Beachwood City Councilwoman June Taylor is asking Beachwood Mayor Martin S. Horwitz and city council president James Pasch to look into “unbecoming conduct” of first-year councilman Mike Burkons and seek his resignation if necessary.
Burkons, who espouses transparency, was called out by Beachwood school board newcomer Jillian DeLong at the Sept. 8 city council meeting for using fake social media accounts during the election last year. DeLong told council during the public comment session that she and Burkons were “best friends” until she found out he was using fake accounts to hamper her bid for election in 2019.
In an email to the Cleveland Jewish News on Sept. 10, Burkons admitted to using several fake accounts, including posing as a Black father of children in the Beachwood City School District.
The assertion that Burkons “created a fake social media account to impersonate an African-American male parent, is not only repugnant, it is disgraceful,” Taylor wrote in a Sept. 10 letter to council members. “This behavior astounds me and has people reeling including council, our citizens and, most especially, our African-American community who are a strong part of the fabric of Beachwood. How can Mr. Burkons possibly justify his shameful disregard for humanity, professionalism and decency when he impersonated another candidate of a different race in a Facebook post to intimidate a school board candidate?”
In the letter obtained by the CJN on Sept. 14, Taylor, who was elected to her first term in November after being appointed to fill the unexpired term vacated when Horwitz became mayor, identified herself as a citizen of Beachwood and the only African-American member of council. She asked the city’s administration to “take the necessary steps to assure Mr. Burkons’ due process and if his guilt is confirmed, that we call for his immediate resignation.”
On Sept. 14, Burkons sent the following statement to the CJN regarding Taylor’s letter to council and the mayor: “June Taylor and other council members have been aware of this issue since last year and have chosen to hold this incident over my head and thrown it back in my face when strategically convenient for them. While I believed Ms. DeLong had agreed to leave this and other matters in our past, I only wish she had taken action against me sooner instead of waiting until the time was more convenient to her and other elected officials’ agendas.
“Namely, waiting until after I very publicly have questioned the manner on which the city continues to handle the officer involved shooting of a Black 19-year-old, and how they fought to keep this issue, and footage of the shooting from the public, more than a year after it happened. While I completely own my actions that happened last year before I was elected to council, my hope is that June and the others on council can someday summon similar outrage over the way our law department handled the officer involved shooting of a Black 19-year-old, as they are about a private matter between us that happened nearly a year ago.”
Burkons told the CJN on Sept. 11 that he regretted his actions and apologized. He claims he was close with DeLong and her husband, Dan Small, when she decided to run for school board last year, but that the election became “heated” when the couple “took positions that were at best close minded.”
Burkons described a letter to the editor, written by Small, that ran in the CJN in October 2019 as the moment “things came to a head.” He said it pertained to an issue from earlier that year surrounding allegations of recruiting violations for families of “color” with kids on the football team who had recently moved to the Beachwood City School District.
“I was best friends with both of them (DeLong and Snall) and tried to stop them from going down this path, which is likely why I was so hurt and angry when the CJN letter came out and those emotions drove my over the top response that I regret,” Burkons said in a Sept. 13 email to the CJN.
The councilman claims he posed as a Black father to give the perspective of how he believed those families must have felt upon reading Small’s letter to the editor.
“The Cleveland NAACP has been made aware of actions of councilman Burkons,” Danielle Sydnor, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Cleveland Branch, emailed the CJN on Sept. 15. “In this moment of racial reckoning in America, we believe it is important, more now than ever before, that leaders in communities locally and across the country would stand with us and that our white leaders would join us as allies. We will not get into deciding the political will of the voters in Beachwood, that is for them and the city charter to handle.
“We do, however, want to send a very clear message that allyship in no way gives permission for impersonation. As a leader in the Black community the strongest form of support that we can have from an ally is someone that is willing to boldly stand in the face of their peers and colleagues as their authentic self. We encourage all the members of council and the mayor to continue focusing on advancing the work around police reform, a subject that we care deeply about. We will continue to monitor the activities in Beachwood as we do for all communities in Cuyahoga County to ensure we work towards a more equitable and just community.”
Burkons primarily acknowledges his retaliation as one unsigned email sent to 11 school board members and administrators.
Pasch and council vice president Barbara Bellin Janovitz separately admitted to knowing Burkons had used aliases and fake identities in the past.
“Despite what James would like to believe, every post with an alias on cleveland.com or social media critical of the city is not me,” Burkons said. “None since I was sworn in and only a small percentage over the last two years as it became much more effective and credible to post under my name.”
DeLong is troubled by Burkons’ nonchalance.
“When he says, ‘It was just one email that I sent out and I only sent it out to a couple people,’ the truth is this wasn’t a one time thing,” DeLong told the CJN on Sept. 11. “This was several weeks of emails, Facebook posts and cleveland.com comments of his bullying tactics. So what I don’t like is the narrative that he’s driving his, ‘I had a moment of bad judgment and that was it.’ It wasn’t a moment.”
DeLong claims Burkons denied these allegations several times when asked by her directly. She ultimately proved Burkons had been posting under the alias “Shiva Kind” when she connected the email address associated with the Facebook account to Burkons’ cell phone number.
“This is what is the most important thing at the end of the day, Mr. Burkons posed as an African American,” DeLong said. “There is no world where that is OK. Period. That is what I am most disturbed and concerned about.”
DeLong said she decided to come forward after remaining silent for nine months because of council’s decision to censure Burkons at its Aug. 17 meeting for intimidation of a resident.
“I couldn’t let him do this to another resident,” DeLong said. “I know the pain. I know the stress and I know his retaliation tactic. So it was in that moment that I realized I am comfortable enough, I am strong enough right now and I can speak about it, because I could not let him do it to another resident.”
When speaking with the CJN on Sept. 11, Janovitz described DeLong’s comments as totally unexpected.
“I would imagine nobody (on council) knew about it,” Janovitz said. “I don’t know Jillian all that well, so I was certainly surprised, and honestly, I felt a little badly for Mike, only because I’m sure that he didn’t expect it. I had heard and known that he had done similar things in the past, but it’s not my place to say anything.”
Pasch also said he was unaware of DeLong’s plans to speak at the meeting.
“My only thought when Mrs. DeLong was speaking was that I feel terrible for her that she was attacked in that manner and that there’s no place for that as an elected representative or candidate or as a resident,” Pasch told the CJN on Sept. 11.
Burkons said he believes DeLong was pressured by Pasch to come forward.
However, DeLong maintains she did not speak with any members of council before the meeting and said she instead reached out to the clerk of courts who instructed her on how to make a public remark.
“Everyone knows that James got Jill to come and speak out and rehash the thing from last year,” Burkons said in an unsolicited email sent to the CJN on Sept. 12. “Someone needs to ask them who they thought benefited from this. Sure it makes me look bad for the mistake I made last year, but it also makes Jill look terrible, James look terrible, but even worse, this makes the entire city and the schools look awful. All because James wants to take me down a notch because he is upset that people have been calling for him to step down over the way we allowed the city to handle the police shooting.”
In response, Pasch said, “I know Mike wants this story to be about me, or council, or anything other than his own actions. I had nothing to do with this and it’s insulting to suggest that a strong woman like Jillian wouldn’t be able to make her own decisions.
“I didn’t tell or ask Jillian to do anything and I certainly never told Mike to masquerade as a Black parent online to try and intimidate people. I do agree with Mike on one thing, however, that it reflects very poorly on our community when an elected official or candidate behaves this way.”