Thursday, December 29, 2011

FBI investigated failed Ameritrust Tower sale, asbestos contract

Now's the season when we learn new details about the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal, including the stuff the FBI investigated that hasn't led to charges. Before Jimmy Dimora goes on trial next week, we're seeing a flurry of court filings that reveal a lot about the feds' early moves in the probe.

Here's the biggest news so far. The judge's latest opinion reveals that two of the seven alleged schemes the FBI was investigating as of late 2007 involved the Ameritrust Tower. The FBI showed an interest in the county's $22 million purchase of it and failed attempt to sell it, as well as a $7 million contract to remove asbestos from it.

We've known for a while that the FBI was curious about the county's vacant skyscraper. The search warrant executed on Dimora's office in 2008 asked for documents showing his decision-making on the Ameritrust project. This is the first time in 3 1/2 years we've learned anything more.

Judge Sara Lioi never writes the word "Ameritrust," but it's clear which building she's talking about in her opinion. Lioi explains several steps the FBI took to assemble probable cause to believe a crime had been committed before it asked permission to tap Dimora buddy Steve Pumper's phone in December 2007. She describes a conversation between Pumper and a confidential source who's wearing a wire -- probably Cleveland housing inspector Bobby Cuevas -- about a building that is clearly the Ameritrust Tower:

On November 15, 2007, the Cuyahoga County Commissioners voted to place the property in question up for sale.... a number of calls were placed on the evening of November 15th between, variously, Dimora, Company A, Pumper, and Michael Forlani... Pumper, after rubbing his fingers together in a "money" gesture, stated that the County Commissioners often "want a little action"; and Pumper indirectly indicated to the confidential source that the reason the County had opted to purchase the now-for-sale building in the first place instead of another property under consideration was because the owner of the other property refused to pay bribes or kickbacks.

The main competition for The Jacobs Group, which sold the Ameritrust Tower to the county in 2005, was Forest City, which offered to lease the Higbee Building to the county, and David Goldberg of the former Ohio Savings Bank, who offered a lease on the 668 Euclid building.

Next, Lioi describes an alleged "scheme" that clearly involves the contract to remove asbestos from the Ameritrust Tower. In August 2007, Dimora and Tim Hagan voted to award the asbestos contract to the second-lowest bidder, local company Precision Environmental, instead of the low bidder, St. Louis company Midwest Asbestos Abatement. (Peter Lawson Jones voted against giving the contract to Precision.)

In the judge's words:
[One scheme involved] the bidding process for a contract for "soft demolition" in a building owned by the County. ... a confidential source reported that Dimora had close ties to the individuals who owned a contracting company that had submitted the second-lowest bid... another confidential source reported (second-hand) that several Cuyahoga County officials held a private meeting at which they decided to award the contract to the second-place company despite its higher bid; this second confidential source also reported that a public employee close to Cuyahoga County Auditor Frank Russo told the source that Russo and Dimora had been waiting for a company like the second-place company to need their help...

Sounds ominous, but the judge's summary may help explain why the FBI's interest in the contract did not lead to charges. Some of the FBI's suspicions were based on second-hand stories.

It's also worth noting that Dimora and Hagan awarded the contract to Precision based on the advice of their staff. I interviewed some of those staffers in 2008, and they seemed to strongly believe Precision was the best company for the job. You can read about the asbestos controversy and the purchase of the tower in my June 2008 story "Tower Play."

Also, Dimora's friend Bobby DiGeronimo, whose family owns Precision, spoke to me for "Life of the Party," my October 2009 Dimora profile. He told me that he and Dimora didn't speak about the asbestos contract until after the vote.

{Update, 1/6/12: Interesting -- DiGeronimo's relationship with Dimora may come up in the trial. DiGeronimo spoke to me in 2009 for my Dimora profile. “To this day, Jimmy has never asked me for anything except sports tickets,” he told me. Now the feds want to talk about those gifts at trial. They're not drawing a connection with the asbestos contract, but with a land sale DiGeronimo bidded on. He tells the Plain Dealer he did nothing wrong. And yes, this is the same Bobby DiGeronimo from the Ohio State football scandal. Dimora got his famous Beanie Wells jersey at a fundraiser for DiGeronimo's charity.}

Two final notes, giving credit where it's due. Fox 8 reported in fall 2007 that the FBI was investigating the Ameritrust asbestos contract. Now we know that Fox 8 was right, and was the first local media outlet to report on the corruption investigation. Also, the Plain Dealer has long claimed that Bobby Cuevas was a key figure in the probe, to the point where they referred to the county corruption investigation and the feds' stings of crooked Cleveland inspectors as part of the same investigation. I had my doubts and said so. But the judge's opinion seems to suggest that Cuevas was one of the feds' two best sources on Dimora and Pumper in 2007.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Kucinich's future at stake on March 6; state approves new map, single primary

Here's what you need to know about yesterday's compromise on a single primary date, March 6, and a new redistricting map:

Voters may end Dennis Kucinich's long political career in March. The new map adds a big chunk of Toledo to the ridiculous new lakeshore district linking Toledo and Cleveland. That gives Toledo congresswoman Marcy Kaptur an advantage in a primary against Kucinich.

Now comes the guessing game: what will Dennis' "new direction" be, now that he's faced with a map he opposed? Will he run against Marcia Fudge and Nina Turner? Will he revive the move-to-Seattle talk? My guess is he stays in the lakeshore district and fights -- and he may well lose. (Update, 12/30: He's running in the lakeshore district. And getting very chatty in e-mails to supporters, calling Kaptur his friend and saying he faces a difficult election.)

• The map didn't change much for Fudge, who's off to a fast start against Turner, picking up support from Democrats in Akron. Now Turner has less than three months to build a case against the incumbent. (Update, 12/30: Turner has decided not to run, citing the short time span.)

• Ohio may actually have a say in the Republican presidential nomination. The race is so wide-open, it may still be unresolved by March 6 -- a way more influential date than June 12.

• Cuyahoga County Democrats will pick a new prosecutor the same day as the Kucinich-Kaptur and Fudge-Turner races. Here's Mark Naymik's update on the prosecutor's race, and mine.

• Betty Sutton may have a decent chance to stay in Congress after all. Redistricting threw the Democrat into a November contest with Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci. The new district leans Republican, but Sutton just released a surprising poll that shows her and Renacci tied 45-45. The new map won't change her odds by much.

Update, 12/16: Kucinich sent a message to supporters this morning with no mention of the new map or the congressional race. Sounds like he's hedging his bets. "We have big initiatives we will be unveiling over the next few months -- a national campaign to revitalize our democracy, a new website and toolset to more effectively organize our movement and create change. ... I look forward to doing great things over the next year with this movement."

To read my profile of Kucinich, "The Missionary," click here. To see The Complete Kucinich, an archive of Cleveland Magazine's coverage of Kucinich's career, click here.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Mason mum on race to succeed him, but he's watching

I ran into Bill Mason last month at an event and asked him if he was endorsing in the race to succeed him as Cuyahoga County prosecutor. No, he said, and gave the standard diplomatic line of an incumbent laying low, some variation on, "There's a lot of good candidates out there."

Then Mason told me about a vote the Democratic Party ward leaders had taken the day before on whether the party should endorse a candidate. Like an NFL fan obsessing over his betting pool, he recited the numbers from memory:

28 votes to recommend

James McDonnell, 26
Kevin Kelley, 16
Tim McGinty, 7
Subodh Chandra, 4
Bob Triozzi, 1

Mason may not be running or endorsing, but the veteran political pro still loves the game.

I was surprised at the results. McDonnell, a defense attorney and brother of county judge Nancy McDonnell, is the least known of the five candidates. (Kelley is a Cleveland councilman, McGinty a county judge, Chandra and Triozzi former Cleveland law directors.)

Mason said McDonnell had been working hard for the endorsement, spending months making the rounds of ward meetings to introduce himself.

I knew this was true. I met McDonnell this summer at Zagara's grocery store in Cleveland Heights, where he was wearing a James J. McDonnell For Cuyahoga County Prosecutor T-shirt. He told me he was visiting Democratic neighborhood picnics and the like.

Back then I might've agreed with Mark Naymik's description of McDonnell in an October report on the race: "He's amiable but over-confident and is relying on a decent ballot name to propel him." Guess he wasn't over-confident after all. All that hard work is paying off.

Just how much it pays off, we'll see today. The county Democrats are gathering at the Music Hall to vote on whether to endorse in the March primary. A winner could get a big advantage. Ed FitzGerald's party endorsement in last year's executive race helped propel him through the primary.

But it won't be easy for McDonnell or anyone else to get that endorsement. As Mason, the experienced party politicker, pointed out, a candidate needs 60 percent of the vote to get it. So the five-way race could remain wide open until the voters get a chance to decide.

Update, 12/8: No one got the endorsement. Anastasia Pantsios describes the meeting and vote on Ohio Daily Blog: McDonnell had support in the western suburbs, Chandra in the eastern suburbs, Kelley in the city of Cleveland.

Update, 12/15: Mark Naymik reports that every Parma Democrat voted for McDonnell. Hmm...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What makes Nina Turner so confident?

Nina Turner sees an opportunity. The aggressive, ambitious state senator thinks she can defy the odds against congressional challengers and unseat U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge. Why is she so confident?

Visibility and personality, to start with. Turner gets way more attention than your average state senator. She's become a regular on Ed Shultz's MSNBC show as the Ohio liberal who bashes Gov. Kasich and argues that the swing state is swinging the Democrats' way. Take a look at her feisty call for Kasich to apologize to Ohioans for Issue 2 (at the 1:00 mark).

Political commentator Jason Johnson writes that Turner's "passionate, rough-around-the-edges style" resembles the late Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones' personality more than Fudge's does. That surely sounds like sacrilege to Fudge supporters, who know Fudge was Tubbs Jones' friend, card-playing buddy and anointed successor. But Johnson is on to something. Fudge has a quiet personality for a politician. Compare her MSNBC appearance to Turner's here.

"We are in dire need of leadership with a purpose, and I'm not seeing that," Turner told The Plain Dealer's Henry Gomez. We'll see how well she backs up that argument. But Turner must feel Fudge (right) hasn't been in Congress long enough to acquire an incumbent's usual clout and advantages. With only three years seniority, Fudge isn't the first congressperson local officials turn to when they need help in Washington -- Steve LaTourette is.

Besides, the tentative redistricting map gives Fudge a lot of new territory to cover, from Garfield Heights all the way down the I-77 corridor to Akron. Turner may find it easier to win over voters there, since they haven't voted for Fudge before.

Turner is betting that established politicians in Cleveland and Washington don't have as much clout as they seem. The Cuyahoga County Democrats are sure to endorse the incumbent. So will the old black political network in town -- Arnold Pinkney, George Forbes, etc.

But the local Democrats got beaten badly when they united against county reform two years ago. Almost every black elected official except Turner came out against Issue 6, but about half of black voters supported it. Turner is probably counting on a similar split in the black vote in this campaign. Plenty of Issue 6 supporters, from wealthy businesspeople to civic leaders to maverick Democrats, stand ready to back Turner now because of her risky stance then. Likewise, the infamous race-baiting attack against her for supporting reform could even rebound in her favor. Cleveland voters tend to admire politicians who stand up to bullies.

The case for re-electing Fudge, or betting on her re-election, is simpler and less dramatic. Fudge is the incumbent, she has a bigger political network, her views on the issues fit the district, and Turner hasn't yet made the case for replacing her. Jason Johnson says the Congressional Black Caucus has tried to boost Fudge's visibility lately. They could easily back that up with national fund-raising on her behalf.

But Turner may also be confident because her backup plan is self-evident. She has a safe seat in the state senate -- her term doesn't end until 2014. So if she loses to Fudge but runs a competitive race, she'll still increase her name recognition and her fund-raising base. That could help her take a shot at another higher office in the future. Even by losing, she could win.

Update, 12/5: Fudge announced her re-election campaign today, touting a long list of endorsements from local elected officials, black ministers, and others. An anonymous Fudge supporter serves up a punchy quote to Mike McIntyre for his Tipoff column today: "We're going to beat Nina Turner like she stole something."

12/6: Good PD coverage of Fudge's campaign announcement from Joe Frolik and Henry Gomez. Frolik says Turner faces "very long odds" and that Fudge pledged to run a clean campaign and "disown" (his words) mud-slinging supporters. He offers this diplomatically couched take on Fudge's personality: "If Fudge sometimes comes across as cold or even imperious -- especially in contrast to her gregarious predecessor -- it may be because she's never had to learn to be a good candidate. Now she will."

12/30: Turner has decided not to run against Fudge in the primary, citing the short campaign season now that the vote will be March 6. Her statement leaves open the possibility of running as an independent in November.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Comedian Mike Polk mocks Ohio redistricting

"Hey, everybody! Are you ready to party? Are you ready to talk about about Ohio congressional redistricting? I know I am!"

With that, Cleveland comedian Mike Polk kicks off his three-minute, profanity-laced mockery of the Republicans' redistricting plan for Ohio. "Shady maneuvering," he calls it. He says the snake-y lakeshore district linking Toledo to Cleveland is so skinny, you pretty much have to live in an I-90 rest stop or a lighthouse to be a resident of it.

"Stop HB 319," flashes a message at the end. That means Cleveland's YouTube funnyman (whose recent Browns rant eerily foreshadowed yesterday's game, right down to the Pontbriand jersey) is endorsing the petition drive against the Republicans' map.

The GOP has introduced a revised map since passing HB 319, but a nonpartisan good-government group says it's almost as unfair as the old one. The Democrats' petition drive has given them some leverage, so the legislature may try to come up with a compromise map this week.

Drawing a map that gets bipartisan support would seem like a monumental accomplishment to everyone in Columbus. But the real question isn't whether both parties like a map. It's whether the map is fair to voters -- whether it leads to competitive elections and creates compact districts instead of stringing faraway towns together. (Like the one on the right here, not the one on the left.)

In other words, the real test is whether that lizard-like lakeshore district gets wiped off the map.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sen. Patton takes on Linndale, inspired by Cleveland Magazine article

State Sen. Tom Patton has had it with Linndale, Cuyahoga County’s tiniest town and biggest speed trap. He says he’ll introduce a bill next week to ban towns with less than 201 people from operating mayor’s courts.

Patton, who tried to shut down the Linndale speed trap earlier this year, says Cleveland Magazine’s August story “Greetings from Linndale” prompted him to try again.

“Your article inspired me,” he says.

My story, co-written with former Fox 8 investigator Mark DeMarino, revealed serious questions about the microvillage’s population count in the 2010 U.S. Census. Officially, the census counted 179 Linndalers, a 53 percent jump from 117 in 2000.

But the census results include one block that’s not really in Linndale, one block where nine phantom residents supposedly moved into an industrial zone, and a block that officially doubled in population but doesn’t have nearly that many people a year later.

We also reported that Linndale police officers personally encouraged residents to answer the census. The Census Bureau says that interferes with the census’s confidentiality and could intimidate people.

A low population count could threaten Linndale’s very existence. Current state law only allows mayor’s courts in towns with 101 people or more. The village, which includes 422 yards of I-71 but no freeway exit, raises about 80 percent of its million-dollar budget from court fines generated by traffic enforcement.

“I’m going to quote you quite liberally in my testimony,” Patton told me this morning. “The salient facts that show what length and breadth they went to. … I can’t help but think they acted dishonestly, to be very frank.”

To read Cleveland Magazine’s article, “Greetings from Linndale,” click here. Patton also spoke to Mike McIntyre for the Tipoff column in today's Plain Dealer, which you can read here.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Kucinich & Forbes' redistricting moves, Election Day preview on WCPN's Roundtable

I just appeared on WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable, where we talked about two Cleveland personalities' reactions to the latest twists in Ohio's redistricting battle.

Republicans have drawn a new map, in a failed attempt to please black Democrats. Dennis Kucinich is trying to kill the map, which revises the peculiar lakeshore district he wants to run in to favor Marcy Kaptur -- it throws in much more of Toledo and subtracts a piece of Lorain County. George Forbes, who tried to broker a deal, can't believe the black caucus didn't go for the new map. But most other Democrats hate the new map and the old map. They're using the threat of a referendum as leverage to shut down the whole process and try to get something better.

Roundtable host Rick Jackson ad libbed a question about Issue 2, Tuesday's referendum on SB 5, which prompted the usual torrent of anti-SB5 calls. (No one in favor of SB5 ever calls in to WCPN.) Polls predict a big defeat for Issue 2.

We also talked a bit about local school levies and a few mayor's races, especially Lorain's and Euclid's.

Bill Cervenik, Euclid's mayor, is facing challenger Charlene Mancuso in a race that revives the conflict I've written about between the town's pro-Cervenik and anti-Cervenik factions. Cervenik has survived past battles over whether he was right to let a black church move into town and settle a voting-rights suit with the Justice Department.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Mayor wants cars out of Public Square

Big news on Sunday's Plain Dealer front page: Mayor Frank Jackson tells Steven Litt he wants to close Public Square to cars and make it a huge park.

"I want to see one big square," Jackson told Litt.

The mayor's suddenly talking like the urban optimists I've profiled -- parks advocate Ann Zoller and, in the new November issue of Cleveland Magazine, developer Ari Maron. Like them, the mayor wants to make our public spaces more welcoming to visitors, downtown residents, pedestrians and bikers. He even seems to have had a conversion experience similar to Maron's. Visits to France, Italy and Slovenia have convinced Jackson that we can learn from European town plazas and do more to get people out walking and enjoying downtown.

Politically, this is big for two reasons. Jackson will really have to push for this. Closing Public Square to traffic won't be easy. Commuters will complain. They won't like swinging around a huge traffic circle in the middle of downtown. Buses stop in the square 3,200 times a day, and the RTA will have to find new bus stops for most of them.

But Jackson has a good argument for doing this right now: with the casino, Medical Mart and convention center coming soon, Cleveland is going into the business of attracting visitors to town in a big way. Public Square lies right between the two. Shouldn't it be more inviting?

If he succeeds, a new Public Square could be one of Jackson's signature projects. It could be an answer to critics who complain he's too quiet and has too little vision.

It may have taken him six years to get around to this, but the mayor is doing what leaders do. He's picking up new ideas that are gaining momentum. He's sweeping ideas he doesn't like out of the way (an earlier round of ideas for the square, including the peculiar notion of building a hill over the streets). He's declaring his support for an idea that everyone used to think was off limits.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Joe the Plumber vs. Dennis the Menace? Seriously?

I can see this coming from 100 miles away, streaking toward Cleveland on Route 2 like a drag race between a Ford pickup and a Prius. Everyone from Stephen Colbert to Fox News, from Politico to The Onion, will want a piece of this action. The most cartoon-colorful congressional race in the nation: Dennis "The Menace" Kucinich vs. Joe "The Plumber" Wurzelbacher.

Seriously, it could happen. Joe the Plumber announced his run for Congress this week. Laugh if you want, but the conservative media darling's name recognition seems to have scared Rob Frost, the Cuyahoga County Republican chairman, out of the race.

Now we are faced with the unholy spawn of Republican gerrymandering, a Frankenstein-monster district that has unnaturally stitched Toledo's peculiar politics together with Cleveland's. One congressional race. Two candidates whom the national media doesn't take seriously and who inspire political satirists to new heights of YouTube-able ridiculousness.

Only two things can stop it.

Joe the Plumber isn't running to take Dennis down. He wants to unseat Marcy Kaptur, Toledo's longtime progressive congresswoman. But the impending Kaptur-Kucinich primary is tough to call. Lots of people think Kucinich has the edge. Brent Larkin is the only person I've seen who's explained why Kaptur has a good chance.

Also, Democrats in Columbus have shrewdly used referendum petitions as leverage to try to force a compromise on redistricting and a new map fairer to Democrats. Negotiations might dismantle that ruthlessly gerrymandered lakeshore district.

I'm not going to get into whether Wurzelbacher is actually a serious candidate. Hey, the guy had the good taste to announce his candidacy at Tony Packo's, which wins him points in my book.

My take on the Plumber phenomenon goes back to his first minute of fame. Why is it that he becomes a hero, a celebrity, a political character, just for asking a presidential candidate a tough question?

Joe Wurzelbacher's life changed the day Barack Obama campaigned at a picnic in his neighborhood. Like anyone would, Joe headed over to see what was going on. Like any good citizen who doesn't like a candidate's politics, he got a second with Obama and challenged him.

Though he's a working-class guy, Joe is the type of conservative who doesn't much like progressive taxation. He told Obama that his tax plan -- to raise rates on people making more than $250,000 a year -- would keep him from buying a business. So John McCain championed Joe in a debate, leaving Obama to make the point that most plumbers don't make $250K.

I see why McCain would make Joe a hero. Populist solidarity with the rich is key to the Republican electoral strategy, no matter how illogical liberals think that alliance is.

My question is, why is it so rare to see a voter challenge a presidential candidate? It should happen all the time. We should expect them to face questions in unstaged situations. But hand-shaking and conversation are old-fashioned in an age of security cordons, nine-figure campaign funds, and stage-managed "town hall meetings." Once the candidates get past Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other tiny early-primary states, facing voters one on one is a rare thing.

You can just imagine presidential candidates' strategists looking at Joe's fame and saying, "That's it. After February, none of this 'regular people at a picnic' crap."

They don't want to risk a gaffe, or any cable-ready unscripted moment. But now it's more than that: They don't want to accidentally spawn a congressional candidate.

To read my profile of Kucinich, "The Missionary," click here. To see The Complete Kucinich, an archive of Cleveland Magazine's coverage of Kucinich's career, click here.

(Photo: Rona Proudfoot of Lorain, Ohio)

Monday, October 17, 2011

City council to consider exempting small music clubs from admissions tax

*Updated 10/18

For months, fans of Cleveland’s small music clubs have been challenging the city’s entertainment admissions tax. Now they’ll have some legislation they can get behind.

Councilman Joe Cimperman says he’ll introduce a proposed ordinance tonight or next Monday to exempt clubs with less than 1,000 700* capacity from the 8 percent tax on ticket sales.

“Local music is a huge return on investment in our communities,” Cimperman says. “Without the Beachland [Ballroom], Waterloo [Road] would be less. Without places like the Happy Dog and Brothers, those parts of town would be less.”

Music fans have been questioning the tax since this summer, when the Jackson Administration hit the Beachland with a $400,000 bill for back taxes, penalties and interest. The Plain Dealer broke the news, but Beachland aficionados really started rallying after this Scene cover story, which recounted the club's 11-year history of operating on a budget as thin as a guitar string.

The Beachland and five other local clubs formed the Cleveland Music Club Coalition to fight the tax. They argue that the 8 percent rate is too high compared to other cities (Columbus and Lakewood have no admissions tax, Cleveland Heights levies 3 percent).

“The goal is to support smaller clubs that have a tighter margin to work with, to support local music in the rock capital of the world,” Cimperman says. Other councilmen with music clubs in their wards — Mike Polensek, Jay Westbrook and Matt Zone — have also been working on the issue.

The 1,000 700*-capacity cutoff would exempt a bunch of locally-owned venues, but not their chain-owned competitor, the 1,200-seat House of Blues. One member of the Club Coalition, the Agora, might have to add the tax to some tickets and not others, depending on whether it used its ballroom or main theater.

Cimperman says the exemption won't be retroactive -- which means the Beachland will still have to settle its tax debt.*

Prospects for the proposed ordinance aren’t clear. The admissions tax generated almost $16 million in 2010, a revenue stream Mayor Jackson’s administration may be less than eager to trim in tough budget times. The city already faces a possible $4.5 million dip in admissions tax revenue if the NBA labor dispute scuttles the Cavaliers’ season.

*Update, 10/18: The ordinance was introduced last night, with a cutoff of 700 (not 1,000), and Cimperman, Polensek, Westbrook and Zone as co-sponsors. Clubs that owe back taxes, such as the Beachland and Peabody's, would have to settle their debts before they could qualify for the exemption.

Jackson sounds like he's against the proposal: "People owe, they should pay. We have a city to run. We can't run it on air." See the Plain Dealer story here.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Corruption charge filed against former Cleveland councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott

The corruption investigation has touched Cleveland City Hall again. Former councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott was charged today with taking $2,000 from businessman Michael Forlani in exchange for supporting his development of Cleveland's new veterans' hospital tower.

Pierce Scott represented Glenville's Ward 8 from 2002 to 2009, when she abruptly and mysteriously resigned from city council.

The charge suggests Pierce Scott asked for, and got, $2,000 in cash to pay her daughter's tuition as well as a job for her son with Forlani's company Doan Pyramid Electric. In exchange, it's alleged, Pierce Scott co-sponsored several pieces of legislation that supported the veterans' hospital tower, including a tax financing agreement.

I say "suggests" because the filing doesn't name Forlani, who hasn't been charged with a crime, or his companies. But the details about "BE 10," "Business 14," and "Business 42" make his identity clear. It also doesn't name the VA hospital tower, but the references to a $120 million project with Port Authority financing are unmistakable.

The filing also says Pierce Scott chewed out an unnamed fellow councilperson at a 2006 finance committee meeting for questioning the amount of minority participation on the hospital project.

"How dare you use your own approach to question a project in my ward without having a discussion with me first," the prosecutors quote her as saying. "I don't mess with your projects and don't you mess with mine."

Sounds like a typical city council turf war, if not for the alleged cash in an envelope! (Update, 9/30: Zack Reed tells the Plain Dealer he's the councilman Pierce Scott ripped into. That makes sense. Reed often pushes for minority participation in construction jobs, and he often breaks the unofficial council rule Pierce Scott so clearly articulated in the quote, that councilpeople don't question what goes on in others' wards.)

Prosecutors filed the charge against Pierce Scott as an information, not an indictment, usually a sign that the defendant is cooperating with the investigation.

The charge finally brings to light a quiet part of the FBI's corruption investigation. The VA project was named three years ago in a search warrant executed on Jimmy Dimora's office. Forlani's Doan Pyramid Electric was raided on the same day. But no county employee was ever charged with improperly influencing the VA project. Instead, a former city councilwoman is now charged with doing so.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Primary moves back to March 6; Kucinich-Kaptur, prosecutor races to heat up

UPDATED with Kevin Kelley campaign announcement.

Buried in the news that Ohio Republicans rushed their ruthlessly gerrymandered congressional map through the state House and Senate this week was another change: Ohio's 2012 primary will be on March 6 after all, not May.

So if Mitt Romney and Rick Perry battle to a near-tie this winter, Ohio Republicans may actually get a say in who their presidential candidate will be, as Democrats here did in the tight 2008 race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

It also means campaigning will start soon in two big local races. Dennis Kucinich will be fighting to stay in Congress, forced to compete against fellow progressive Marcy Kaptur from Toledo.

And the race to succeed Bill Mason as county prosecutor will get hot fast.

Cleveland city councilman Kevin Kelley announced today that he's running for the job. (No, he's not Parma's J. Kevin Kelley, of corruption scandal fame.) "Kelley’s plans for the office include expanding the community-based prosecution model, improving efficiencies to save taxpayer dollars, and focusing on quality of life crimes that destroy neighborhoods," his press release says.

I've already blogged that Subodh Chandra, Bob Triozzi, and James McDonnell are running. Recently, Mike McIntyre, in Tipoff, basically confirmed a rumor I've heard: that judge Timothy McGinty is thinking about running too.

Meanwhile, Brent Larkin swiped at Mason in his Sunday column, as if to urge voters to elect a less political prosecutor this time.

Cuyahoga Co.'s vote by mail campaign kicks off

They can't do a mass mailing, so they're inviting you, even urging you: ask us for a ballot!

Cuyahoga County's board of elections kicked off a drive yesterday telling residents how they can vote by mail in this November's election. They've asked 400 local institutions to put a Request a Vote By Mail Ballot Application link on their websites. The link goes to a nifty new page that lets residents create a personalized mail-in ballot application. They can download it, or have it mailed to them. They can also download a blank application.

Voters can also call pick up ballot applications at libraries or call the board to request them at (216) 443-3298.

Cuyahoga County residents got used to voting by mail between 2006 and 2010, when the county sent the applications to every voter's home. Next year, every Ohioan will get an application for the 2012 presidential election, thanks to the bargain between Ed FitzGerald and Jon Husted. But for the this November's election -- mostly a referendum on Senate Bill 5 plus some local contests -- people who want to vote by mail will have to ask for a ballot. So Cuyahoga County -- which still wants voters to vote by mail to prevent long lines at the polls -- is doing everything else it can to make it easy.

Voters in other counties can also contact their board of elections -- here's a list.

Update, 9/24: The fragile bipartisan coalition around Cuyahoga County's vote by mail effort is breaking up.

Rob Frost, county Republican chair (and congressional candidate) has resigned from the county's vote by mail task force, upset that several unions have asked the county for ballot applications. The AFL-CIO asked for 185,000. Frost thinks having the county pay to print them, when they'd be used for a political group's get out the vote efforts, would amount to an end run around FitzGerald's deal with Husted. See today's Tipoff here. Update, 9/26: FitzGerald and others on the task force tell Tipoff that the unions are printing their own applications.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Plusquellic wins Akron mayoral primary

Even after 24 years, Don Plusquellic is still Akron's indispensable man. So the city's voters decided yesterday, giving the mayor a 55 percent to 43 percent victory in the Democratic primary against challenger Mike Williams.

Plusquellic's record of accomplishment triumphed again over the complaints about his sometimes abrasive personality. Much of Williams' 40-point campaign plan was written as a critique of Plusquellic's leadership style. But the mayor, energized at the chance to take on a longtime rival, spun his combativeness as a positive. "Don Plusquellic is Fighting for Us... Because He Is One of Us," read a campaign flier. "The leader we need in tough times."

The mayor's aggressive, innovative record on job attraction and retention earned him the support of Akron's power elite. His victory party was filled with city leaders, the Beacon Journal reports, including CEOs, University of Akron president Luis Proenza, city councilpeople and Summit County officials.

In his victory speech, the mayor promised to revive his biggest, most elusive goal: setting up a scholarship program for Akron high school students. As he did in my interview with him, Plusquellic said he's willing to “work with anybody who didn’t mislead the public” -- a dig at Williams, who he feels misled voters about his 2008 ballot proposal to fund scholarships by leasing the city sewers.

Akron's intensely combative politics are not about to mellow out. Two pro-Plusquellic city councilpeople lost yesterday, inspiring Williams to renew his opposition to the mayor's leadership. “I’ve got some new members of council who are prepared to change how we function,” Williams said, according to the Beacon. “We cannot tolerate this old way of doing business.”

To read “Tire Calling,” my article about Plusquellic in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine, click here. For other excerpts from my interview in the latest issue of Inside Business, click here.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kucinich sounds like he'll stay, run against Kaptur

Looks like the Dennis-to-Seattle buzz was a feint. Here's Dennis Kucinich's reaction to the Republicans' redistricting map:

It is an amazing turn of events that the legislature decided not to dismantle the district I represent.

I have been praying that I could continue to serve my Cleveland-area constituency and it looks like I have a chance.

That is all I could have hoped for.

That's not to say the Republicans have left Kucinich an intact district. He's been thrown into a stretched-on-the-rack monster as thin and ridiculous as the original gerrymander: a piece of Toledo and a piece of Cleveland strung together by a tiny strip of shoreline. I'd call it the Route 2 district, for the lake-hugging highway, except it's so thin that even Route 2 probably slips out of it for a piece. Take a look at it in this pdf.

But Kucinich sees something most people didn't today: the map keeps Kucinich's base together -- Cleveland's West Side and Lakewood.

The new map pits him against Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Toledo, an ally and fellow member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It's a cruel dare -- will two friends fight for the same unnaturally created congressional seat?

Will Cleveland have to get to know Kaptur, and Toledo Kucinich, in the primary this winter or spring?

The map sets off a lot more drama. Marcia Fudge's district stretches down I-77 to Akron, peeling away enough voters who know her well that state Sen. Nina Turner might have more of a chance if she challenges her. Steve Latourette gets a bigger slice of Cuyahoga County. Betty Sutton is either redistricted out of a job or into an uphill fight against Jim Renacci, who also may end up representing a piece of Cuyahoga County. Meanwhile, the Democrats and Republicans are fighting over whether the primaries will come in March or May.

But the best storyline is surely the latest twist in Kucinich's 40-plus-year relationship with Cleveland. It's not over yet.

To read my profile of Kucinich, "The Missionary," click here. To see The Complete Kucinich, an archive of Cleveland Magazine's coverage of Kucinich's career, click here.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Plusquellic, charismatic and combative as ever, aims for 7th term Tuesday

This summer I went to Akron to meet Don Plusquellic, the big personality who’s dominated the town’s politics since he was elected mayor in 1987. I’d blogged about him before and interviewed him by phone long ago. But during his campaign for a seventh term, I wanted to size up the guy in person.

I hoped he’d prove to be as intense, charismatic and combative as his reputation. And he was.

“This is a magic wand,” Plusquellic announced, waving a gavel handle, at a press conference. “It is a magic wand that good people, even probably my own mother, wishes I had waved a long time ago, to bring 35,000 or 40,000 or 50,000 rubber jobs back to this city.”

It was his sarcastic, strong-willed way of reminding voters that he’s spent 24 years trying to expand what a city hall can do for a local economy, while forging partnerships with businesses and suburban neighbors.

I thought I might get a dose of Plusquellic’s endless feud with his motley crew of enemies, the fury he inspires and inflicts.

“I despise ‘em, I think they’re despicable human beings, and I put Mike in that category, of people who lie to the public,” he told me.

“Mike” is Mike Williams, Plusquellic’s opponent in Tuesday’s mayoral primary. Plusquellic thinks Williams misled voters about his failed 2008 plan to fund college scholarships for Akron kids by leasing the city sewers. It’s one of several reasons the mayor’s race has gotten fiercely personal.

Tuesday’s election looks like it’ll be a referendum on Plusquellic — both his record of job creation and his combative politics. You can read “Tire Calling,” my article about the Rubber City’s mayor, in the September issue of Cleveland Magazine and online here.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Race to replace Mason taking shape; Triozzi resigns to run for prosecutor

People call Labor Day the start of the fall campaign season, but that's much too simple. Here in Cleveland, the 11th Congressional District parade marked the point when two campaign seasons sped up.

The Democrats' campaign to repeal Senate Bill 5 in November got the attention -- it was Labor Day, after all. But it also marked the start of the 2012 race to replace Bill Mason as Cuyahoga County prosecutor.

Subodh Chandra, who was Cleveland law director in the Campbell Administration, and James McDonnell, former North Royalton city prosecutor and brother of county judge Nancy McDonnell, both marched in the parade as candidates for the prosecutor's job.

They launched their campaign websites earlier this summer, but you're forgiven if you didn't know that. Only serious party loyalists have been paying attention so far, with the all-important Democratic primary still eight months away, in May (or March, if the Democrats' petition drive to stop Ohio's new election law succeeds).

Not to be outrun, Cleveland law director Bob Triozzi resigned today and declared he's a candidate too. Triozzi ran for mayor in 2005 and got about 10 percent of the vote, impressing Frank Jackson enough to win City Hall's top-lawyer job as a consolation prize.

Chandra ran for attorney general in 2006 and lost in the primary to Marc Dann, a decision state Democratic primary voters surely regretted after Dann's ridiculous scandals knocked him from office.

It's the first wide-open prosecutor's race in Cuyahoga County in 55 years, the first since Frank Cullitan, Eliot Ness' partner in crusading anti-corruption battles, retired in 1956 and John T. Corrigan won the race to take his place. We've only had three prosecutors since then, and Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Bill Mason both got the job through mid-term appointments by Democratic party insiders.

I wouldn't be surprised if even more candidates jump into this race. Given the office's history, it's an opportunity that opens up once in a lawyer's lifetime.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Ballot war ends; all Ohio voters to get vote by mail application in 2012

Turns out Ed FitzGerald is a shrewd negotiator, and Jon Husted meant what he said about treating all voters the same. They've ended their battle over voting-by-mail with a dramatic compromise announced this morning.

FitzGerald extracted a major promise from the secretary of state and Republican leaders in the legislature: Husted will send every Ohioan an application for a mail-in ballot for the 2012 presidential election. The legislature will agree to let Husted use federal money from the Help America Vote Act to pay for it. That'll help prevent long lines at the polls from returning in 2012.

The deal satisfies the Republican goal of treating voters in all 88 counties the same. They're doing something I thought they wouldn't do, the opposite of the thrust of their newly passed election law. They're taking urban counties' best solution for overcrowded voting locations and expanding it to everyone, instead of banning it.

FitzGerald had to make a major concession to get a deal with Husted. He had to drop Cuyahoga County's plan to send out ballot applications for the 2011 election. No other county was going to do it, which defied Husted's insistence on creating uniform statewide standards.

Jill Miller Zimon, over at Writes Like She Talks, sounds disappointed, skeptical about the details. But I think the compromise is shrewd. This year's Senate Bill 5 referendum is big, but the presidential election is much bigger.

By using his leverage to make voting easier for people across Ohio, FitzGerald becomes more of a force in state politics -- note how the Columbus Dispatch report calls him "perhaps Cleveland's most powerful Democrat." And Husted gets to reclaim his image as a moderate in ballot controversies. It won't stop the fight over HB 194, but it's the sort of bipartisan compromise on voting issues that has become all too rare.

The biggest question left is, will the statewide mailing only happen once, in 2012? Or will the deal create a precedent that Ohio will follow from then on?

Thursday, September 1, 2011

FitzGerald vs. Republicans: the new voting war

So another ballot battle has broken out in town, another partisan fight about how Greater Clevelanders vote. This time it’s between Ed FitzGerald and Jon Husted, the Cuyahoga County executive and the secretary of state, and it’s about the absentee ballot applications all county residents get in the mail.

I get why FitzGerald and the county council decided to have county workers mass-mail those applications to everyone, now that a new election law says boards of elections can’t do it anymore.

The county has been sending absentee applications to all voters since 2006, and it’s helped prevent a repeat of the terrible polling-place traffic jams that marred the 2004 presidential election. I wrote a lot about the voting problems we struggled with a few years ago, and I don’t want to see them come back.

Still, I’m finding the whole fight disappointing. One reason is I don’t think it’ll end well. Republicans in the legislature, enraged that FitzGerald found a way around their new election law, may simply ban counties from doing it again, making FitzGerald’s clever move a mere one-time victory.

Also, it’s tiring to see FitzGerald fall in with the partisan troops. “All the usual suspects are lining up,” he complains of the Republicans, but by saying that, isn’t he lining up on the other side? His use of the fight as ammo in a Democratic Party fundraising letter escalates the conflict. It’s another chapter in a sorry story: At least since the 2000 Florida recount, we’ve been stuck fighting over dueling Democratic and Republican ways of conducting elections.

FitzGerald didn’t start this particular battle. Republicans in the legislature did when they passed HB 194, which banned the mass mailing of absentee applications by election boards. Secretary of state Jon Husted followed up last week with a directive that did the same, before the law takes effect.

(Democrats are circulating petitions to repeal HB 194, which also cuts early voting at election offices from five weeks to two. They say the law is aimed at their voters. Early and absentee voting helped President Obama get out the vote in Ohio in 2008.)

Republicans’ argument for stopping the mass mailings is that if some counties send them out and others can’t afford it, then the state is tolerating “unequal treatment of voters in different counties,” as Republican state auditor David Yost wrote.

The argument does have a certain logic to it – it’s not “deceitful,” as state Rep. Mike Foley said yesterday. But it ignores the fact that long lines to vote are a more serious problem in urban counties and college towns than in small rural precincts. And it throws out a helpful solution rather than expanding it. Even if you give Republicans the benefit of the doubt about their motivation, they’re still so worried about consistency, they’re insisting on a system that’s less helpful to voters than it could be.

Yost may come out of this looking worse than anyone. He knows that HB 194 doesn’t stop counties from mass-mailing ballots, just county election boards. So his warning that he may punish Cuyahoga County with a “finding of recovery” in its next audit is a misuse of his authority. And his blog post, “The Wreck of Edward FitzGerald,” which slyly connects the county executive with the old county government’s scandals, shows he’s more interested in fighting with a Democrat than watching the books.

Husted’s arguments with FitzGerald are especially disappointing because, until last week, it looked like he was a moderate in the ballot wars, the Republican who discouraged his fellow Republicans from passing a new voter ID law. But his awful reaction to FitzGerald’s move – he said he might block boards of elections from processing mass-mailed ballot applications -- would’ve really caused a vote-suppression scandal.

Connie Schultz got Husted to back off that idea (he said he’d been “thinking out loud”). Her column yesterday encouraged his independent instincts. We’ll need to see a lot more of that side of Husted, if Ohio is going to have any hope of avoiding another partisan blood feud around our voting rules in 2012.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Voinovich on debt talks: House Republicans 'would rather lose than win'

When the debt ceiling talks in Washington collapsed this weekend, I thought of George Voinovich. I interviewed the former senator June 2 for the current issue of Inside Business, and I asked him about the fiscal future of the country.

"Bleak," he said. "They'll fiddle-faddle around."

Voinovich sketched out a mostly prescient preview of the debt ceiling talks. House Speaker John Boehner "has a problem, because he has a bunch of newer members who really are not dry behind the ears, and many of them, because of their positions, would rather lose than win," Voinovich said. "He’s got to try to keep that group together.

"So I think that the House will increase the debt limit temporarily." (Even that hasn't happened so far. Democrats reject a temporary fix.) "They will then say they’re going to have a 'conversation' about dealing with the debt. The conversation will go nowhere because they will not agree to new taxes.

"The fact is you cannot get the job done without increasing taxes."

That quote there highlights the difference between Voinovich and most Republicans in Washington today. Many House conservatives have refused to raise the debt ceiling without severe spending cuts, but they refuse to raise any taxes to deal with the debt. Voinovich is a different kind of conservative. He's a deficit hawk. Confronting the debt is his top priority, and he'd be willing to raise taxes as well as cut spending to do it.

Freed from life in Washington, Voinovich sounds as frustrated with his fellow Republicans in the nation’s capital as he is with the Democrats. In my interview with him, he explains why he often calls President Obama a socialist. But he also blasts fellow Republicans in Washington for not listening to regular people and putting partisan battles ahead of the good of the country.

To read Voinovich's thoughts in the July-August Inside Business, click here.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Chalk protest aims to save Columbia Building from casino

The Columbia Building may face a death sentence, but several artistic activists brought new life to it last night. They covered the sidewalk on Prospect Avenue with chalk designs and messages protesting Dan Gilbert's plan to demolish the 103-year-old building to make way for casino parking.

The protest was billed as an "art attack," but it was as peaceful as can be, filling the concrete with color.

"Downtown Cleveland belongs to all of us," read a flyer from the group Save Lower Prospect Avenue. "Its skyline is our calling card to the world and is central to our identity." It urged Clevelanders to call to write Mayor Frank Jackson and Councilman Joe Cimperman, and tweet casino owner Dan Gilbert's @cavsdan Twitter feed with the message "DowntownIsOurTown."

A reprieve for the Columbia is unlikely. City council and the mayor support Gilbert's casino parking plan, and the city's Landmarks Commission voted 4-3 last month to allow the Columbia to be torn down. Still, the art event reminded Clevelanders of the value of downtown's historic character. "If we can't save this one, maybe we can save the next one," a chalk-protester said.

See the Plain Dealer's coverage here.

Update, 7/22: Demolition started this week. This guy captured the scene in a video on YouTube.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Legislature nixes Cleveland's trans-fat ban

Ohio lawmakers crammed a bunch of stuff into the new state budget, including this: They've overturned Cleveland's ban on trans fats in restaurant food.

City council passed the trans-fat ban in April, arguing that the industrially produced fats are especially bad for people's health. (Here's my blog post about chatting with Matt Zone about the law the night it passed.) It was supposed to go into effect in 2013.

But the Ohio Restaurant Association immediately asked the legislature to step in. They don't like the city law's documentation and reporting requirements. They want one set of restaurant regulations for the whole state, not a bunch of local laws. So the new law gives all power to regulate nutrition in Ohio restaurants to the state Department of Agriculture.

Rick Cassara, owner of John Q's Steakhouse on Public Square, told the Columbus Dispatch he's against cumbersome regulations of restaurants. "I do have a problem when it gets too much into telling us what we should and shouldn't serve or telling the consumer what they should and shouldn't eat," he said.

Joe Cimperman, who sponsored the ban, is furious. "This is an absolute affront," he told the Dispatch. He says Cleveland will sue to defend the ban. He thinks protecting citizens' health is part of a city's home rule powers.

But lawsuits to defend home rule in Ohio have been failing lately. The state has overturned Cleveland's predatory lending law and its residency requirement for city employees, just to name two. What are the odds a food law will survive?

Friday, July 1, 2011

Thoughtful stance on school reforms gets a little less lonely

"Lesson Plan," Dan Moulthrop's essay in June's Cleveland Magazine, tries to find a middle ground in the polarized debate about Senate Bill 5. Moulthrop, a journalist and former teacher, asks how we can reform education to reward good teaching without waging an all-out war on unions.

It was a lonely place to be, but it's less lonely now. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, who opposes SB5, recently asked state legislators to include merit pay for teachers and new layoff rules in the state's budget. This week, they gave him most of what he asked for. (See below for update.)

The conversation Moulthrop wants to have about teaching is becoming more important. It's starting to look like Republicans overreached with SB5. Ohioans will probably reject the law on the ballot in November. The question is, what happens after that?

Nothing, most teachers seem to hope. WCPN's Ida Lieszkovszky got an earful from some of them about Jackson's stance. So did I, on WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable last week, when our talk about Jackson's move brought a string of anxious calls from teachers. One union official quickly dismissed judging teachers by test scores, then said supervisors' evaluations are too subjective. So is there really no fair way to evaluate teachers?

The question is becoming more urgent. Layoffs by seniority are dismantling the staffs of Cleveland's innovation schools, dismissing teachers carefully chosen for their expertise. Reforms of teacher tenure and layoff rules just passed in Michigan. Ohio voters like the merit pay portion of SB5. Change is coming.

That's Moulthrop's message in his essay for us:

Teachers, administrators, school boards and anyone who cares about their community's schools ... should start conversations about what great teaching really looks like, about classrooms where every student is engaged and focused, seeking the next challenge because they know how satisfying it is to learn something new.

Blogging at the Civic Commons this week, Moulthrop amplifies his point. As carefully and patiently as he did in his essay, he nudges teachers to get ready for reform rather than fight it:

Even if SB5 is repealed, it's unlikely that ten years from now teachers will still be paid and retained based on longevity. If teachers don't involve themselves in crafting a compensation system they can get behind, they may wind up having to deal with something imposed on them. That wouldn't be good for the profession and probably wouldn't be good for students.
Update, 7/8: Actually, Jackson was disappointed with what the General Assembly gave him. He's talking about converting some innovation schools to charter schools in order to preserve their staffs against future layoffs by seniority. The staffs would be de-unionized too. See the Plain Dealer story here.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

East Cleveland makes a deal over Huron Hospital; Cleveland goes to court

Cleveland’s suing, but East Cleveland’s cutting a deal. That’s the latest news in the fight over the planned closing of Huron Hospital.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton (pictured) and Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove announced today that the Clinic will give the city $8 million over five years to cushion the blow of losing its second-largest employer.

The Clinic also agreed to help with one of East Cleveland’s biggest problems: vacant buildings. Not only will the Clinic demolish the hospital and give the land to the city, it’s also going to knock down a few extra buildings it doesn’t own: some apartments and offices on Euclid Avenue.

Now, Norton, 39, will have to convince East Clevelanders that the deal is worth giving up the fight. He’s already making the case.

“While most cities receive nothing when a hospital closes,” Norton said in a statement, “East Cleveland has worked with Cleveland Clinic to secure financial and other support which will ease our city’s financial pressure, prevent the facility from becoming an eyesore and help us aggressively pursue development opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Frank Jackson’s not giving up. Cleveland filed a federal lawsuit today to try to stop the Clinic from closing Huron’s trauma center, where Cleveland EMS takes 3,000 patients a year.

It’ll be worth watching how East Cleveland and Cleveland get along after this. The last time East Cleveland cut a deal in a big legal battle while Cleveland fought on, it hurt relations between the towns for years. In 1998, when East Cleveland’s Emmanuel Onunwor reached a settlement with the railroad CSX to allow increased train traffic, Cleveland’s Mike White lashed out. He killed talks about Cleveland taking over East Cleveland’s water system, delaying the takeover for a decade.

But Jackson is not as vindictive as White. He may also understand Norton’s position. East Cleveland gets $1 million a year in income taxes from Huron Hospital’s 800 employees. The city’s entire budget is only $26 million. Now Norton plugs that financial hole for a while and buys time to try to attract businesses to all that vacant land.

To read my Dec. 2009 profile of Norton, "Who Wants to Be Mayor of East Cleveland?", click here.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills & Woodmere may merge in 2014

Everyone talks about regionalism, but no one ever does anything about it. Until today, when Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills and Woodmere's mayors announced they’re looking into merging their towns together by 2014.

OK, so launching a study, with Cuyahoga County’s help, isn’t exactly action. It’ll take three steps and 2½ years to merge: first the study, then a formal merger commission in 2012, then approval by all four towns’ residents in 2013.

Still, it’s big news, a leap of faith by all four mayors, and a provocative move compared to regionalism baby-steps such as shared fire departments. County executive Ed FitzGerald, who called the press conference, now has something to show for his regionalism efforts beyond his underwhelming no-poaching proposal this month.

“[I hope] it will give encouragement to a lot of other mayors that I know are having these conversations, but having them very quietly,” FitzGerald said this morning.

The four mayors said their goal is to lower taxes across the four suburbs by creating a more efficient government. Even the sight of the four of them together — old and young, men and women, three white and one black — seemed like a mini-poster-moment for regional unity.

“I think it’s time for leaders in smaller communities to try to come together,” said Woodmere Mayor Charles Smith.

“It does not make sense,” said Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, “for a county of this size to have 57 political subdivisions.”

The merger would make the three villages and one city into a medium-sized suburb of 13,500 people. The mayors have bounced around possible names for a combined town: Chagrin Hills, maybe.

At first glance, it seems like a good marriage. The four towns already share the Orange school district, a recreation department, senior citizens’ programs and a library. Each brings something: Pepper Pike (population 5,979) and Moreland Hills (3,320) are wealthy residential communities with little industry. Orange (population 3,323) has more of a mix of homes and shopping. Woodmere, the tiniest at 884 people, has the Eton Collection and its retail workers’ income taxes.

The Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills and Woodmere mayors sounded sold on the idea. Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy was more skeptical. She thanked FitzGerald and his regionalism point man, Ed Jerse, for “giving us the tools to study the concept” and “really measure whether there were savings” from consolidation.

“Everyone’s been touting that as the panacea for all that ails us,” Mulcahy said. “And I want to see the numbers that show us where the savings are and that it truly is the way to go.”

Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda said she thinks the four towns can become “a test case for other communities in the region.” That’s why this is a big step. Lots of towns in Cuyahoga County could become stronger in a union with their neighbors.

FitzGerald built drama by announcing the press conference overnight but not naming the four merger-curious mayors. So I bounced the mystery around the magazine offices this morning: Who’s merging? Parma-Parma Heights-Brooklyn and a wild card? Makes sense for Brooklyn, since it’s losing American Greetings. North Randall-Warrensville Heights? Newburgh/Cuyahoga/Brooklyn/Garfield Heights?

It’s easy to play with the map and brainstorm bigger towns. But it’s painstaking to merge tax rates and town halls and weave through the lengthy merger process in state law. Voters, like Mulcahy, will ask tough questions: what’s in it for us?

Besides, even the tiniest towns have an identity and don’t want to lose it. The mayors said they’ll talk about ways to preserve their towns’ identities in a bigger burb.

“Our community will not be gobbled up,” said Woodmere’s Smith. “This will be something to sustain our community, to curb costs, and to preserve the integrity of our community.”

(Photo, left to right: Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, Woodmere Mayor Charles Smith, Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, and Moreland Hills Mayor Susan Renda. Orange Mayor Kathy Mulcahy, not visible, is standing behind Smith.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

Fresh thinking about SB5

Gov. John Kasich e-mailed his supporters this week, asking them to spread the word about SB5's "common sense reforms." The other side, gathering petition signatures to stop SB5, says the new law will "destroy jobs and harm communities."

Republicans or unions? Teachers and cops or budget-cutters? The arguments are polarized, and they'll get more so by November, when Ohioans will likely vote on whether to overturn the law's limits on government employees' collective bargaining.

It's easy to take a side, and most commentators do. But who's actually writing for the undecided voter? Not many.

That's why I think Dan Moulthrop's commentary on SB5 and the teaching profession is the best, most thoughtful piece I've read on the law -- which is why we published it in the Talking Points section of this month's Cleveland Magazine.

You may know Moulthrop from his role with The Civic Commons, the new civic-journalism website in town, or his previous job as WCPN's morning show host.

He's also a former teacher and co-author of a book, the ironically titled Teachers Have It Easy, on how to improve the teaching profession. (One of his co-authors is Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, co-founder of McSweeney's and the writing and tutoring program 826 Valencia.) The book's just been made into a documentary, American Teacher.

Moulthrop makes it clear he'll vote to repeal SB5 if it's on the November ballot. He thinks its restrictions on unions' dues and memberships amount to a political power grab.

Yet SB5's education reforms go right at an issue he's passionate about: how to define and reward good teaching. He writes:

Despite my feelings about the law, I think it may have created a chance to improve schools.

SB 5 and Gov. John Kasich's budget deal will radically change how teachers get paid. Raises will be based on performance evaluations, peer review (where it's in place), value-added measures (which measure growth in students' test scores rather than just the score itself) and any other criteria established by a local school board.

Many educators complain these requirements are vague. That's not a problem, though. It's an opportunity.

To read Moulthrop's commentary, "Lesson Plan," click here. To see his blog post about it on the Civic Commons, click here.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Me & Feagler, schools CEO & Huron Hospital

It's been a big news week in Cleveland, and I was lucky to be invited to talk about it on this weekend's episode of WVIZ's Feagler & Friends current-affairs show.

I talked with host Dick Feagler and the rest of the reporters' panel about new Cleveland schools CEO Eric Gordon, whom I met while working on my profile of Peter Raskind, the interim CEO. We discussed the closing of Huron Hospital and its effects on East Cleveland, where I've done a lot of reporting.

We chatted about how Avon will pay for a new I-90 exit -- Julie Wallace, managing editor of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram, took the lead on that. Bill Shiel of Fox 8, the third panelist, told Feagler he thought the unusual jury selection for the Anthony Sowell trial was illegal.

The show airs tonight at 8:30 and Sunday at 12:30 pm on WVIZ.

Update, 6/13: Check out the video. The panel discussion starts around the 9:20 mark.