A female Beachwood city employee who was a witness during a 2019 investigation of the mayor’s conduct has sent a demand letter to the city seeking payment, the Cleveland Jewish News has learned.
“The letter listed some of the same statements that were made against the mayor that were investigated last year,” James Pasch, president of Beachwood City Council, told the CJN Feb. 26. “I won’t answer specifics about the letter or anything that could potentially lead to litigation.”
In 2018, the city reached a confidential settlement of nearly $24,000 with a former employee over a comment the mayor made.
In a Feb. 25 email to the CJN, Mayor Martin S. Horwitz stated the demand letter received in 2020 was referred to the city’s insurance company.
“It is my understanding that our law director, in response to a public records request from Bob Jacob (Cleveland Jewish News managing editor), indicated several legal reasons that the letter would not be released at this time,” Horwitz wrote. “Therefore, it would not be proper for me to discuss the details. The letter has been forwarded to our insurance company.”
After receiving the public records request, Diane Calta, law director for the city of Beachwood, declined to release the demand letter.
“It is my opinion that the Demand Letter you are requesting, is not subject to release at this time,” Calta wrote in a Feb. 21 email to the CJN.
She cited the Ohio law regarding an exemption for trial preparation records and wrote the letter could be considered an “attorney work product.” Also, she said releasing the letter “could violate the employee’s constitutional right to privacy.”
In addition, Calta wrote, “This opinion will stand until the matter is resolved through a release or settlement agreement or continue if the matter rises to the level of litigation.”
When contacted by the CJN, the employee’s attorney, Brian J. Green of Shapero & Green of Beachwood, said, “I never discuss any ongoing cases.”
City council members had little to say about the demand letter, and many cited “pending litigation” as a reason not to comment.
A pattern of behavior
The demand letter came about two years after Horwitz placed his executive secretary, Deborah L. Noble, on paid administrative leave on Feb. 12, 2018.
In a Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, memorandum, Horwitz directed Noble to turn in her keys at the end of that day. He offered her 10 weeks paid administrative leave in a severance package, starting the following Monday and running through April 27, 2018, according to a document received through public records requests by the CJN.
City council, fearing potential litigation after Noble retained attorney Mark Wachter of Wachter, Kurant LLC in Pepper Pike, later approved a confidential settlement of nearly $24,000 more than she was owed. Wachter told the CJN neither he nor his client threatened to file a lawsuit.
In August 2019, city council appointed Carole S. Rendon as special counsel and retained her firm, BakerHostetler of Cleveland, to undertake the investigation of the mayor’s conduct at a cost not to exceed $30,000. BakerHostetler submitted an invoice for $30,000 and wrote off an additional $22,741.25.
At a special city council meeting on Oct. 30, Rendon and an associate read into the record an executive summary, including 14 of 24 allegations they deemed as substantiated or highly credible. They interviewed the mayor and 11 employees or former employees.
At that meeting, Horwitz apologized for his conduct, promised to apologize to the employees he may have offended and said he would undergo sensitivity training.
On Nov. 21, he told the CJN he had undergone a two-hour training with Impact Solutions of Beachwood, paid for by the city.
On Dec. 18, he told the CJN he had made apologies to employees.
In his Feb. 25 email to the CJN, Horwitz wrote, “As I stated at the special council meeting on Oct. 30, 2019, I am deeply sorry for using words that made some employees feel uncomfortable. My words are now chosen with more care and sensitivity.”
Council members say little
Citing pending litigation, most city council members said they could not comment.
“Yes, we have received … a demand letter, letter of representation,” councilman Eric Synenberg told the CJN. “These things don’t get resolved in one day or one week or two weeks. And I don’t know how it’ll get resolved. ... It’s really sort of confidential privileged information. … We’re legalled up on it, so I can’t really say.”
When asked about the demand letter, councilwoman Barbara Bellin Janovitz said, “I can’t comment on pending litigation. There’s really nothing I can add to it.”
“That’s not something we’re supposed to talk about,” councilman Mike Burkons told the CJN. He was elected in 2019 and began his tenure in January. “You’re going to have to call the law department. That type of stuff is confidential until they decide it’s not confidential.”
Councilman Alec Isaacson said he could not talk about it either.
“It’s pending litigation, and so it’s really not anything that’s appropriate for us to talk about,” he said. “It’s going to be up to the lawyers. … I don’t believe outside counsel has been hired.”
Councilman Justin Berns said he was “fed up” that the information had become public.
“Whoever told you this or leaked this has no business doing so,” Berns said. “I’m really getting fed up with whomever it is, who’s leaking stuff to the media. And you can put that in your article. I’ll use the word: I’m pissed at whoever did it. It’s a confidential matter.”
Since Horwitz took office in 2018, the city of Beachwood has spent about $60,000 on settlements, lawyers and crisis communication in connection with his conduct.
A councilwoman responds
Councilwoman June Taylor is the fourth woman to have been elected on Beachwood Council. Janovitz was the third, and the first in more than 15 years when she was elected in 2015. While Taylor declined to comment on specifics of the demand letter, she spoke about the environment she hopes to create.
“Since being a member of council, I have voted for harassment and sensitivity training,” Taylor said. “I have voted for increased funds for our human resources department to have an expanded role within the city. On a personal note, I expect everyone to hold themselves accountable just as I have to hold myself accountable in all of my roles, and I maintain a zero tolerance policy.”
Taylor said she was unaware of the city’s forwarding the matter to the city's insurance company.
“I don’t know what department she’s in, but I do not take these matters lightly,” Taylor said. “I regret that we’re continuing to discuss this. And as I’ve said to many of our citizens, the city of Beachwood must be committed to building workplaces that are safe, respectful and equitable for everyone.”
Taylor said she believes most workers have common hopes for their workplace environment.
“What has to be kept in mind is that everyone wants the same thing when they go to work, wherever they work,” she said. “They just want to do their job in a safe and secure environment, free from comments and stories that are inappropriate and insensitive.”
She said she does not know whether the city will receive more such letters.
“I think going forward … we have to be mindful that our residents look to us for leadership,” Taylor said. “We have 280 employees, 12,000 citizens, and we’re a city with $36 million in revenue, I believe, and we have a responsibility to protect our assets.”
At a Nov. 25 finance and insurance committee meeting, then-council president Brian Linick recommended setting aside funds to pay for potential future claims regarding allegations involving the mayor.
“I think we need to be doing something to quantify potential exposure and what that risk might be, if that’s $500,000 or a million, or whatever it may be,” he said. “We cannot ignore the (Oct. 30 Rendon) report that we received and the implications that has from a liability standpoint.”
Linick lost a re-election bid in November 2019.