Friday, January 23, 2015

Farewell

Today is my last day at Cleveland Magazine. I'm moving on to a new job, as a senior writer at Boston Magazine.

It's been a privilege to write about Cleveland and its politics for so long. I love Cleveland and will miss it.  But after 12 1/2 years in my job, it's time for me to try something new.

I'll also miss competing and sharing knowledge with the many talented journalists who cover Cleveland's politics, courts and big civic debates.

Any regular readers of my blog who are looking for sources for Cleveland political news could follow Nick Castele at WCPN, Tom Beres at WKYC, M.L. Schultze at WKSU and Sam Allard at Scene. It's also worth following WCPN producer Lawrence Caswell, one of the most interesting Facebookers & tweeters in Cleveland.

Among Plain Dealer people, I want to tip my hat to some of the reporters I came up in Cleveland journalism with, who are doing strong work on politics and big issues today: Rachel Dissell, Mark NaymikHenry GomezLeila Atassi, and Bob Smith.  It's a great news town, and they're some of the best covering it.

Cleveland Magazine has been a fantastic place for me to grow as a writer, reporter, storyteller, and editor.  Of the many people I work with here who've supported my writing, I owe the most to Steve Gleydura, my editor for my entire 12 1/2 years here.  His deep instincts for narrative storytelling played a huge part in helping me become the writer I am today. I'm grateful for the trust he placed in me.

I'm also grateful to you, the reader, for following my work, spreading it on social media, and caring about the issues I've covered.

If you're looking for me after today, you can read my work at ericktrickey.com and follow me on Twitter at @ErickTrickey.

After 36 years, will Kucinich’s City Hall portrait debut in 2015?


This could be the year that Cleveland corrects a historic snub. Thirty-six years after he left the office, Dennis Kucinich is the only modern Cleveland mayor who doesn’t have a portrait hanging at City Hall.

Now, an official portrait of him is finally finished, and Kucinich says he's pleased.

“I’m very happy to learn about its completion,” Kucinich tells me. “I appreciate all people who made the effort to bring it about. I look forward to seeing it. If it’s posted at City Hall, I will be very glad to attend an unveiling.”

Artist Matthew Hunt completed his portrait of Kucinich as mayor last year (see my earlier story here). Kucinich says he doesn’t want to judge the portrait based on the photograph on my blog.

“I can’t comment about portrait unless I see it,” Kucinich says. “I don’t think it’d be fair to assess its value.” He says he doesn’t know if it’s up to him to approve or disapprove.

That’s significant, because some supporters are pausing to be sure Kucinich really wants the honor.

When a Cleveland mayor leaves office, the business community usually pays for a formal portrait to hang at City Hall. But the city fathers were in no mood to honor Kucinich, the fiery young populist, when his two tumultuous years as mayor ended in 1979.

So Kucinich is missing from the mayor’s Red Room -- where, during press conferences, legendary former mayor Tom Johnson looks over Mayor Frank Jackson’s shoulder. Recent mayors — Mike White, Jane Campbell, George Voinovich — gaze down from other walls.

In 2002, after Kucinich revived his career and was elected to Congress, supporters set out to right the wrong. City councilman Joe Cimperman and John Ryan, then president of the local AFL-CIO, got then-mayor Campbell to agree to accept a portrait.

Cimperman, Ryan and others held a pierogi and kielbasa fundraiser in Tremont with tickets at $20 a person. Kucinich attended; so did Campbell. (Here’s my coverage of the event.) Hunt won a competition to paint the portrait in 2003.

Then the project stalled. First, it took Kucinich three years to meet with Hunt. Finally, in 2006, Hunt spent a morning observing Kucinich in his Lakewood office and ten minutes photographing him. Then the portrait took Hunt eight years to finish, due to health problems, business setbacks and a flooded house.

Now, the portrait waits in Hunt’s Akron home. The artist is unsure whose job it is to accept the portrait and pay him.

Ryan, now an aide to U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, says he’ll get it done. Cleveland Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit he founded, is holding the money in an account just for the portrait, and will pay the artist, Ryan says.

“My guess is, what they have to do is see if there’s a way to get the former congressman and mayor to participate, even if they have to hold it off for a couple months,” Ryan says.

“If he just refuses, well, we’re going to put this darn thing up,” Ryan adds. “I think it should be some kind of event. Mayor Kucinich’s term of office was not just about him, but about the whole town.”

Officially, City Hall is ready to take in Kucinich's likeness. “We would welcome the opportunity to place his portrait here in City Hall,” a spokesperson for mayor Jackson told me.

But Cimperman says Jackson and Harriet Applegate, Ryan’s successor at the AFL-CIO, want to make sure that Kucinich is OK with the portrait going up.

Though no one says so, Kucinich’s Cleveland friends seem to wonder if he is ambivalent about the honor. Ryan says Kucinich accepted the portrait effort “reluctantly” in 2002, and that he “disappointed” some supporters by taking years to meet with the artist. Perhaps being enshrined in an establishment institution like City Hall feels odd to Kucinich, the proud maverick.

The worst-case scenario, Cimperman says, is that the portrait will end up displayed somewhere other than City Hall. He hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“I’m feeling the need to get the portrait closer to the city, closer to the Red Room, where it deserves to be,” Cimperman says. (Though Cimperman challenged Kucinich in the 2008 Democratic primary for Congress, the two have reconciled since, most publicly at a 2011 benefit for Cleveland Public Theater.)

“Like or dislike, support or not support, history is history,” Cimperman says. “This was a person who served as mayor during a fundamental time in the history of Cleveland. The absence of his portrait is conspicuous.

“I think if people saw it, they would recognize it for being a great piece of art and a missing piece in that portion of our history.”

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Will we ever get answers on the Ameritrust Tower debacle?

Ten years ago today, Jimmy Dimora allegedly held one of his now-infamous power meetings in Independence, at the Holiday Inn on Rockside Road. The topic of the day was the Ameritrust Tower.

Dimora and his fellow Cuyahoga County commissioners were searching for a new county headquarters site. Two months earlier, in November 2004, the Staubach Co., the county’s real estate consultant, had delivered a report that scored the Ameritrust complex fourth among competing developers’ proposals.

But on Jan. 21, 2005 -- according to the lawsuit Ed FitzGerald’s administration filed in June -- Dimora met with someone from Staubach and the company’s attorney, Dimora crony Anthony Calabrese III.

Four days later, Staubach delivered its recommendation that the county should relocate to the Ameritrust complex, owned by the late developer Dick Jacobs -- even though it still ranked lower than other sites in Staubach's scoring.

Later in 2005, Dimora and his fellow county commissioners dumped the plan to lease the Ameritrust complex and bought it for $21.7 million. The county eventually lost about $28 million on its investment in the Ameritrust site. The costs included a $2.6 million payment to Staubach to get out of its contract.

Today, Cuyahoga County’s new government has a lawsuit pending against the firm and several other defendants. The suit is Cleveland’s last chance to get the elusive answers to long-asked questions:

Did Dimora corrupt the decision to buy the Ameritrust Tower? Did he nudge the 2005 county headquarters search toward his benefactor, Dick Jacobs, who had seeded his 1998 campaign with a $36,000 donation?

Did the pattern revealed in the 2008 federal corruption investigation -- people paying Dimora’s cronies to influence him – also lead to the Ameritrust Tower debacle?

A decade after the alleged deed, the question is in danger of receding into history. But it’s still alive, because there’s money at stake.

FitzGerald and his law director, Majeed Makhlouf, spent years building a case against Staubach and the politically connected consultants and attorney it hired, including Vince Russo (Frank Russo’s son) and Calabrese -- both of whom were sentenced to federal prison on other corruption charges.

The former Staubach, now Jones Lang LaSalle, says Russo, Calabrese, and company performed legitimate services for them. Its lawyers -- and other defendants’ -- have filed disdainful court briefs asking judge Jose Villanueva to dismiss the case.

The firm calls the county’s complaint “patently false,” says it “fails to meet even the barest pleading requirements,” and has “no facts to support its claims.” It argues that FitzGerald filed his case too late because of the statute of limitations.

The suit faces other hurdles besides the passage of time. Staubach wasn’t quite responsible for the decision to buy the Ameritrust complex – it recommended that the county lease the site and move in. It warned that totally new construction would not be "fiscally responsible." The decision to buy it instead (to tear it down) was heavily influenced by Tim Hagan, who joined the county commission in January 2005 and felt it was important for the government to own its headquarters, not be “subservient to a landlord.”

Now that FitzGerald is gone, how hard will the county keep fighting?

FitzGerald was practically obsessed with the 2005 Ameritrust Tower transaction during his four years as county executive. He knew that the purchase of the long-vacant skyscraper was one of the reasons voters threw out the old government, which made his election possible. The former FBI agent and ambitious reformer was energized by the prospect of baring ugly truths about the tower deal. He badly wanted to prove he could govern better than the Dimora-era regime.

Now the battle falls to Armond Budish, FitzGerald’s successor. Budish has already shown hints of distancing himself from his predecessor’s legal battles. He’s announced that he’ll hire a new law director to replace Makhlouf. Within days of taking office, he released FitzGerald’s keycard records, which FitzGerald had tried to withhold from the public.

In some ways, the Ameritrust suit is a remnant of Cuyahoga County’s dirty past. FitzGerald mopped up the Ameritrust debacle by selling the complex to a developer who agreed to build and lease a new headquarters for the county on the site. (In keeping with FitzGerald’s goal to reduce the size of county government, the new building is smaller than the behemoth Dimora and Hagan envisioned and abandoned.)

Now, the modern, glassy new county HQ is open. Next door, the once-scorned Ameritrust Tower has been resurrected as The 9: a luxury hotel, club stage for burlesque dancers, and high-rise home of Johnny Manziel. The gorgeous Cleveland Trust rotunda is about to reopen as, of all things, a downtown grocery store.

Both sides are awaiting Villanueva’s ruling on the motions to dismiss the case.  If the judge issues a mixed ruling -- allowing some counts to proceed but hinting at weaknesses in the case – then I could see Budish deciding to cut the legal bills and declare it’s time to move on.

Or, Budish could adopt FitzGerald’s zeal. He, too, could benefit politically if he recovers money possibly lost to the old regime’s corruption.

There’s also a simpler reason for Budish to keep fighting.

The suit seeks to resolve important unanswered questions. Did we truly plumb the depths of Cleveland’s corruption in 2008? Or did the corruption go even higher and deeper than we know?

Ten years later, Clevelanders still deserve an answer.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Linndale’s I-71 speed trap shrinks; old cases feed tiny town’s revenue


The Linndale police department's infamous reign as the toll-taking trolls under the bridge is fading into Cleveland history.

The tiny village with the legendary speed trap, familiar to I-71 drivers since the 1960s, has eased up on freeway enforcement.

“The focus is on protection of the village,” says police chief Tim Franczak.

Since the village's Mayor's Court was shuttered two years ago, Linndale police have not abandoned the microvillage’s 422 yards of freeway. They ticketed 783 drivers for speeding in 2014, the vast majority on I-71, according to Parma Municipal Court records.

But those 783 tickets — about 15 a week — are a big drop from 2013, when Linndale police cited 2,050 people for speeding in roughly the last 10 months of the year.

“I don’t see a need to maintain a high level of patrol during the day [on I-71],” says Franczak, who took the chief job in summer 2014. Other law enforcement agencies also patrol the freeway, he notes. “Our officers may focus more on evening hours: traffic enforcement, drug interdiction, things of that nature.”

Linndale, which boasts an official, inflated population of 179, used to make $800,000 a year off court fines — 80 percent of its village budget. But when the state closed Linndale’s mayor’s court in March 2013, all its cases went to Parma Municipal Court. The microvillage went through layoffs later that year.

In 2014, Linndale collected only $151,839 in disbursements from the Parma court — one-fifth its old haul.

Today, Linndale’s cash flow from the Parma court is based on a shrinking number of new traffic and criminal cases, plus two batches of old cases it forwarded to the Parma court.

In July 2013, the Parma court canceled about 800 defunct Linndale court warrants for defendants who'd failed to appear and opened new cases about the years-old traffic incidents.

“What we tried to do was send letters saying your case has been transferred,” says Chris Castro, a manager at the Parma court, “and you have a chance to get right with us.”

Linndale is also due to receive money from 1,500 other old cases, in which a convicted and sentenced defendant still owes fines. The Parma court worked through that case backlog as 2014 ended, filing the last 832 Linndale transfers in November and December.

Not all of Linndale’s practices translated well in Parma’s court. Castro says the court has reduced fines on Linndale defendants cited for “financial responsibility” — failure to provide proof of insurance. Linndale police sent 1,172 financial responsibility citations to the court in 2013 and 611 in 2014. That citation requires a court appearance.

Court officials felt Linndale police were over-citing drivers.

“It’s just a bullshit charge,” says Castro. “They wouldn’t even ask them for their card. They would just mark down that they never showed it.”

Franczak strongly denies this. “No, that wouldn’t happen,” the chief says. All financial responsibility citations come from an officer's request that a driver produce proof of insurance, he says.

Despite Linndale’s tightening budget, Franczak says he’s maintaining a police force of three full-timers and about 20 part-timers. Some are volunteer officers, part of a police reserve, he says.

With traffic fines declining, Linndale’s budget will likely continue to shrink. Property and income taxes brought in only about $85,000 in 2013, according to the state’s annual audit of the village, released in September.

The village’s traffic camera program on Memphis Avenue, which began in late 2013, will likely end in 2015. A new state law, which takes effect in March, severely restricts traffic camera programs statewide by requiring an officer to be present to issue citations. Franczak says that law won’t affect his force — which implies that Linndale’s cameras will shut down.

Still, Linndale isn’t likely to go away. State laws prevent forced mergers of even the tiniest, poorest towns.

“It is the Village’s belief,” says the state audit, “that with these austerity measures, the Village will be able to survive with 24 hour police protection and basic community services with no problem.”

Click here to read Cleveland Magazine’s 2011 story about Linndale’s inflated census figures. The story helped inspire the abolition of mayor’s courts in tiny towns.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

3rd Police District is the ‘forward operating base’ in Justice Dept. report

The Justice Department’s scolding report on the Cleveland police department has brought up lots of unanswered questions, but here is one I can answer.

The 3rd police district -- which includes downtown, University Circle, Hough, Fairfax, and Central – is the place where the commander referred to the station as a “forward operating base” in an interview with Justice investigators. A sign in the station’s vehicle bay used the phrase too.

The 3rd Police District
The comment alarmed the Justice investigators, who saw it as a sign of an us-vs.-them mentality among police.

“There’s actually an interesting story behind that sign,” 3rd District commander Patrick Stephens told me. “They totally missed the point of the sign.”

Stephens said he’d be happy to answer questions about it, but had to call the chief’s office for permission first. Permission was denied.

Steve Loomis, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolman’s Association, was a 3rd District detective until the end of December. Loomis says the “forward operating base” sign was up in the vehicle bay of the station at 10600 Chester Avenue for at least a year, and was taken down after the Justice Department report came out in December.

“I think the commander’s son is in the military,” Loomis says. “It’s a term of endearment. I don’t think there’s anything sinister to it.

“We’re out there doing the job every day like the military guys,” Loomis added. “That was the premise behind the sign. We have an extraordinary amount of military guys join the police department. Those are just terms they know and understand.”

The Justice Department found the “forward operating base” line disturbing. “Such metaphors have no place in a community-oriented police department,” the December report says.

“This characterization reinforces the view held by some—both inside and outside the Division—that CDP is an occupying force instead of a true partner and resource in the community it serves,” the report says. It even cites the military line as an example of its finding that the department “too often polices in a way that contributes to community distrust and a lack of respect for officers.”

Phyllis Cleveland, city councilwoman for Ward 5, which includes parts of the 3rd Police District, says she sees two ways of looking at the phrase.

“It has a connotation that's very militaristic, maybe even a hostile-type attitude, for the average non-police-officer, non-law-enforcement person,” Cleveland says.

“My other reaction is also that in almost any other industry, or sector, or type of job, you have your gallows type of humor.

“Overall, it doesn’t look good,” Cleveland added. “Taken into the context of all the other things in the report, and things that are happening, it’s not a good look.”

Is the sign a warning of a broader problem? Cleveland says she has “great respect and admiration” for Stephens, commander of the 3rd District since 2011. “He’s been very responsive as commander to me and other residents in the community.”

Cleveland says complaints about the police in her ward are usually about officers being discourteous; brutality complaints there are rare, she says.

Taking the sign down is just a start, Cleveland says.

“I think what everyone wants to do is come to some kind of understanding and find a way to reestablish or establish trust between the police and the community,” she says.

Cleveland and Loomis both say they support the Justice Department’s call for more community policing. But, “there’s no consensus around what that really means,” Cleveland says.

Loomis notes that Cleveland once had a robust community policing strategy, including mini-stations in neighborhoods, but it was dismantled in the mid-2000s when then-mayor Jane Campbell laid off about 500 police officers. Mayor Frank Jackson has reduced the force by about 300 more officers, to about 1,300, he says. So 911 calls trump foot patrols and school visits.

“The reality is, there’s not time,” Loomis says. “We’re going run to run to run to run. We’re a skeleton crew.”

Writer and activist Mansfield Frazier, who lives in the 3rd District, says the “forward operating base” comment confirms his concerns about the average policeman patrolling Hough.

“I’ve been saying for a long time that by and large, police are an army of occupation in some communities,” Frazier says. “That shows they feel the same way.”

When he’s out in his Hough Ave. vineyard, Frazier has written, black police officers often wave or call out greetings, while white officers rarely do, even when he greets them. “In the black community, they want to treat everybody like they’re thugs,” he argues. “They don’t differentiate.”

Frazier calls Stephens “a very decent guy” who quickly returns his calls, and he says some officers have gotten friendlier lately. But overall, he says, “This whole notion is, I don’t want to be invested, don’t want to get to know you, don’t want to be your friend.”