Wednesday, March 19, 2014

East Clevelanders don't want to merge with Cleveland

"Cleveland takes small steps toward merger with neighboring East Cleveland," reads a headline today.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and council president Kevin J. Kelley have asked Cleveland State's urban school for info on mergers. Councilman Jeff Johnson told reporter Leila Atassi Monday night what he's also told me: he thinks the big city should annex its troubled neighbor, for the sake of both towns.

There's just one problem.  East Clevelanders don't want to be annexed.

While reporting in East Cleveland for my new commentary, "A City's Limits," I discovered public opinion there is strongly against a merger. The idea got booed down at a public forum in December. The long-suffering town doesn't want to give up its independence, its City Hall and cops, its mayor and council. Only one out of the town's 12 elected officials is pushing for a merger.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton is against merging with Cleveland. Norton is evasive about this with reporters, and Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin is slamming him for not giving him a straight answer. Larkin doesn't know that when Norton was sworn in for a second term as mayor Jan. 2, he came out against a merger.

What's going on? Norton got burned by George Forbes, who claims Norton supports merging. But Forbes told me his conversation with Norton happened off the record, during Norton's reelection endorsement interview with the Call and Post. (Forbes is general counsel at the Call and Post and has a strong say in its editorials.) Forbes, trying to play journalist and power broker at the same time, botched both roles. He told the whole town about the "off the record" conversation with Norton -- or at least, his version of it.

East Clevelanders, who've been abandoned after waves of white flight and black flight, are skeptical that anyone else really has their interests in mind. Any move that comes off like a hostile takeover will backfire. Merger supporters like Forbes and even Larkin are in danger of coming off like Vladimir Putin coveting Crimea.

Johnson's metaphor of a marriage sounds a better note. But it'll be a long, difficult courtship.

For more on the fraught politics of a merger, check out my commentary, "A City's Limits." Written for the April issue of Cleveland Magazine, it's online now.

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