Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Brown, Fudge push Stuart Garson as Democratic chair

Cuyahoga County Democrats have figured out who'll succeed Jimmy Dimora as party chairman, says the Plain Dealer's Mark Naymik. And it's not one of the usual suspects. It's Stuart Garson, former campaign treasurer for Sherrod Brown.

Garson has lined up support from Brown, Marcia Fudge, and Bill Mason, Naymik reports in his column today -- nearly enough to clinch the job before the party's June 16 vote.

This tells us a lot about where the local Democratic party is going. Now that the Dimora and Frank Russo era is over, Brown and Fudge are stepping into the vacuum, getting involved at the grassroots, nudging rank-and-file Democrats toward new names and strategies. They've lined up Mason's support in the party chairman contest, but they're not deferring to him. That's a sign that Mason's political network will remain a factor in Democratic politics, but not dominate it.

Here's another sign: Tom Day's name didn't come up in Naymik's column at all. Last year, the Bedford Municipal Court clerk was considered the insider choice for party chair. He counted both Dimora and Mason as allies -- which, in the old party politics, was more than enough to make him a front-runner. But handing the party chairmanship to a prominent figure in the Mason machine was not what Brown and Fudge had in mind.

Jackson halts LED lighting deal

Mayor Frank Jackson is tabling his controversial LED lighting deal and starting over -- but for his own reasons. Not because critics have raised questions about conflicts of interest and the value of Chinese manufacturer Sunpu-Opto's technology. Nor because the deal faces strong opposition and was likely to slip through council on a 10-9 vote.

Jackson tells the Plain Dealer he "tainted" the process by announcing the deal while the city was still talking with other businesses about LEDs.

From his press release last night:

Tonight, I asked Cleveland City Council to table the legislation that would have authorized the City of Cleveland to move forward with a requirement contract for LED lighting products with Sunpu-Opto Semiconductor Co., LTD.

As part of my own review of the process, I came to the conclusion that my announcement regarding finalizing an agreement with Sunpu-Opto in my March 4th State of the City address came in the middle of a process that was not yet completed and therefore was premature. For this reason, we will start the process over.

Jackson's administration could end up proposing a new deal with Sunpu-Opto, a deal with another company, or competitive bidding for the city's lighting contracts. {Update, 6/9: His new plan essentially invites other companies to outbid Sunpu-Opto's offer. See my new post.} The mayor still wants to use lighting contracts to strike a bigger bargain:

This process will lead to an economic development project that will leverage the City’s purchasing power to create jobs, attract business investment, build a sustainable economy by the year 2019, reduce the City’s energy consumption and reduce the city’s lighting bill through the purchase of LED lighting technology.

Tomorrow, my staff will begin providing me with recommendations on moving forward to achieve this vision and ensure that these goals are met.

Politically, the lighting deal debate signals a shift in City Hall: city council is stepping up and questioning Jackson more. After four years when city council cooperated with him on almost everything, the mayor will now have to work harder to get big legislation passed. Compare the opposition to the lighting deal to the votes against his $86 million plan to automate the water department's meters, and you can sketch out the council coalition that might say no to him on the next tough issue.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Raskind kills port relocation

The plan to move Cleveland's port to East 55th Street is dead. Peter Raskind, the port authority's interim CEO, put a sharp one-paragraph stake through its heart in a Plain Dealer op-ed yesterday.

Raskind, the former National City CEO, took over the port for six months to clean up the mess left by its deposed chief Adam Wasserman. With a week to go in the job, Raskind's finishing the task by exorcising the wildly optimistic, wildly expensive relocation Wasserman championed.

He writes:

The Port Authority's plan to move the port to East 55th Street was ill conceived and built upon layers of questionable assumptions. Although it may be appealing to think about a very large new port and a wholly redeveloped waterfront, the East 55th Street plan was, unfortunately, never viable. The port does not need to relocate for maritime purposes; there is plenty of capacity for growth at the current location, including the (doubtful) possibility of significant container traffic.

Raskind isn't just downgrading the port relocation to "maybe someday," as the port board did after Wasserman left. He's debunking the whole idea that Cleveland could lure lots of container cargo away from ocean ports -- the main justification for a big new half-billion-dollar port at East 55th Street. He's also got a triple caution for lakefront-development dreamers:

Further, the unused northeast corner of the current port property can be redeveloped now, as detailed in the port's Waterfront Development Plan. If the community would like to see the port relocated to facilitate the complete redevelopment of the port's current downtown location, another suitable site will need to be identified, analyzed and secured. But the Port Authority should not be the sole champion of such an effort.

Let me translate: 1) If you want to build a new neighborhood on port land, start with the site north of Cleveland Browns Stadium. 2) If that development works, and you want to make all of the port into a neighborhood, the port has to move somewhere other than East 55th. (He doesn't say why.) 3) The port can't make that decision itself. The whole city has to get behind it.

Why would Raskind step out so boldly? First of all, he doesn't want incoming CEO William Friedman to have to spend political capital to kill the port relocation. Like any good interim-turnaround CEO, he's throwing out the old regime's troubled ideas so the new guy can start with a clean desk. Second, Raskind may also be providing cover for the port board. He either knows that a majority of the board wants to drop the relocation, or he thinks they're close to dropping it and wants to help them get there. Most of the port's board answers to Frank Jackson, who was pushing the container-port strategy as recently as last year. After June 1, Raskind won't answer to anyone.

Raskind also defends the port's financing of economic development projects, argues that its budget is in better shape than people say, and defends against the accusation that it's screwing up its most basic function, dredging the shipping lanes. For anyone who's been following the debate about what the port authority's doing on the lakefront, it's a must-read.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Med Mart moving ahead -- finally!

All you kids who've been squirming in your seats, wondering when the show on downtown's Malls will start, can calm down now.

After a year of painfully slow negotiations, the land's all nailed down for the Medical Mart and convention center project. The stubborn Sportsman's Restaurant owner is getting paid $3.1 million -- almost 10 times what her little vintage corned-beef joint is worth. The stubborn mayor finally got what he wants: a deal that helps fix up Public Auditorium and preserves the lake views from Lakeside Avenue.

Architects are designing. The construction manager's hired. We're going to see the plans roll out, starting today, when the city planning commission takes a look at some early concepts. MMPI still says it'll break ground in October. That means I'll lose my favorite cheap downtown parking spot, but what else?

Steven Litt's analysis in today's Plain Dealer explains how MMPI addressed the mayor's concerns and preserved those lake views. Remember how I mentioned last week that Mall C won't be raised more than a foot? That's because the convention center exhibit halls won't go under it after all. They'll be under Mall B and -- this is the clever new part -- under the Medical Mart building on St. Clair. They'll build meeting rooms and a ballroom with a great view of the lake under Mall C.

I still think Mall B will look weird once this is all over, with the top of the convention center popping out of the ground, messing with Daniel Burnham's 1903 vision of a grand civic space. (Litt's only new hint about Mall B: "stairwell pavilions" will go right from street level to the convention center floor.) But then, Mall B is already full of concrete and empty of people. Maybe, despite the higher elevation, ParkWorks and the landscape architect can do something better there.

Most important, MMPI can break ground before long and get back to competing with the medical marts proposed in Nashville and New York. Today on the radio, I heard prosecutor Bill Mason praise the county commissioners for nailing it all down. Mason knows how tough it was, since his office does their legal work. Few people in town are in the mood to give the commissioners credit for anything, but at least give them props for nailing down a complex, five-way land and development deal.

Getting the land will cost more than anyone expected, and the big headline today will spark more criticism from those who don't want the project built at all. But now Cleveland can move on to the next debate: what the Medical Mart, new convention center, and new malls should look like, how they'll work, how they'll fit in with what's around them.

To read my June 2009 Inside Business feature about the risks and potential rewards of the Medical Mart as a business venture, click here. (Public Auditorium isn't part of the project anymore, and the groundbreaking date has changed slightly, but the rest of the details in my story hold up a year later.)

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Roldo: Close vote near on lighting deal -- 'strong rebuke' to Jackson, Sweeney

Mayor Jackson may get his streetlight deal with a Chinese company through Cleveland city council, but just barely. It passed a council committee on Monday with a 7-3 vote -- but it's heading toward a full council vote next this week because it doesn't have two-thirds support for quicker passage.

Plain Dealer City Hall reporter Mark Gillispie predicts it'll pass. But Roldo Bartimole, on CoolCleveland.com, counts 8 no votes and one abstention. So the LED lighting deal could be approved by a sliver: 11-8 or 10-9. That's very unusual in the Frank Jackson-Martin Sweeney era.

"The large vote against should be a signal to take another good look," Roldo writes. "This seems a strong rebuke to City Hall leadership. It means almost a majority of the Council couldn’t swallow this deal."

Roldo also notes that the $86 million plan to modernize Cleveland's water department passed by only 12-7. "It is a warning sign that there is little confidence in Mayor Frank Jackson on some very important matters," he says. "It also shows weak Council and Mayor leadership."

What's taking so long?: The PD's corruption update

People are always asking me why federal prosecutors are taking so long to charge Jimmy Dimora and Frank Russo. I recently answered by comparing our corruption to Detroit's. The Plain Dealer's answer came Sunday in a well-reported story by Peter Krouse, a cool chart, and a clear front-page headline: "Building the case: Feds work carefully; Their strategy is to catch small fish first." From the story:

To make sure their charges stick, ... the evidence against the two men must be overwhelming. ... It's crucial in this kind of corruption probe to have a case that is "virtually suffocating," said Geoffrey Mearns, a former federal prosecutor ... "What the feds like to put together is a case with shock-and-awe evidence, almost like the military strategy going into Iraq," [former FBI agent John] McCaffrey said.

Last year, the PD ran a story that seemed impatient for big charges. Now that the town is more impatient, the paper, smartly contrarian, steps up and explains the probe's pace more patiently, with well-informed comparisons to the complexity of corruption probes in Chicago, Detroit, and New Jersey.

The full-page chart is the single best summary of the investigation I've seen. It shows how almost all of the 19 defendants on the prosecutors' official list (pdf) are allegedly connected to the uncharged Dimora and Russo. Color-coding shows who's pleaded guilty, who's been charged, and who hasn't. I'm saving it to use as a guide to the case.

(Why does the story mention "more than two dozen" defendants, while the chart has 19? The PD sometimes counts the busted Cleveland building inspectors as county corruption defendants. The prosecutors don't. Only one crooked city inspector has a known connection to the county probe. A former Stonebridge construction manager may be a second link.)

Krouse also gets a tip that the big charges may come before long:

Mearns said ... he believes two years should be sufficient to complete an investigation of this size and scope. ... One source close to the investigation said prosecutors have met recently with attorneys for Russo and Dimora and indicated that if their clients don't cooperate, charges could be filed soon.

Monday, May 17, 2010

GE vs. City Hall battle goes before council

The Plain Dealer's Mark Gillespie calls it Mayor Jackson's most controversial proposal ever, and he's right. The deal to make a Chinese company the city's exclusive streetlight supplier is heading for a skeptical reception at city council today.

The mayor says he's using Cleveland's buying power to bring 350 jobs to town: Sunpu-Opto Semiconductor of China will build its North American headquarters here if it's named the city's exclusive supplier of LED lights. GE, watching from its plant in East Cleveland, is furious, demanding a chance to compete. It claims Cleveland is violating a competitive-bidding law. Jackson's lawyers say that's not so.

City council has hardly ever challenged Jackson. The same majority that keeps Martin Sweeney ensconced as council president has also deferred to the mayor on almost every big issue since 2006. I can think of very few exceptions: renewing the tax abatement for new homes and a couple of issues where council, not Jackson, took the lead.

So I'll be watching to see who on council asks tough questions, who sticks with Jackson out of loyalty, and who morphs into the loyal opposition. Mike Polensek, a frequent dissenter, has spoken up. Significantly, so has Jeff Johnson, who's re-establishing himself as an independent force on council. Who else?

The questions the councilpeople ask will reveal their politics. Some may argue with the mayor on nationalist grounds: Why give jobs to a Chinese company? Others will take the practical good-government approach and focus on the legal and technical questions, such as whether Sunpu-Opto's lights are really the best LEDs the city can buy.

Meanwhile, Jackson's arguments illuminate little-seen aspects of his thinking. All his critics who say he's too shy to take bold action ought to love this deal, he says. He's also trying to fight nationalism with nationalism, bashing GE, saying it "shipped jobs overseas." It's a risky strategy that could win him a flawed victory: He could land the 350 Sunpu-Opto jobs while alienating GE and local businesspeople who think GE got snubbed.

Friday, May 14, 2010

What new city-county deal means for downtown

The city and county's new convention center deal tinkers with a lot of stuff downtown. Some interesting details I noticed in today's Plain Dealer story:

-Mall B may look really weird in a few years. The city will let MMPI raise the convention center's ceiling as high as it thinks it has to -- even if that means it pops up from underground and pushes Mall B, the plaza between St. Clair and Lakeside, above street level.

The good news is, MMPI has hired first-rate talent to make the best of the situation: local nonprofit ParkWorks and a renowned architectural firm from Seattle are in charge of planning how to remake the malls. Mall C, north of Lakeside, can only go a foot higher than it is now -- a sign that City Hall wants to preserve the lakefront views over the bluff.

-Separating Public Auditorium from the new convention center is going to cost the county $8 million. Taxpayers probably shouldn't fret, since MMPI has pledged to pay for any cost overruns on the development, but let's hope the rising site costs don't tempt MMPI to scale back its ambitions for the Medical Mart and convention center designs.

-The county will still pay the city $20 million for the convention center site, even though Public Auditorium isn't part of the deal. No surprise: it looked like a unique asset a year ago, but it looks like a money pit now. So the city is promising the county it'll spend some of the $20 million on renovating the 1920s landmark.

-{Update, 5/18: I've gotten a copy of the agreement, and last year's deal to spend some of the cash on Perk Plaza is still in there. "The County urges the City to apply $2,500,000 of the Purchase Price to the restoration of Perk Park in downtown Cleveland," the agreement says. It doesn't obligate the city; it's just a recommendation.}

Perk Plaza is already being renovated no matter what -- the basic work of converting it from concrete maze to green lawn is already underway. But without the convention center money, Perk would have to do without some of the innovations that would make it more of a respite for East 12th Street apartment-dwellers: a fountain for kids to play in, a space for concerts, a heated trellis to make the park more comfortable in spring and fall.

-The deal revives a question I blogged about a lot last year: whether Positively Cleveland's funding will be cut to help pay for the Medical Mart and convention center. The sales tax earmarked for the project raises almost, but not quite, enough to fund it. The county hotel-room tax may have to make up the rest.

"The document also calls for the county to retain control of the amount of county bed tax revenue that goes to Positively Cleveland," the PD story says. That means the city's attempt to argue Positively Cleveland's case in the negotiations didn't get anywhere.

That must make it an unnerving week for the town's convention and visitor's bureau. Today's PD also says it and other tenants may have to move out of the Higbee building to make way for a temporary casino. But with sales-tax cash piling up in the bank until construction starts in October, the county won't have to solve the bed-tax dilemma for a while. It's one more thing to add to the new charter government's to-do list.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

‘Check Cleveland,’ says writer’s advice for downsizing Detroit

Call it Rust Belt creativity. Cleveland’s experiments with reviving foreclosure-devastated neighborhoods could inspire Detroiters, a Motor City writer says.

Detroit faces every problem Cleveland does, multiplied. Its abandonment and suffering from the subprime mortgage collapse are hard to fathom. But John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press is trying. Like Steven Litt at the Plain Dealer, Gallagher evaluates the city's landscape and civic life as an arts critic would, looking for ways it could be better.

Gallagher’s “10 tips for downsizing Detroit” lists “Check Cleveland” as number 7. He credits us with more than 50 pilot programs to revive the city’s most troubled neighborhoods:

Ideas range from creating pocket parks to building an alternative energy plant, and from planting a bamboo grove as part of a zen garden to creating vineyards and orchards.

I think that “vineyards and orchards” line might be a reference to Cleveland Magazine contributor Mansfield Frazier’s plans, including the Vineyards of Ch√Ęteau Hough.

Gallagher’s picked up on the creative spirit sprouting among Cleveland's ruins, as WVIZ's Applause did this April. Billy Delfs and I aimed to do the same with our March photo essay, "Tear It Down!"

In turn, Gallagher’s other nine ideas could be as valuable to Cleveland's leaders as they are for Detroit's. Here’s how he tries to solve the political debate over whether “shrinking cities” means letting some neighborhoods go: “Prohibit any redevelopment in neighborhoods marked for mothballing,” he says, but “Never try to forcibly relocate residents.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Issue 15: Guaranteed Dimora- and Russo-free!

The good people campaigning for Issue 15 have lots of reasons they'd like you to vote to renew Cuyahoga County's health and human services levy on Tuesday. But there's one really important thing they don't address in their ads or website. Luckily for hungry seniors, Life Flights, and abused kids, it's right at the end of the ballot language:

15 Health and Human or Social Services
Proposed Tax Levy (Renewal)
A renewal of a tax for the benefit of Cuyahoga County for the purpose of SUPPLEMENTING GENERAL FUND APPROPRIATIONS FOR HEALTH AND HUMAN OR SOCIAL SERVICES at a rate not exceeding 2.9 mills for each one dollar of valuation, which amounts to 29 cents for each one hundred dollars of valuation, for four years, commencing in 2010, first due in calendar year 2011.
2011 -- when the new county government will be in charge. That means Jimmy Dimora, Frank Russo, and the lame-duck government won't spend a cent of it.

Lots of people have been worried that voters will vent their anger at Dimora, Russo, and their cronies at the levy. Jim Rokakis mentioned that in his City Club speech last week. But it's the new leaders voters will choose in September and November who'll spend the levy cash.

So here's the ad I'd like to see: "Yes on 15! Guaranteed Dimora- and Russo-free!"

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Professor, still missing, rises again to bait Dimora

Longtime readers know my favorite local political blogger was the anonymous Professor, author of Political Science 216, who gleefully mocked and caricatured local elected officials from 2007 to 2009. He disappeared last summer, soon after Seven Hills Mayor Dave Bentkowski's lawyer declared he had "a plan" to unmask him for a libel suit. The Professor pulled the plug on his blog and deleted his alter ago, Peter Boyd, from Facebook.

But he left behind a Facebook group. "Recall Dimora," he called it originally. But when he learned that Dimora can't be recalled, he renamed it, "Resign, Dimora, You No Good, Corrupt Pig!"

Well, a year later, Jimmy Dimora has finally learned about the group. NewsChannel 5's Duane Pohlman and WKYC TV 3's Tom Beres both asked him about it in interviews on Thursday. "It's appalling, it's disgusting, uncalled for, unwarranted," Dimora told Pohlman. "They've already found me guilty."

Dimora's angry that the Cleveland FBI chief's 19-year-old son was a member (he quickly deleted himself this week) and that Bob Bennett and Rob Frost, the Ohio and Cuyahoga County Republican chairmen, are still on it. Frost tells the Plain Dealer's Tipoff he won't quit the page.

Somewhere on Cleveland's West Side, an attorney and anonymous former blogger -- that's all I know about the Professor's true identity -- is secretly laughing. I'd love to hear what he thinks about this!

For the record, Dimora also said the allegation that he saw a prostitute in Las Vegas is "totally ridiculous." Yes, he saw a woman in his hotel room, he told Pohlman, but she did "exactly what I asked for! The massage! And that’s on phone tape! I didn’t ask for a hooker on the phone. I didn’t ask for a prostitute on the phone." There was "no sex," he added. Prosecutors charged contractor Ferris Kleem with paying the woman $1,000 as part of a conspiracy to bribe Dimora. "I know I paid her!" Dimora said. "It wasn’t nowhere near no thousand dollars!"

Here's Pohlman's story below. Or, to see Beres's piece, click here.