August 21, 2014

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Lorain councilman works to repair reputation, and personal life, after DUI arrest

LORAIN — The little girl walking on Long Avenue on Thursday burst into tears when her kindergarten homework fell in the mud.

“Everything’s going to be OK,” City Councilman Dennis Flores, D-2nd Ward, told her as he helped her pick up the papers. “You don’t have to cry. It’ll dry out.”

Flores is big on constituent service. He said he spends an hour or two daily walking around his ward, which includes parts of Broadway between West Erie Avenue and West 21st Street and some of the poorest sections of Lorain.

Flores is beloved by some constituents and despised by some fellow Democrats. On the heels of a drunken-driving arrest, Flores is trying to preserve his political life while repairing his personal life.

“I have a lot of amends to make,” he said.

On Jan. 3, Flores was charged with drunken driving, driving with a suspended license and failure to control. A police video showed Flores nearly fall while taking a field sobriety test after getting his van stuck in a snowbank in his neighbor’s driveway.

Flores admits he showed bad judgment. He said he drank five or six beers with friends at a couple of downtown bars and should’ve had someone sober drive him home rather than getting behind the wheel.

The arrest was not Flores’ first brush with the law. In 2008, he was convicted of soliciting a prostitute. Flores said he was frustrated about not having full-time work at the time and depressed after recently breaking up with a girlfriend. He said he showed poor judgment.

In 2010, Flores was charged with carrying a concealed weapon. Flores — who has a permit to carry a concealed pistol — pleaded no contest, paid a fine and had the weapon returned to him.

He said he had been carrying the Glock semi-automatic pistol and wearing a bullet-resistant vest while walking his dog because shots had been fired earlier in the day on Long Avenue, a high-crime area. Flores maintains that he did nothing wrong and that the arrest was due to a misunderstanding with police. He said an officer overreacted about children being in pictures Flores said he was taking of blighted houses.

However, Flores admits he has a drinking problem and said he has been seeing a counselor twice a week and attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“When you mix alcohol and depression, it equals disease,” he said. “I made some bad choices, made some bad decisions.”

Flores, who first took office in 2008, said the soliciting conviction led to his defeat in the 2009 primary by Democrat Andy Drwal. Drwal, defeated in the 2011 primary, is challenging Flores again in the May primary.

Drwal, 66, is a retired firefighter who served 31 years, the last 20 as head of the firefighters union, Local 267 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Drwal said his dealings with city officials as a union head give him a better rapport and understanding of how to get things done as a councilman than Flores. Flores has frequently clashed with the administrations of former Mayor Tony Krasienko and current Mayor Chase Ritenauer.

“I’ve attended many council meetings that he’s been a council member at and I’m not real sure he understands how to deal with a lot of the scenarios that are going on,” Drwal said.

Flores concedes he can be a pain in the butt. In the last couple weeks, he has sent several emails and photos to city officials of blighted vacant homes, a pile of dirt left by a utilities contractor and parking violations outside a home. The tone of the emails can be confrontational.

“When can we expect this mess to be clean(ed) up?” he asked in one.

In another, he accused police of not enforcing parking violations around Lorain.

“If it was in me in violation, I would get ticketed in a heartbeat!” Flores wrote Saturday. “Do I have to start taking pictures of all the cars/trucks that are illegally parked on front lawns in violation of our city parking ordinances?”

While he said he has sometimes gotten different answers from officials about how they are dealing with blight, Flores said city workers have usually been quick to respond when he has pointed out problems like blighted homes, graffiti, illegal dumping and potholes.

Nonetheless, Flores said he realizes he hasn’t been diplomatic enough.

“It’s because I’m so passionate about an issue and a lot of people misunderstand my temperament,” he said.

However, constituents like Peggy Johnson admire Flores’ passion. Late last year, Flores used a ladder to climb into the vacant home on West Ninth Street next door to Johnson’s home to rescue a stray dog who was later adopted. Johnson said Flores’ legal problems won’t stop her from voting for him again.

“Dennis cares about this city,” Johnson said. “He walks our neighborhoods when other people won’t drive their cars down our neighborhoods.”

Flores admits he has more time to walk his ward than some councilmen because he isn’t working full time. He said he hasn’t been able to find full-time work for about three years, but works for temporary employment agencies. His specialty is information technology and installing computer wiring.

Flores, 58, has lived in Lorain most of his life although he said he spent about seven years working various jobs in Las Vegas in the late 1980s and 1990s. He returned to help take care of his father, Pablo Torres, a steelworker who had prostate cancer.

After his father died, Flores stayed. Flores, one of four children, lives with and helps take care of his 86-year-old mother, Anna Cruz, a retired dietitian.

Disturbed by the deterioration of Lorain, Flores began attending City Council meetings after he returned. He said he was encouraged to run for the 2nd Ward by then-Councilman Phil Betleski who was seeking an at-large seat.

Flores has clashed with fellow council members and administration officials who privately accuse him of leaking information from closed door meetings known as executive sessions. His biggest public feud has been with Anthony Giardini, Lorain County Democratic Party chairman.

Giardini said Flores, who is also a Lorain Democratic Party precinct committeeman, has been disloyal to the party by supporting Republican County Commissioner Tom Williams for election and signing up on an email list for literature about a local tea party. Giardini has gotten Flores kicked out of Lorain and Lorain County precinct committee meetings in the last year.

Flores said the ejections disenfranchise the voters who elected him a precinct committeeman, but Giardini said Flores’ actions violate a written pledge committeemen make to support Democrats. He said the only job of a committeeman is to support the party.

“Apparently, Dennis wants to equate being a precinct committeeman with being a councilman,” Giardini said. “They’re not the same.”

Flores said Giardini is being hypocritical because Giardini contributed to then-Republican U.S. Sen. Mike DeWine in 2000. Giardini said the $500 contribution was for when ran in the Republican primary rather than against a Democrat. He said the contribution was part of efforts to get DeWine’s support for the bailout of the aging and financially troubled St. Joseph Community Center.

Flores clashed with Ritenauer by refusing to support the 0.5 percent city income tax hike approved by voters in November. The increase will raise $5.3 million annually for road and park improvements and eliminate a projected deficit that would’ve caused some 50 layoffs in a city whose workforce has shrunk from 600 to about 450 in the last decade.

Flores at a June Council meeting called city spending “gluttonous” and accused Ritenauer of a bait-and-switch with voters to balance the budget. Ritenauer called the suggestion “preposterous” and said Flores was effectively calling him a liar.

Flores said he doesn’t regret his opposition, contending that the tax will lead to more depopulation in Lorain, but he said Ritenauer has done a good job in his first year as mayor. Ritenauer said Sunday that Flores’ opposition was shortsighted, but that the two get along and he appreciates Flores’ efforts to clean up his ward.

Flores is due back in court March 14 and his lawyer, attorney Mike Duff, said he is trying to get his client some limited driving privileges while his case is being adjudicated.

Meanwhile, Flores said he’ll continue walking his recently redrawn ward and trying to connect with new voters. “I’m hoping I can gain their support,” he said.

Contact Evan Goodenow at 329-7129 or egoodenow@chroniclet.com.