “What is your fascination with this?” Mayor Rothschild asks one day in her office. “Our (council) meetings were getting longer and longer, and this person kept repeating herself at every meeting. And it didn’t seem to be leading anywhere.” Of the resulting time limit imposed on citizen speech during the council meetings, she says: “this is not a limit. You go to Washington—how much can you speak in Congress, how much can you speak at the Supreme Court?”

University Heights is a long way from Capitol Hill, in more ways than one. Covering just 1.9 square miles, with city hall and the police station centrally located, the city boasts an outstanding emergency response record. And municipal services are the focus here. The mayor, after all, first became involved in city politics in the mid-‘60s, while pressing a complaint about water in her basement.

Occasionally, residents will show up at a meeting to press what are oddly termed “moral claims”—seeking restitution in cases such as those involving garbage cans allegedly damaged by city trash haulers. But the only set of people who seem to pay ongoing attention to council business are those with a specific financial incentive—stringers from the Plain Dealer among them. If Eisner should win election to council, she would be the third consecutive PD stringer (or part-time correspondent) covering U.H. to later serve on its council, after the current mayor and the mayor’s longtime friend (and present councilperson) Adele Zucker. It’s only natural that such a pattern formed: almost no one else is at the meetings.

(Eisner stopped covering U.H. a couple of years ago when she became politically active, and earlier this year she was informed that she had been fired altogether through a letter from the PD’s personnel office. Her supervisors at the paper either declined comment or failed to return calls).

But no one on this council seems to mind operating without spectators. During a recent meeting, a visitor would have been “greeted” by closed double doors and a room air conditioner droning so loudly in the back of the room that you could barely hear the voices above the inadequate sound system. When the city engineer testified about various points of business, the back and forth with council members was laced with inside jokes that were surely lost on all but the most keen observers in the audience. And there was but a single one of those, in any case: Adle Eisner.

If she delivers them too inelegantly for councilmembers’ taste, Eisner nevertheless raises several good points about the city, and offers documentation for nearly every word of criticism she utters (“she has documents out the wazoo,” says her former attorney). She thinks the city culd find better uses for the $12,000 it spends each year to air a frothy PR program on cable TV called “University Heights Today.” Instead, she suggest adding an extra page to the so-called Garbage News (the nickname hung on the city’s one-page newsletter, delivered by sanitation workers), announcing the dates for council meetings and summaries of pending legislation.

When city officials waved away her complaints saying that everyone already knows when council meets, she took her own poll at Cedar Center, where she says she found widespread ignorance. City Hall, she says, does far more to publicize the schedule for band concerts than council meetings.

More seriously, Eisner says she has confirmed that the city has locked in a vault two sets of architectural plans for a City Hall complex. They’ve refused to share the plans with their employers—the residents—until they can figure out how to marshall public opinion, she maintains.

Most damning of all, to Eisner, was the manner in which the mayor quietly assumed her new role as safety director early last year, at a salary now set at $18,300 (on top of her part-time mayoral pay of $21,500), after the position was left vacant by the retirement of a full-time director. The schedule of events for that January 1990 council meeting briefly described all but one of the agenda items up for vote that night. But unless you happened to know beforehand that the amendment to ordinance 89-10 substantially boosted the mayor’s pay, you weren’t going to learn about it from the city’s document. And neither the Sun Press nor the PD every followed up on it.

Many city residents nevertheless seem to have learned about he mayor’s double salary. As Lyndon Johnson’s press secretary once said, “Don’t believe for a minute that people only know what they read in the papers.”

And thank God for that. The Cleveland Jewish News, headquartered a stone’s throw from City Hall until a move last year to Shaker Heights, stopped sending an observer to council meetings some time ago. The Sun Press, which moved its East Side office to Beachwood only weeks ago, sent no reporter to cover a recent council meeting.

But don’t assume their mere presence would change much: the Sun hires a succession of freshly-out-of-college reporters who naturally tend to treat whatever city officials say as gospel. That’s especially problematic in a city such as U.H. where, for instance, the mayor—incensed that the police auxiliary supported her opponent two years ago in the mayoral race—barred its members from talking to the media, and has since let the force winnow through attrition. “It’s this, ‘I’ll get you’ attitute,” says one member of the back-up force who agreed to break the rule of silence. The city administration, he adds, is “too much Big Brother is watching.”

But roadblocks like these present a real challenge in ferreting out the truth when you work for a paper that, like most, blindly clings to prohibitions against using anonymous sources. In any case, due to low pay and lousy hours, these young Sun reporters generally move on at the first chance they get, which regularly obliterates much of the paper’s institutional memory. It once prompted Beachwood Mayor Harvey Friedman, another suburban potentate with little patience for the “confrontational” press, to publicly complain about the necessity for city officials to regularly retrain their Sun beat reporters. Says Lolly Jacobsen, president of the Cleveland Heights/Uiniversity Heights chapter of the League of Women Voters, “The Sun Press, I’m afraid, cares mostly about selling advertising.”

As for the PD, despite its much-ballyhooed expansion of metro coverage, the paper rarely stays around long enough for sustained looks at the nuts and bolts of suburban politics. When a high-profile story breaks, such as a drive-by gang slaying last year, the capable Desiree Hicks pounced, producing a long, insightful story. But when the television cameras pack up and the spotlight moves elsewhere, PD coverage of the city mostly reverts to easily digested trivia, largely culled from official sources. In a recent story about a city master development study, for instance, Hicks quotes U.H “resident” Suzie Rivers as approving the plans as “a sign of a progressive city.” She fails to mention that Rivers is anything but a disinterested resident: the former director of the Cuyahoga Plan, now a law student, not only serves on city zoning and communications boards but has earned several thousand dollars from the city for her “sensitivity” seminars for University Heights policemen (translation: how to be civil to blacks).

“We can do whatever we want, the papers don’t care about us,” says one of the few city officials who doesn’t think that’s such a good idea.”

With or without media attention, Eisner is beginning to see some results from her long campaign for open government. The council recently held a public meeting to air the development study with residents (though she grumbles that it will be merely presented, not discussed). The city now solicits bids from more car dealerships. And the law director is looking into the reasonableness of the dollar-a-page fee charged to residents seeking copies of public information. “I’ve changed the course of the river,” Eisner says with a suggestion of world-weary satisfaction.

In a few weeks, though, the ultimate outsider might just find herself installed on the inside—as a colleague of the very councilpersons with whom she has waged a war of verbal attrition. Reasonableness and propriety in University Heights could suffer a fatal blow, but the Constitution at long last might just get a tryout.


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