Cincinnati’s Westwood neighborhood is a beautiful place filled with gracefully aging homes in a mix of architectural styles, tree-lined streets, family-owned businesses and an increasingly diverse population.
It also has a spectacularly bad reputation throughout the rest of the city.
That’s mostly due to a small group of passionate residents who probably mean well but whose tactics are misguided at best, delusional and hateful at worst.
Like a bratty adolescent, this vitriolic band of citizens shows up at City Hall once or twice a year when they feel neglected, and begin making threats to city officials instead of talking like rational, sensible adults to resolve problems. Compromise and negotiation aren’t in their vocabulary; bullying and intimidation are their political tools of choice. They like nothing better than playing the dual roles of aggrieved victim and entitled patron.
This group’s pet issues include blocking increases in Section 8 housing, opposing human services funding and providing unquestioning support for any police request or action, no matter how outlandish.
If you’ve read newspapers during the past couple of years, then you probably recognize this unruly lot as members of Westwood Concern and some leaders of the Westwood Civic Association. Chief among the wild-eyed rabble-rousers are Melva Gweyn and Mary Kuhl of Westwood Concern, and President John Sess and Vice President Jim McNulty of the Civic Association.
Gweyn and Kuhl are best known recently for trying to browbeat Mayor Mark Mallory and a City Council majority into exempting police officers from layoffs this year and in 2010 as the city makes cuts to avoid a $51.5 million deficit next year. Mallory and the majority first offered for Police Department personnel to take six unpaid furlough days this year to reduce costs, like many other municipal employees, but the police union rejected it.
When the union didn’t counter with cost-saving proposals of its own, the council majority turned tough. Either agree to forego a contractual pay raise next year and make some other cuts, or 138 officers would be laid off. Howls of outrage could be heard along Montana and Harrison avenues, fanned by the many police officers who live in Westwood.
It’s important to note that the police chief never asked for the recent hires that enlarged the department’s ranks (past City Councils approved them in election years) and — even with the layoffs — the number of cops assigned to neighborhood patrols and deployed per district would remain the same.
Despite a concerted publicity campaign by Gweyn and Kuhl to exact vengeance at the polls, the majority stuck to its guns.
Lo and behold, the union agreed to 4.6 furlough days or other concessions totaling $1.3 million. Translation: The majority’s plan resulted in cuts without a single officer let go.
During that period, Westwood Concern distributed a bizarre pamphlet to thousands of homes making allegations that were outright lies. “Once beyond the 2009 election, should the current majority be brought back, this same crew look to cut, within a short period, close to half of our standing police force,” proclaimed one.
The incident wasn’t an isolated one. In April, Westwood Concern criminally trespassed at a vacant home in the 2100 block of Harrison Avenue that it claimed was a crime hotspot. Although city officials previously had boarded up the home, the group said that wasn’t sufficient and began nailing plywood to windows and doors.
Just as the group began painting the wood purple, presumably because it’s the color of the Elder High School Panthers (oh, the hilarity!), members got word that police were called. They quickly beat a hasty retreat. Now, Jeff Berding — Westwood’s patsy on City Council — has the audacity to ask that the city reimburse the group $98 for the wood. Ironically, a recent visit to the home reveals it’s still not fully barricaded.
The Westwood Civic Association has its own hall of shame.
This summer, McNulty pushed the idea that the neighborhood should secede from Cincinnati and become its own city. It should be done, McNulty added, because city officials rarely respond to Westwood’s needs.
Anyone who follows City Hall closely knows that’s a bunch of hokum. Council routinely awards money for neighborhood projects including an effort last year that involved a 90-day blitz to crack down on building code violations, litter and other nuisances.
Seceding from Cincinnati would involve a laborious process that entails getting approval from the majority of Westwood property owners — many of whom likely aren’t even aware of the effort — as well as City Council’s OK. Even if successful, secession would probably raise taxes, as the neighborhood would be responsible for things like policing, street repair and garbage removal.
What Westwood activists really seem to be upset about is the influx of Section 8 housing in recent years, some of which is poorly maintained and decreases property values. The truth is the Section 8 program follows federal guidelines mostly administered by Hamilton County. Cincinnati officials have little authority. And the influx is due to the over-building of apartments there in decades past.
Originally its own small city in the late 1800s, Westwood later became part of Cincinnati and is the city’s largest neighborhood with 35,730 residents.
The activists’ behavior shouldn’t be surprising given Sess’ background. A retired Cincinnati Police sergeant, Sess initially lost his job with the department in 1997 after he applied for a job with the drug unit. The application required a polygraph test. Before the test, Sess admitted smoking pot with fellow officers in 1983 and planting marijuana on a suspect.
Although Sess was indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury, he won the case because he had signed a police form that promises officers immunity from prosecution if they tell the truth. Sess won reinstatement to his job, with back pay, in 2001.
In 2004, the Citizens Complaint Authority ruled that Sess was dishonest with investigators in a case involving a black minister and questions about his vehicle. The minister said an officer pushed him down a flight of stairs in the incident, but the officer and Sess said he simply fell. A videotape of the incident, however, proved the minister was pushed and Sess lied.
For all their breathless claims of supporting “law and order,” these organizations show little respect for the rules.
These antics surely are in the minds of prospective homebuyers and young families as they decide where they want to move. It also might explain why this sprawling neighborhood currently has no one on City Council hailing from Westwood.
Sadly, the outbursts of these activists only end up hurting this great neighborhood even more and hasten its decline.
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