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Published: Monday, 8/20/2012 - Updated: 2 years ago

Bell demotes top official for development

Crothers sent back to water department

BY IGNAZIO MESSINA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

After an embarrassing debacle centered on a city-endorsed plan to redevelop the blighted Southwyck property climaxed and crashed in less than 24 hours, Mayor Mike Bell demoted his top economic development official on Monday. He sent the official back to the city's water and sewer department, to a job created just for him.

Tom Crothers, the deputy mayor of external relations, "will move to the department of public utilities to spearhead special projects, including the work to study a regional water system, implementation of the SAP computer system upgrade, and focusing on customer service," according to a statement from the mayor's office.

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The staffing change, which includes a pay cut, was made three days after Mr. Bell said he would kill plans to lend $50,000 of taxpayer money to a team of developers to finance a market study of the former Southwyck Shopping Center area and to pay for other things such as legal fees and a "preliminary design."

The loan idea was vigorously endorsed by Mr. Crothers and praised by Councilman Rob Ludeman until it was revealed by The Blade that Cliff Gaston, the proposed lead developer, has a long list of legal and financial troubles.

City Council President Joe McNamara -- who was critical of Mr. Bell for announcing the proposed loan to Mr. Gaston's company, MJW Development Group, without first vetting the man -- lauded the staff changes on Monday.

"The biggest problem I have had with the Bell administration is how the mayor has handled economic development and jobs," Mr. McNamara said. "I think there have been numerous mistakes and a lack of focus in creating jobs for Toledoans, and my hope is this staff change will refocus the city's efforts on putting Toledoans back to work. The economic development post was clearly not the right fit for Mr. Crothers."

Mr. Bell and Mr. Crothers joined officials from MJW Development Group on Thursday afternoon to announce the firm's plans for the former Southwyck property, which included baseball fields, a water park, a soccer field, an indoor ice rink, volleyball courts, retail space, and a hotel.

The following day, Mr. Bell admitted he had not checked the background of Mr. Gaston, whose plan was first presented to the mayor about a year ago with the help of Brad Peebles, Toledo's former economic development commissioner, who left his job in March without the city offering reasons for his departure. Mr. Crothers took up the mission of solidifying the Southwyck redevelopment plan and shepherded the $50,000 loan request.

Mr. Gaston, who did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment, has been named as a defendant 36 times in Lucas County Common Pleas Court. Some cases involve real estate such as foreclosures, and others deal with unpaid taxes, but one in 1999 was a criminal charge with two counts of nonsupport of dependents.

Mr. Gaston was part of a team of developers that, in the past, was approved twice to receive taxpayer money for developments -- including the Ira Apartments, a renovation project at Dorr Street and Parkside Boulevard in 2002 that flopped. The building and was torn down five years later after being named one of the Top 12 worst properties in the city of Toledo.

The Web site for MJW was misspelled on Mr. Gaston's business card and on the cards of his two partners, Jeff Chambers and Dan Pritt, who are owners of Athletic Alliance in Marysville, Ohio. The Web site was taken down over the weekend.

Mr. Bell on Monday released a statement that tiptoed around Mr. Crothers' demotion.

"My job as mayor is to make sure the ship keeps sailing regardless of who fills individual roles," he said in the statement. "I appreciate the work Tom has done on behalf of the city and look forward to his ongoing contribution. I'm glad I can count on [other appointees] to step up to the plate when they are needed. Each of our staff members has unique attributes to contribute to the city and I work to keep monitoring those skills to make the best use of them for our community."

Later in the day, Mr. Bell said mistakes were made regarding the Southywyck deal, and he defended his decision to place Mr. Crothers in a new position.

"The reason he is being put there is because we had a vacancy there," the mayor said. "He was very functional there before and I think he will be very functional again. I saw a need and I felt it was a need to do that."

Mr. Crothers could not be reached for comment on Monday.

Before being promoted to deputy mayor in February, 2011, Mr. Crothers was director of public utilities. He is currently paid $90,000 and his new, reduced salary will be $77,500, said Jen Sorgenfrei, the mayor's spokesman.

Mr. Crothers will be replaced by Paul Syring, general counsel for the city. Mr. Syring will also oversee the inspections and neighborhoods departments, Mr. Bell said.

Mr. Syring has been general counsel for the city and legal counsel for economic development projects. Mr. Syring is paid $77,500 and will be paid $85,000 annually in the deputy mayor's position, the mayor said.

Jill Pershing -- currently an economic-development department manager administering and monitoring economic-development loans, facade grants, and administrative services for the department -- will be promoted to acting commissioner of economic development, which is the job formerly held by Mr. Peebles. She has been a city employee 17 years and is currently paid $54,600. Her new job pays $70,000 annually.

Ms. Sorgenfrei said Ms. Pershing's current job will not be filled. City Law Director Adam Loukx said he has not yet selected a new general counsel.

All of the staffing changes take effect on Aug. 27.

Until now, Mr. Crothers has weathered complaints lodged by city officials.

Earlier this year, he was accused by some on Toledo City Council of misrepresenting the facts about an outdated tax credit deal, dancing around questions about the sale of a downtown building to the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and also of providing conflicting information in the run-up to the collapse of a major development project.

In March, Mr. McNamara said Mr. Crothers had lost credibility with council.

Even with the accusations of untruthfulness, Mayor Bell at the time said Mr. Crothers was doing an admirable job given staffing constraints and numerous responsibilities.

One major incident involving Mr. Crothers that some councilmen regarded as a major black eye to the city was the collapse of plans to redevelop the historic Berdan Building opposite Fifth Third Field. The deal fell apart after more than a year of planning by Mr. Crothers' department and Cleveland development company Landmark RE Management, during which the deputy mayor and his officials assured the firm -- and council -- that a $10 million federal loan could be secured for the project.

The administration abruptly announced in March it no longer could proceed with the loan application. Mr. Crothers and Department of Neighborhoods officials said the city had realized it did not have enough funds to back the loan in compliance with U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development rules.

Days later, Mr. Peebles, who worked on the Berdan project, was out of a job.

The mayor has been criticized in the past for not vetting people attached to his administration.

Councilman D. Michael Collins, whose district includes Southwyck, blasted the mayor for being unaware of Mr. Gaston's track record.

Mr. Collins also has previously questioned the mayor's knowledge of the two Chinese investors to whom the city last year sold the Docks restaurant complex for $2.15 million and 69 acres of the east-side Marina District for $3.8 million -- two prime waterfront properties in East Toledo.

Before he took office, in December, 2009, then-Mayor-elect Bell named four directors to his administration but later withdrew the nomination of one of the appointees after learning the individual owed the city $50,000.

The incoming mayor withdrew the name of Paul Hubbard for neighborhoods director a few hours after making the announcement when he learned Mr. Hubbard had been sued for an unpaid city economic development loan.

Mr. Bell said he fully disclosed the misstep immediately in order to live up to his pledge to run a transparent administration. Mr. Hubbard was sued in Lucas County Common Pleas Court in 2007, along with a partner, after failing to pay back a $50,000 city economic development loan to open a Captain D's seafood restaurant. A judge issued a ruling in 2007 in the city's favor.

Kattie Bond, who was the director at the time, stayed on as director of neighborhoods, but was then fired in January along with Mike Badik, housing commissioner.

The firings were in the wake of an internal investigation of the neighborhoods department prompted by a story in The Blade that detailed allegations of bid-rigging, favoritism, and poor supervision in the department, which spends millions in federal housing money each year.

Contact Ignazio Messina at: imessina@theblade.com, or 419-724-6171.



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