|Photos by Anthony Price|
That became obvious really fast last night at a Civic Commons forum in East Cleveland about the idea of the town merging with Cleveland.
About 60 people came to the event at the East Cleveland Public Library, including East Clevelanders, Clevelanders, and people from suburbs from Euclid to Pepper Pike. Despite the serious financial problems that beset the town of 17,000, no one spoke in favor of a merger, and more than a dozen East Cleveland residents spoke out against it.
Civic Commons moderator Andrew Samtoy asked people to list negatives about a merger, and residents responded with such force that Samtoy never dared to ask for positives.
East Clevelanders said they’d lose their own mayor and council, City Hall and police, autonomy, political power, home demolition program, and direct grants from the federal government. Many questioned whether Cleveland’s poor neighborhoods are any better off than East Cleveland.
“I see Cleveland has a lot of big developments,” said M. LaVora Perry of the East Cleveland Narrator, but “those don’t trickle back to the core community. Certain neighborhoods seem to be thriving,” she added, but in others, “I don’t see anything being done.”
Several East Clevelanders said, to applause, that the Nov. 2012 Cleveland police chase and fatal shooting, which ended in East Cleveland, made them not want to join Cleveland. The East Cleveland police, one man said, have a good relationship with the community and are more likely to defuse a crisis without force.
Many in the room asked why the forum was held at all. Almost all of the merger talk of the last several months is coming from Cleveland leaders and commentators. Public opinion among East Clevelanders is strongly against a merger. So the Civic Commons’ attempt to get them to talk about merging backfired, setting off fears of a condescending and hostile takeover.
“They’re trying to build a narrative to convince East Cleveland residents to support the idea,” said Michael Smedley, chief of staff for East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton. “They want to have a series of community forums to get you beyond your fears.”
More likely, the Civic Commons simply had no idea what it was getting into.
The event was a lesson in how not to introduce oneself to a community. The Civic Commons had no East Clevelanders scheduled to speak when it announced its event. It held the forum on the same night as East Cleveland school board meeting and city council committee meetings. It promoted the event heavily on Twitter, Facebook and public radio, but those outlets don’t reach a lot of East Clevelanders, who still promote civic events with flyers and announcements at other town meetings. Despite a weeklong social-media barrage, many East Clevelanders expressed surprise that the forum was so lightly promoted. By the event’s end, Civic Commons director Mike Shafarenko was promising they’d do better next time.
Exchanges between East Clevelanders and Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed got testy. Reed introduced himself with a joke — “I’m a little late, because [when] we do take over, we’re going to get rid of those red light cameras” — that angered many in the takeover-wary crowd. Reed sharply challenged East Cleveland councilman Nathaniel Martin’s claim that East Cleveland’s mayor is more accessible than Cleveland’s.
The event became a lesson in East Cleveland’s distrust of outsiders. Some residents talked angrily about the flight of businesses and capital from their city, including the Cleveland Clinic’s 2011 closing of Huron Hospital. Some cast the merger idea as a land grab by University Circle interests.
Finally, Cleveland councilman Mike Polensek salved the tensions with a mix of diplomacy and expressions of solidarity. “We came here as guests,” he said. “We’re not trying to take over.”
Most Cleveland city councilpeople are not in favor of annexing East Cleveland, Polensek said. “We’re here as neighbors, to assist,” he said. Cleveland has already taken over East Cleveland’s water department, he said, and he raised the possibility of more shared services and mutual aid agreements.
But Polensek warned three times, in a polite and neighborly way, that East Cleveland needs to deal with its serious fiscal problems if it wants to stay independent.
“The elite cannot push any agenda if your city is solvent,” he said. “If you get your act together, and have a balanced budget, you can make the city what you want it to be.”
Hanging over the forum, but never quite spoken, was the awful math of abandonment. East Cleveland is about to borrow almost $7 million to pay off its many debts and deficits. It’ll borrow against future local government funding from the state, which likely means even more layoffs and service cuts to come. The city’s tax base has shrunk dramatically in the last few years, shrinking its budget from $17 million in 2010 to about $11.5 million this year.
The price of independence is rising. Will a time come when even proud and independent East Clevelanders are no longer willing to pay it?
As the meeting wound down and the crowd thinned, Smedley, the mayor’s chief of staff, who had earlier declared, “there is no benefit at all to a merger,” acknowledged that it could be the fallback plan if the city can’t claw its way out of fiscal crisis.
First, Smedley said, East Cleveland needs to see if neighbors such as Cleveland and Cleveland Heights can help “give us a real shot at saving this community.”
“What we’re trying to do is to position ourselves to give us the best shot at it, and if we fail, we know that we tried our best,” Smedley said.
“And then, if merger is where we need to be at that point, I guarantee you, the government… as well as the residents, who’ve been pouring their hearts and souls into trying to save this community, will be ready to sit at the table.”