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Investigator: Taxpayers call for investigation of Beachwood mayor

6:59 PM, Jul 1, 2013   |    comments
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BEACHWOOD -- Beachwood is a small city with 12,000 people spread over 5.5 square miles.

Some things set it apart, such as its high-end retail establishments, which include Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom at Beachwood Place.

And then there's fact that its mayor, Merle Gorden, is by far the highest paid mayor in the state. At $178,000 a year, not including benefits, he makes more than Gov. John Kasich.

Now a group of "concerned taxpayers" wants to take a closer look at some of the additional benefits that Gorden seems to be getting.

They've requested that Ohio Auditor Dave Yost's office do some investigating in a special audit.

The group of residents alleges that Gorden is using the $45,000 SUV Acadia the city provides him with for personal -- not only city -- business.

They point out that he's used city money to upgrade his airline tickets on business trips to such cities as Orlando and Denver, and they say that his use of his seemingly unlimited expense account is excessive -- especially when he dines with his own employees at some of his city's finer restaurants.

They note that he accepts additional money to perform weddings, which is in conflict with the Ohio Revised Code, and they question whether the mayor is collecting any funds from the Ohio Public Employees Retirement Systems, beyond those to which he is entitled.

Finally, the letter notes that Gorden's personnel file shows that he can request and approve funds to himself with no oversight.

Mike Burkons is one resident who has publicly raised some troubling issues at City Council meetings. He is not a member of the "concerned taxpayers" group that wrote the letter to the auditor.

First, says Burkons, there's the matter of Gorden's salary going from $48,000 a year to $178,000 a year during his 16 years in office. Those raises were decided upon by City Council in executive sessions, which are closed to the public, he notes.

"If there was transparency and people were fine with it, I wouldn't have an issue with it," Burkons says. Also, he adds, the mayor has not publicly addressed questions about his spending.

The mayor's critics point out that his very office is a symbol of excess -- what with the fact that it has a fireplace and that Gorden had his own private elevator put in at City Hall.

"It seems like a culture of entitlement," Burkons says. "It just seems like there's no restraint."

In its 7-page letter to the auditor, the group of concerned taxpayers requests a comprehensive audit of how Gorden spends taxpayer money.

Among the specific items they question: the fact that the mayor doesn't fill out a timesheet but then claims unused vacation time.

Instead of taking time off, Gorden has made a practice of cashing out nearly all his vacation time for the past decade -- sometimes to the tune of $16,000 a year.

Gorden declined to speak to Channel 3 about the requested audit and criticism of his spending.

Instead, his administrative assistant released a one-page statement co-authored by Gorden and Beachwood Council vice president Fredric Goodman.

It points out that the city is audited annually (as cities are) and "no audit has ever questioned the city paying for meals where city business is conducted."

"Having the city pay for meals removes any suggestions of any kind of impropriety for businesses, contractors or otherwise."

He does not address his dining with employees.

The letter also points out that Beachwood is "an economic success story" and that the city is fiscally healthy and provides "excellent" municipal services.

The statement adds, "We will continue to be cautious about expenses going forward. We will make every effort to discuss more city business here at City Hall.

"The mayor encourages City Council to review the expense procedures. It is healthy and good to periodically review all policies and procedures."        

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