In early 2013, someone knew that something was wrong at the University Park Alliance, a multimillion-dollar project to add new life to the area around the University of Akron.
Figuring out who knew what, and when, though, has been difficult to pinpoint, even after weeks of on- and off-the-record interviews with people close to the project.
But what has surfaced is a study, delivered in February 2013 just as the business-community-UA collaborative began to unravel, suggesting that Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic is a bully and community leaders, rather than try to control him, put up with him. The mayor and other leaders question that assertion.
The report itself raises questions about who was driving the program, and who could be responsible for its derailment.
The OMG Center for Collaborative Learning, a group from Philadelphia, already had conducted a study of UPA in the summer of 2012, suggesting that funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation should continue, but urging that other stakeholders in the city also be bigger financial partners. The project goals of new housing, community-building, and a focus on the health-care corridor were identified as worthwhile.
But then, OMG was called on in early February 2013, only eight weeks after the foundation provided another $6 million grant and a $1.8 million loan, to conduct another study. The questions seemed pointed at city leadership.
OMG officials did not return a phone call seeking comment. A Knight Foundation official said the organization had no comment.
The study was given to the Beacon Journal recently by former UPA executive director Eric Anthony Johnson as the newspaper explored in depth what went wrong. UPA was formed in 2001, Johnson was hired in 2010 and the group was merged with another in 2011 to allow the organization to move actively into real estate development.
The OMG report initially went to only four people: Johnson and three representatives of the Knight Foundation.
The report was critical of city leadership just as Johnson’s leadership was being questioned, and only five weeks before he would resign and the foundation would first put on hold, then cancel its major funding for the group.
The Beacon Journal circulated the report among several members of the 16-person UPA board and others close to the organization — most of whom had never seen it. Several declined comment for this story, citing pending lawsuits against UPA, some spoke on the record and some spoke not for attribution, concerned about the lawsuits and the potential for harming important relationships, including with the $2 billion charitable Knight Foundation.
However, the bully factor was a key part of the discussion among those willing to talk, including Plusquellic, who granted two interviews totaling more than seven hours.
The OMG report said UPA needed “authoritative membership and leadership who will counter the 27-year mayor openly and behind the scenes.”
What some have described to the Beacon Journal as an attack by Plusquellic on Johnson in July 2012 at a UPA board meeting was cited as evidence of the problem.
Some in the report described the 12-minute exchange as “uncalled for.”
There were seeds planted even before the meeting. There was a UPA community workshop a few weeks earlier, attended by City Council members where residents were complaining about homes that were not being demolished by the city.
Plusquellic said he was upset that UPA leaders did not defend the city as a partner.
He also was upset that a UPA blog item discussed how city residents could find success and were “seeing how they can leverage City Hall by banding together in groups.”
In a recording of the argument, the mayor is heard telling Johnson he was “appalled that people we have helped hire would not stand up in a meeting” to defend the city’s actions, or explain them, making it appear as if the city did not care.
Johnson told the mayor he didn’t understand what leverage meant and there was no way he or anyone else would let anyone say something negative about the city.
UPA also was looking for ways to make its construction projects self-sustaining, thus reducing the need for foundation grants and aid from the city and businesses.
Plusquellic said he urged Johnson and the board to create a “special improvement district” or “business improvement district.”
Under that classification, property owners assess themselves.
But the improvement district idea did not happen. During the interaction between Johnson and Plusquellic, the report said “three board members indicated that they are appalled at the Mayor’s behavior towards Eric, and note that it is destructive to the UPA agenda. On the other hand they accept it and say, ‘but that is the Mayor,’ and ‘that is just his way.’ ”
As for the UPA not creating the special improvement district, “I obviously must not have been too big of a bully because I didn’t get my way,” the mayor said.
He was angry that the report suggested he would not participate in interviews for the report. He had surgery about the time of the request, and his secretaries told OMG that he could not be available.
Concerning his leadership style, he admitted he sometimes speaks “vehemently” about what he believes, but disputed the idea that his style is that of a bully.
“Somebody’s strong responsible leadership is someone else’s bully. It’s in the eye of the beholder. I don’t mean to be offensive or someone who gets in an argument. I learned a long time ago, you can’t make everybody happy. If I’m very docile ... no, I’m sorry, that’s not me. I hammered people and I make no apology,” Plusquellic said.
“I have never, ever hurt a single organization nor gone after them nor done a single thing personally or professionally.”
The mayor said he was angry that the report would have “absolute lies,” but also hurt that other UPA board members might have characterized him as a bully. Plusquellic said he also is dubious that the report accurately reflected people’s opinions because of what he believes are other errors.
“This report is so filled with vindictiveness and people covering their ass and I take the hit. This has affected me,” he said.
Plusquellic has promised two investigations of the UPA collapse and Johnson, one as recently as a few weeks ago when he asked his law department to consider hiring an outside investigator.
The OMG report lists 17 people, including board members, staffers and consultants, who were interviewed.
It is unknown why the report was issued before all scheduled interviews were completed. There is a reference to a more detailed report that was expected later, but that report was never completed.
Documents filed in a court case against UPA over property transactions suggest that the University of Akron had indicated to UPA it would not participate in a student housing project that was critical to the Knight funding application, submitted in December 2012. It was that lack of participation that caused the Knight Foundation to halt support.
Working with the mayor
UPA is currently chaired by Akron Public Schools Superintendent David James, who with remaining board members is trying to keep UPA alive and find solutions to financial problems.
James noted that “Mayor Plusquellic really cares about Akron and takes the work of UPA seriously. If you’re going to come to Don with a plan and with an idea and you’re not fully prepared, you are going to be challenged.”
Asked about the bully characterization, James said: “I have had no problems with the mayor. We have a very good relationship. We speak very frankly with each other.”
Tony O’Leary, executive director of the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, former UPA board chair and a former Plusquellic employee in the city, said, “I don’t think he’s a bully. ... He’s certainly an aggressive leader and will call people out if he disagrees with them.”
Johnson, blamed by some for creating problems that led to the UPA’s loss of funding, said: “I don’t think the mayor is a bully, in all honesty. I think he’s a strong personality.”
One person close to UPA who did not want to be identified because of the various relationships involved said Johnson made a mistake in challenging the mayor without the correct facts and in public. “The mayor is the mayor and if you want to get something done, you have to figure out how not to insult him. Eric could have challenged the mayor, but the problem is he did it in public. He could have handled it with more finesse.
“Look, everyone knows how Don is, but no one is going to talk about it on the record. ... the mayor respects people who stand up to him and will argue and fight with him and won’t take it personally.
“He can be the most difficult person to deal with and he can be a wonderful person to deal with.”
O’Leary and James said their interviews with the consultants were short in duration, from 20 minutes to 40 minutes. James and the mayor said they believe it’s possible the report was “overrepresented” by Johnson’s perspective as UPA’s problems were growing.
Johnson, who now is chief development officer of a nonprofit subsidiary of the Charlotte Housing Authority, disputes that assertion and the allegations that he is to blame for UPA’s collapse.
“It seems that I’m this devious, deceptive person destroying everything. That’s just not the case. Truthfully, what right does he [the mayor] have to ... launch an investigation against me? Let the mayor do his investigation,” said Johnson.
“You know what’s sad about this? Not a single person in that town is coming to my defense. That’s fine. If they want to, call the sheriff’s department, FBI and CIA. That’s just wrong.”