PUT-IN-BAY — Take away the bars and throngs of summer visitors and packed boat docks, and Put-in-Bay is like most other small towns in Ohio.
Most everyone knows everyone else, knows their business, knows what’s going on. Many of the establishments are owned by a small group of families. Since it’s on an island, its insular nature can be compounded, and that makes things complicated, said Corey Williams as he tended bar at Joe’s Bar on Friday.
Mr. Williams knows all the parties involved in Put-in-Bay’s most recent scandal, a corruption investigation that has ensnared members of some of its most prominent families, including the mayor. And the first thought that comes to Mr. Williams’ mind is that the person who made the initial tip to investigators is a trouble-maker.
Caused trouble at the bar, caused trouble in town. And when most everyone knows most everyone, that kind of reputation creates skepticism. As residents and visitors started to fill the bar and the Cleveland Indians began their playoffs, Mr. Williams said he didn’t know if those facing conflict of interest charges were guilty — and they should be punished if they are, he said — but he said it was hard, many times, to separate all the closeness between business owners, residents, and their families.
“When you’re on an island,” he said, “it’s hard not to be connected.”
On Thursday, Mayor Bernard Mack McCann, 82, was indicted on two counts of having an unlawful interest in a public contract — a fourth-degree felony — and four counts of misdemeanor conflict of interest, according to the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. He’s accused of securing a waterline project for a business associate.
A previous statement from an attorney said: “There is no allegation of a bribe, no allegation of a kickback, and no allegation of anything of value being provided to Mayor McCann in connection with the very necessary public repairs.”
Kelly A. Niese, 49, was indicted on third-degree felony theft in office, and fourth-degree felony grand theft. She is accused of taking village funds without council approval.
In September, 2017, agents from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Ohio Ethics Commission raided Put-in-Bay’s municipal building as well as property linked to Mayor McCann, village legal counsel George Wilber, and ferry service Jet Express owner Todd Blumensaadt.
The investigation was started after a complaint from Keith Blumensaadt, Todd Blumensaadt’s brother.
The indictments followed charges against two of Mr. McCann’s children, which were also part of the corruption investigation.
Bernard Michael McCann, 54, and Melinda McCann Myers, 52, face multiple conflict of interest charges in Ottawa County Municipal Court. Mr. McCann is a village councilman, and Ms. Myers is a former council president. The family says the charges relate to contracts with construction firm Put-in-Bay Investments — a company owned by Mr. Blumensaadt — including a water line project on Victory Avenue and a manhole repair and installation project on Delaware Avenue.
Dennis Rectenwald, the retired Port Clinton Schools superintendent whose children recently took over his Harriet’s House guest house, has experienced Put-in-Bay internal drama first-hand. In 2014, when complaints about the Ric Lampela-led police department were high, he was placed in handcuffs over a traffic violation, with the officer claiming Mr. Rectenwald had “charged him.”
Those concerns have since died down, in part because the village got rid of Mr. Lampela. Citizen complaints led to an investigation of the police department and charges against the former chief. He was found guilty at trial in October, 2015, of disorderly conduct but acquitted of dereliction of duty and falsification. In December, the appellate court threw out the disorderly conduct conviction.
“I’ve had absolutely no problems,” with police since, Mr. Rectenwald said.
When authorities conducted their raids in 2017, an attorney for Mr. McCann said in a statement that the family had played a major role in turning Put-in-Bay into a tourist attraction, and Mr. Rectenwald didn’t disagree, although he pointed to a number of other business owners who have also added needed features.
The problem, he said, is that the village has never had a habit of strictly following the rules, viewing itself outside the normal parameters of a municipality, in part because of its isolation and small size.
“The island has always been a little loosey-goosey,” he said. “Sometimes I feel the island felt like they were exempt from [the rules].”
Staff in the Put-in-Bay municipal building deferred comment to the mayor, who wasn’t seen Friday traveling the island on his trademark Segway. Michael McCann, seen on the street in downtown, declined to comment, and instead referred back to a statement denying wrongdoing put out by attorneys.
“Both Melinda Myers and Michael McCann dispute and strongly disagree with the State’s characterization of their conduct while serving on Village Council,” their joint statement reads. “They await the opportunity to properly explain the appropriateness of their actions and defend against the allegations of misconduct.”
While navigating business and political interests in a small village can be difficult, for some, the charges ring true.
The mayor, longtime resident Todd Navarre said, can do what he wants in the village, and that’s what gotten him into trouble. He said that mixing family with politics isn’t a good idea. Most people in the village don’t raise concerns, though, as long as whatever is going on doesn’t affect them. Most are just trying to go about their own business.
Mack McCann actually told Mr. Navarre he should run for mayor, he said, but he’s not interested. Plenty of residents simply write their dog’s name in when it comes to election time.
Meanwhile, the seasonal staff who work the bars, restaurants, and gift shops, as well as the patrons who flock to the island during the summer months, mostly pass through unaffected or unaware of any drama or village politics. Emanuel Smalls, who works at Topsy Turvey’s Bar and Grill, was more focused on saving money and getting over a girlfriend who left him.
“It’s always just been about business,” he said of his time on the island.
Butch Weber heads to Put-in-Bay about twice a year from his Pittsburgh-area home. He didn’t know much about the recent indictments, but wasn’t surprised.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” he said, adding it feels like most politicians are corrupt these days.
He comes once in the summer for the crowds, and once in the fall when it’s quieter and tranquil. With cool temperatures and occasional rain Friday, Put-in-Bay was definitely tranquil in the late morning as Mr. Weber sipped a beverage at The Round House Bar, an establishment owned by the McCann family. The guest had no idea about the connection.
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