Friday, April 29, 2011

Me & Feagler, CMHA and City Hall

I'm a guest on WVIZ's Feagler & Friends this weekend. We're talking about the Cleveland City Hall cuts, the arrest of the housing authority director, and the proposed fee hike at Kent State.

My favorite part was talking about the wiretaps of contractor William Neiheiser describing the goodies he allegedly offered CMHA director George Phillips-Olivier. ("I said, 'George, you want a place in Florida, get me Phase II.' I says, 'I'm desperate for a f---ng good job like that.' I says, 'You want a good life,' and he agrees. We went to the game [Cleveland Cavaliers playoff game] last night.")

The show airs tonight at 8:30 and Sunday at 11:30 am on WVIZ. It'll also run on The Ohio Channel Monday at 1:30 pm and 9:30 pm and Tuesday at 5:30 am. A podcast will go up Monday morning here.

I'm on the show's second half, with host Dick Feagler and Ed Esposito of WAKR. In the first half, Feagler interviews Joseph Jankowski of Case Western Reserve University and George Newkome of the University of Akron about cutting-edge research at the two schools.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reform-minded medical examiner coming to town

Even death can be reformed.

So we learn today, as Ed FitzGerald announces the bona fides of his latest appointee: Dr. Thomas Gilson, the No. 2 coroner in Connecticut, his pick for Cuyahoga County medical examiner.

“Dr. Gilson was credited for reforming and turning around the Rhode Island Office of the Medical Examiner," FitzGerald said in a statement. "When Tom arrived, the office had long delays for service and was not accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners, but he changed that." Gilson also reportedly worked through a two-year backlog of autopsy reports. (I hope that means the writing of reports, not a backlog of bodies on ice.)

A crusading, reform-minded medical examiner may just be what Cuyahoga County needs right now. FitzGerald needs Gilson to help sort out whether departing coroner Frank Miller brought on any patronage hires. The FBI, prodded by the Plain Dealer, is looking into whether or not Bill Mason or a Mason deputy nudged Miller into hiring Strongsville councilman Patrick Coyne, who's been implicated but not charged in the county corruption investigation. FitzGerald's administration, in turn, is re-examining other hires at the coroner's office for possible ties to Coyne.

Gilson's nomination ends Cuyahoga County's long, weird era of the politician-coroner. Yes, our chief cadaverist ran for election every four years, flummoxing voters who had to figure out whether there was truly a Republican or Democratic way to autopsy. But we haven't had a hard-fought, fiercely partisan coroner's race since 1936, when Samuel Gerber defeated Arthur J. Pearse and took charge of the Torso Murders investigation. Since then, the coroner's office, like most of our county government, has been a Democratic barony, an office where the science of death investigation mingled with the art of one-party rule.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Jackson to lay off 350-400 city workers, blames state cuts

For five years as mayor, Frank Jackson has prided himself on managing Cleveland's budget with very few layoffs. He can't do that anymore.

Jackson has just announced that he'll have to lay off 350 to 400 city workers because of a $36 million cut in funds from the state. He calls out Gov. John Kasich, who called the mayor his "new best friend" in January.

Typically, Jackson is judging the governor by deeds, not words. The mayor's statement clearly blames Kasich's budget for the layoffs and defends his own management of the budget.

The mayor's complaint to Kasich and the legislature, re-released today, argues that since the state needs to cut 17 percent of its budget to close a deficit, it should cut the local government fund 17 percent, or at most 25 percent. Instead, it'll be slashed in half by next year.

The mayor also released a list of all the cuts he expects to make to city services: in police patrols, fire protection, slower snow removal, fewer flu vaccinations, delays in building and housing inspections. Layoff notices are coming in mid-May.

Here's the press release:
Earlier this month, I shared with you my concerns regarding Governor Kasich’s proposed budget and the drastic impact it would have on the City of Cleveland if it is adopted. Since then, I have continued to analyze the proposed state budget to determine what course of action the City of Cleveland must take to handle the proposed loss $35.7 million in state revenue by the end of 2012.

This state-imposed deficit situation comes after five years of strong budget management by the City, including the use of five-year budget projects, strategic cost cutting measures and significant increases in efficiency. By using these management tools, the City had the flexibility it needed in order to balance the budget every year with few layoffs and very little impact on service delivery, despite a global recession. Today, the state-imposed budget deficit takes away that flexibility.

Now, in order to balance the budget for the remainder of 2011 and to prepare for 2012, the city must reduce its workforce by 350 to 400 employees by the end of May. This will include seasonal, part-time and full-time employees.

These state-imposed cuts will result in service reductions. Despite these cuts, my goal is to continue to provide the best service to the City of Cleveland that we can. For that reason, I am continuing to analyze staffing levels and will finalize the specifics of our plan to cure this state-imposed deficit in the near future. As we move forward, I will provide you with additional updates so that you can understand the impact the state-imposed budget cuts will have on Cleveland.

Until then, you can find more information in the impact statement (
pdf) I delivered to Governor Kasich and the Ohio General Assembly and the presentation (pdf) I gave to my management team this morning.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

City council legalizes food trucks, bans trans fats on Dyngus Day

I was out at the Happy Dog last night, celebrating Dyngus Day and pretending to be Polish, when I ran into Matt Zone. He was relaxing with a Dortmunder after an evening at City Hall, where he and the rest of city council had just legalized food trucks and banned trans fats.* Zone seemed pretty happy with the night’s work.

Under pressure from Dim and Den Sum’s Chris Hodgson and other food truckers, Zone, Joe Cimperman, and other councilmen had pushed the mobile-food ordinance through a bunch of committees and made it more liberal than its first draft. The trucks will roll through 3 a.m. at night to catch the last-call crowd. They’ll hit six downtown zones – East Ninth Street, part of Public Square, Perk Plaza, Willard Park (near City Hall), North Coast Harbor, and Euclid Avenue near Cleveland State University.

Outside downtown, in typical City Hall fashion, councilmen will have veto power over whether food trucks can go into their wards. The legislation lasts only six months. Cimperman told Fox 8 he thinks the legislation will grow weaker in November (after restaurants and hot-dog vendors get a chance to complain, I assume). But Zone said he’s confident concerns will melt away once the law takes effect, like they did with the city’s ordinance legalizing chicken farms and beekeeping.

Council also passed two laws as part of the Healthy Cleveland initiative: new restrictions on smoking on city property and a ban on industrial trans fats.*

I had just downed a pierogi-topped hot dog drenched in purple, pickled sauerkraut, a reminder that lots of people think dietary laws aren’t a great fit for ethnic Cleveland. But Zone confirmed that banning trans fats just means getting rid of artificially hydrogenated oils.

Zone and others pushed for a more gradual implementation of the trans fat ban. It’ll go into effect in January 2013, not 2012, with doughnuts grandfathered in until July 2013. That gives the health department time to put the word out, Zone said. “We don’t want to be the heavy-handed government,” he explained.

Smoking will be prohibited in parks, recreation areas, and within 150 feet of city-owned buildings. Other potential restrictions, including an ironic ban on smoking in cemeteries, were dropped. “If somebody’s mourning, they absolutely should have every right, if they’re a smoker, to relieve their pain and their stress,” Zone said.

*Update, 7/8: The state legislature has prohibited cities from regulating restaurant menus, killing Cleveland's trans-fat ban. See my new post.

Monday, April 25, 2011

FitzGerald names fiscal officer, setting stage for more reform

The people who warned it'd take two years to reform Cuyahoga County government have looked pretty smart lately. All the talk of Ed FitzGerald's first 100 days as county executive, and expectation that patronage hires' heads would roll, has given way to a slower pace.

Sure, the new government has set a new tone, with FitzGerald emerging as a regional peacemaker and he and the council scrutinizing stuff that went unquestioned before, like the palatial new juvenile justice center. But the big cuts to county government, the cost savings the charter's biggest supporters envisioned, haven't come yet.

Now I think they'll come pretty soon. Today FitzGerald announced his choice for chief fiscal officer. That's the accountant who'll take over and merge the auditor's and recorder's offices, sifting through the remnants of Frank Russo and Pat O'Malley's old political hires, to figure out who's really qualified and who the county really needs.

Fitz's choice is Wade Steen (pictured), a CPA with lots of experience, and none of it in Cuyahoga County.

“As we pursue efficiencies in our operations, Wade’s background and experience will be a major asset to our efforts,” FitzGerald said in the press release.

Steen, a city councilman in Upper Arlington, a Columbus suburb, was Franklin County treasurer for two years. So he has experience managing finances for a big urban county that runs more efficiently in some ways than Cuyahoga. He was also Jim Petro's assistant chief deputy auditor, a thoroughly confusing title that I think means he was the No. 3 guy in the state auditor's office. So he also has experience digging through cities' and counties' books and knowing when they look right and when they're revealing a mess.

Most interestingly, Steen is a Republican who quotes Ronald Reagan on his website. ("Reagan's underlying humor poked fun at excessive government regulation and taxation, but also the inflexibility of government to change and the habitual need to sustain 'the beast.'")

That makes him a shrewd choice on FitzGerald's part. Nominating Steen to remake the county's two most patronage-laden offices is a big bipartisan gesture. It strengthens FitzGerald's assertion that Democratic party patronage will have no part in who stays at the county and who goes.

Once the county council confirms Steen, I expect there'll be a quiet period as Steen digs into the books and gets advice from the interim guys who ran the offices for a few months. Then, if FitzGerald's intentions from his campaign are a guide, Steen and FitzGerald will unveil a reorganization that includes substantial layoffs and nudged-into-retirements.

Then we can start to total up the cost savings from the new reorganized government. We'll see if they measure up to FitzGerald's ambitions, the looming deficits, and, most of all, the very optimistic vision of cost savings that the charter's founders trumpeted.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Rob Frost, hoping to roast another Democrat, may take on Kucinich in 2012

Did you see Dennis Kucinich and Rob Frost on the The Daily Show last night? With Frost playing the bewildered Republican, mystified that people keep re-electing Kucinich? And Dennis peacefully, confidently enduring the usual peacenik and hot-wife jokes, demonstrating his ventriloquism skills, and talking about taking his talents to Edgewater Beach?

Turns out that may be a preview of Cleveland's hottest race for Congress next year.

Frost, the Cuyahoga County Republican chairman, just sent out a sly, burying-the-lead press release. Almost all of Kucinich's redistricting-survival fund is coming from outside Northeast Ohio lately, Frost reports, and he's spending it fast.

Oh, and (in the fourth paragraph) Frost says he's preparing to run against Kucinich for Congress.

Now we know why Frost resigned from the board of elections last week. Here's his press release:

According to reports filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission, Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Cleveland) had only $138,200 on hand as of March 31, 2011.

Kucinich was able to raise just under $215,000 during the first quarter of this year, but showed $112,771 in operating expenses despite being so early in the election cycle, and increased his campaign fund balance by only $96,134. Kucinich’s prior report, the 2010 year-end report filed with the FEC as amended in March, showed him with $42,067 on hand to begin the 2011-2012 election cycle.

Of the $214,361 raised by Kucinich in the first quarter of this year, exactly $1,000 came from donors within Ohio’s 10th Congressional District. Kucinich, an incumbent in his eighth term in Congress, was fined $52,443 by the FEC earlier this year for improper use of public matching funds in his 2004 bid for the US Presidency.

At a time when Kucinich appears vulnerable and out of touch with his Northeast Ohio district, a potential challenger has emerged in Rob Frost, who on Friday formed a Federal Campaign Committee, according to FEC records. Frost, 42, of Lakewood, is Chairman of the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County, a former member of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and a former Rocky River City Councilman.

Can Frost beat Kucinich? Match them up solely by political talent and experience, and it's not even close. In 40 years of thrilling and infuriating Clevelanders, Kucinich has demonstrated a remarkable ability to survive and connect with local voters. Frost has never personally won an election outside Rocky River.

So far Frost's shrewdest political move came when he skewered Jimmy Dimora with his "News From the Pork Barrel Buffet" missives in 2007 -- a year before the corruption scandal broke, back when Jimmy still seemed impregnable. He'd surely launch more ruthlessly effective attacks against Kucinich than Jim Trakas' surprisingly weak 2oo8 campaign.

Beyond that, there's no way to handicap a Kucinich-Frost race today, because there's no way of knowing where the two guys would end up running. There's also no way to predict whether Kucinich could survive a Democratic primary battle against, say, Betty Sutton or Marcia Fudge. We don't know whose votes they'd be competing for. Ohio's congressional district lines may not be redrawn until fall.

But guess who'll draw them? Frost's Republican allies in Columbus.

To read "Pork Roast," my profile of Frost from 2007, click here. To read my Kucinich profile from the same year, "The Missionary," click here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Kucinich calls accused leaker's treatment "Kafkaesque"

Dennis Kucinich is a busy guy these days. He's not only protesting the war in Libya, scrambling to raise a redistricting-survival fund, and buying a fixer-upper in Washington. He's also angling to become accused Army leaker Bradley Manning's most famous prison visitor.

“What is going on with Secretary Gates and the Department of Defense with respect to Pfc. Manning’s treatment is more consistent with Kafka than the U.S. Constitution,” Kucinich says today.

The Pentagon says it'll let Kucinich visit the suspected Wikileaks leaker, but it won't let them have a private conversation.

"I was belatedly informed that the meeting could only take place if it was recorded," Kucinich says. "Confidentiality is required, however, to achieve the candor that is necessary to perform the oversight functions with which I am tasked as a Member of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. I was also told that I could be subpoenaed to testify about the contents of my conversation with Pfc. Manning." A United Nations torture investigator who wanted to meet with Manning recently got the same answer: if they met, they'd be monitored.

Manning is awaiting trial on more than 22 counts of leaking secret material and aiding the enemy. The Pentagon says he gave Wikileaks hundreds of thousands of classified documents. He could face life in prison if convicted.

Amnesty International and hundreds of legal scholars argue his detention conditions are punitive, inhumane and illegal. The Pentagon says he's being treated like any other maximum-security prisoner on a "prevention of injury watch," which Manning's on because of a comment he made about suicide. (Gawker writer John Cook doesn't buy many of the complaints on Manning's behalf.)

Kucinich wants to visit Manning to see if his detention conditions, which include being forced to strip naked, constitute torture. Even before the Kafka reference, he's been amping up his prison-protest rhetoric: "Is this Quantico or Abu Ghraib?" Kucinich asked last month. He's also needling Robert Gates, saying the defense secretary risks "a blot on his record" and "consequences under the law" for Manning's treatment.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

As district lays off 643 teachers, closes 7 schools, Raskind absorbs the anger

Last night, Peter Raskind did the job no one else would want. Facing a crowd of angry teachers, parents and students, the interim CEO asked the Cleveland school board to lay off 643 teachers and close seven schools. They did.

“These are very, very tough recommendations to address what is obviously a very, very tough and difficult situation,” the former National City CEO said.

When I wrote my profile of Raskind, “Quick Fixer,” for the April issue, he was still in the honeymoon phase of his job, forging goodwill. But when an interim CEO has five months to confront growing deficits, the honeymoon is short.

Now Raskind’s key transitional in the schools’ future becomes clear. It’s not just to apply his bank-CEO skills to find surgical, strategic cuts – though he’s done some of that, ending 50 administrators’ $500 car allowances and the practice of paying 29 supervisors’ share of their pension contributions. Raskind's temporary position gives him unusual freedom to confront the district’s financial dilemma and act.

The schools are caught in a fiscal vise, pressed by cuts in state aid on one side and a shrinking city on another: falling tax revenue, fewer students. The teacher’s union’s preferred answer, a new school levy, would likely fail at the polls. The union is worried about class sizes growing, and rightly so -- but with the district closing half-empty schools, it’s hard to doubt that it needs fewer teachers than it used to.

Raskind, who’s working for $1 and leaving this summer, can absorb the anger at last night’s meeting, deflecting it from the school board, Mayor Frank Jackson, and his future successor. His layoff and school-closing resolutions, adopted last night, didn’t just cite the $47 million deficit for the 2011-2012 school year, but also a cumulative $398 million deficit projected for the next three years.

So by confronting two or three years of deficits this spring, by absorbing the anger and taking it with him when he goes, he hopes to hand a manageable, right-sized district to the as-yet-unchosen new schools CEO. It’s a test of an unusual idea: that sometimes, some of a community’s problems are best solved by an outsider with nothing to lose.

Update, 4/7: Today's Plain Dealer has lots of details about the layoffs (the district has only 15 social workers, and they'll all be laid off? Really?). An editorial is mostly supportive of Raskind's cuts, but says he "must be far more transparent about the extent of cuts he's making to central office staff -- and more relentless about trimming that and other school overhead." He's promising deeper central office cuts by April 26.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Renovations for new government come in at $1.3 million

Used furniture helped keep down the $300,000 cost of renovated offices for the Cuyahoga County executive and council, while high costs for electrical installations helped drive up the cost of the new council chambers to almost $1 million.

This winter, a tipster suggested I look at the cost of county executive Ed FitzGerald’s new office, to see if he was being frugal in the face of the county's budget shortage. It took about two months to get a full accounting of the renovations (some of which were ongoing) from FitzGerald’s staff, but they seem proud of the end result.

The county commissioners budgeted about $200,000 for fourth floor renovations before they left office, FitzGerald spokesman John Kohlstrand told me. FitzGerald’s administration added about $89,000 in spending in January, including $16,000 for carpeting to cover 60-year-old floor tile and $18,000 to improve a new meeting room that will be used for press conferences and some council committee hearings.

“We have attempted to be very modest in our overall approach to creating our office space on the 4th Floor,” wrote Kohlstrand in an e-mail. “The layout does not really lend itself to the requirements identified for the new government, but we have tried to make the most of it on a shoestring budget.”

Nearly all the new offices were furnished with all used furniture, including FitzGerald’s office, according to Kohlstrand. (FitzGerald is reportedly using Jim Rokakis’ old desk.) “At this point, the only new furniture expense was $5,572 to purchase 63 portable chairs for the multipurpose room," Kohlstrand wrote. The administration also spent about $50,000 for office equipment and fixtures.

To judge the renovations’ cost, I ran the expenses past Martin Zanotti, one of the main leaders of the movement to create the new government. Zanotti has overseen construction budgets as the former mayor of Parma Heights and CEO of Republic Alternative Technologies.

“With their critical eye on the juvenile justice center, they held themselves to the same threshold,” Zanotti says of FitzGerald and his staff. “It’s a very proper tone to set,” Zanotti says.

Shrewd, too: Re-using old county furniture highlights the contrast between FitzGerald and the juvenile court judges’ infamous $23,000 conference table.

The charter created an 11-member council but left the old government and the transition team with the task of figuring out where the council would meet. Last summer, the transition group chose to renovate the old Justice Center auditorium. The less expensive alternative, renovating the commissioners’ old chambers, would have created only half as many seats for the public. And it might not have lasted as long, since the county administration building may be torn down in the future, if the new Medical Mart and convention center project succeeds and needs to expand. The Justice Center isn’t going anywhere.

Preliminary estimates priced the cost of the new chamber at $888,000. The commissioners budgeted $680,000 in August. Instead, the final cost of the council chambers came in at $980,000, including $272,000 for electrical work.

The electrical expense “struck me as being a high price, though God knows what they ran into,” Zanotti says. “Nothing else seemed grossly out of line to me. It was a reasonable amount.”

Still, to the layman, nearly a million dollars may sound like a lot of money to spend on a single room. It makes somewhat more sense if you saw the auditorium before and after. When I visited last year for a sheriff’s auction, it looked looked exactly like what it was: the end-of-the-line room where a hard-luck county’s tax-foreclosed properties were sold for cheap. It was ugly and cramped, with low ceilings and an awkward layout facing a more awkward stage. Now it’s bright, spacious, equipped with modern communications, a place for a new start, not a space people want to flee. I don’t think the council had anything to do with outfitting the council chamber; it was ready for them when they were sworn in Jan. 3.

The cost of both renovations was paid out of a $7 million transition fund the commissioners authorized. About half of the fund went to the cost of holding the Sept. and Nov. 2010 elections to choose the executive and council. Kohlstrand says about $1.37 million is left for other priorities, including the potential cost of ethics training for county employees.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Mason, FitzGerald ask DeWine to resolve law department dispute

Bill Mason says he and Ed FitzGerald have asked Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to resolve their dispute about whether the new law department or the prosecutor will represent the county in court.

“Ed FitzGerald and I have talked,” Mason told me today. “We’ve agreed on some of the stuff that we could probably agree on. But we have completely differing views on some of the big picture stuff. So we both agreed that the best thing to do is, let’s send it to the AG, and whatever he comes back and says, we’re going to bind our offices to that.”

For three months, FitzGerald and Mason have been arguing about who has what legal powers in the new county government. The debate is especially interesting because many people saw the two men as political allies. FitzGerald used to work for Mason, and Mason helped him get the Democratic Party’s endorsement in the primary last summer. FitzGerald has also insisted that a proposed county law against nepotism in hiring apply to Mason, who has hired several relatives over the years.

Their legal dispute is about whether the law department should replace the prosecutor’s civil division. In Ohio, county prosecutors don’t just prosecute – they also have civil divisions that handle the county’s legal work. But Cuyahoga County’s new charter says the law director “shall be the legal advisor to and representative of the County Executive and County Council.” FitzGerald thinks that does away with the prosecutor’s civil division. Mason disagrees.

“I was one of the people who wrote the charter, so I know at least what I was I intending,” Mason says. “I wanted to make sure the elected executive had somebody to talk to about things, a lawyer to bounce [things off] and give them research. So we gave them a lawyer to represent the executive and the council.”

Early drafts of the charter explicitly moved the prosecutor’s civil division into the law department, but that language was dropped when Mason disagreed, lawyer Gene Kramer, the charter’s main author, told the Plain Dealer.

The charter says the prosecutor’s duties, “including provision for the employment of outside counsel, shall continue to be determined in the manner provided by law.” Mason says this state law still gives him the job of representing all county officials in court. He says he’s OK with the law director drafting legislation, giving legal opinions to county departments and negotiating and writing contracts. (His civil division has handled the latter two tasks in the past.)

FitzGerald wants his new law director, Majeed Makhlouf, to take over all non-criminal legal matters. “We have the prosecutor being involved in things that have nothing to do with criminal law,” he told the Plain Dealer this week. “We don’t think that makes sense.”

Even DeWine’s decision may not end the dispute for long. Starting in September 2012, a charter review committee will look at how the new government is working and suggest amendments. If DeWine sides with Mason or splits the difference, FitzGerald and others may push for a charter amendment to explicitly hand over all legal affairs to the law director. But that amendment wouldn’t go to voters in until 2013, after Mason leaves office. And the next prosecutor could still challenge it in court.