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.”

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