Wednesday, June 29, 2011

East Cleveland makes a deal over Huron Hospital; Cleveland goes to court

Cleveland’s suing, but East Cleveland’s cutting a deal. That’s the latest news in the fight over the planned closing of Huron Hospital.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton (pictured) and Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove announced today that the Clinic will give the city $8 million over five years to cushion the blow of losing its second-largest employer.

The Clinic also agreed to help with one of East Cleveland’s biggest problems: vacant buildings. Not only will the Clinic demolish the hospital and give the land to the city, it’s also going to knock down a few extra buildings it doesn’t own: some apartments and offices on Euclid Avenue.

Now, Norton, 39, will have to convince East Clevelanders that the deal is worth giving up the fight. He’s already making the case.

“While most cities receive nothing when a hospital closes,” Norton said in a statement, “East Cleveland has worked with Cleveland Clinic to secure financial and other support which will ease our city’s financial pressure, prevent the facility from becoming an eyesore and help us aggressively pursue development opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Frank Jackson’s not giving up. Cleveland filed a federal lawsuit today to try to stop the Clinic from closing Huron’s trauma center, where Cleveland EMS takes 3,000 patients a year.

It’ll be worth watching how East Cleveland and Cleveland get along after this. The last time East Cleveland cut a deal in a big legal battle while Cleveland fought on, it hurt relations between the towns for years. In 1998, when East Cleveland’s Emmanuel Onunwor reached a settlement with the railroad CSX to allow increased train traffic, Cleveland’s Mike White lashed out. He killed talks about Cleveland taking over East Cleveland’s water system, delaying the takeover for a decade.

But Jackson is not as vindictive as White. He may also understand Norton’s position. East Cleveland gets $1 million a year in income taxes from Huron Hospital’s 800 employees. The city’s entire budget is only $26 million. Now Norton plugs that financial hole for a while and buys time to try to attract businesses to all that vacant land.

To read my Dec. 2009 profile of Norton, "Who Wants to Be Mayor of East Cleveland?", click here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills & Woodmere may merge in 2014

Everyone talks about regionalism, but no one ever does anything about it. Until today, when Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills and Woodmere's mayors announced they’re looking into merging their towns together by 2014.

OK, so launching a study, with Cuyahoga County’s help, isn’t exactly action. It’ll take three steps and 2½ years to merge: first the study, then a formal merger commission in 2012, then approval by all four towns’ residents in 2013.

Still, it’s big news, a leap of faith by all four mayors, and a provocative move compared to regionalism baby-steps such as shared fire departments. County executive Ed FitzGerald, who called the press conference, now has something to show for his regionalism efforts beyond his underwhelming no-poaching proposal this month.

“[I hope] it will give encouragement to a lot of other mayors that I know are having these conversations, but having them very quietly,” FitzGerald said this morning.

The four mayors said their goal is to lower taxes across the four suburbs by creating a more efficient government. Even the sight of the four of them together — old and young, men and women, three white and one black — seemed like a mini-poster-moment for regional unity.

“I think it’s time for leaders in smaller communities to try to come together,” said Woodmere Mayor Charles Smith.

“It does not make sense,” said Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, “for a county of this size to have 57 political subdivisions.”

The merger would make the three villages and one city into a medium-sized suburb of 13,500 people. The mayors have bounced around possible names for a combined town: Chagrin Hills, maybe.

At first glance, it seems like a good marriage. The four towns already share the Orange school district, a recreation department, senior citizens’ programs and a library. Each brings something: Pepper Pike (population 5,979) and Moreland Hills (3,320) are wealthy residential communities with little industry. Orange (population 3,323) has more of a mix of homes and shopping. Woodmere, the tiniest at 884 people, has the Eton Collection and its retail workers’ income taxes.

The Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills and Woodmere mayors sounded sold on the idea. Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy was more skeptical. She thanked FitzGerald and his regionalism point man, Ed Jerse, for “giving us the tools to study the concept” and “really measure whether there were savings” from consolidation.

“Everyone’s been touting that as the panacea for all that ails us,” Mulcahy said. “And I want to see the numbers that show us where the savings are and that it truly is the way to go.”

Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda said she thinks the four towns can become “a test case for other communities in the region.” That’s why this is a big step. Lots of towns in Cuyahoga County could become stronger in a union with their neighbors.

FitzGerald built drama by announcing the press conference overnight but not naming the four merger-curious mayors. So I bounced the mystery around the magazine offices this morning: Who’s merging? Parma-Parma Heights-Brooklyn and a wild card? Makes sense for Brooklyn, since it’s losing American Greetings. North Randall-Warrensville Heights? Newburgh/Cuyahoga/Brooklyn/Garfield Heights?

It’s easy to play with the map and brainstorm bigger towns. But it’s painstaking to merge tax rates and town halls and weave through the lengthy merger process in state law. Voters, like Mulcahy, will ask tough questions: what’s in it for us?

Besides, even the tiniest towns have an identity and don’t want to lose it. The mayors said they’ll talk about ways to preserve their towns’ identities in a bigger burb.

“Our community will not be gobbled up,” said Woodmere’s Smith. “This will be something to sustain our community, to curb costs, and to preserve the integrity of our community.”

(Photo, left to right: Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, Woodmere Mayor Charles Smith, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, and Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda. Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy, not visible, is standing behind Smith.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fresh thinking about SB5

Gov. John Kasich e-mailed his supporters this week, asking them to spread the word about SB5's "common sense reforms." The other side, gathering petition signatures to stop SB5, says the new law will "destroy jobs and harm communities."

Republicans or unions? Teachers and cops or budget-cutters? The arguments are polarized, and they'll get more so by November, when Ohioans will likely vote on whether to overturn the law's limits on government employees' collective bargaining.

It's easy to take a side, and most commentators do. But who's actually writing for the undecided voter? Not many.

That's why I think Dan Moulthrop's commentary on SB5 and the teaching profession is the best, most thoughtful piece I've read on the law -- which is why we published it in the Talking Points section of this month's Cleveland Magazine.

You may know Moulthrop from his role with The Civic Commons, the new civic-journalism website in town, or his previous job as WCPN's morning show host.

He's also a former teacher and co-author of a book, the ironically titled Teachers Have It Easy, on how to improve the teaching profession. (One of his co-authors is Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, co-founder of McSweeney's and the writing and tutoring program 826 Valencia.) The book's just been made into a documentary, American Teacher.

Moulthrop makes it clear he'll vote to repeal SB5 if it's on the November ballot. He thinks its restrictions on unions' dues and memberships amount to a political power grab.

Yet SB5's education reforms go right at an issue he's passionate about: how to define and reward good teaching. He writes:

Despite my feelings about the law, I think it may have created a chance to improve schools.

SB 5 and Gov. John Kasich's budget deal will radically change how teachers get paid. Raises will be based on performance evaluations, peer review (where it's in place), value-added measures (which measure growth in students' test scores rather than just the score itself) and any other criteria established by a local school board.

Many educators complain these requirements are vague. That's not a problem, though. It's an opportunity.

To read Moulthrop's commentary, "Lesson Plan," click here. To see his blog post about it on the Civic Commons, click here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Me & Feagler, schools CEO & Huron Hospital

It's been a big news week in Cleveland, and I was lucky to be invited to talk about it on this weekend's episode of WVIZ's Feagler & Friends current-affairs show.

I talked with host Dick Feagler and the rest of the reporters' panel about new Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon, whom I met while working on my profile of Peter Raskind, the interim CEO. We discussed the closing of Huron Hospital and its effects on East Cleveland, where I've done a lot of reporting.

We chatted about how Avon will pay for a new I-90 exit -- Julie Wallace, managing editor of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, took the lead on that. Bill Shiel of Fox 8, the third panelist, told Feagler he thought the unusual jury selection for the Anthony Sowell trial was illegal.

The show airs tonight at 8:30 and Sunday at 12:30 pm on WVIZ.

Update, 6/13: Check out the video. The panel discussion starts around the 9:20 mark.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Columbia Building will be razed for casino parking

The casino trumps the landmark. The city Landmarks Commission voted 4-3 today to let the Columbia Building on Prospect Avenue be torn down to make way for valet parking for the Higbee Building casino.

Preservation advocates rallied to try to save the Columbia at today’s 2½ hour meeting. (One attendee tweeted the meeting.)

But the Landmarks Commission staff had failed to find an alternative that made room for casino parking on that block but spared the vacant eight-story building, built in 1908.

The Jackson Administration, which encouraged Dan Gilbert to open his casino in the Higbee Building, supported the demolition. (Here’s my earlier post on that.)

The casino plans are a painful tradeoff for people who love downtown’s historic character. Losing the Columbia Building means losing a stately, century-old streetscape.

Also, the bridge that’ll connect the parking to the Higbee Building casino will slice diagonally through the historic intersection of Ontario and Prospect. Architecture critic Steven Litt recently called it the type of move that could “erode a city’s visual integrity and sense of place, even its identity.” This attractive rendering of the future casino isn’t accurate anymore, as a commenter on my blog pointed out.

The parking bridge will connect to the Higbee Building right at that attractive corner façade.

It's an awkward change to a much-beloved Public Square landmark -- one that's also going to be heavily renovated to give it that modern, high-rolling casino style.

It’s not easy to wedge a mini-Vegas into a historic downtown. Lots of preservation-minded people don’t want to make the compromise and lose the Columbia. But in this post on his Cleveland History Blog, Cleveland State librarian Bill Barrow gently and humorously encourages them to make the trade.

Update, 6/13: Steven Litt is mad. His Sunday column blasts Rock Gaming for revealing its plans little by little, making it hard to judge the casino's true impact on downtown. He calls the Columbia Building vote kabuki theater, "a form of drama in which the outcome is always predictable."

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Jackson, school board switch course, name internal candidate Eric Gordon as new Cleveland schools CEO

A surprise announcement from Mayor Jackson and the Cleveland school board this morning: They've named Eric Gordon, the district's chief academic officer, as the new schools CEO.

The school board rejected the search committee's top three candidates, all from outside the district. They went back to Gordon, who had made the top nine, but not the final round of interviews.

Gordon, 40, is not the sort of leader who dominates a room. He's more the smart guy who writes the plan and carries it out. He played a major role in creating the academic transformation plan, the Cleveland schools' strategy for reforming itself. He worked his way up from school principal in the Toledo and Columbus areas.

I encountered Gordon several times while writing my profile of interim schools CEO Peter Raskind. It was clear that Raskind was relying on Gordon to bring him up to speed on the schools' key issues. Raskind played a substantial role in the CEO search, and I wouldn't be surprised if he spoke up for Gordon's talents when the front-runners came up short.

Clearly, Jackson and the school board were underwhelmed by the top three finalists. Patrick O'Donnell's Plain Dealer profiles of them made the dilemma clear. Grand Rapids, Mich. superintendent Bernard Taylor has gotten results and impressed his school board, but antagonized the local teachers' union. Chris Scott of Lowell, Mass. was the opposite, beloved by the union but on the outs with her board. Cheryl Atkinson was respected for steering the Lorain schools out of crisis, but the district had not made great progress on state report cards.

With those profiles in mind, maybe the move back to Gordon isn't such a surprise after all.

Update, 5:25 pm: just posted a sharp article on Gordon's appointment. Patrick O'Donnell reports:
- Raskind was offered the permanent CEO job and turned it down.
- Gordon will get only a one-year contract. "I plan to earn my right to continue," he says.
- Teacher's union president's reaction to the choice: "Wow. Really?"
- Jackson calls Gordon an attractive choice "for what we need to do in a short period of time."
- The mayor predicts the district won't need serious cuts or a tax increase for another two years, thanks to Raskind's work.
- The school board thought the three finalists hadn't innovated much compared to the reforms Gordon has helped implement here.

Update, 6/9: Plain Dealer columnist Kevin O'Brien reacts with measured praise for Gordon, but predicts he'll eventually have to "execute a graceful exit" once the transformation plan "drifts into the rocks of union resistance and the shoals of student and parental apathy." O'Brien's advice for Greater Clevelanders is also rather cynical, but mostly wise: "Don't suspend your disbelief. School superintendents are not magicians." It's a good antidote to the savior/disappointment clichés that attach themselves to big-city school leaders.

To read Gordon's resume (as a pdf), click here. To read "Quick Fixer," my profile of interim CEO Peter Raskind, click here.

As demolition vote nears, casino’s alliance with mayor becomes clear

Should Cleveland let Dan Gilbert tear down a 100-year-old building to make way for casino parking? Urban activists are getting ready to flood a meeting at City Hall Thursday to say no. They want the Landmarks Commission to block the demolition of the Columbia Building on Prospect Avenue, a designated city landmark built in 1908.

It’s the biggest historic-preservation battle in town since the fight over the Ameritrust Tower four years ago. Preservation Ohio, the Historic Gateway Neighborhood organization, and the Cleveland Coalition, an activist group of young professionals, want to save the Columbia, which used to house Myers University and has been vacant for years.

But Gilbert’s Rock Ohio Caesars says it needs new, modern parking connected to the Higbee Building casino. And Gilbert has Mayor Jackson’s administration on its side.

A clash like this probably became inevitable as soon as Mayor Jackson nudged Gilbert to start his Cleveland casino in the Higbee Building. The mayor is a guy who values his commitments to others. So now that Gilbert’s doing what Jackson asked, Jackson won’t say no to the parking plan Gilbert says he needs. That’s why Jackson’s chief of staff, Ken Silliman, came to May’s Landmarks Commission meeting and argued for demolishing the Columbia (upsetting this writer for Rust Wire).

The activists have a point when they say a mega-sized valet parking facility at one of Cleveland’s main intersections, with several lanes of in-and-out traffic, doesn’t honor Gilbert’s commitment to fit the casino into downtown’s urban fabric. The plan will surely make Prospect Avenue near East Fourth Street unfriendly to pedestrians.

But the casino operators are trying to attract customers like this letter writer who expect easy access to the slots. So when the preservationists say the casino should use older parking, like the May Co. structure across Prospect, Gilbert’s people wave it off. They want the ultra-convenient, ultra-modern parking you see at most every casino, from Las Vegas to Detroit and Windsor.

Cleveland wouldn’t be confronting this tradeoff between its history and its future if not for the casino’s move to the Higbee Building. That’s the bigger story here. You might remember that when we voted on Issue 3 in 2009, Gilbert was saying he intended to build our little Vegas along Huron Road, kind of hanging off of Tower City. You might also remember that, at first, people called Higbee’s a “temporary” casino site.

There’s nothing temporary about the Higbee casino anymore. Gilbert calls it “Phase I” and is poised to spend $350 million on it. “Phase II,” the Huron Road casino project, has been put off until 2015 at the earliest. Cleveland Magazine columnist Mike Roberts has predicted that Phase II will probably never be built.

Jackson is committed to making the Higbee casino site work, so the pressure on the Landmarks Commission is getting stronger. Last night, city council voted to sell a parking garage near Quicken Loans Arena to Rock Ohio Caesars — which plans to link it to the valet parking operation on the Columbia Building site. Two Jackson Administration officials, sure votes to tear the building down, sit on the 11-member Landmarks Commission. The other nine members are about to feel the pressure to OK the wrecking ball.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Huron Hospital to close; Cleveland, East Cleveland may sue

The Cleveland Clinic will close Huron Hospital in East Cleveland within three months -- setting up a confrontation between Cleveland's mayor and its largest employer.

Frank Jackson is mad. It sounds like he's going to sue. Cleveland's EMS takes 3,000 patients a year to Huron's emergency room. The mayor feels misled, and despite his normally placid personality, his anger when he decides he no longer trusts someone can be ferocious. (Just ask Jane Campbell.)

From his press release:

We have been engaged in what we believed to have been good faith negotiations regarding the ramifications of the closing of a level two trauma center at Huron Hospital. At no time did the Cleveland Clinic disclose their intent to close the entire hospital. In fact, when asked directly about the future of Huron Hospital, Clinic Officials stated that there was no intention to close the emergency room, let alone the entire facility. ...

The Cleveland Clinic has left the City with little choice but to resume legal action in an effort to protect the public health and safety interest of our community.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton may well join a lawsuit. Norton, 39, a politically skilled mayor in his first term, is facing a defining moment in his career: East Cleveland isn't just losing a hospital, but also its top employer. (To read my profile of Norton, click here.)

Hospital closings can become major controversies in Cleveland. Think back on the huge uproar over St. Michael and Deaconess hospitals in 2000, one of the key ingredients in Dennis Kucinich's populist legend.

But the savvy Clinic leadership must know this. I expect they know what they're getting into and have decided that now's the time to face up to it, even at the risk of alienating the city's political leadership. From the Clinic's press release:

Many factors negatively impacted this once-thriving hospital, including a steady decline in patient use, a rapidly shrinking population, costly maintenance of the hospital’s aging facilities, and substantial fixed costs that were much higher than the hospital could maintain.
The Clinic will replace Huron Hospital with the Huron Community Health Center, now under construction. Of course, the Clinic didn't put it that way last year when it broke ground on the $25 million health center, though some quotes from Clinic officials then sure read differently now.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Kucinich convinces House to vote on Libya

Dennis Kucinich might be a gadfly, an "outlier," a radical solo act in Congress, but you can't say he's ignored. Not after today, when the House is finally, belatedly, debating the war in Libya.

Right now, the House is debating Kucinich's bill that would force President Obama to end U.S. participation in the NATO air strikes in Libya in 15 days. It's also debating House Speaker John Boehner's hastily written alternative, which calls on Obama to justify the operation to Congress and prohibits introducing American ground troops. Votes are set on both bills today.

It's a major shift from a few weeks ago, when Congress looked ready to give up on the War Powers Act with barely a whimper. The controversial 1973 law says presidents have to stop military actions after 60 days if they don't get approval from Congress. No president has ignored the War Powers Act like Obama has with Libya. The 60 days came and went last month, with hardly anyone in Congress raising a fuss.

But Kucinich pushed ahead with his bill, which started attracting a surprising amount of support from Republicans ready to stand up for Congress' power to declare war. Take a look at this Washington Post story on the Libya bills, which calls Kucinich "one of Congress' perennial outliers," but says his bill attracted "much broader support than expected."

Boehner almost found himself outflanked. He had to pull Kucinich's bill off the House floor Wednesday out of fear it might pass. "Boehner argued that it would be politically dangerous to essentially turn over the floor to Kucinich," the Capitol newspaper Roll Call reported yesterday.

Kucinich responded with a letter yesterday arguing that his bill is the real way to defend the War Powers Act and Congress' war-making authority.

This may not actually affect the war much. That Washington Post story also says Obama shows no intention of changing his approach with Congress on Libya. But Kucinich at least helped Congress stiffen its spine and assert itself about presidents making war. He made himself a force in the Libya debate -- or rather, he forced Congress to even have a debate about the war.

Update, 2:05 p.m.: Kucinich's bill was voted down, 265-148. Boehner's bill passed, 268-145. Interestingly, more Republicans than Democrats supported Kucinich's bill. 3:05 p.m.: Here's the Post story on the two votes.