Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Why Lillian Greene’s lawsuit to stop reform will fail

Lillian Greene’s suing to stop Issue 6. The county recorder who joined the reform discussions just to try to wreck them is trying again. Not because she’s selfish, she insists: “I’m not bringing this to keep my job,” she says. “There’s a principle there regarding the law.”

Now we get to buzz and wring our hands: Will we really get a new county government in 2011? Or will Greene’s suit – based on high principle, remember! – keep her and other lame ducks in office for two more years, against the voters’ will?

Don’t worry. Her lawsuit is dead on arrival.

The last graf of today’s cleveland.com story tells why. Her lawyer says an appeals court case out of Norton, in Summit County, strengthens her case. He’s wrong.

Voters in Norton chose a weird way to cut the size of their city council. They passed a charter amendment that got rid of two at-large councilmen — but kept the one who’d gotten the most votes in the previous election. The appeals court said that was unconstitutional because it changed the old election's rules two years afterward.

But the court disagreed with the idea that public officials have a “vested right to office.” In other words, voters can decide a politician’s job is unnecessary and get rid of it mid-term. So bye-bye, Lillian!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Brown: “You have to establish a new tone and culture”

Of all the candidates for Cuyahoga County executive, Terri Hamilton Brown has the most experience at one part of the new job: Cleaning house after a corruption scandal. She took over the county’s public housing agency in 1998 after Clare Freeman, her predecessor, was fired. Freeman later went to prison for theft in office. Brown cleaned up the mess.

“I used to describe it as being parachuted behind enemy territory with no map or compass,” Brown says. She fired staffers loyal to Freeman, not the organization. She hired a new financial officer, recruited an audit committee of outside advisers, and transformed the Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority’s books from unauditable to clean. She cooperated with the FBI investigation — and learned that wasn’t enough.

“You have to look and make sure there aren’t other areas that they haven’t identified,” Brown says. If elected county executive, she says, “We would look for other areas where there may have been abuse, or just poor practices that would allow for abuse.” Like some of her opponents, she says she’d issue a new ethics policy on her first day in charge. “You have to establish a new tone and a culture,” she says, “and you have to lead by modeling it.”

Brown has never run for office before, but she has a lot of executive experience: former president of University Circle, community development director in Mike White’s City Hall, vice-president for corporate diversity at National City. Unlike her more polished opponents, such as Ed FitzGerald and Matt Dolan, Brown doesn’t speak in clear, catchy sound bites. Her longer answers show she’s new at campaigning, more used to the boardroom. She's thinking as she answers, figuring things out as she goes, weighing a bunch of factors, then naming her top priorities.

Brown says she voted for Issue 6 with reservations because she thought the county needed a single, strong leader. She was concerned that the county council, with 11 members elected by district, might act like Cleveland's city council in the 1990s, which sometimes wanted to split her department’s development money equally among all wards instead of tackling the greatest needs.

“I believe that would have disastrous effects if the county council viewed its role and viewed budget resources similarly,” she says. “What I know about needs and services at the county is that they’re not equal by districts and wards.”

Still, she voted for 6 because she thought the county commissioners’ decision-making on the Ameritrust Tower and Medical Mart revealed a need for a single executive. The commissioners spent $40 million on the Ameritrust Tower, disagreeing all the while on whether to move into it or tear it down -- then canceled the project. “That created a question: Are we using resources effectively? Are we good stewards of our tax dollars?” She felt the Medical Mart project suffered from the years-long debate on where to build it. “[In] economic development, time is money,” she says. She thinks a single executive could’ve moved faster. “It’s about being able to execute decisions and move decisively.”

That’s the sort of talk the new charter's supporters in the business community love to hear, though it may not go over well with the insiders who'll decide on the Democratic party endorsement next weekend. (Brown, running against two well-connected suburban mayors in the Democratic primary, has called on the party to endorse no one.) But she’ll probably be well-funded enough to get her message out. And she hardly lacks political connections: Her husband, Darnell Brown, is Mayor Frank Jackson’s chief operating officer. If she can communicate well with voters and combine business support with support in the city, she’s got a good chance.

To fulfill the charter's top goal, encouraging economic development, Brown says the new government should find a unique niche where it can be most helpful. She thinks that means doing more of what the county already does: “Creating places -- redevelopment sites -- acquiring, re-subdividing, identifying locations.” The new county land bank “would be an important tool to use strategically,” she says, to “set the table.”

Brown says creating places is her specialty. One of her first projects at City Hall, the Church Square shopping center and homes at Euclid Avenue and East 79th Street, was celebrated as a model of urban redevelopment. However, her three years as president of University Circle, Inc., 2002 to 2005, ended without spectacular new development in the neighborhood. Brown says she laid the groundwork for the still-anticipated Uptown project at Euclid Avenue and Mayfield Road by buying property at the corner and attracting new businesses, including a Starbucks and a Charter One bank branch. She pushed for the Opportunity Corridor, a proposed boulevard to connect University Circle to I-490 -- a project she's also worked on for the Greater Cleveland Partnership. To bring more visitors to University Circle, she built a new stage in Wade Oval, created popular events such as Wade Oval Wednesdays and improved outreach to Glenville and other nearby neighborhoods.

“I’m passionate about things,” she says. “I think that passion can become contagious and invite others to join.” In her City Hall job, “I got really excited about rebuilding places. As I progressed in my career, it moved from bricks and mortar to investing in people, to helping people succeed. I think now it’s a mix of both.”

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

City Hall's LED debate lights up again

Frank Jackson’s taking another shot at his LED lighting plan. Gone is the idea of handing a no-bid contract to Chinese manufacturer Sunpu-Opto, but not much else has changed.

The mayor still wants to use the city’s purchasing power as leverage to demand new jobs. Any company can now bid on a 10-year city lighting contract — if it promises to build a North American headquarters in Cleveland with 350 employees. In other words, the call for bids proposes a deal that Jackson knows Sunpu-Opto’s willing to make and invites other companies to match it.

Councilman Brian Cummins e-mailed me to say he’s against the new proposal. In a comment on my blog two weeks ago, Cummins said he objected to the Sunpu-Opto deal because of a “lack of credibility related to the company and their products.” He’s now posted several arguments against the new plan on Brewed Fresh Daily. The strongest: The LED lighting industry is changing so fast, how do we know that whichever company gets the deal will be producing state of-the-art lights in 2020?

But I doubt any company would relocate to Cleveland just to get a plain old two- or three-year contract. The original deal looked like it’d squeak through council on a 10-9 vote, and the competitive bidding in the new plan may convince a few councilpeople to drop their opposition. It’ll be hard for them to turn down 350 new jobs (even if many would be low-paying). But Cummins and others who oppose the deal are posing some tough questions. And win or lose, they’re establishing themselves as independent thinkers who won’t back down.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Clambake corruption detailed as McFaul pleads guilty

Did you catch this detail in the coverage of Gerald McFaul's guilty plea? The former sheriff pocketed $50,000 in cash from selling souvenirs at his infamous clambakes. From this morning's Plain Dealer story, which says McFaul will repay $130,000 in ill-gotten gains:

$50,000 will go back to McFaul's campaign fund. McFaul sold items -- coffee cups, shirts, hats and instant bingo tickets -- at his annual clambake but never listed the cash in his campaign filings, Lingo said. ... The money can only be used for political purposes or donated to charity.
That's 50 grand in 10 years, or $5,000 a year. How many T-shirts and hats is that? I wonder if they'd have a residual value as kitsch. Surely authentic McFauliana would be even funnier than these satirical pins. Frequent clambakers should sell their swag on eBay. I'd buy it.

Although McFaul held the clambake for more than three decades, the theft charges stem from 2000 to 2009 because investigators could only prove the thefts during that time, Lingo said. "I can't tell you how long it was going on," he said.
The answer is, a long, long time. Here's another key detail:

$80,000 of the restitution will go to the Sheriff's Office for the time employees spent selling clambake tickets while on-duty. He estimates workers spent about 500 hours a year selling tickets.
Who bought these tickets? Well, who's at the Justice Center every day? Judges, lawyers, bailiffs -- the people who administer justice in Cleveland. This shows us how Cleveland's political culture has changed quickly -- how corrupt corner-cutting was tolerated, unquestioned, whispered of for years. Everyone knew.

What changed? With McFaul, the answer is Mark Puente's exposés, all the more impressive because he found something others at the PD missed. Consider former PD editorial page editor Brent Larkin's March 2009 mea culpa for having endorsed McFaul five times. He wrote then:

Sure, there were warning signs, either dismissed or downplayed. ... there were periodic rumblings about the aggressive fund-raising tactics surrounding McFaul's annual clambake.
Then, in 2007 and 2008, light after light switched on, first at the local FBI offices, then in newsrooms. I've blogged before about how quickly the county government went from unexamined to relentlessly watchdogged after the $40 million Ameritrust Tower debacle, how secrets tumbled out once people knew someone wanted to know.

Now a retired judge from Geauga County will decide whether McFaul goes to jail, maybe even the jail he used to run. I may have spoken too soon when I said he'd probably be locked up -- lots of people think he'll get probation. His plea and restitution might buy him freedom. It may depend on whether the judge holds McFaul to the standards Cleveland is holding elected officials to today, or considers the much lower standards McFaul got used to years ago.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Welo: “I’m here to build the foundation”

Most of the candidates for Cuyahoga County executive try hard to pitch themselves as agents of change, contrasting themselves with the scandal-plagued, lame-duck county government. Not Georgine Welo.

The longtime Democrat carefully avoids criticizing anyone now in power. Instead, she’s running on her record as mayor of South Euclid, arguing she can turn around Cuyahoga County the same way she’s changed her East Side suburb of 22,000 people.

“I think we’re a microcosm of the county,” she says.

In Welo’s 6½ years as mayor, she says, South Euclid has fought the foreclosure crisis by remodeling vacant homes with green technology. It’s torn up an old concrete culvert into an urban marsh that’s attracted bird-watching homebuyers and a Bavarian tea house. “We are very, very diverse ethnically,” she says. “It’s helped fill our homes, our school district.” Most of all, her administration’s been aggressively business-friendly, Welo says, helping new businesses open and convincing manufacturers not to leave by shepherding them through their expansions.

“We have to compete constantly,” Welo says. “And you have to win. And you have to be able to show that no matter where you do business, you will never be treated better than here.”

That kind of talk appeals to the corporate leaders who bankrolled the county reform effort and will likely fund candidates’ campaigns this year. It fits the new county charter’s goal of encouraging job creation. Looking at Akron and Pittsburgh’s experience with county executives, Welo says the exec should be a “facilitator” who moves projects along and builds coalitions.

“I want the business community involved,” she says. “I want them at the table.”

Beyond that, Welo sometimes sounds like the establishment Democrats who proposed a more gradual approach to county reform last year. Welo opposed Issue 6, which created the new government she wants to lead. She thought the sheriff should be elected and all county races non-partisan, and she was upset that the initiative’s authors didn’t consult her.

If elected, Welo says she’d focus on social services, workforce training, and restoring trust. She wants to expand the county’s overworked economic development department – but she sounds skeptical of the idea that restructuring government will save money and help fund economic programs.

“Most of the money in the county [budget] is a pass-through for health and human services,” she says, echoing an argument used against Issue 6. “There’s a very small amount that can be used for other projects. That’s what hopefully we can grow. Some people are saying we’ll be able to grow that because we’ll have less employees, less leased buildings. But until you get in there and see it, it’s only words.”

Asked to judge the current government’s failures and successes, she offered only mild criticism.

“Looking at their financials, they’ve done very well in managing the money,” she says, mentioning buyouts that have shrunk the workforce. She hints at the Department of Children and Family Services’ recent failures, saying she’d ask Case Western’s Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences to figure out “how can we actually save more lives,” because “we continue to lose children.”

Surprisingly, Welo defends the county commissioners’ decision to buy the Ameritrust Tower, a miscalculation that’s cost the taxpayers $40 million and left the government owning an empty skyscraper.

“I also think they’ve been good in some other ways that maybe people think they have failed,” she says. “The county looked at the building at Euclid Avenue and Ninth Street. I think all the intentions were good. I think it was an exciting idea to try to start building.” A new county headquarters there would’ve unified and brought new life to Euclid Avenue, she says. “What happened? Don’t know. You really don’t know what happened after that.” (The commissioners figured out two years too late that they couldn’t afford their plans. See my June 2008 article “Tower Play” for the full story.)

Welo, 51, served as the Democratic Party’s co-executive director for two years in the late 1990s, during Jimmy Dimora’s early years as chairman. (“Jimmy didn’t ask me to take money from anybody,” she says. If he did anything unethical back then, “I never saw it.”)

Restoring public trust is her top priority, she says. That means leading by example. “If you go into the local restaurants, they’ll tell you I don’t take anything free,” she says. South Euclid City Hall stopped doing business with her husband’s hardware store when she became mayor. “We have policies: none of the elected officials’ family members in our city are allowed to work [for the government]. You’d have to put those same kind of policies and procedures in handbooks [at the county]. We have an ethics commission in our city. You could put an ethics commission in.”

Welo’s closing argument seems to position her against one Democratic primary opponent, Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald, who’s developed a reputation for grand ambitions.

“I’m someone who’s going to put their political capital on the line,” she says. “I’m not going to run for congress, governor, senator. I don’t have young children. … I’m here to give you 12 to 14 hours a day. I’m here to build the foundation, to pass this county government on to a younger generation.”

Welo’s steady-hand pitch — she’ll adapt to the new system but not crusade to overturn the old — may help her attract allies among Democratic insiders who’ll decide the party and AFL-CIO endorsements and help get out the vote. Already, her work as chair of the First Suburbs Coalition has helped win her endorsements from seven mayors. But if Democratic primary voters go to the polls Sept. 7 looking for a reformer, Terri Hamilton Brown’s first-time candidacy or FitzGerald’s aggressive anti-corruption message may be more likely to catch on than Welo’s quieter approach.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Washington Post blasts Fudge's bill to curb ethics office

Here in Cleveland, we think of U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge as the successor to Stephanie Tubbs Jones, leader of Northeast Ohio's black Democrats, a political power broker. Looks like she's in danger of developing a different reputation in Washington -- as a congressperson who wants to weaken a new ethics law.

Fudge introduced a bill this week to limit the powers of the two-year-old Office of Congressional Ethics. Her intention, she says, is to keep ethics investigations from becoming political attacks. But good-government groups and the Washington Post editorial page disagree. They point out that Fudge's chief of staff, Dawn Kelley Mobley, was admonished by the House Ethics Committee for her role in setting up a Caribbean junket for some members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Four of those congresspeople are co-sponsoring Fudge's bill.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call summarizes her bill this way: "The House ethics committee could gain unilateral power to bury investigative reports authored by the Office of Congressional Ethics."

Today's Post editorial, entitled "Fudge Factor" in the print edition, says Fudge's proposal "would essentially neuter the ethics board, making it more difficult for OCE to launch investigations and inform the public of its findings." It concludes:

That Ms. Fudge and friends fear [the office's] power to launch an investigation says less about the new ethics office than it does about the sponsors of this misguided resolution.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Urban Outfitter: my profile of Ann Zoller

Ann Zoller, executive director of ParkWorks, has taken her nonprofit far beyond trees and flowers. She believes creating exciting public spaces is not just about carefree recreation — it’s a key to making Cleveland a place more people want to live. She wants to guide downtown’s landmark public spaces from the dull, gray present to a spring-like rebirth.

Zoller, more than anyone else, is responsible for this summer's rebuilding of Perk Plaza, site of a shocking 2009 murder, as a safer, more welcoming park. She’s also helping the Medical Mart developer redesign the century-old downtown malls. Even more ambitious, ParkWorks and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance want to radically remake Public Square into a destination as inspiring as the best urban parks in the country, possibly even by building a giant hill right over Superior Avenue and Ontario Street.

That’s why I profiled Zoller in “Urban Outfitter,” my feature in the June issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Zoller's political savvy helps her get things done. The former Mike White aide enjoys a solid partnership with the Jackson Administration (though that doesn't necessarily mean the mayor will fund a radically remade Public Square). And she's emerging as a key ally of influential younger politicians, such as Joe Cimperman and Chris Ronayne, who are trying to put their optimistic stamp on the city.

“For some people, a plan is the world,” says Cimperman. “They just love to plan. For Ann, the plan is just a means of getting something done.”

(To read my profile of Zoller, click here. You can link to it with this shortcut: tinyurl.com/CMZoller.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Clambakes and cane: McFaul charged

Looks like Gerald McFaul, who ran the Cuyahoga County Jail for 32 years, is going to jail. The former sheriff was arraigned this morning on theft in office charges. He'll plead guilty to criminal clambake sales and other crimes on Thursday, says his lawyer.

To mark the occasion, here's a greatest-hits compilation: my article about Mark Puente, the Plain Dealer reporter whose 17 stories in three months brought McFaul down; my blog post on McFaul's liquor collection; and best of all, a video of McFaul poking Puente with his cane.