September 1, 2014

Elyria
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Berner filled Avon Lake coffers, lost his job

AVON LAKE — When political novice Rob Berner walked into City Hall many years ago, he knew he faced an uphill battle proving to residents he was not like his predecessors.

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CHUCK HUMEL / CHRONICLE
Outgoing Avon Lake Mayor Rob Berner talks about his accomplishments in his office Friday.

Avon Lake could not take another scandal, and Berner said he was committed to serving the city for as long as he could and erasing the sour memories of previous administrations.

“Both my predecessors left office in handcuffs,” he said. “That’s the impression people had of the Avon Lake administration. It was the place where the mayors went to jail.”

That’s why when a special election was held in 2001, Berner, then a school board member, threw his hat in the ring and faced off against seven opponents. He never thought he would actually win, but he did and took a seat behind the desk in the Avon Lake mayor’s office.

And on Friday, while others were winding down from Christmas and gearing up for the new year, Berner, 44, was behind that same desk, reflecting on the position he has held for the last 6 1/2 years. His mood was surprisingly upbeat for a guy who will be out of the job come Jan. 1. He joked that he won’t have to thank goodness for Fridays when soon every day will be like Friday, he joked.

Looking back, Berner believes he is leaving the city in good shape.

“When you get into politics, you learn really quickly that there are two ways to do the job,” he said. “You can either make things happen, which may cause a little controversy, or you can sit back, just let the city run how it has been and collect a paycheck. I came into this job knowing I was not that kind of mayor. I was going to do my job the very best I knew how and make the city move forward.”

Ranked by Cleveland Magazine as the No. 1 suburb on Cleveland’s west side and No. 4 overall in a ranking of 66 greater Cleveland suburbs, Avon Lake boasts a state-ranked “excellent” school district, and a solid financial outlook, with its largest employer, Ford Motor Co., committing to keep the local assembly plant running and vowing to pump millions into a new line.

While not all that can be directly credited to Berner, he had his hands in the details.

“The financial footing he left us on will be the one thing he will be remembered for,” said Councilman Michael Stanek, who has been on Council since 2001. “He came in with no background in municipal government but learned quickly and surrounded himself with the right people.”

Along the way, Berner said, he knows he made some enemies.

Maybe more than he thought, considering that last month voters decided that a change in leadership was needed. At-large Councilman Karl “KC” Zuber defeated Berner by nearly 1,000 votes in one of the county’s biggest election upsets.

But being mayor is about making the tough decisions, Berner said.

Whether it was battling over the state Route 83 sewer separation project, city banner program or even the once-controversial construction of a city lake house, Berner said he focused on the big picture of what Avon Lake could be.

“That lake house was the first battle I had with City Council. Plans called for it to be an open-air pavilion, but anyone who lives on the lake knows that the weather can change in an instant. We couldn’t use something like that,” he said. “What we needed and what I envisioned was a kind of meeting place for the community.”

Working with Berner has not always been easy, but Stanek, who is replacing Zuber as an at-large councilman, said a level of respect was always there.

“We didn’t always agree, but that’s the way it should be in city government. Berner was the kind of guy that you could have an all-out debate on a topic, but when you left council chambers, you left on friendly terms.” Stanek said.

There were many disagreements during Berner’s tenure, but there also have been a lot of accomplishments worth noting, Council President Gregory Zilka said. Once Berner opened up the lines of communication, things got done.

One example Zilka cited was the Reliant Energy deal. It allowed the city to keep Miller Road Park the same size while giving Reliant the space it need to move forward with environmental measures that benefited the city.

The 15-acre Bicentennial Park also will serve as a part of Berner’s legacy. While the project started in Vince Urbin’s administration, Berner helped push the project forward.

“In 50 years, residents won’t remember who was involved in that deal, but they will be glad the city acquired that land,” he said.

As for Berner, he said he doesn’t know for sure what the next 50 years will hold for him. He only knows he is happy to have the downtime so he can finally do something he put off for years — he will finally finish his master’s degree, he said.

After that, a job in public policymaking is on his short list of things to do.

“That’s the part of the job that I really enjoyed,” he said. “Being an advocate and talking about what is good for the community.”

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.