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The Hollywoodland project is gone. Will Middletown city manager follow?

Mayor: 'A lot of trust has been lost'
Renders of Proposed Middletown 'Hollywoodland' project
Posted at 5:42 PM, Jan 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-19 17:42:27-05

MIDDLETOWN, Ohio — The city of Middletown has given up on Hollywoodland.

Despite that, some Middletown residents have not given up the fight against the $1.3 billion project that was proposed in October and slipped into dormancy in November.

The ongoing fight includes calls to replace Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick.

“I do not see how we can continue with our current city manager,” said Betsy Hanavan, one of two Middletown moms whose research helped derail the project in October.

“I would like to see him gone,” said Amy Chupka, who worked with Hanavan and several other citizen activists to investigate the background of Hollywoodland developer David Rachie and Palenick himself.

RELATED | Hollywoodland hype no match for Middletown moms

More than a half dozen Middletown residents have expressed the same opinion on Middletown Voice, a Facebook group that shares news and commentary with its 1,100 members.

Palenick did not respond to questions about his future.

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Middletown City Manager Jim Palenick called Hollywoodland "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" for the city.

Here’s what Middletown Mayor Nicole Condrey said about it Monday:

“I think a lot of trust has been lost in Mr. Palenick across the board from citizens as well as myself in many ways and I’ve made that clear in council meetings. That is going to be something this city council is going to have to decide. I’m one of five and that’s not something that we’ve discussed to date.”

The WCPO 9 I-Team attempted to reach Palenick and all five members of Middletown City Council before last night’s meeting because it included an executive session to “consider the appointment, employment, dismissal, discipline, promotion, demotion, or compensation of a public employee or official.”

Did they talk about Palenick’s future? Condrey wouldn’t say. But she gave a different answer Wednesday morning when asked whether Palenick’s dismissal would be discussed by council in a public meeting.

“Council, like any good employer, is constantly evaluating the performance of those who report to it,” including the manager and clerk of council, Condrey said. “We will address performance issues directly with them and will keep the public informed should there be any movement to change the individuals serving our community in these roles.”

Palenick, 62, came to Middletown in July 2020 from Racine, Wisc., where he worked with Rachie on a waterfront development project that has yet to be built. As the I-Team previously reported, Rachie’s development deal in Racine was similar to the deal he struck on Hollywoodland in that both called for public funds to cover Rachie’s pre-construction expenses.

Critics zeroed in on that clause as a major flaw in the Hollywoodland proposal. And they blamed Palenick for allowing it to be part of the deal.

“Who’s not at this point saying council needs to ask for his resignation?” Hanavan said in October interview with the I-Team.

Middletown’s city charter says council may remove a city manager “by a majority vote of its members.” It defines a two-step process starting with “a preliminary resolution stating the reasons for his removal” and a 30-day period in which the manager can request a public hearing on the matter. If a council majority votes a second time for removal, the charter calls for the manager to receive three months pay, starting from the date of the preliminary resolution.

Palenick’s contract calls for a six-month severance, or $80,000, upon termination plus six months of health benefits paid by the city.

Although Condrey was the only member of council who offered an opinion on Palenick’s future Tuesday, Rodney Muterspaw voiced support for Palenick in an interview with the I-Team on Nov. 3. That’s one day after the former Middletown police chief won a seat on council after campaigning against Hollywoodland.

“I think the guy has good qualities,” Muterspaw said. “He’s good at what he does with economic development. I just think he brought us a poor project. Does that mean somebody should lose their job over it? I don’t think somebody should lose their job over one thing like this.”

Another new member of council, Zack Ferrell, declined to comment on Palenick’s future. Instead, he offered a statement about the city’s next steps after Hollywoodland.

“The city needs to concentrate on building a community that will make residents and businesses proud to travel to daily,” said Ferrell, a realtor in the Miamisburg office of Keller Williams Community Partners. “Police and fire, freshly paved roads, being fiscally conservative with money, that's what we need to concentrate on.”

Muterspaw and Ferrell also passed on a chance Tuesday night to cast an official vote against Hollywoodland. Mayor Condrey requested a vote because the city’s previous statements on the matter did not explicitly say Hollywoodland is no longer being pursued.

“I’m sure I’m not the only one being bombarded by questions,” Condrey said. “I think our citizens and stakeholders probably deserve an answer and clarity.”

No other member of council endorsed a formal vote after Palenick said it wasn’t necessary.

“That project, as it was proposed, is no longer being worked on,” Palenick said. “There’s no need to vote on it because it’s not coming forward.”