Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Feds: Russo set up fake opponent in 2006 auditor's race

If and when the feds indict Frank Russo in the county corruption investigation, how many charges will they levy against him? How many different ways of allegedly corrupting a government can one investigation uncover?

Yesterday's single, five-page charge describes a simple scheme: Russo sets up a puppet opponent to run against him in the 2006 election, then hires him. That's on top of charges that depict Russo as taking $1.2 million in cash kickbacks, selling jobs for cash, bribing J. Kevin Kelley with a raise to drop out of the 2003 Parma mayor's race, nudging contracts toward buddies who paid for him to party in Vegas, and shopping for free granite for his house in exchange for lowering a businessman's property valuations.

I'll let the U.S. Attorney's filing tell the rigged-election story directly, except I'm substituting Russo for the code name PO2. Nothing except the feds' rule of not naming uncharged people keeps anyone from identifying Russo at this point: it's a matter of record that this latest defendant, Joseph Gallucci, ran against Russo as the 2006 Republican candidate for Cuyahoga County auditor and dropped out before the general election.

Gallucci approached Kelley about obtaining a job with the County in order to secure health insurance benefits. Kelley, Gallucci and others discussed Gallucci giving [Russo] cash or another thing of value in exchange for Gallucci receiving a County job.

In or around the second half of 2005, [Russo], a County official, and Kelley discussed [Russo]'s re-election campaign for the November 2006 election cycle. [Russo] and Kelley discussed [Russo]'s desire to identify and support a candidate from the opposing political party who would not run an aggressive campaign against [Russo]. ... Kelley suggested to Gallucci that instead of giving [Russo] cash of the thing of value previously discussed, Gallucci, a member of the opposing political party, could run against [Russo] in the County election.

Gallucci agreed to run an ineffective campaign against [Russo], understanding that in return, Gallucci would receive a job in the Auditor's Office after the November 2006 election at a salary of approximately $50,000 a year. As agreed, Gallucci did run, but didn not campaign actively and spent approximately only a few hundred dollars on the campaign...

In or around May 2006, Gallucci complained that he needed to withdraw from the political race and find employment. [Russo] and others encouraged Gallucci to stay in the race long enough to preclude the opposing political party from entering a replacement candidate. [Russo] offered to subsidize income until Gallucci began employment with the County.

In or about June 2006, Kelley, at [Russo]'s request, introduced Gallucci to BE15 and BE16 [relatives who work for a managed care organization in Cleveland]. BE15 and BE16, through Business 22, paid Gallucci $2,000 per month for five months, beginning on or about July 7, 2006. While the payments were purportedly for consulting, Gallucci performed no work for Business 22.

[Russo] asked Gallucci to withdraw from the race after the filing deadline had passed for the opposing political party to substitute another candidate for Gallucci. On or about October 2, 2006, Gallucci withdrew from the race. On or about November 29, 2006, [Russo] caused Gallucci to be hired in the Auditor's Office at a salary of approximately $67,849.86 per year in return for Gallucci withdrawing from the race after the deadline had passed for the opposing political party to substitute another candidate for Gallucci.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Strickland, Senate Republicans reach budget deal

Gov. Ted Strickland just announced a budget deal that protects schools, libraries and social services from cuts to fill an $851 million funding gap. Sounds like the legislature gets to go home for the holidays after all. Strickland had threatened to call them back into session on Christmas Day if necessary to get a deal on the 2010 budget.

Instead, as state Democrats hoped, a planned cut in the income tax will be delayed.

The few Senate Republicans who were willing to hold off on the tax cut wanted, in exchange, to reform the state's century-old construction laws. Democrats were loath to do that. In a compromise, a pilot project to test construction reforms will allow three public universities to build projects under new rules.

The $851 million budget hole has needed filling since the state Supreme Court struck down the governor's plan for slot machines. This week, Senate Republicans pushed Strickland to make the cuts in the non-education parts of the state budget. Strickland refused, saying those other parts of the budget, such as social services, had already been slashed this summer. He claimed he'd have no choice but to cut education if the tax cut wasn't suspended.

For more background, here's the Columbus Dispatch's story from overnight, which anticipated the deal.

Here's the press release:
Strickland Statement on Bipartisan
Education Budget Compromise

Columbus, OH – Ohio Governor Ted Strickland today issued the following statement after achieving a bipartisan agreement on H.B. 318 with House Speaker Armond Budish, Senate President Bill Harris and Senate Minority Leader Capri Cafaro:

“Across the country, some states have chosen to slash education budgets in an attempt to make it through the recession. Here in Ohio, investing in education is the cornerstone of our plan to rebuild Ohio’s economy from the ground up. We have again overcome political differences to achieve a bipartisan agreement to balance the budget and protect our schools from devastating cuts.

“This compromise will avoid thousands of teacher layoffs, school building closures and the elimination of athletic programs in our schools. And we can now refocus our efforts on competing for federal Race to the Top resources that, along with our education reform plan, will improve our students’ ability to compete with students anywhere in the world.

“Nearly three months ago, a state Supreme Court decision opened an $851 million hole in education funding. We were faced with three options to fill the budget hole. One option was to raise taxes. A second option was to cut $851 million budgeted for Ohio schools. A third option was to freeze state income tax rates at the 2008 level, postponing the final 4.2 percent reduction while leaving in place the rate cuts made to date.

“I deeply appreciate the business and education communities, as well as libraries and human service organizations, for their vocal support of the common sense solution to temporarily postpone the last phase of income tax reductions. Ohio families and businesses will continue to receive a $1.8 billion tax cut this fiscal year because of the broad-based tax reforms we shepherded through the most difficult economic environment in 80 years.

“This compromise also advances several important initiatives. After we brought construction reform to the forefront, it will be undertaken in a demonstration capacity at three University System of Ohio institutions. We are also meeting our commitment to ensure needed mental health services continue to support Ohio’s most vulnerable citizens.

“With bipartisan cooperation, we are making steady progress toward a new, more competitive Ohio.”

Framework of the Bipartisan Compromise

Temporary Postponement of Tax Rate Reduction to Protect Ohio Schools
The legislature will postpone the last part of the scheduled income tax reduction by freezing income tax rates so they remain exactly the same as last year. Ohio taxpayers will continue to pay a tax rate 16.8 percent less than in 2004. Ohio’s schools will receive approximately $844 million in resources for the biennium.

Construction Reform Demonstration Projects
The Chancellor of the Board of Regents will establish criteria to determine three capital projects at University System of Ohio institutions to utilize alternative construction management methods, to serve as a demonstration of construction reform.

All-Day Kindergarten
All-day kindergarten remains a requirement for every Ohio school district beginning in the 2010-11 school year. To support districts that may have fiscal or other challenges to successfully implement all-day kindergarten next year, a new requirement in law will permit districts to request and receive a waiver, but only if a resolution from the local School Board of the district provides a justification for a delay.

Evidence suggests all-day kindergarten benefits students, especially the most vulnerable and at-risk. In a recent Ohio Department of Education survey of Ohio’s school districts, only 150 respondents indicated that they would request a waiver to delay implementing all-day kindergarten.

Potential Additional Resources for Non-public, Chartered Schools
Non-public, chartered schools may benefit, up to FY 2009 spending levels, from lapses in the state budget. While the lapses may come from anywhere in the budget, the transfers to non-public schools cannot total more than the amounts lapsed in the GRF line items of the Ohio Department of Education’s budget.

Corrections from HB 1:

Mental Health Services Fix
The compromise will correct a legislative drafting error from HB 1, ensuring that $14.7 million in mental health funds are directed to the correct fund for community mental health services.

The Ohio State Employment Relations Board
In HB 1, the Ohio State Employment Relations Board (SERB) and the Personnel Board of Review (PBR) merged backroom offices without adequate funds to successfully complete the merger. The compromise will provide $2 million to SERB from the state administrative fund at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Lakewood mayor FitzGerald announces run for county executive

Lakewood's mayor, Ed FitzGerald, has announced he's running to be the first Cuyahoga County executive.

FitzGerald is the first Democrat to officially declare he's in the race, though more are sure to come. On the Republican side, state Rep. Matt Dolan (son of the Indians owner) told Lake County's News-Herald he intends to run a mere four days after Issue 6 passed.

FitzGerald has been mayor of Cleveland's second-largest suburb for two years and a Lakewood councilman before that. He's also a former FBI agent, a bit of biography that should help him run as a reform candidate eager to clean house in the wake of the Dimora-Russo investigation. In a mailing to county Democrats announcing his candidacy, he promises to "root out the corruption once and for all." He also talks up economic development, the top goal in the new county charter.

FitzGerald opposed Issue 6, which created the future government he wants to lead. He stumped for the rival Issue 5 on the debate circuit this fall. That means he'll have stiff competition for the role of reformer-candidate. Some Issue 6 supporters want to use the 5 vs. 6 debate as a litmus test for the county executive job and support only a candidate from their camp.

You can read more on FitzGerald's campaign website and on Ohio Daily Blog, where (as far as I can tell) Anthony Fossaceca broke the news of FitzGerald's campaign announcement yesterday.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A stubborn question: Will county reform benefit minorities?

You may think this debate is over. Or that it's old news, the complaints of the defeated.

But the question of whether Cuyahoga County's new charter will benefit black residents is not going away. That's clear from the debate about the Call & Post's angry attacks on Nina Turner, and from the public forum this month about opportunities for young black leaders in the new system, which devolved into complaints about Issue 6 instead.

Yes, most political conversation in town has moved on since Issue 6's two-to-one victory Nov. 3. We're turning to new, forward-looking questions, like what kind of leader we want as the first county executive. But the debate about black participation in the new government is going to come back in the September and November 2010 elections and when the new leaders are seated in 2011.

It also came up earlier this month on WCPN's The Sound of Ideas, when several guests were talking about the Call & Post attack on Turner, and former Plain Dealer columnist Afi-Odelia Scruggs called in. She claimed host Dan Moulthrop and the guests were reacting to spot news, not the deeper issue. On the air, Scruggs challenged several specific media outlets and reporters -- including me -- to do stories on why there was such "deep antipathy" in the black community toward Issue 6.

My first reaction was to challenge Scruggs' entire premise. Black voters don't dislike Issue 6.

Voting returns in black communities -- Cleveland's black-majority wards, mostly black cities such as East Cleveland and Warrensville Heights -- almost all show narrow majorities for the new county charter.

Interestingly, those communities also gave narrow majorities to Issue 5, the competing reform measure that lost. So black voters appear to have split evenly between 6 and 5, while a few cast a double-yes vote. Though the few precincts anywhere in the county that went against 6 were in black neighborhoods, the voting returns prove there's no single "black" position on reform and suggest that the new government has majority support in the black community.

But if I rewrite Scruggs' question to ask why there was such deep opposition to the new charter among established black political leaders, then we're getting somewhere. Sen. Turner was almost the only black elected official to support 6. (Earl Williams, a Shaker Heights councilman, is the only other one I know of.) Cleveland's activist black ministers, a powerful political force, opposed 6 as well. Dismissing the opponents as out of touch is easy, but doesn't really answer the question.

On WCPN, Scruggs suggested black antipathy toward 6 had to do with the "struggle for political power African-Americans have gone through," and the fear that African-Americans' "power base is so tenuous that county restructuring would destroy the power [we've] fought for."

However, not all of the black leaders who opposed 6 did so for race-conscious reasons. For instance, county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, who led the argument against 6, offered race-neutral arguments that white and black officials on the pro-5 side embraced.

Gary Norton, East Cleveland's mayor-elect, opposed 6 for reasons similar to Jones': concern that the charter wasn't drafted in public, fear that the county executive would be too powerful and the county council too weak.

"What I never understood about the opposition to Issue 6 was why folks said it would diminish African-American power," Norton said when I posed Scruggs' question to him. Cuyahoga County's old government structure has been around for 200 years, and only four black officials were ever elected under it, he pointed out. Norton says arguments about black political power came up because "folks were trying to spook people." He's not sure why.

Still, Norton tried to summarize others' arguments. "Some of the racial angst might be, African-Americans might never get that seat with tremendous power. They'd get the rubber-stamp seats." (Cuyahoga County is 29 percent black, so black county executive candidates could face an uphill battle.) Cleveland, a black-majority city, now controls many of the region's assets, Norton adds. "Perhaps there's fear of competition between the county executive and mayor."

By contrast, Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed reacted to Scruggs' question this way: "There’s nothing in Issue 6 that benefits black folks. There’s nothing there!"

Reed says he's concerned that the business community's push for the new charter, which names economic development as the new government's top priority, will mean less spending on social services. "If we take those moneys away from social services to do what they call economic development, then the social fabric and the safety net that’s already fragile now will collapse," he says. I could call that a race-neutral argument, except that the need for social services is often strongest in black neighborhoods such as Reed's ward.

Reed is also worried that the new government may not offer minorities as much opportunity as the current one.

"What the county was becoming was a minor-league system for minorities to move up [to become] political, social, and corporate leaders in this city," he says. He points to Norton and new county land bank head Dennis Roberts, who both worked under Jones, as well as deputy county administrator Lee Trotter and former procurement and diversity director Adrian Maldonado, now a construction contractor.

"That whole system just got collapsed," Reed says. The new government may not be as open to minorities, he fears, depending on who the county executive chooses for his or her cabinet. "If those individuals who make up the cabinet have no association with or are unsympathetic to minority community ... then the issues that face the minority community are going to be lost."

That leads Reed to offer a thought that's deeply unfashionable in December 2009: praise for Jones, Jimmy Dimora and Tim Hagan.

"All three were sympathetic to issues that faced the minority community," he says (talking in the past tense about the lame-duck commissioners). "All had a relationship with the minority community." Though they all lived in the suburbs, "they still looked out for the city." He fears the new county council, elected by districts, could engage in parochial and competitive thinking instead.

But Reed's praise for Dimora and Hagan cuts both ways: It turns the focus back to the county executive, who will also be elected countywide, as the commissioners were. So the candidates for the top job will all need to court the support of black voters, a quarter of the electorate.

That's why this issue isn't dead, and why Issue 6 opponents, who seem obstinate and vanquished today, will become relevant again in the new year. How will the new government benefit black residents? is a legitimate question every county executive candidate will have to confront on the campaign trail -- and a question the winner will have to address on the new government's first day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Brown helps forge Senate Democrats' health care deal

Sherrod Brown is one of five liberal Democrats who helped craft the U.S. Senate's latest health care deal, which would allow people age 55 to 64 to buy into Medicare. This New York Times analysis (registration required) says a lot about Brown's new role as negotiator.

Brown is one of the Senate liberals who fought hard to create a "public option," a government-run health care plan for the uninsured. But several moderate Democrats don't like the public option, and these days it takes 60 votes to pass anything in the Senate. So Brown became part of the "Team of 10," the five liberals and five moderates who met to try to forge a compromise all Senate Democrats can vote for.

The new deal would only create a public option as a fallback if other health care reforms fail to meet a goal of insuring a certain number of people. But the Team of 10 also propose a new idea: letting people buy into Medicare starting at age 55. That would advance the liberals' goals of insuring more people and creating more not-for-profit competition with private insurers.

"To satisfy the liberal Democrats, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio," the NYT story adds, "the agreement calls for the creation of a new menu of national insurance plans, modeled after those offered to more than eight million federal workers, including members of Congress, and their dependents."

Sounds like one of Brown's ideas caught on. He refuses to accept congressional health-care benefits, as a protest against the number of uninsured people in the country. Last week he signed onto a Republican dare, agreeing with them that if Congress creates a public option, all congresspeople should have to use it for their health-care coverage. Now the Team of 10 has jumped on the idea that congressional health care and new health care plans for the uninsured should look the same.

The deal still has to get 60 votes. Then, senators will have to negotiate with the House, which passed a different bill. But it's interesting to watch how Ohio's Democratic senator is wielding influence on the year's biggest issue.

Update, 12/15: Looks like Joe Lieberman, the stubborn independent and former Democrat, refuses to be the 60th vote for expanding Medicare. Senate liberals may be stuck with no replacement for the public option. They could still try to get Olympia Snowe, the Maine Republican, to go for the public option as a backup -- or "trigger," as the buzzword goes. But it looks like the president wants to make a deal with Lieberman instead.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Feagler this weekend: the cartoon, Medical Mart, CSU, Afghanistan

I'm a guest on this weekend's edition of Feagler & Friends.

Host Dick Feagler, Joan Mazzolini of the Plain Dealer, Harry Boomer of 19 Action News, and I talk about the Call & Post cartoon, the Medical Mart, new Cleveland State University president Ronald Berkman, and President Obama's escalation of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.

The show airs tonight at 8:30 and Sunday at 11:30 a.m.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Call & Post runs racial caricature of Sen. Turner

Retaliating against state Sen. Nina Turner for her support of county reform, the Call & Post has published a front-page cartoon caricaturing her as an Aunt Jemima -- the female equivalent of an Uncle Tom.

The black newspaper's use of the century-old racial stereotype in Wednesday's edition, next to an editorial blasting Turner for supporting Issue 6, has provoked an online protest. A Facebook group calling the cartoon racist and demanding an apology has 147 members as of tonight.

Turner, you may recall, was the most prominent black elected official to support Issue 6. Unnamed older black leaders threatened to destroy her career for doing so, she revealed in the Plain Dealer this August. And an earlier Call & Post editorial accused her of "carrying the water for white folks."

The senator responded by doubling down: She recorded a pro-Issue 6 radio ad that explicitly addressed a black audience: "The only thing our community has to fear is more of the same," she said. Issue 6 supporters rallied around Turner, praising her for her courage. Her new following grew after 6 passed: people started buzzing about her as a possible candidate for county executive. The Plain Dealer profiled Turner on Nov. 22 and asked her the inevitable question. She left the door open to running.

That story, I'm guessing, is what set off the Call & Post editors. They're furious that a black official might gain support among whites for defying other black leaders. They think opposing Issue 6 was the only proper stance for a black person to take. Their first attempt to punish Turner backfired, so they're amplifying it with an all-out attempt to destroy her career.

The paper's front-page editorial and Aunt Jemima caricature, complete with ugly-stereotype language, is the black-press equivalent of a nuclear bomb. (Just in case the insult doesn't translate, don't think pancakes, think minstrel shows and plantation stereotypes.)

The Plain Dealer posted a story on this tonight, with Mark Naymik quoting local NAACP executive director Stanley Miller saying that the cartoon disturbed him and that he plans to ask the group's board to address the matter. But George Forbes, local NAACP president and an influential figure at the Call & Post, defends the cartoon.

Peter Lawson Jones mildly criticized the cartoon, but said it's no worse than what the Plain Dealer has done to opponents of the county charter! He claims Turner is caught in a feud between the two papers. The subtext here is that 6 opponents have accused the PD of pro-6 bias in its news and opinion pages alike. In their eyes, headlines like the one on last week's profile -- "Nina Turner's future bright due to gutsy stand on Issue 6" -- must be one more provocation. They blame the PD for the buzz around Turner, so they are unlikely to come to her aid.

Older black leaders such as Forbes may well make it harder for Turner to win re-election to her state senate seat. But Cleveland's black political old guard already lost on this issue on Election Day, much as the county-wide Democratic old guard lost. The new county charter, which passed by a 2-1 margin overall, did better with black voters than many expected, winning narrow majorities in predominantly black East Cleveland and Warrensville Heights. Plenty of black people supported Issue 6 and rejected the old guard's argument that racial solidarity required a no vote.

That Facebook protest group includes a rainbow of people speaking out against the Call & Post's attack. I recognized plenty of Issue 6 supporters on the member list, but I was tipped off to it by someone who supported Issue 5, not 6. Some people are just incensed that the paper would use an old racial attack to try to enforce political conformity.

Update, 12/1: The PD runs three stories on this today: the Naymik story, an editorial, and a column by Phillip Morris, proposing that George Forbes win an "Aunt Jemima Award," for "a public figure who has consistently gone out of his or her way to mine old racist stereotypes, inject race into racially benign matters and work to ruthlessly kill off the careers of promising young African-American politicians."

Morris reports that United Pastors in Mission, the local black ministers group, will issue a statement today supporting Turner. "Any kind of racist caricature of any African American is completely uncalled for and unnecessary," says the group's leader, C.J. Matthews. "Nina Turner is not a sell-out or a turncoat. She is a strong-willed woman with her own points of view. ... We didn't support Issue 6, but we support her right not to be unfairly attacked."

Update, 12/2: WCPN tackled this issue this morning on The Sound of Ideas. Rev. Marvin McMickle, East Cleveland Mayor-Elect Gary Norton, and Barbara Danforth of the YWCA have denounced the cartoon.

"There are images and treatment we have been trying to resist," McMickle says. "What it's doing is [trying to] cut the legs off the next generation of political leadership."

But Hiram College professor Jason Johnson says the issue is not that serious, just part of black political discourse. "It's an in-house conversation," he says. "It's just shocking for other people to see it."

Danforth strongly opposed Johnson's argument. "I don't believe you have to serve up the table with disrespect to have a debate," she said.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Who Wants to be Mayor of East Cleveland? -- my profile of Gary Norton

"Who Wants to be Mayor of East Cleveland?" -- my profile of mayor-elect Gary Norton -- appears in the December issue of Cleveland Magazine and is online now.

It's the first in-depth profile of Norton, 37, a diplomat with a soothingly upbeat temperament and a protégé of county commissioner Peter Lawson Jones and the late U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones.

Norton, who takes charge of troubled East Cleveland on Jan. 1, hopes to lead his city past his predecessors' scandals and take advantage of its prime location near University Circle to attract businesses and residents. “I need people to start thinking about East Cleveland,” he says.

“This is going to be the test of his lifetime,” says fellow city councilman Nathaniel Martin. “East Cleveland is going to be his challenge. It could be his victory or his Waterloo.”

My profile tells Norton's life story, from early struggles to political influences to his September election victory over controversial incumbent Eric Brewer. It follows Norton through East Cleveland as he explains his plans to tackle his city's challenges. In a ground-breaking comment, he says he's open-minded about a once-taboo subject: the idea that Cleveland should annex East Cleveland.

“If remaining its own city is best for East Cleveland, that’s what we do,” Norton says. “If a merger is best for East Cleveland, that’s what we do.”

(If you'd like to link to my story, you can use this shortcut:

Art McKoy: 'I'm responsible' for Brewer photo scandal

Political activist Art McKoy says he distributed the infamous cross-dressing photos of East Cleveland mayor Eric Brewer this fall.

“I’m responsible for those photographs,” McKoy told me recently.

McKoy spoke to me during my reporting for my new article, "Who Wants to Be Mayor of East Cleveland?," a profile of mayor-elect Gary Norton in the December issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Brewer has tried to blame Norton for the photos getting out -- but McKoy says he, not Norton, was behind their appearance. He proudly told me he made "quite a few copies" of the Brewer photos and "showed everyone I could."

The photos, which appeared on East Cleveland's streets during the September mayoral campaign, caused an international scandal. After WKYC TV-3 broadcasted them on Sept. 23, they went viral on the Internet and became fuel for late-night talk show jokes. Brewer went on Inside Edition in October to confirm the photos were of him.

McKoy was arrested by East Cleveland police last Christmas Eve and is awaiting trial on a charge of permitting drug abuse at his former barbershop in the city. He maintains his innocence and says Brewer attacked his work in East Cleveland, from the barbershop to a street festival and memorial to crime victims.

For more, see "Photo Finished," the sidebar accompanying my Norton profile.

(If you'd like to link to my story, you can use this shortcut:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Port may not move to E. 55th after all: What happened?

The mammoth plan to move the Cleveland port to East 55th Street may not happen after all. Members of the Port Authority board said at a press conference yesterday that they're going to re-examine the plans now that port president and CEO Adam Wasserman has resigned.

Wasserman wanted to make Cleveland the Great Lakes' biggest port. Mayor Frank Jackson had started to push hard for the plan. The half-billion-dollar expansion is meant to attract container shipping, to put Cleveland in competition with East Coast ports. It would be a big, ambitious gamble, even more of an "if you build it, will they come?" risk than the Medical Mart. No other Great Lakes ports are doing big business in container shipping today.

Now, Port Authority board president Steven Williams says the port will re-examine the economic projections behind the port expansion. It'll still expand and move the port if those projections hold up. But a lot of the port's studies are actually cautious about the prospects for container shipping. So there's a chance the expansion will be out the door with Wasserman.

The port is a mess. Not only does it not have the money to move, it's struggling with its shorter-term plans to renovate the current port site near Browns Stadium. Its bond rating has dropped, hurting another part of its job: providing financing to dozens of area development projects, many of them far from the lakeshore. It doesn't even have the money for a dredging project to keep the harbor open!

Wasserman resigned two weeks ago with a severance package of more than $300,000. The decision came suddenly and without explanation. Now, we're starting to get some details.

Christopher Evans, the Plain Dealer editorial writer, offers inside scoop today about how Wasserman fell. {Update, 11/23: His column, which wasn't posted online on Saturday, is up now.} He confirms that the October resignation of maritime director Pat Coyle was the first sign of strife: Williams interviewed Coyle and found out all was not well at the port offices. Once the board started asking questions, Wasserman hired a lawyer, then resigned. Evans questions the size of Wasserman's contract buyout and wants an explanation.

To understand the history of the port controversy, check out Michael D. Roberts' piece in this week's Scene. Roberts (also a Cleveland Magazine columnist) has been opposed to the port relocation for years. He argues that port board member John Carney was the biggest force behind the expansion, and he criticizes Carney as having conflicts of interest. Carney owns several properties in the Warehouse District, which could become more valuable if the current port site near Browns Stadium is redeveloped as a new waterfront neighborhood. Carney has also expressed interest in developing the lakefront, Roberts says.

That possible conflict made the Plain Dealer yesterday, as the developer of Quay 55, at the Shoreway and East 55th Street, called on Carney to be removed from the board. The PD's editorial today takes a fuzzy middle ground on the Carney conflict question. It's skeptical about the idea that the relocation is meant to benefit Carney and other developers, since lots of people agree that it's a good idea to move the port and open up the lakefront. The editorial doesn't call for Carney's resignation, but it does say that future port board members shouldn't have potential conflicts. Seems like a very careful stance.

But the paper also helpfully tells us who the port board members are, who appointed them, and how long their terms last. Carney is one of the three members appointed by the county commissioners (the city of Cleveland appoints the other six). His term expires Jan. 28, 2011 -- the 28th day that Cuyahoga County's new charter government will be in power. If the future county executive and council, elected on a mandate for reform, get to choose who's in that seat, my guess is this will be Carney's last term on the port board.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Home improvements for favors: More charges implicate Dimora & Russo

The U.S. Attorney has filed charges against two new defendants in the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal, and they fit a familiar pattern.

The defendants are businessmen who supply and install granite, but the details of the charges also implicate Public Official 1 and Public Official 2 -- the feds' code for Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo, still not named or charged with crimes. Again, the feds seem to be building two different kinds of corruption cases against the two county officials.

This time, the feds say Dinesh Bafta, president of regional stone supplier Mont Granite, bribed PO2 (Russo) with granite slabs and a sink worth $5,800 to be installed in Russo's house. In exchange, the charge says, the auditor's office reduced the tax valuation on Mont Granite's Solon office reduced from $1.56 million to $1.23 million, and Bafna talked Russo out of a valuation increase of $250,000 on his Pepper Pike home, which restored the value to about $865,000. The charge alleges that Bafta called Russo twice personally to get the values lowered.

John Valentin, an official with Cleveland granite retailer Salva Stone Design, is accused of having his company install granite in PO1's (Dimora's) indoor and outdoor kitchens and master bathroom, then install a sink basin and countertop in Dimora's bathroom. (Total value: about $3,250.) In exchange, the feds allege, Dimora "acted in his official capacity to assist Valentin's friend with a tourist visa application."

This is peculiar -- PO1/Dimora works for Cuyahoga County, not the State Department -- though a letter from a local official might help a visa applicant as character testimony. You can easily imagine Dimora's defense: this is just good constituent service, not a steered contract!

But there's also this: on May 23, 2008, the day the FBI asked Dimora's buddy Steve Pumper to cooperate with them, and Pumper allegedly made a plan to tip Dimora off, the feds say Dimora's wife called Salva Stone for its mailing address, and Dimora "caused a personal check on his bank account to be written" to Salva Stone for $250. That's months after the first granite was allegedly installed in his house, though not long after the second round of stuff.

The pattern I described in my October issue profile of Dimora, "Life of the Party," still holds true: "The filings depict Dimora doing little favors," I wrote: "He puts in a good word for people, nudges, recommends... and takes gifts from his friends before or after." That leaves a gray area that Dimora's attorneys could use in a defense.

The feds' potential case against Russo looks far different: stark, simple bribe allegations. Earlier, we saw allegations of cash kickbacks for contracts -- and now, home-improvement gifts for fixing property values.

Prosecutors again appear to be lining up potential witnesses against Dimora and Russo. "The Government anticipates that both Bafna and Valentin will provide evidence against other unindicted participant(s) in the bribery conspiracy," an accompanying filing says. PO1 and PO2 are the most prominent unindicted figures mentioned in the charges.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Mayor Jackson questions MMPI’s motives: 'Do they really want to be here?'

Mayor Frank Jackson just put out this press release challenging Medical Mart developer MMPI, asking if it is trying to get out of its deal to build in Cleveland.

MMPI's decision to release their study of Public Auditorium's flaws to the Plain Dealer has Jackson furious.

The Medical Mart project is now at a moment of crisis. What will MMPI, the county, and City Hall do next?

Bolds are mine:
A Statement from the Office of the Mayor
Mayor Jackson Questions MMPI’s Motives: Do They Really Want To Be Here?

CLEVELAND – Since Mayor Jackson has been crystal clear on his willingness to keep Public Auditorium and explore MMPI’s new plan, MMPI’s latest actions cause him and others to question their motives. The city and taxpayers need to know if MMPI still plans to develop in Cleveland. The Mayor has been very supportive of and committed to this project. For an example, once the County selected the site, Mayor Jackson and City Council turned this deal into a letter of intent within 10 weeks. MMPI has had unlimited access to investigate the site since the spring. After many months of silence by MMPI and continuing inquiry by the City of Cleveland, on November 4, MMPI told Mayor Jackson and Council President Martin Sweeney that Public Auditorium had many problems, that it no longer fit their business plan, and that they now want to put the Medical Mart at the end of Mall C (rather than on the previous St. Clair site). Mayor Jackson responded that the City is perfectly willing to keep Public Auditorium and is ready to discuss the new plan. Two days later Mayor Jackson’s staff asked MMPI to send the highlights of the Public Auditorium building study. Instead of sending the study highlights so that the City can take appropriate action if necessary, MMPI elected to publicly trash Public Auditorium in the media even after the building was no longer a part of the plan. MMPI’s actions beg the question: Do they still want to develop in Cleveland?

City challenges MMPI on Medical Mart, proposal to build on Mall

Cleveland City Hall is stepping up to challenge MMPI, the Medical Mart's developers. Yesterday's council hearings laid bare the power shift since the Nov. 3 election: The county's friendly, private negotiations with MMPI aren't driving Med Mart decisions anymore. Tougher, testier stances from Mayor Frank Jackson and city council are.

MMPI says it can't afford to renovate Public Auditorium or buy land west of the Mall, as it planned to this spring. It wants to build the Mart on city-owned Mall C instead.

Meanwhile, the county commissioners, who have led the quest for the Med Mart since 2006, have been rejected by the voters and are heading out the door in December 2010. And the county's decision to wait until the day after the election to give the city the bad news on Public Auditorium backfired, with Jackson feeling left in the dark.

Tim Hagan's renewed warning that MMPI can just walk away if the city drives too hard a bargain has been ignored and ridiculed. The Plain Dealer buried his warning deep inside the Metro section, where lame ducks quack, and cartoonist Jeff Darcy cast him as Grumpy of the Seven Dwarfs. Councilman Joe Cimperman, a possible candidate for county executive, stepped up to say what the commissioners' critics have been saying for years: Med Mart decision-making needs to be more transparent to the taxpayers.

The thing is, though, Hagan has a point. MMPI came to Cleveland to make money, but goodwill between Hagan and Chris Kennedy also played a huge part in getting the company here and keeping them at the negotiating table. City Hall, known for being more demanding of private business than the county, could conceivably push MMPI so hard that they kill the deal.

City officials are insisting that MMPI renegotiate the site sale with them. They insist the city still get paid at least $20 million for the site, even though Public Auditorium won't be sold anymore. And they want MMPI and the county to help fix Public Auditorium, even though they won't use it. That last demand sounds like an example of shooting the messenger: the city seems to think MMPI wounded the auditorium's reputation by saying it needs $92 million in renovations instead of $32 million. But maybe the hall does need that much: MMPI's presentation yesterday on its flaws sounds thorough.

On the other hand, the city does need to defend its interests. Public Auditorium will be less valuable if it's cut off from the convention center. Also, the city is being asked to give up valuable parkland on the lakefront bluff, part of downtown's famous Burnham Plan. (Roldo, who's against the project, asks worthwhile questions today about how the deal will change.)

So the city's demands could prove unreasonable, or a good negotiating stance. We'll see.

Meanwhile, the county is paying MMPI $333,333 a month even though work on the site hasn't started -- payments the county administrator may suspend.

Also, I haven't heard anyone address my biggest concern about the decision to drop Public Auditorium from the Med Mart plan. MMPI said this spring that getting trade shows into Public Hall by next year was key to being the "first mover." It gave Cleveland a competitive advantage over the New York and Nashville medical mart plans, which have to be built from scratch. How much does waiting until 2013 hurt us?

To read my June article about the Medical Mart in Inside Business, click here.

WCPN hosted an hour-long discussion of the Mart yesterday morning with Cimperman and Steve Litt of the PD -- click here to listen. Litt evaluates the new proposal from his architecture-critic's perspective and says a Med Mart on Mall C could be brilliant, or awful. Jay Miller of Crain's Cleveland Business is on the Med Mart story, as always: see his report from the council meeting here. Scene, which just wants the Med Mart to go away, blogs with a clever Darth Vader reference. Brandon Glenn at MedCity News takes a different angle: an update on MMPI's search for Med Mart showroom tenants.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Sweeney retains council presidency

Martin Sweeney will remain Cleveland city council president, Henry Gomez reports on

Rival Matt Zone couldn't get the 10 votes needed to topple him. Sweeney, forcing Zone's hand, scheduled a council caucus today over lunch at the 100th Bomb Group restaurant. Going into the meeting knowing he didn't have the votes, Zone told Gomez that even he planned to vote for Sweeney.

That show of official fealty is customary once a winner becomes clear, I think. I seem to remember Mike Polensek officially ascending to the council presidency by unanimous vote in 1999, though the actual factional divide was 11-10. It also means Zone is not asking fence-sitters to take a losing stand with him -- he can save their goodwill for later, if Sweeney stumbles.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quiet mayor wins landslide; Jeff Johnson's comeback complete; will Sweeney hold on as council president?

He is who he is, and that's fine with Cleveland voters: Mayor Frank Jackson, the quiet and workmanlike mayor, buried his challenger in a landslide yesterday, winning 78% of the vote.

It's been interesting, in the last year, to watch business and media elites accept the soft-spoken, unambitious, competent mayor and shed their yearning for a pulpit-pounding, charismatic strongman mayor (like, say, Akron's Don Plusquellic). Last week at the City Club debate, former councilman Bill Patmon did his best to project himself as the forceful-mayor type, to no avail. Jackson held his ground, explaining details of his work to deliver services and trim the budget.

Patmon may be right that Jackson will soon have to carry out the sort of sweeping budget cuts he campaigned on having avoided -- Henry Gomez predicts as much in the Plain Dealer today -- but voters trust Jackson to make those decisions. Meanwhile, the people who want mayors to use the bully pulpit to rally the region can turn their attention to who the first county executive will be.

In Glenville's Ward 8, voters returned Jeff Johnson to city council, 20 years after he left it to become a state senator, and 10 years after he left the state senate to serve a prison term for extortion. Johnson worked his way back to the public's trust by serving in Jane Campbell's administration and working for the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus. Now, it seems, his rehabilitation is complete. (To read Cleveland Magazine's 1999 profile, "The Rise and Fall of Jeff Johnson," click here.)

Now, the political action at City Hall shifts to the council presidency. Johnson's election, and Zack Reed and Brian Cummins' victories in spite of redistricting, weaken Martin Sweeney's hold on the job. He and rival Matt Zone are competing for the 10 of 19 votes needed to be elected leader. The PD's Gomez has the news on this contest -- he reports that Sweeney got his council colleagues together at the Lancer Steakhouse last night, no doubt to try to consolidate support. A caucus vote on the presidency should come tomorrow; here's Gomez's handicapping.

Update, 11/5: Sweeney won.

Issue 6 approved: A new government for Cuyahoga County

Voters have reacted to two years of corruption and patronage scandals by throwing out every Cuyahoga County elected official. They approved Issue 6, a charter that creates a new form of government, with 66 percent of the vote.

We'll elect a county executive and an 11-member county council next year in a Sept. 7 primary and the Nov. 2 general election. The new charter will take effect Jan. 1, 2011.

The vote was overwhelming: Issue 5, the county commissioners' alternative plan to appoint a charter commission, failed with 72 percent of the vote. The Issue 5 side's vagueness about how they would reform government proved fatal. Their message failed to even make much of a dent in the 75 percent support for Issue 6 in a July poll.

Tim Hagan is on WMJI's Lanigan & Malone this morning, saying the vote for 6 shows how much power corporate political donors and Plain Dealer editor Susan Goldberg now have in Cleveland. Hagan complained the paper's county coverage was biased, and John Lanigan and Chip Kullik agreed that the PD's Oct. 2 headline about Hagan was misleading, which it was. But blaming the PD and business leaders for the new charter disrespects the voters. Hagan got it right later in the hour when he added that voters changed the government because they were disgusted with the behavior of some of their elected officials.

Everyone knows the biggest reason voters want reform: federal prosecutors are investigating Jimmy Dimora and suspect Frank Russo of stealing $1.2 million in cash. No one else in the current government noticed anything was wrong, and no one can fire Russo or Dimora now.

Hagan noted the charter will usher in a huge change in Greater Cleveland: the new county executive will be the most powerful elected official in the region, even more than the newly re-elected Cleveland mayor. Who might run for county executive? Jimmy Malone kept dropping Chris Ronayne's name. Hagan, perhaps thinking of Brent Larkin's August column on the subject, mentioned Gund Foundation head Dave Abbott.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Big leads for Issue 6, Mayor Jackson in early voting

A plan for a new Cuyahoga County goverment has a 2-1 lead in results from early voting, and Mayor Frank Jackson leads challenger Bill Patmon by almost 4-1, just-posted results from the board of elections show.

Issue 6, which would create a county executive and 11-member county council, has 102,000 votes for it and 53,000 against in the absentee ballot results. The competing Issue 5, which would create a charter commission to write a different reform plan, is losing more than 2-1, or 45,000 yes to 107,000 no.

Frank Jackson is out to a huge lead, 23,700 votes to 6,300, in his bid for a second term as mayor.

Most Cleveland city council members have solid leads, with three exceptions.

Former state Sen. Jeff Johnson is ahead of recent council appointee Shari Cloud in Glenville's Ward 8. Councilman Brian Cummins is somewhat ahead of Rick Nagin in Ward 14 on the near west side. Phyllis Cleveland in the Central neighborhood's Ward 5 is ahead of challenger Pernel Jones by only 35 votes. Each race could affect whether council president Martin Sweeney holds onto his job.

Absentee ballot totals can be a good early guide to where an election is going -- and now that it's so easy to vote by mail in Ohio, they make up a lot of the total vote.

Complete results aren't expected in Cuyahoga County until early morning.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Election Day advice on Issues 5 & 6

Tomorrow is Election Day, and the big issue in Cuyahoga County is Issue 6, which would replace the county government with an elected executive and 11-member council.

Here are links to the charter Issue 6 would establish, a two-page summary of it, and my tongue-in-cheek 500-word edit of it.

If you want a county executive and council:
-Vote Yes on 6.
-Vote No on Issue 5, which would establish a charter commission to write a different proposal.
-And, just in case 5 passes anyway, vote for the charter commission candidates on the Citizens Reform Association slate, most of whom support the ideas in 6.

If you don't like 6, but you want reform:
-Vote No on 6.
-Vote Yes on 5.
-Then split your vote between the two charter commission slates, so that the Citizens Reform candidates, who want to go farther with reform, will push the vaguer candidates from Real Reform Done Right to propose major change. (See this earlier post for why I'm giving this advice.)

For my coverage of the City Club debates about 5 and 6, click here and here. To read county treasurer Jim Rokakis' case against 6 and University Circle president Chris Ronayne's case for it, click here.

One more thing: if you're going to vote for candidates for the charter commission Issue 5 would create, take a list of your choices to the polls with you. The ballot doesn't list which slate they're on, or their party affiliation -- just 29 names. You've got to read about them beforehand. Short bios of all the candidates, by slate, are here and here. It's OK to take notes with you when you vote.

The polls are open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. To look up your voting location and see a sample ballot for your precinct, click here.

Cleveland votes for mayor and city council tomorrow

Tomorrow, Cleveland will decide whether to replace Mayor Frank Jackson with challenger Bill Patmon. If you're looking for information about the candidates, here are some links:

-my coverage of their Wednesday debate
-a podcast of their appearance on WCPN last week
-the Plain Dealer's September analysis of Mayor Jackson's first term and the issues in the campaign
-the mayor's and Patmon's campaign websites

Voters in most city wards will cast a vote for city council too. The results may determine whether Jackson ally Martin Sweeney remains city council president, or whether Matt Zone, who would presumably lead council in a more independent direction, can unseat him. Henry Gomez's ward-by-ward look at who supports Sweeney and who may be a swing vote is interesting reading -- and one factor voters could look at as they decide which council candidate to choose in their ward.

The polls are open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. To look up your voting location and see a sample ballot for your precinct, click here.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Issue 6: Nine defenses against corruption

Some arguments against Issue 6 are better than others. Here's a bad one: We shouldn't change the county government's structure to add defenses against crooked politics, some say, because the real problem is not structure, but crooked people.

Marcia Fudge and Peter Lawson Jones are quoted to that effect in this week's Scene. "Systems aren't corrupt; people are corrupt," Fudge says.

The alt-weekly endorses a no vote on 6 by arguing, "It does nothing to prevent the kind of corruption that has plagued Cuyahoga County."

Wrong. No government is corruption-proof, but some governments are easier to corrupt than others. I count nine new safeguards against abuse of trust in Issue 6's proposed charter. None of them exist in the current government.

If the current county government scandal were happening under the proposed charter, Frank Russo and Jimmy Dimora would already be out of government, not stubbornly clinging to their jobs 15 months after the FBI raided their offices.

The Issue 6 charter says the county executive could fire the county fiscal officer or any department head (safeguard #1) and conduct internal investigations (safeguard #2). The county council could investigate and subpoena anyone in the government (#3). Dimora and Russo could arguably have been removed for failure to report an attempt to bribe them (safeguard #4, the most dramatic and novel part of the charter). The voters could have recalled them by now (#5) -- a power we don't have today.

Other provisions guard against crooked deals and machine politics. Internal audits (#6) could sniff out shady contracts. A bipartisan human resources commission would set uniform hiring standards that the executive and everyone else with hiring power would have to follow, reducing political patronage hires (#7).

Issue 6 critics' strongest argument, I think, is their fear that the county executive would be too powerful. A corrupt county executive could fire the sheriff or fiscal officer if they investigated him or her, and could conceivably use the office's internal investigation powers to intimidate. The executive would also choose the internal audit committee and the human resources commission. The wrong person in that job could do a lot of damage.

But that's where the county council comes in. It would control the executive's budget and hold committee meetings to scrutinize his or her actions (safeguard #8). It could shoot down the executive's requests for investigative subpoenas. It could investigate and subpoena the executive (#3 again).

The prosecutor could investigate the executive too -- with no conflict of interest (#9). Today, the prosecutor's civil division is the legal counsel for all county officials -- which can create legal conflicts when possible criminal activity arises inside county government. (Bill Mason's office sometimes refers potential cases to out-of-town prosecutors for just this reason.) The charter would create a separate law department to advise the executive and council -- removing the prosecutor's conflict.

The Cuyahoga County corruption scandal is the biggest reason we have two county reform plans on Tuesday's ballot, and the biggest reason voters care so much about them. Should we forget those proposals and focus on people, not structure? Forgive me for getting all poli-sci major on you for a minute, but the Constitution's framers knew better. They knew that men are no angels, especially not the ones who govern us -- that's why they created checks and balances and separation of powers. Do we really have enough of either in Cuyahoga County's government?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Rokakis and Ronayne on Issue 6

I recently asked Jim Rokakis and Chris Ronayne their opinions of Issue 6 -- whether we should replace Cuyahoga County's government with an executive and council.

Neither has been quoted much in the 5 vs. 6 debate, but I thought their opinions would interest a lot of voters. Thanks to his work on the foreclosure crisis and the county land bank, Rokakis (left) has emerged as the most innovative elected official in county government. He favored good-government reform before it was a trend in Cleveland: he's given his treasurer's office employees civil service protection. Ronayne (right) has also developed a reputation for new, inventive ideas, first as as former mayor Jane Campbell's chief of staff and chief planner, now as president of University Circle, Inc. Rokakis opposes Issue 6; Ronayne supports 6.

Rokakis says he attended some early meetings of the group that wrote the Issue 6 charter. "I was discouraged by the lack of inclusiveness," he says. "The first two meetings I was in on were all white men." It's a common argument from Issue 5 supporters, who think a charter commission is a more democratic way to reform government than a charter by initiative petition.

"I kept insisting two items be addressed that were critical: money and politics," Rokakis recalls. Campaign finance reform had to be part of a new county charter, he argued. "The county offices are the only offices that have no limits on contributions." It's perfectly legal for a single donor to give a county-wide candidate $25,000 -- or more. Also, "I railed about this issue of raising money from employees." (Under pressure from Issue 5 supporters, prosecutor Bill Mason recently promised to return up to $100,000 in contributions from his own staff.)

Rokakis argued that all county employees should be classified as non-political civil service professionals, prohibited from donating to their bosses' campaigns or volunteering for them. "If you want to reduce the number of employees in county government, hire the best employees possible and remove politics from their hiring," he argues.

The county treasurer's concerns didn't faze the Issue 6 charter writers. Only this fall, under pressure from the Issue 5 side, have they promised that a new government would regulate campaign finance.

"I also insisted you cannot have a large county council," Rokakis says. "It would become balkanized." He thought the proposed charter's 11 councilpeople elected by district were too many, and that some ought to be elected county-wide, so they could rise above geographic disputes.

Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti, a leader of the Issue 6 effort, argued otherwise, Rokakis says. "[Zanotti's response was,] we need black votes. We have to go to the black community and say, 'You’re going to have all this representation.'" (The county council boundaries were drawn to create four black-majority districts.)

Rokakis thinks Issue 6 is a recipe for new political conflicts. "Most of what [the county] does is fairly set in stone. People talk about making this the new economic development engine. The fact is, the county is a large social service agency. Are we going to start to politicize decisions about that?"

Chris Ronayne disagrees. The 11 council districts in Issue 6 "lend themselves to collaboration across city borders and ward boundaries," argues the former Cleveland and Cuyahoga County planner. "They’re drawn large enough that they can create cooperation."

A single county executive can offer a "one-stop shop for economic development," Ronayne argues. He also thinks a county with an assertive charter government can help create buying power for governments purchasing services, by bargaining for itself and smaller local governments.

Ronayne says county government badly needs the separation of powers Issue 6 would create. Right now, the three county commissioners are the executive and legislature -- and the public rarely sees their decision-making process. Their meetings are mostly a long string of unanimous votes.

"You need a check and balance," he says. In the Issue 6 charter, he says, "The check on the executive is council, to help support economic development and administer human services, and be a budget monitor that you need in a normal system of government -- which we haven’t had with the county."

Ronayne, a co-chair of the Issue 6 campaign, says he's liked the idea of a county executive and council for 13 years, ever since the day he was hired to be a county planner. As he sat at a meeting, waiting for the commissioners to approve his hiring, he listened to political science professor Kathleen Barber present her 1996 reform panel's plan for an executive and council. The commissioners shot it down.

"It’s well past time," Ronayne says. "What’s happened since then is, we've lost 100,000 jobs."

(To read my 2007 feature about Jim Rokakis and his personal connection to the foreclosure crisis, click here. To read Andy Netzel's 2008 Cleveland Magazine profile of Ronayne, click here.)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Patmon challenges Jackson at City Club

Today was Bill Patmon’s one big chance. For an hour, his lack of money, ads, and campaign staff didn’t matter. At the City Club debate, he challenged Mayor Frank Jackson as an equal. Criticizing Jackson's record and quiet persona, Patmon argued that Cleveland can only succeed with a more forceful mayor.

"I ran because there is a decade of decline going on in this city," Patmon said, noting that Jackson has been mayor or city council president for most of that time. "During that decade, we've lost hundreds of jobs, 22,000 students have left the Cleveland Municipal School District, and our neighborhoods has become ground zero for foreclosure." Only one U.S. city has lost population faster than Cleveland, he said: "That's New Orleans. And I haven't seen a tsunami or hurricane or anything else blow through Cleveland."

Patmon charged Jackson hadn't fulfilled the vision he articulated when he first ran for mayor. "I remember 2005. There was someone who said, 'Expect great things.' I'm still waiting. There was somebody who said, 'Make the city a city of choice.' We're losing 6,000 [residents] a year."

"You should expect great things," Jackson replied. "And you know what? There's no promises I haven't made -- just check my 2005 campaign -- that I have not either fulfilled, or worked on and made substantial progress on.

"There is no distinction between campaigning and governing," Jackson added, then jabbed at Patmon's political ambition: "Some of us like the game, and I do the work."

The mayor, calm as ever, reiterated the themes that gave him a runaway lead in September's primary: a balanced budget with no layoffs and increased services in his four years as mayor, 3,600 vacant buildings demolished, overseas travels to bring business to town, support for the Medical Mart and the new port.

"If you look at Cleveland, and compare us to other urban centers, I don't think we're that bad off," the mayor said. "I really don’t."

Patmon dented Jackson's incumbent's armor on the issue of the Cleveland public schools, citing their low graduation rate and saying he would replace Cleveland schools CEO Eugene Sanders: "If the superintendent can't do the job, he should find another job."

The challenger used the Monday assaults against two Cleveland School of the Arts students against Sanders and Jackson: "Our most talented children can't walk down the streets of Glenville, can't walk down the street with an iPod, because of a poor decision on where to locate them." A CSA student in the audience seconded Patmon's complaint during the Q&A, telling the candidates he was afraid to go to school. Patmon said he hoped CSA will be moved from its temporary location near E. 107th and Superior.

Jackson told the student the police are now on top of the problem. Prompted by moderator Dan Moulthrop, Jackson said the school won't be moved. "Regardless of where children go to school, they have a right to be safe in school and out," he said.

The mayor said he still has confidence in Sanders. "Even though graduation is low, which is unacceptable, the same report card said there was value added" -- which means that Cleveland students outperformed the state's expectations. Between successes with magnet schools, conversations about bringing well-performing charter schools into the school system, and a pending report about how to "right-size" the district (close schools because of declining enrollment), Jackson said, "I think Dr. Sanders has done a very good job positioning us going forward, and 2010 will be the proof."

Patmon offered some new economic development ideas: creating a series of business incubators and a business center to make it easier for companies to interact with City Hall. He wants to use the city's public utilities, which spend almost a half-billion dollars a year, to stimulate a greener energy economy. Federal stimulus money could bring solar energy facilities to town, and the schools should teach eco-friendly LEED certification, he said to applause.

But the challenger's assertion that he would have tried to buy National City when it faltered and made it a city-owned bank (using federal bank bailout money, I think) drew no response from the crowd. When he said he would triple city spending on economic development to $4 million a year, Moulthrop cut him off.

"Where would you cut?" the moderator asked.

Patmon gave the eternal response of all political challengers. "There's enough waste, you don't have to cut anything," he said. "You also have to grow the pie."

That gave Jackson an opening. "Can I respond? First of all, I do not waste anything," the mayor asserted. He made the case for himself as a financial steward, saying he talked weekly with a group called Operation Efficiency, which has spent his first term looking for cost savings in City Hall. Now, with the budget still tightening, another consultant is digging deeper, he said. Jackson's answer partially blunted Patmon's prediction that big holes will appear in the city budget in 2010.

The debate ended with Jackson and Patmon pitching themselves as optimists who refused to accept Cleveland's decline. Moulthrop asked them about a recent think tank report that says Cleveland should accept its shrinking population as inevitable and focus its resources on certain vital neighborhoods.

"I absolutely disagree, categorically, with every fiber in my body," Patmon said. "If other cities can grow themselves, what's wrong with us?"

"We should not be dealing with a shrinking city," Jackson said. "I come from a neighborhood, if you we were to follow that pattern, it would never exist. We turned that neighborhood around. And there are good people there."

Patmon suggested Cleveland needs a stronger mayor. "The difference between good cities and great cities is leadership," he said, then added that leadership is also "the difference between good cities and failed cities."

Jackson's closing statement rose to a peculiar crescendo: a play on the phrase "It is what it is," which Patmon and others attack him for saying. "No layoffs, no reduction in service! It is what it is!" the mayor said. His supporters cheered. Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott shook with excitement, almost dancing in her seat, then high-fived the woman next to her -- a surprising amount of enthusiasm for a steady performance from a soft-spoken, workmanlike mayor.

If you'd like to watch the debate, the City Club is posting it on YouTube.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Issue 5 dilemma: You don't know what you'll get

I think Issue 5 supporters have made a big mistake, and I suspect they're going to pay for it at the polls next week. Their charter commission candidates, the "Real Reform Done Right" slate, won't say what kind of new government they want for Cuyahoga County.

I've gone to all three City Club debates about Issues 5 and 6 (see here and here), and I've talked to Peter Lawson Jones and interviewed slate members Harriet Applegate and Ron Johnson -- and still, I can only guess at what kind of government we'll likely end up with if the pro-5 side wins. They've been maddeningly vague.

Whatever your opinion about Issue 6, it has the advantage of clarity. You know what you're getting if it passes next Tuesday: a county executive and an 11-member council elected by district. You can read the 11,700-word proposed charter. (And I can satirically summarize it.)

In theory, the charter commission Issue 5 proposes is a perfectly respectable way to create a new government. It's like a constitutional convention for Cuyahoga County: We vote for 15 well-regarded citizens to write a charter for us, then vote yes or no on their proposal next year.

The problem is, Issue 5 was explicitly placed on the ballot as an alternative to Issue 6. So the Yes on 5, No on 6 supporters owe it to us to say not just what kind of government they're against, but what kind of government they're for.

Their slate should've run on a platform sketching out an outline of a government that they think would be better than both the current government and the Issue 6 charter. Then we would've had two new ideas to choose from, rather than a county executive form of government versus a foggy, uncertain promise of change.

That's why 6 supporters deride the charter commission as a "study group," and why a Plain Dealer editorial called "Real Reform Done Right" an Orwellian phrase. When they accuse the 5 side of trying to dilute or scuttle change, 5 supporters can't prove otherwise, because they can't answer this question: what do they mean by "real reform"?

After last week’s City Club debate between candidates from the two charter commission slates, I asked Ron Johnson of Real Reform Done Right how his slate wants to restructure the government.

“We’re not sure,” Johnson said. “We all have different ideas of what the structure should look like.” The slate wants a new charter to address ethics reform and economic development, he said, and create a structure that minimizes politics and includes checks and balances. “Is that a nine-member council and county executive? Or an 11-member council and an appointed county executive? We’re not sure yet.”

I asked Johnson if he supports the three-commissioner form of county government. “It isn't necessarily a bad format,” he said. But he did criticize the current system for its eight elected officials (auditor, treasurer, etc.) who run their own departments with “complete autonomy.” He seems to want to eliminate some elected offices. He says the slate wants to consolidate some of their functions, such as the elected officials’ separate human resources departments.

In an interview yesterday, Peter Lawson Jones offered a few clues about where reform might go if Issue 5 passes. (Jones voted to put 5 on the ballot and helped assemble the Real Reform Done Right slate, so his views would probably be influential.)

“I think some elements in Issue 6 should find way into a charter,” Jones told me. He says he agrees with eliminating some elected offices, agrees with giving voters the right to recall county officials, and agrees the county should have a five-year strategic economic plan.

I asked Jones to respond to the criticism that no one knows what sort of new government the charter commission will produce.

“But here’s the good news,” Jones said: A charter created under 5 will be “the result of numerous community-wide meetings, conducted in public. And in November 2010, voters will have their say.” (That is, we’d have another charter proposal to vote on a year from now.)

The pro-5 side is all about process. They say a charter commission with open meetings is a better way to create a new government than the initiative petition that put 6 on the ballot. I’m sure they would say that running for charter commission with concrete ideas on how to restructure the government would be like saying they won’t listen to the public at all those meetings.

But the Citizens Reform Association candidates I talked to handle that dilemma just fine. They state their ideas about which government structures work best, while leaving room to be persuaded about details.

“If elected, it only makes sense to start with the existing framework of the [Issue 6] charter proposal,” Tom Kelly told me after last week’s debate. “A great deal of it would appear in any charter.” He adds he wouldn’t make up his mind completely “until every citizen has their say." As for the slate as a whole, “Most of our candidates do support 6,” Kelly says. “They see 6 as good and necessary start that cannot be delayed.”

“I don’t believe the current structure is best for Cuyahoga County,” charter commission candidate Angela Thi Bennett told me. “However, I’m a little reluctant to say what I believe is the exact ideal structure. I’m in favor of a more balanced structure, such as an executive-council form of government. But if elected to the charter review commission, I would look at successful models around [the country] and also at the same time look at the mechanics of our own county government, and from that make a recommendation.”

So what's a voter to do? Read the Issue 6 charter. (Or, at least, the pro-6 side's two-page summary.)

If you like it, vote Yes on 6 and No on 5 -- and, just in case 5 passes anyway, vote for the charter commission candidates on the Citizens Reform Association list.

If you don't like 6, but you want reform, vote No on 6, Yes on 5 -- then split your vote between the two slates. If the two sides have to write a charter together, the Citizens Reform candidates, who want to go farther with reform, will push the vaguer candidates from Real Reform Done Right to propose major change.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Mansfield Frazier's "Carr Talk"

I've often linked to Mansfield Frazier's political writing. Now, I'm happy to say he's making his debut in My Town, Cleveland Magazine's first-person essay section.

Our November My Town, "Carr Talk," is Frazier's memoir about Charlie Carr, city councilman from 1945 to 1975. Carr (pictured, left) helped make Cleveland the birthplace of the black political rights movement, paving the way for the historic 1967 election of Carl Stokes (right) as mayor.

Frazier's an interesting writer, and sometimes a political activist too. Yesterday I got an e-mail from him asking why the Congress of Racial Equality and the Ohio Black Legislative Caucus are teaming up with a payday lender for this financial seminar on Saturday.

"If CheckSmart is so concerned with folks' financial well-being, then why are they charging such exorbitant interest rates?" Frazier writes. "I plan to attend the 'seminar' and ask them this question in person." That should be an interesting meeting.

Update, 10/29: Frazier takes up the subject in his Cool Cleveland column this week, subtly titled, "Ohio Black Legislative Black Caucus: A Den of Prostitutes?"