Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Mayor’s next challenges: Between the lines at the State of the City

Mayor Frank Jackson’s State of the City talk today felt very friendly, a polite discourse replacing a long checklist speech. But if you listened carefully -- to the questions Jackson answered and the questions he didn’t -- you could hear hints of several big challenges the mayor has to tackle this year and beyond:

Vacant homes. “Fifteen thousand abandoned houses in Cleveland. The city is tearing down 2,000 a year,” TV anchor Leon Bibb said. “Can you increase that rate?”

Great question, one of Bibb’s most pointed of the day. And more important than maybe he knew. City Hall actually tore down only 728 vacant homes last year, down from a peak of 1,708 in 2009. Homeowners and the county land bank demolish the rest.

“We cannot afford to address all of what we need to address,” Jackson replied. “In six years, we’ve spent over $50 million, and we still have this problem.”

He’s right -- the problem is too big for the city to tackle alone. That’s why local congresspeople are trying to pass a bill to use federal money to demolish homes in Cleveland and other foreclosure-torn cities. But Jackson didn’t mention their effort.

Instead, he nodded toward councilman Jeff Johnson’s argument for demolishing fewer homes and preserving more -- without endorsing it. In the end, he said, “I believe Cleveland will be in a much better position to take that abandoned property that now has become vacant land and develop some redevelopment of Cleveland’s neighborhoods.” OK, but to go from abandoned home to vacant land, you need to tear stuff down!

The waterfront. Bibb asked what the city’s doing to better develop the riverfront and lakeshore. Jackson touted the Flats East Bank project, then said his waterfront task force is drafting a request for qualifications from developers interested in building along North Coast Harbor. The city’s Twitter feed sang backup –

Spring? This is taking a while. In a December interview, the mayor told me he expected the task force to deliver him a draft by January.

Jackson’s playing catch-up here – he lost four years of opportunity at the waterfront on a scuttled plan to move the port. While reporting my new profile of Jackson, I heard from Clevelanders who asked why he isn’t tackling the waterfront project with some of the urgency he applied to the schools.

“Developers actually see this as an opportunity,” Jackson told Bibb, “and I believe developers will come forward.” Let’s hope so.

The port. “The port authority levy went down,” Bibb noted. “What happens now with the port?” Good question. But then Bibb stepped on it by bringing up the waterfront plan again. Jackson responded to the second question but dodged the first.

The port’s future is a fair question to ask Jackson, who appoints six of the port board’s nine members. The November levy request would’ve addressed a big wish list on the lakefront and waterfront, including a pedestrian bridge from downtown to North Coast Harbor and a plan to shore up the eroding Irishtown Bend. Jackson and Ed FitzGerald’s administrations teamed up to write the wish list, but neither campaigned for the levy beyond putting their names on mass mailings.

Now it looks like the port will return to voters this year with a modest request for a renewal levy, not an increase. Which of those projects on the wish list will it still take on? And how will they be paid for?

The police shooting. Bibb politely asked Jackson for his thoughts on the November police chase and shooting, and Jackson again said he won’t make judgments until the city’s investigation is complete. He repeated his “inside the box, outside the box” metaphor, about whether officers followed the city’s policies and procedures.

“If people are within the box, and they’ve conducted themselves appropriately, they don’t have anything to worry about. If they have not, they do have something to worry about,” Jackson said. “It depends on how far outside and how severe [their] actions were.” Fair enough. But the attorney general says 60 police officers went “outside the box” to join a high-speed chase without permission. Will the mayor punish them all?

The schools. Bibb asked the mayor how to get more parental involvement in the schools. This is a polite way of bringing up the most cynical, sweeping critique of the mayor’s school reforms, the argument that no reforms will work if parents don’t parent.

Encouraging more involvement is part of the plan, Jackson said. But he also argued that more parents will get involved if they see the schools get better. “People have to believe things are relevant to them,” he said. “As we become more successful, I believe that will lead to greater participation.” He challenged parents and others to insist on better schools and a broader effort by business to help them improve. “The community should hold the public and private sector to a much higher level of expectation than they do now.”

Later, a retired teacher held Jackson accountable, asking him how the district will attract talented teachers if they may face classes with more than 40 or 50 students. Jackson partially dodged this one. “You mentioned 50-something kids in one class,” he replied. “I could probably tell you about another with less than 20.”

But Cleveland does have outrageous class sizes. Grades 4 through 12 average 40 to 41 students per class, schools CEO Eric Gordon told me this fall. (Grades K through 3 are OK, at 20 to 23.) Getting class sizes under control was a major argument for passing the school levy. Will Jackson and Gordon get it done?

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