In 1995, Cheryl Stephens toured a beautiful colonial in Forest Hill. She was immediately head over heels. She snapped it up later that week. That fateful decision gained new significance in January 2016, when she was sworn in as mayor of Cleveland Heights.
“What would be more perfect than a neighborhood where everything was planned in advance?” Stephens says.
Now, though, there’s open talk about removing her neighborhood from her city. “I absolutely do not support it,” says Stephens.
“I wouldn’t be eligible to be mayor,” she continues, only half-joking.
Secession would be an immense challenge. For starters, Cleveland Heights and East Cleveland would have to vote. The last ballot issue in Cleveland Heights took 3,000 signatures to even get to a vote, says Stephens.
The village would also have to pay for services such as fire, police and education. All are costly. There are small municipalities in Cuyahoga County that provide those things without collapsing, says Cleveland State’s Keating, such as Woodmere or Moreland Hills. Both have populations roughly on par with Forest Hill. But they have either retail or rich residents to pay the bills. “Neither apply in the case of Forest Hill,” Keating says.
A community development corporation just for Forest Hill would also be redundant, says Keating. He lives in Cleveland Heights and works with community organization FutureHeights, which already provides similar services. A special improvement district, another possibility, would be a nonstarter without retail businesses, he says.
“[Secession] makes for a good fantasy story,” says Keating. “Up until the reality of what you’d actually have to deal with.”
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering leading up to the November annual meeting was like House of Cards meets the Bravo network.
Les Jones was at the center of it. As a kid growing up on the border between East Cleveland and Glenville in the 1960s, Jones would ride his bike from his house to the top of the big hill in Forest Hill Park. Then he’d push off, the bike wheels bumping down.
“I just knew it as a beautiful area I’d like to live,” Jones, 67, remembers. “But at that time, it was very difficult to move into Forest Hill, especially if you were black.”
Jones bought a home on Chelsea Drive in 1987. He loves the neighborhood dearly.
But the association responded slowly to the housing crisis, he says. He wanted reform. So Jones aligned himself with Reilly.
As the marketing chair of the association, he juggled allegiances, calming Reilly after outbursts, then turning around and doing the same for the association.
During last year’s escalating tensions, Jones decided to run for chairman of the board of trustees. He felt he could devote more time to the volunteer post than Hubbert, the incumbent chairman.
The 41-member board of trustees elects the association’s officers in September. Then, at an annual meeting in November, residents elect new trustees. But due to low participation, competitive elections are rare.
Nonetheless, Jones dove in headlong. He persuaded Reilly to drop the Campaign for Forest Hill if he were elected, Jones says. Meanwhile, Hubbert says, Jones and the Reillys strategized to oust him and other officers on an accidentally forwarded email chain.
But when Jones showed up at Grebus’ house in September, his relationship with Reilly was a liability. “The people that had already picked sides decided that I was gonna be a surrogate for Mike Reilly,” says Jones.
Jones lost. In his view, the old guard kept control. After the election Jones resigned his marketing position and lodged a complaint, alleging that the election hadn’t taken place in accordance with the bylaws.
On Oct. 14, a law firm hired by the Reillys sent a similar letter to Hubbert. It alleged the upcoming election of trustees, tentatively scheduled during the Nov. 14 annual meeting, was going to be conducted improperly.
Reilly told his lawyers to throw in a new twist: a threat to get a temporary restraining order to slam the brakes on the election.
For Hubbert, a corporate lawyer at Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, the letter was akin to a Carl Icahn boardroom takeover, but over a handful of houses.
“This has clearly gotten, for some reason, personal,” says Hubbert, who lives just around the corner from the Reillys. He and Grebus negotiated with the Reillys’ law firm. They agreed to suspend the trustee election but moved forward with the meeting.
At the meeting, Jones stood and spoke in an effort, he says, to clear the air. But quickly all order went out the window. “There was a lot of arguing,” Grebus says. “I was asked if I’d ever led a meeting in the United States of America before. So that was special.”
After the November blowup, the Reillys started talking about secession on television, in a press release and in the Heights Observer. But they say they do not actually support it. “This village of Forest Hill, it’s like a political metaphor for a 21st-century homeowners association,” says Reilly.
What they really mean is the homeowners association should be professionalized. They would like to raise money to hire someone to tackle problematic houses full time.
“[Mike] just thinks that if he wants it, any means justifies the ends,” says Grebus.
To the officers, the secession talk reads like another move in a quest for power. “I think his idea of professionalization basically involves him and his company running things,” says Hubbert. “He’d like to be mayor of the village. But that’s really not my dream.”
But to Mike, secession was a way to bring attention to a problem that’s not being fixed. “I just want it done. I really don’t care,” he says. “My life’s ambition is not to be president of Forest Hill Home Owners.”
“We’re trying to come up with really concrete solutions to solving this problem,” says Fiona. “That’s why we started the campaign, because [the homeowners association] is incapable of thinking that way.”
The current trustees were carried over until there could be a new election. It will most likely be in May, Grebus says. Another town hall is slated for April 19 at Forest Hill Presbyterian Church. The Rockefeller vision of suburban unity is experiencing a new age of difficulty.
“The Campaign for Forest Hill, which started as Make Forest Hill Great Again, ... seems to be an exercise in driving people to his site to look at all the problems we have,” says Grebus. “[Mike] has done more to devalue the neighborhood than any other person, than any derelict house.”
All the personal attacks have distracted from solving substantive problems like getting more residents involved, says Jones. “That bad blood stayed in the limelight and the real issues of what we wanted to get at got second-tier attention,” he says.
Homeowners association dues have been going down. Four volunteers have walked away from their posts to avoid becoming targets, Grebus says. Likely more will follow.
“That’s the really sad part about this. It’s a group of people that joined with the intent to improve their neighborhood,” Grebus continues. “What they get out of it is animosity. Why would people sign up for that?”
The association, the only one of its kind in Cleveland’s inner ring, is struggling. If it dies, so could the last best hope to preserve the history and grandeur of Forest Hill.