Friday, December 19, 2014

10 unanswered questions about excessive police force and the Justice Dept. report

Two weeks after the Justice Department released its scathing report on the Cleveland police, the city’s debate about excessive force is stuck in low gear.

Mayor Frank Jackson says he disagrees with parts of the Justice report, but he won’t say which. Embattled safety director Michael McGrath calls the report unfair. City council has embarked on a “listening tour,” but hasn’t promised concrete action.

Here are 10 questions that city council, the press and the public ought to demand of the Jackson Administration. An assertive city council should bring up these questions in hearings. If it doesn’t act, it may be up to the public, the press and a few maverick councilpeople to investigate and get answers.

1. The Justice Department report says: “In most of the instances of excessive force we identified, supervisors all the way up the chain of command approved the use of force as appropriate.” Does that mean that McGrath, who was police chief during the federal investigation, signed off on those uses of force as justified?

2. The report gives 16 detailed examples of excessive force. It gives pseudonyms to 15 of the injured citizens, but one man, Edward Henderson, is named, and has identified three others: Germaine Ware, Gregory Love and Randell Scott, Jr.

In how many of those 16 cases were any officers disciplined? If no one was disciplined, did McGrath, as chief, personally sign off on that decision? Does McGrath defend those uses of force? If so, how?

3. Mayor Jackson told reporters Dec. 11, “If you look at the use of force over time, you will see that it has decreased. You will see that there has been accountability.”

But U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge wrote in her Aug. 25 letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder that “nothing” happened after Justice’s first investigation of the Cleveland police in 2004. “The recommendations were ignored and the abuse of many citizens continued,” Fudge wrote. “A lack of meaningful accountability remained within the Cleveland police department.”

How does Mayor Jackson respond to Fudge’s letter?

Jackson added, “I have confidence” in his past and present chiefs and safety directors “in terms of their attempt to correct behavior that needs to be corrected.”

Does Rep. Fudge agree or disagree with Mayor Jackson?

4. Council president Kevin Kelley, asked at a press conference about protestors’ calls for McGrath to resign, responded, “What would that solve? Where would that get us?”

What is Kelley’s plan to ensure that existing police and safety leaders hold officers to a higher standard on use of force cases than they have in the past?

5. In the New Year’s Eve 2010 death of Rodney Brown after a traffic stop, what does the safety leadership say about why no officers were disciplined?

Why was the officer who said, “So? I don’t give a F—” when Brown said, “I can’t breathe not disciplined?

6. The next day, New Year’s Day 2011, several police kicked Edward Henderson while he was on the ground by a highway. Henderson went to the hospital with a broken bone near his eye. A police helicopter’s infrared camera caught the incident, but the video does not reveal the officers’ identities. Federal prosecutors launched a grand jury probe that has lasted years but produced no indictments.

The Justice Department says four officers spent time on administrative leave without pay, but were not formally disciplined. None of the 10 or so officers on the scene filled out a use of force report. “To date, no officers have identified any of the officers who used force in this incident, and no officers have been disciplined for failing to report this incident,” the report says.

Does that mean the federal grand jury probe has reached a standstill? Did the officers also stay silent when Cleveland’s internal affairs investigators interviewed them about the incident? If the criminal probe is over, will the officers now be disciplined for covering up others’ excessive force?

7. The Justice Department found that the police Use Of Deadly Force Investigation team and its Internal Affairs Unit both conduct inadequate investigations. Use-of-force investigators even admitted they slanted their reports to favor officers.

What will Mayor Jackson, Safety Director McGrath, and chief Calvin Williams do to reform the two units? Is it possible to effectively reform them if their leadership and personnel stay the same?

8. The city charter promises that a civilian Police Review Board will review citizen complaints about police after an investigation by the Office of Professional Standards. But the 2004 and 2014 Justice reports both found that the Office of Professional Standards is understaffed, moves slowly and does not investigate all the complaints it should. The new report also says the Police Review Board’s reviews are inadequate and lack transparency, and that neither the board or the OPS are reviewing deadly force incidents, as the charter gives them the power to do.

What will the mayor and council do to make the Police Review Board and Office of Professional Standards live up to the charter’s promise? Will it take a new charter amendment?

9. In Tamir Rice’s death, was the dispatcher’s failure to radio that Rice was “a juvenile” and his gun was “probably fake” an isolated mistake, or part of a pattern? How often do dispatchers relay alarming information to patrol officers but leave out important details that might lead them to de-escalate a situation?

10. Will the Cleveland police receive more training on use of force policies? Deescalating confrontations? Recognizing crossfire situations? Scenario-based training, including simulated pursuits? Controlling subjects appropriately? Dealing with the mentally ill?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Jackson’s support on police issues crumbles; Call + Post, Jeff Johnson want McGrath and Flask out

For years, as concerns about Cleveland’s police department have grown, the city’s black political establishment has stood behind Mayor Frank Jackson and his safety department leadership. As alarm mounted in the black community, Jackson faced no challenge from the left on police issues.

That’s not true anymore.

The Justice Department’s damning report on the Cleveland police’s use of excessive, unnecessary force has changed that. So has Jackson’s tepid, conflicted response to the report’s release on Thursday and his renewed endorsement of his safety director, Michael McGrath.

Jeff Johnson, city council’s most outspoken critic on Cleveland police use of force issues, stood by Jackson and McGrath in the aftermath of the now-famous Nov. 2012 chase and shooting. Not anymore.

"Marty Flask and Michael McGrath have to step down,” Johnson tells’s Leila Atassi in today’s Plain Dealer. “Immediately. Like, today."

Highlights of Atassi’s story:

Johnson said Friday that the culture of policing in Cleveland cannot change until the mayor overcomes his irrational loyalty to McGrath and Flask. …

"If the police officer doesn't believe he will be disciplined, he will continue to do what he does. That is on McGrath."

…"I don't want anybody resting," Johnson said. "I don't want the protests to stop. They need to light a fire under city officials and turn the heat up on City Hall."

Johnson is not part of council’s pro-Jackson majority. So maybe the mayor could soldier on defending McGrath without Johnson’s support.

But an NAACP official,* several black ministers and the Call and Post will soon join the calls for McGrath and Flask to be fired, Tom Beres of WKYC reports:

Michael Nelson, co-chair of the NAACP Criminal Justice Committee, said, "We cannot have the same people in charge who have been presiding over the Police Department the last 10, 15 or 20 years. The culture doesn't change."

The Justice Department’s findings are pushing Cleveland beyond the clichéd, stagnant debate we’ve had for two years, about whether the Nov. 2012 chase and shooting represented a “systemic failure” in the police department, as Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine famously said in his Feb. 2013 press conference.

Jackson resisted that conclusion because he saw the chase and shooting as a mass insubordination, in which officers and supervisors ignored existing rules that severely limit high-speed chases. Jackson says DeWine told him in a phone call that if it were up to him, he wouldn’t charge any officers with crimes in that shooting. Jackson saw McGrath, who has disciplined more than 70 officers and supervisors so far over the chase, as the one person bringing a “semblance of justice” in the matter.

But the Justice Department report addresses that old argument and goes far past it. Some choice quotes from it (emphasis mine):

Any effort to force a decision between systemic problems and individual accountability is nothing more than an effort to set up a false choice between two important aspects of the same broader issues that exist at CDP. …

[DeWine’s office] issued a report that raised serious questions about CDP’s policies, training, supervision, communication, and technology. … Many of the concerns regarding policies, training, supervision, accountability, and equipment that were implicated by that incident were confirmed during our investigation. ...

In most of the instances of excessive force we identified, supervisors all the way up the chain of command approved the use of force as appropriate. …

The current pattern or practice of constitutional violations is even more troubling because we identified many of these structural deficiencies more than ten years ago during our previous investigation of CDP’s use of force. … Many of the policy and practice reforms that were initiated in response to our 2004 memorandum agreement were either not fully implemented or, if implemented, were not maintained over time.

McGrath was police chief from 2005 to 2014. Flask was safety director from 2006 through 2014. How are they not responsible for the state of the police department?

And the question goes beyond McGrath and Flask, to the mayor. It's not at all clear that Jackson accepts the Justice Department report, or that he will move fast to address it.

"There are problems in the Division of Police, and this review has demonstrated some of them," Jackson said at U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's Thursday press conference. "We will enter into discussions with the DOJ as to how we address those that really are problems."

When Mary Anne Sharkey, a city council communications consultant, defended Jackson on Facebook yesterday, Terry Gilbert, a lawyer who often sues the police over claims of excessive force, argued back:
Sorry Mary Anne I don't agree. After meeting last night with DOJ officials [it] was clear that getting Jackson to agree to a consent [decree] was a struggle as he continues to defend the management of the department. Only after they threatened to file suit did he back down.
That's why Jeff Johnson, the NAACP*, and the Call and Post aren't deferring to the mayor anymore.

*Update, 12/9: Looks like Michael Nelson of the Cleveland NAACP was speaking for himself when he talked to Beres. Hilton Smith and Sheila Wright, the local NAACP's president and executive director, tell that the organization hasn't decided whether to call for any resignations.  (I've changed this post and its headline to reflect that.)

Friday, December 5, 2014

Police give 'special attention' to bookstore forum on police violence

R.A. Washington, in a 2012 photo.
The Guide to Kulchur bookstore on West 65th Street hosted a public forum about police violence last night, and as people headed into the store, they noticed Cleveland police officers sitting in a patrol car, watching them.

"The police did not interrupt the forum," R.A. Washington, the bookstore's owner, wrote on Facebook today. "They simply sat in their cars with all eyes on our tiny storefront."

Washington tells me a police car sat outside the bookstore from about 6:20 p.m. (before the 7 p.m. forum) until 8:30 or 9 p.m. Seven or eight other police cars stopped by in rotation, checked in with the standing car and drove off -- an abnormal police presence for the Gordon Square area, Washington says.

Some forum attendees said they felt intimidated, Washington says. He didn't, but he says he was concerned.

The watchful eye, which came mere hours after the Justice Department released a sweeping report on a pattern of excessive use of force among the Cleveland police, raises questions about whether surveillance of public meetings about policing might chill free speech.

"Police had information regarding a planned protest at that address," Cleveland police spokeswoman Jennifer Ciaccia wrote to me in an email. "Zone cars were sent to give special attention to the area."

That's normal for a street protest, like the one going on downtown right now. But a discussion at a bookstore?

“I don’t see how a community forum could ever be construed as a protest,” Washington replied when I told him the police's explanation.

Washington, also a local activist, protested for police reforms at Monday's city council meeting and was quoted in's story and video on the protest. He was a guest on WCPN's Sound of Ideas yesterday.

He announced the bookstore's meeting on Facebook last week as part of its Dialogues series. The invitation asked police not to attend. "The police have generated a lot of fear in this community, and we need the space to discuss this question without the fear of retribution," the invitation read.

By coincidence, the event fell on the day of the Justice Department's announcement. Washington says about 150 people crammed into the store's basement theater space for the talk, which was standing-room only for four hours.

Washington, who posted on Facebook to refute online rumors that police had interfered with the event, told me he’s making no assumptions about why the police stopped by. He says he doesn't want people to feel discouraged from speaking out about police reform.

"The good cops -- and there are good cops -- they intersect with the community," he says. "I just think there’s become a disconnect. There are more systemic problems than just police brutality. [We need a] citywide plan and a frank and honest, uncomfortable talk."

Update, 5:15 p.m.: Councilman Matt Zone, who represents the neighborhood and chairs council's public safety committee, says he spoke with police second district commander Thomas Stacho about the police presence last night. Zone says Stacho heard about the bookstore forum from the city's emergency operations center, which monitors public video cameras and online traffic.

"He had detailed a car to make sure people who were assembling were safe," Zone says. "It wasn't about preventing people from gathering."

Zone's answer suggests that police were watching the city carefully last night to see whether news of the Justice Department's findings led to unrest.

I asked Zone if the city has any rules restricting surveillance of political meetings. He says he's not aware of any.

"I believe sincerely that police were there to make sure there was peace and order," he says.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

After an easy win, will Armond Budish keep his promise?

Today, at Armond Budish’s first press conference after his victory in the Cuyahoga County executive race, I asked him to name the most difficult moment in his campaign.

He had to think.

“Waking up this morning at 5 a.m. to do a television interview,” Budish said finally, “after [being up] last night and being at the polls all day yesterday.”

Before Election Day, I doubt the guy lost much sleep. Budish was the race’s front-runner from start to finish, ever since Ed FitzGerald and other key Democrats anointed him as FitzGerald’s successor in May 2013.

Jack Schron, Budish’s Republican opponent, was well-qualified and ran a visible, pretty assertive race. That won Schron 41 percent of the vote -- the best performance in 10 years by a Republican sacrificial lamb in a countywide election.

Now Budish and Schron will have to co-exist. Schron ran for executive from a safe seat on the county council, and he chairs its economic development committee. Today, Budish suggested Schron could help with a goal both men share: matching county job training programs with available local jobs.

“[Schron] talked a lot about a business he created to train workers for the jobs that exist,” Budish said. “That’s certainly an area we need to focus on. I look forward to working with him.”

Continuity, not change, was the mood of the day. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” I heard a guy, probably a county employee, say just before the press conference.

Budish’s agenda sounds similar to FitzGerald’s. Today he announced he’s forming his transition team, with three panels to take on his major goals.

An economic growth team will work on attracting new businesses to the region, supporting small businesses, aligning jobs and training, and creating “pathways out of poverty for people who want to work hard.” A regional team will explore ways to make college more affordable, advance clean energy, and deal with foreclosed homes, infant mortality and the health of Lake Erie. A third team will aim to make the government more cost-effective and responsive.

Budish said it’s too early to talk about his cabinet. But it doesn’t sound like he’ll clean house.

“We’ll look at everybody. We'll look at people who are here. We'll look at others,” Budish said. “There’s no plan at this point for making changes. We’ll make changes as needed.”

On hiring, Budish faces a test. He’s a loyal, partisan Democrat with a lot of connections.

He’s taking over five years after voters’ revulsion at patronage and cronyism convinced them to create a new county government. Now, many voters have moved on to new concerns. It’d be easier today to stack a cabinet with party loyalists.

This spring, I asked Budish if he’d root out patronage as aggressively as FitzGerald.

“Absolutely,” he said.

I asked how he’d deal with job requests from political allies.

“Nobody has been promised anything, nor will anyone be promised anything, during this campaign,” Budish said. “Anybody who is hired for any job will only be hired if they are the most qualified person for that job.”

Many people who worked hard to break up the Democratic patronage machine five years ago are nervous about Budish's election. Now that he’s hiring, it’s time for the public and press to hold him to his promise.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

FitzGerald loses even his home county in epic defeat

He could’ve run the town for as long as he wanted.

Ed FitzGerald had a job with no term limits. He could’ve run for reelection this year as the guy who restored confidence in Cuyahoga County government after the Jimmy Dimora era.

Instead, FitzGerald let hubris guide him. He thought he could pull off a leap as daring as his jump from Lakewood mayor to Cuyahoga County executive. So he ran for governor, taking the long odds any Democrat faced this year, despite the scandal he should’ve known awaited.

So FitzGerald lost, by an embarrassing, almost two-to-one margin, to Gov. John Kasich. Voters’ repudiation of him is complete: He even lost here, in the county where he’s executive.

Four years ago, as executive-elect, FitzGerald was talking about how the story of Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign reminded him to advocate for the poor. His ambition was obvious to everyone.

Now, if FitzGerald is remembered outside Cleveland, it’ll be as a minor character in the story of Kasich’s likely imminent presidential campaign. He’ll be sort-of known as the other guy in the infamously missing video, the one who asked Kasich about rape crisis centers and got snubbed.

I think FitzGerald could’ve saved his career, not just by spending a Saturday at the BMV getting a license, or calling a cab for the lovely Irish trade delegate, but by knowing he’d pressed his luck. When the cops handed him back his years-old learner’s permit that early morning in 2012 and told him he was free to go, wasn’t that a sign to start playing it safe?

If FitzGerald had run for executive again, he might’ve dodged his car trouble. Perhaps the Republicans’ opposition research wouldn’t have dug that deep. Or, if a local opponent had used it against him, I think he would’ve survived it, thanks to Democrats’ 20-year winning streak in countywide races and his record as executive.

Though it’s deeply unfashionable to mention this right now, FitzGerald has a compiled a pretty long list of accomplishments: a smaller payroll, an under-budget convention center project, progress on regional cooperation, a $100 million economic development fund and a $50 million blight demolition fund – and, last but not least, his signature anti-corruption idea, an inspector general so independent that she was even free to scold him for his car trouble a week before the election.

But recklessly plunging into the governor’s race? Taking the Democratic ticket down with him? That, the voters who elected him four years ago couldn’t forgive.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Will Cleveland voters shut down traffic cameras?

It’s the election’s sleeper issue: Cleveland’s traffic cameras. For nine years they’ve watched over major intersections and avenues, snapping photos of drivers’ license plates when they detect a speeder or a red-light-runner.

Tomorrow, Cleveland residents will decide whether to shut them off.

To supporters of Issue 35, which would effectively end the city’s traffic camera program, Election Day is the citizen’s chance to fight back against an unfair system and a government trying to raise cash. An anti-camera Facebook page has posted a picture of Mayor Frank Jackson, altered to show glowing dollar signs in his eyes. Jackson has warned that he’ll have to cut $6 million from the city budget if the cameras are shut down.

“If the mayor and council was concerned about safety rather than revenue, they probably would have looked at safety data sometime in last nine years while the cameras have been up,” argues petition drive organizer Jason Sonenshein. “They haven’t compiled that data.”

Issue 35’s backers spent four years gathering petition signatures for their proposed charter amendment. A yes vote would ban photo traffic enforcement in Cleveland unless a police officer is on the scene and personally issues the ticket. (That would reduce the cameras to expensive alternatives to radar guns.) A no vote on Issue 35 would preserve the camera program.

“I’m mostly concerned about the lack of due process with camera tickets,” says Sonenshein. “They ticket the owner, not necessarily the driver. If you weren’t driving, it’s up to you to prove your innocence, rather than up to the government to prove you’re guilty.”

Camera tickets can be appealed, and Cleveland Magazine recently found that about half of appeals result in a dismissal or reduced fine. But Sonenshein says only four percent of ticketed motorists appeal. "A lot of people can’t afford to take off work," he says. Hearing officers aren’t neutral, he complains, because they’re employed by the city, not a court.

The mayor and various city councilpeople, including council president Kevin Kelley, oppose Issue 35. Councilman Brian Cummins has posted arguments for keeping the cameras on his website. He and others argue that the cameras deter residents from speeding, that most of them are deployed in high-crash areas, and that they free police officers to combat violent crime. Bike Cleveland, the cycling advocacy group, also opposes Issue 35, arguing that the cameras help keep cyclists and pedestrians safe by slowing down car traffic.

I asked Sonenshein to answer the safety arguments, including the point on Cummins' website that pedestrians are likely to survive a collision with a car driving 20 mph, but likely to die if hit by a car going 40.

“There are lots of ways to improve the safety of the streets without raising the risk of punishing innocent people,” Sonenshein says, suggesting narrower traffic lanes and longer yellow lights. He also says the city hasn’t done a thorough study of the camera’s effects, and that a national study that claims traffic cameras reduce fatal crashes by 24 percent is flawed.

The camera debate cuts across the usual political divides. Sonenshein and several other petition organizers have a libertarian bent.  (Sonenshein's anti-camera PAC is called Liberate Ohio. He says it's spent about $1,300.) Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, usually allies, are on opposite sides of this issue. Johnson has defended the cameras, saying neighborhood groups often request them. Reed says he's become convinced the camera program is really about revenue, not safety. Most of council has long supported the cameras, but Joe Cimperman has voted against them, arguing they lead to rear-end collisions.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

$50m demolition fund passes Cuyahoga County Council unanimously

Cuyahoga County will soon give cities tens of millions of dollars to tear down blighted buildings. A $50 million bond issue for demolition, debated all year, passed the county council unanimously last night.

The aggressive action addresses one of Cleveland’s most urgent and overwhelming problems. Many city neighborhoods are still scarred by abandoned homes from the recession and foreclosure crisis.

“No one has done anything as ambitious in this nation as $50 million,” said councilman Pernel Jones, a strong supporter of the legislation.

The vote, seven days before Election Day, gave county executive Ed FitzGerald a new accomplishment in the last days of his run for governor. It also affected the race to replace FitzGerald. Jack Schron, the county councilman who’s the Republican candidate for county executive, voted for the demolition plan, even though his attempts to amend it failed.

The council’s Republicans and Democrats ironed out their differences about the demolition program by approving 11th-hour amendments.

The council adopted Republican Dave Greenspan’s idea of letting cities apply for a grant or a loan. The idea is to stretch out the $50 million bond issue, which isn’t nearly enough to demolish the area’s estimated 20,000 abandoned homes. If cities go for a loan, they’ll get a grant of half the loaned money when they pay it back. Cities are expected to apply for grants at first, then loans as the fund dwindles.

Schron's amendment lost 9-2. He wanted to make the grants competitive and establish an independent review committee to make the awards.

“If we don’t change this, that means the county executive, whoever that’ll be, will be making the determination of how the money will be utilized,” Schron said. But council went instead for Pernel Jones’ amendment, which says council intends to create a committee to oversee the program.

Schron dropped his earlier idea of favoring demolition applications for land with high development interest. The county’s bond counsel advised that restrictions on the use of sales tax bonds prevented it.

Schron’s vote for the final legislation prevents his opponent in the executive race, Democrat Armond Budish, from making demolition a defining issue a week before the election. Budish has said he “strongly supports” the program.

FitzGerald adopted the $50 million demolition proposal in his February State of the County address. (Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis had promoted it for years before.) At the meeting’s end, Democratic councilwoman Sunny Simon praised FitzGerald’s leadership on the issue. Her remarks contrasted with complaints two weeks ago from Greenspan and council president Ellen Connally, who said FitzGerald had offered a vague proposal and left the details to council.

The county will borrow the $50 million and pay it back over several years -- despite concerns that county is already borrowing heavily to finance projects such as the convention center hotel.

The county council went forward despite complaints from Cleveland city councilmen Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson that favoring demolition over rehabilitation might hurt the historic character of their neighborhoods. County councilwoman Yvonne Conwell argued two weeks ago that some of the money should go to rehabbing houses, but she also dropped her idea on the advice of the bond counsel.

The Cuyahoga Land Bank will get $9 million to demolish properties it owns. Cities will be able to apply for up to $1 million in the first round of funding and possibly $2 million in later rounds. Every city that shows a need will get an award. Once a city uses 80 percent of the award, it can come back for more.

Under that system, most suburbs will get the money to demolish all their eligible blighted buildings in the first round. The cities with the greatest need -- Cleveland and East Cleveland, and perhaps a couple more inner-ring suburbs – will come back for many later rounds.

Here's the full text of the final ordinance.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Kasich nearly sweeps newspaper endorsements; FitzGerald's driver's license trouble dooms him

John Kasich’s slouch said it all. The governor showed up to the Plain Dealer endorsement interview without a tie, and he leaned back in his chair, one arm off to the side. He never talked to his Democratic opponent, Ed FitzGerald, even ignored his questions until reporters repeated them. The governor figured he had the endorsement in the bag.

He was right. The centrist Plain Dealer gave Kasich a surprisingly enthusiastic thumbs-up on Friday. In fact, the governor won the endorsements of nearly all of the major-city newspapers in Ohio.

Final score: Kasich 6, FitzGerald 0, none of the above 1.

It’s not easy to run the table with Ohio’s newspapers, since their editorial pages range from conservative to progressive. Kasich came close. The Columbus Dispatch, Canton Repository and Plain Dealer praised his four years as governor.

“John Kasich’s first term as governor has been one of the most consequential, successful and remarkable in Ohio’s history,” wrote the conservative Dispatch, which credited him for cutting the state’s budget and filling the rainy-day fund after the recession, and called him a “social moderate and reformer.”

The Akron Beacon Journal, Youngstown Vindicator and Toledo Blade editorial pages had a tougher decision. How could they reconcile their frequent criticisms of Kasich with the dilemma posed by FitzGerald’s campaign?

“Inept,” the Blade described FitzGerald’s run, politely. “Pathetic performance,” the Beacon Journal said.

Here’s the official scorers' ruling on FitzGerald’s errors -- how many newspapers cited them as a reason not to endorse him:
No drivers license for 10 years: 7 of 7 
First running mate’s tax troubles: 2 of 7
Found in car with Irish trade delegate: 2 of 7 
“If you can't trust a politician to take care of the small but necessary things – for TEN years – how can you trust him with the futures of nearly 11.6 million citizens and 53,000 state employees?” asked The Cincinnati Enquirer. The Dispatch, which said much the same, didn’t even deign to print FitzGerald’s name.

The Beacon Journal and The Vindicator went for Kasich on balance, hinting they might’ve endorsed a stronger challenger. The Blade compiled a long list of criticisms of Kasich, then endorsed no one. “These failings argue for a change in the governor’s office,” it wrote. “But Mr. FitzGerald does not make a persuasive case that he is that change.”

FitzGerald, The Beacon Journal argued, has been successful as Cuyahoga County executive, but is unready to be governor. “The shame is that he did not seek a second term to build on what has been started and sharpen his skills.” A shame, the Beacon implies, because FitzGerald is unlikely to get another shot at a major office.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

FitzGerald and the Greens shadowbox Kasich at the City Club

photo by Donn Nottage
So it’s come to this. Ed FitzGerald -- spurned by the press, the polls, campaign donors and the governor -- took the City Club of Cleveland’s lonely stage last night with the only opponent willing to debate him.

Anita Rios, the Green Party candidate for governor, sat beside FitzGerald before an audience of more Greens than Democrats. John Kasich was a no-show, unwilling to let pesky challengers chink his armor and chip at his 22-point lead.

So “the only gubernatorial debate in the state of Ohio in 2014” (as City Club CEO Dan Moulthrop noted) became a shadow play of the debate Ohio could’ve had, if not for the car trouble that drove FitzGerald to the curb.

There wasn’t much debating in this debate. FitzGerald and Rios tag-teamed, slamming Kasich’s policies on jobs, taxes, local government cuts, gay marriage and Lake Erie.

“Yes, we woke up one morning and couldn’t drink the water,” said Rios. Like many Toledoans, she drove to Michigan for bottled water after the lake’s algae bloom made tap water undrinkable for 400,000 people this summer. She and FitzGerald said they’d regulate fertilizer use on farms to protect the lake.

“It’s not rocket science to fix the runoff issue,” Rios said. “There are many things farmers can do to correct that. It’s just that there have been no regulations put in place. Our leaders do not have the will.”

“Gov. Kasich and his friends are still having conversations about how they’re going to balance the concerns of the fertilizer industry and everybody’s need for safe drinking water,” FitzGerald said. “When it comes to safe drinking water, you don’t balance it. It’s a moral issue. It’s a human right. Anything poisoning it needs to be regulated immediately.”

It was a night for issues, not the character questions that have dominated press coverage of the governor’s race.

Moderator Robert Higgs of the Plain Dealer’s Columbus bureau asked FitzGerald, almost apologetically, about his ten years of driving without a license and his late-night appearance in a car with an Irish trade delegate. What role should character issues play? he asked.

FitzGerald said he should be judged by his record as Cuyahoga County executive, such as cleaning up after corruption. Kasich, he argued, revealed his character by not showing up for the debate and by working for the defunct Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers. Kasich once lobbied public pension funds to invest with the firm; pension funds in Ohio later lost about $500 million because of its collapse. “What’s a greater moral issue?” FitzGerald asked, to applause.

Rios backed him up. “Shame on the media for focusing on that,” she said of FitzGerald’s car trouble.

Higgs asked FitzGerald and Rios how they’d encourage higher-wage jobs. FitzGerald said he’d support small business over large corporations and raise the state’s minimum wage. He bashed Kasich for not opposing free-trade deals. Rios said she wants the state to support worker-owned cooperatives.

Both candidates ripped Kasich’s tax cuts. But when Higgs asked if they’d reverse any, FitzGerald demurred. “I’m not running on a tax increase philosophy,” he said. “I do think we need to fund social services, hunger relief and job creation. [But] is there a way for us to live within our means?” Rios said she’d restore the estate tax, because it mostly taxed the wealthy.

Questions from the Green Party tables swung the debate farther left. FitzGerald searched politely for common ground. Rios supported amnesty for illegal immigrants; FitzGerald endorsed immigration reform and voiced concern about exploitation of migrant workers. Asked about affirmative action, FitzGerald talked about including disadvantaged groups in contracting, while Rios endorsed civil disobedience to preserve racial preferences in college admissions.

One questioner asked a wide-ranging question about the war on terror, militarized police forces, and “subsidizing violence all over the globe, but mostly in Ohio.” Rios promised to assemble a group of anti-war governors, “rather than squandering [money] in some sad place, doing some evil deed.” FitzGerald, not used to debating pacifism, said he endorsed community policing and the need to fight poverty because “you can’t prosecute your way out of a problem.”

Finally, a Green pushed Rios and FitzGerald to disagree about something. “I think I’m a lot more strident on anti-fracking,” Rios said. “I consider the Lucasville 5 on Death Row to be heroes.” (The convicts were found guilty of leading a murderous 1993 prison riot.) FitzGerald agreed to disagree with her on that.

In his closing, FitzGerald fired off the tightest critique of Kasich that I’ve heard from him. He said Kasich is taking credit for a nationwide economic recovery, while Ohio’s job growth has been slower than most states. “That’s one of the reasons John Kasich is not here -- he would love to have a 30-second television commercial conversation about that.” He bashed Kasich’s tax cuts, saying the governor paid for them with higher property taxes and cuts to public schools, local governments and heroin treatment.

“We are one election away from going in a totally different direction if we actually focus on real issues,” FitzGerald said.

He was describing the election Democrats wanted. But because of FitzGerald’s slipups and despite his best efforts, it’s not the election Ohio is getting.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The politics of demolition put Schron on the spot in the executive race

After a lot of talk and months of negotiations, the Cuyahoga County council is poised to approve a $50 million plan to demolish thousands of blighted houses – just before Election Day.

That puts county executive candidate Jack Schron -- a Republican county councilman – in a political bind. He wants a different demolition strategy. How will he vote?

“This might be our one shot at spending $50 million,” Schron said at a council meeting yesterday. “If we spend it before we’ve ever put the comprehensive plan together, we’ll put the cart way before the horse.”

The demolition plan is heading for a vote Oct. 28. Will Schron vote no, a week before the county executive election, and create a contrast between himself and his opponent?

The idea of borrowing $50 million to battle blight has been in the works a long time. Former county treasurer Jim Rokakis and various political candidates suggested it, and executive Ed FitzGerald adopted the idea in his February State of the County address. But it had languished in council for months.

Yesterday, the legislation picked up speed. As the council hashed out details, political tensions flared.

Dave Greenspan, the frugal conservative, argued for loaning money for demolition instead of making grants. Yvonne Conwell, who represents much of Cleveland’s East Side, argued that some of the money should go to renovations. The mayors of Shaker Heights, Lakewood and Parma addressed the council, arguing some of the money should be guaranteed for inner-ring suburbs.

Greenspan and curmudgeonly council president Ellen Connally, both critics of FitzGerald, complained about him again.

“This matter was talked about, and suddenly the executive announced it was going to happen,” Connally said, “and we didn’t have any legislation. So we really had to do the down and dirty work.”

Pernel Jones, also from Cleveland, took the lead in arguing for the legislation as written.

“I thought it’d be a whole lot easier to give away $50 million,” Jones said with a smile.

That left an opening for Schron, the manufacturing CEO who seeks efficiency in government.

“It probably is easy to give away taxpayers money,” Schron replied. But even $50 million isn’t nearly enough to tear down all of the estimated 15,000 abandoned buildings in Cuyahoga County.

So Schron, who built his company’s headquarters on a Cleveland brownfield, argued that the demolition program should work more like the state’s brownfields program. He said it should favor sites where a business wants to develop and banks want to invest, near economic development engines such as the Cleveland Clinic.

“The comprehensive plan should come before the money starts to get spent,” Schron argued.

Dan Brady, rumored to be a top contender for council president next year, challenged Schron.

“Plans can get more and more and more comprehensive and never happen,” Brady said. “I’ve seen it over and over and over in government.”

Soon after, Connally called for the legislation to move forward. Council members can propose amendments over the next two weeks, she said.

“Is it the intent that we would be voting on this final legislation in two weeks?” Schron asked.

“It is our anticipation that we vote on the final legislation in two weeks,” Connally replied coolly.

“Will there be no other opportunity for public participation?” Schron asked.

“The public has had every opportunity to come to our meetings, to submit information,” Connally said.

Schron looked peeved. He shook his head, ever so slightly, and said he’d offer an amendment.

After the meeting, I asked Schron if he was frustrated. He said he wanted more time to get the council to consider his ideas. He smiled and said he might hold a press conference about the issue.

I asked if he’d vote for the demolition fund if his amendment is defeated. “I’ll have to wait and see,” he said.

Across the room, Brady was talking with a focused confidence, as if he’d taken the temperature of the room and found it to his liking.

I asked if he had the votes to pass the legislation as it is now.

“Yes,” he said.

What about the amendments still to come?

“If the legislation gets to a place where it’s not going to work, I’ll no longer support it,” Brady said.

Would Schron’s amendment keep it from working? “Yes, and it would take us another six months,” Brady claimed. Blight in Cleveland will get worse if the city can’t tear down abandoned homes, he argued. “It’s an emergency situation.”

Schron can’t be happy that the council’s Democratic majority is forcing him to vote on the demolition plan seven days before Election Day. But if he has to take a stand, he seems ready to use it as an example of how he thinks differently.

He’s trying to make the demolition program business-friendly, to open up land with blighted buildings on it for development. It could be a good way to grow the tax base. But, it could also mean less demolition in city neighborhoods where the real-estate market has hit bottom.

Armond Budish, Schron’s opponent in the executive race, says he “strongly supports” spending the $50 million. So if Schron’s amendment gets shot down, he’ll face a tough vote Oct. 28. Does he vote no and position himself as the more cautious spender, even though Budish may use that vote against him in the city? Or does he vote yes, for a proposal he thinks could be better, to assure voters he’ll take on the blight issue if elected?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Reform and resumes, or activism and empathy? Schron & Budish clash in county exec debate

Finally, the Cuyahoga County executive race is heating up. Armond Budish and Jack Schron’s debate today didn’t upend or shift the contest to succeed Ed FitzGerald, but it did provide voters a good sense of the choice they face.

Is it a resume battle? Another reform election? Or just a liberal vs. a conservative? At the City Club of Cleveland debate today at the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, it was all three.

Budish, the former Ohio House speaker, started the race with an advantage because of the magic D next to his name. He presented himself as a passionate advocate for the poor, a resurgent town, and an active government. “The most important skill for a county executive [is] empathy for people,” Budish said.

Schron, the Republican county councilman, aimed his message at independents. He cast himself as the candidate with the best resume, the experienced CEO who’ll sustain the momentum of the county’s post-corruption reforms. “Cuyahoga County needs someone who’s been there,” Schron said, “someone who’s created jobs.”

Budish, running as a new-economy Democrat, tried to out-entrepreneur Schron, the CEO of Jergens, Inc. “It’s tough to get banks to invest in new startups,” the Democratic state representative said in his opening statement. He proposed creating a county venture capital authority and offering microloans, “maybe $25,000 that a small barbershop or corner store might need to expand.”

Schron asked voters to look beyond party labels and compare resumes to the job description. “[I’m] an executive in charge of a multinational corporation that makes things and sends them all over the world,” he said. He retold the story of Jergens, Inc.’s decision to build its headquarters in the old Collinwood rail yards. Its diverse workforce, he said, “looks like the city of Cleveland.”

Budish boxed Schron with a right jab and left hook on the county’s other main task besides job creation: caring for the poor. He stole an idea I first heard from Schron months ago: using iPads and smartphones to sign up more social-service clients. After Schron, too, talked up iPads, saying they could streamline services, Budish claimed Schron was too much the penny-pincher, focused “strictly” on bottom lines, “efficiencies and saving money.” Budish said he wants to lift more people out of poverty by connecting them to existing county programs.

Schron struck back. “I would say [Budish] doesn’t know what it takes to run an organization,” he said. Efficiencies in government would free up millions more dollars for social service efforts, Schron argued. Budish replied he hadn’t seen Schron propose legislation about efficiency.

Throughout the debate, Budish brought up partisan differences between him and Schron, while Schron argued that the county executive job should be nonpartisan. Budish went after Schron on labor rights, voting rights, and Medicaid expansion, issues more relevant to a statewide campaign than a local one. Schron reminded listeners that corruption had festered during the old county system’s one-party rule. He hit Budish for opposing the 2009 county charter that created the job he now wants. He also implied Budish will use it as a path to higher office. “We want somebody who actually wants to be here,” Schron said.

During the audience questions, Bruce Akers, a Republican and a framer of the charter, tried to get Budish to pledge to serve two terms. As usual, Budish implied he wants to be executive for a long time, but left himself wiggle room for 2018. “I’d like to stay as long as I can, but it’s going to be up to two things, my health and voters of this county,” Budish said. “To talk about a second term or third term [is] premature.” Schron pounced, and pledged to run for a second term if elected.

The debate did expose some previously unseen differences between the candidates. Schron is against creating a county department of sustainability (he says he values all jobs, not just green jobs). Budish said the county government could encourage local governments, businesses and homeowners to become more energy-efficient.

Budish said he “strongly supports” FitzGerald’s proposal to float a $50 million bond issue to demolish abandoned houses. He added that he wants it spent as part of a larger strategy that also includes rehabbing some vacant homes. Schron also asked smart questions about whether the $50 million would be spent strategically enough to have an impact, but he sounded like he’s not a sure vote on council for the plan.

Both candidates sounded smart, qualified, and relatively well-informed. No one won the debate – which, given the electorate’s partisan imbalance, works in Budish’s favor.

Really, Budish and Schron were debating a bigger question: what is this county executive position? Do you want a CEO-style leader, or an activist liberal? Will all future campaigns for the position focus on jobs and social services, much like all mayor’s races are about jobs, schools and safety? Is the county a second front for the partisan debates in Columbus, or will a less partisan executive be more effective? Do we still need to focus on a post-corruption spirit of reform and bipartisanship, or is it time to pivot to activist government?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Jim Traficant was corrupt and hilarious -- that's how he got away with it

When is it OK to speak ill of the dead?

It's been a taboo since Roman times. But sometimes respect for history requires an exception. Dictators should go to the grave with a final accounting of their crimes against humanity. A former boss of mine, a Southerner by birth, refused to spare segregationist governors. Hunter S. Thompson tramped down Richard Nixon's grave with gonzo glee.

So what should we say today about the death of Jim Traficant, the bribe-pocketing, Mob-paid, vendetta-driven former congressman from Youngstown, one of the only two men expelled from Congress since the Civil War?

Humor, I think, is a completely appropriate response. Just like a comedian's obituary ought to make you laugh, a Traficant RIP fails if it doesn't give you a sense of his outrageousness.

From the Washington Post's Matt Schudel:
Glib and voluble, he was known for wearing cowboy boots, skinny ties and out-of-date polyester suits and for a bouffant mound of hair that seemed to defy gravity.
Reporters outdid themselves in trying to describe Mr. Traficant’s pompadour — and to determine whether it was real. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, it was a “Planet of the Apes sort of hair helmet,” or as Washingtonian magazine put it, “a creature from Lake Erie before it was cleaned up.” ...
“Let us tell it like it is,” he said in 1997. “When you hold this economy to your nosey, this economy does not smell so rosy. If there is any consolation to the American workers, I never heard of anyone committing suicide by jumping out of a basement window.”

It doesn't trivialize Traficant to explain how the toupee-clad congressman's bawdy humor and stunt-man chutzpah made him a cult hero in Youngstown. His mad-as-hell shtick gave him the dark power to survive in office for so long. It is key to understanding the man in full.

How else can you explain that the guy got caught taking $100,000 from the Cleveland Mafia and $60,000 from the Pittsburgh Mafia, claimed he was really running a one-man sting operation to bust them, got the jury to buy it, and was rewarded with a seat in Congress?

Actually, I can think of two ways. The other is to explain, seriously, what it says about Youngstown's underdog desperation in the 1980s and 1990s that it looked to him as its fearless savior.

I will leave that to Youngstown-native writers, including my former colleague Jacqueline Marino. Her excellent profile of Traficant, from the days just before his corruption finally caught up him, explains what he meant to Youngstown back then.

Today, Marino is co-editing the forthcoming Rust Belt Chic: The Youngstown Anthology, which I hope with include a good Traficant tale or two, plus the story of how the city finally broke Traficant's spell and moved on.

If Youngstown saw something in Traficant, should anyone who cares for Youngstown try to find redeeming value in its symbol turned shame? That's the approach Chris Geidner took yesterday, elegantly summing up Traficant's legacy with more generosity than I can muster:
At his best, he saw himself as a populist standing up for that city and its people. ...
He rose to local fame as the sheriff who went to jail himself rather than enforce eviction notices against people in the community — many of whom were losing their homes because of the death of the steel industry in the area. ...
At his worst, though, Traficant believed that being that man meant he deserved power and deference and the things — from money to meals and more — that, in his mind, went with that power.
Jim Traficant gave me my first lessons about politics — the good, the bad, and the ugly — and that education has proved invaluable to me as I cover the world around me.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Bedford judge isn't a pimp and didn't take a bribe

*Updated 9/4 with further verdicts. 

Remember how Bedford Judge Harry Jacob III was accused of bribery and promoting prostitution – a charge usually used against pimps? Turns out that story, told by prosecutors in December, didn’t hold up in court.

At Jacob’s trial yesterday, Common Pleas Court Judge Brian Corrigan threw out the bribery charge and three charges of promoting prostitution before closing arguments. He ruled the state hadn’t made its case.

The embattled Jacob still faces 11 charges, including felonies involving tampering with records.* But so far, Jacob’s defense lawyers seem to be having some success with their strategy: admit their client had sex with prostitutes but argue he committed no other crimes.

The trial exposed holes in the prosecution’s key charges that I first revealed in my March story “The Bedford Judge and the Brothel Bust.

Most of the case centers on the events of April 20, 2012, when Jacob allowed a young woman to resolve an outstanding traffic case by paying a $250 fine. Prosecutors claimed the woman, who was engaged in prostitution, had sex with Jacob in exchange for special treatment in court.

But Corrigan noted that $250 is actually a pretty typical fine for a traffic ticket. He ruled that the judge and the woman never agreed to sex for favors. “There’s no testimony he received any discount or other favorable consideration,” Corrigan said.

The woman’s story has shifted, so that may be a reason the bribery charge failed. But the three charges of promoting prostitution -- violating Ohio’s anti-pimping law – were always a stretch, as various local defense attorneys warned me for my March story.

“I would be cautious in believing that Judge Jacob engaged in the classic function of a pimp,” attorney Terry Gilbert said then. “Usually, in these cases, there are over-indictments.”

Those charges were a puzzle back then – what did prosecutors mean when they claimed Jacob had “supervised and induced” the activities of two prostitutes? Turns out that accusation was based on a rather novel interpretation of the law: Jacob paid women for threesomes.

As Corrigan put it delicately, the law targets “more of an operational aspect of prostitution, rather than what we see in this particular case.”

Now all the felony charges from the original indictment are gone. But Jacob could still be found guilty of corrupting his office, because prosecutors filed two superceding indictments this spring. Some of the newer felony charges allege he fudged court records. He also faces six misdemeanor charges of soliciting a prostitute. Corrigan will issue verdicts in about two weeks.* (Jacob waived his right to a jury trial.)

Prosecutors seem to have proven this much: Jacob’s lust for prostitutes made him stupid. It led him to break the law and violate judicial ethics. It will surely cost him his job. (He’s suspended from the bench pending the trial’s outcome.) Trial testimony showed Jacob paid for sex, heard the traffic case of a woman he had sex with, and visited the local brothel, Studio 54 Girls, on his lunch break. No judge’s career on the bench will survive that, nor should it.

But Corrigan’s ruling yesterday suggests that prosecutors initially overcharged Jacob. That’s significant because the Bedford indictments were the first big case for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty’s new public corruption unit. (The other defendant, former Bedford law director Kenneth Schuman, pleaded guilty last month to one of eight counts: having an unlawful interest in a public contract. Prosecutors agreed to drop seven other counts against Schuman, including bribery, theft in office, and obstructing justice.)

A prosecutor who overcharges in public corruption cases may be an improvement over one who sees and hears no evil among his fellow elected officials. But the next time a public official gets indicted, it’ll be worth remembering how this case started and how it’s ending.

Update, 9/4: Corrigan found Jacob guilty of five misdemeanors: two counts of falsifying court records and three counts of soliciting prostitution. (Read the WKYC-TV story here.) Jacob was found not guilty on all of the state's felony charges.

McGinty's office blasted Corrigan's verdicts in an angry statement. Jacob "disgraced his city and demeaned the judiciary of this state," it says.

"We plan to appeal the court's erroneous conclusions," the statement says. But not-guilty verdicts are final.

McGinty spokesman Joe Frolik tells me, "We plan to challenge the reasoning Judge Corrigan cited for some of his verdicts, but we understand that we cannot overturn them. We would hope that the appeals court might instruct future courts on how to apply the law."

Friday, August 8, 2014

FitzGerald at the BMV: WTF?

Ed FitzGerald is not like most people. When he wants something – say, a new job in politics – his will to power is ferocious, even beyond the ambition of the average politician.

And when he doesn’t want to do something, it turns out, his stubbornness surpasses that of most mortals.

“I procrastinated,” FitzGerald says, explaining why he went ten years without a regular driver’s license.

Ever since the county executive’s epic scofflaw news broke, I’ve been trying to think of a rational reason for it. I started imagining a detective-novel character with a fear of facial-recognition technology, whose learner’s permit masks an exotic secret past involving a scandalous college side job and a surveillance video.

But no.

“Eventually I went down to the BMV and waited in line like everybody else does,” the Democratic candidate for Ohio governor told WKYC-TV’s Tom Beres. “That’s not the most pleasant experience in the world all the time, but that’s no excuse.”

FitzGerald’s car trouble is taking over the governor’s race. The Plain Dealer’s investigation of why FitzGerald was parked with a Irish woman before dawn has gotten tawdrier, devolving into a he-said/cop-said about whether they were in the front or back seats. But the Columbus Dispatch’s follow-up, that FitzGerald showed the Westlake police a learner’s permit? That’s the truly unique development here.

Most politicians’ mistakes repeat ancient themes. Bribes, sex, cover-ups, thievery, wife-beating, hookers. Or just everyday cronyism, attack ads, lies, gaffes, broken promises.

But driving 3,650 days without a license? That’s such a weird slip, it’s hard to process. Avoiding an easy responsibility reveals something weird about someone’s character.

“I’m pretty surprised,” Ellen Connally, the Cuyahoga County council president, told the Dispatch. “Every citizen has to comply with the law. I don’t understand what the slip-up was.”

Exactly. FitzGerald seems to think he’s above the law. The average voter might've forgiven the story of him and the Irish lady, especially since nothing was proven. But avoiding a rule everyone else has to follow hurts any candidate, and especially a former FBI agent and prosecutor. FitzGerald rose to the top of local politics by riding the backlash against the Dimora-Russo corruption scandal. He was the anti-Dimora, the stern stickler for law and ethics. How’s that look now?

When FitzGerald’s been successful as county executive, it’s when he was tightly focused on a task. He seemed driven, even obsessed, with advancing a reform agenda and doing the opposite of what the old government had done. He got the inspector general in place fast, cut the county’s payroll and real-estate holdings and sold the albatross Ameritrust complex.

But when FitzGerald didn’t want to bother with something, you could tell. He went near-AWOL on the stadium sin tax this spring, reluctantly endorsing it but skipping a council hearing and the campaign kickoff. After it passed, he came out with a belated “win tax” proposal, a ham-handed attempt to harness both anti-sin-tax sentiment and fans’ resentment of Cleveland sports loserdom. It got him on sports talk radio, but it was dead on arrival at county council.

In the governor’s race, too, his once-sharp sense of political timing seems off. His reformer persona didn’t seem to translate statewide – even before his car trouble. His campaign often comes off as a series of Democratic clichés, an outdated attempt to revive the anti-Senate Bill 5 coalition of 2011. Sure enough, he hasn’t caught on with the swing voter; the latest poll has him down 12 points.

Maybe the license debacle is a metaphor for FitzGerald’s ultra-ambition. He’s impatient, a man in a hurry who doesn’t stay in one job long. But three months to election day, it's looking like the voters, like a stern BMV clerk, are going to send him to the back of the line.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

FitzGerald and the Irish woman: Who cares?

Soon after published its story about Ed FitzGerald’s encounter with the Westlake police, the social media snark flew back from Washington, D.C.

“‘She’s part of a delegation from Ireland’ could become 2014’s ‘hiking the Appalachian Trail,’” tweeted one DC reporter.

FitzGerald held a press conference, denied doing anything unseemly, and blamed the story on Republican dirty tricks. His friend says the same.

So the Plain Dealer article leaves readers puzzling — do we believe FitzGerald’s story? He’s giving a friend a ride, in the very early morning, she can’t remember where her hotel is, so they pull over to make calls.…

Who cares?

We all know a bit about sex and human weakness. So let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that FitzGerald and the lady doth protest too much.

So what?

FitzGerald didn’t break a law. He wasn’t cited for anything. The cop wrote, “FitzGerald and friend just talking.” How is an inconclusive police report news?

I’m trying to imagine how Ted Diadiun, the Plain Dealer’s apologist reader representative, will defend the story tomorrow.

Perhaps he’ll say newspapers aren’t “gatekeepers” anymore, that the Republican Governors Association and others were asking for the police report, that it was probably going to come out anyway. Again, so what? Opposition researchers often collect every piece of dirt they can. Their political bosses use some of it and choose not to use some of it. Just collecting it isn’t news.

{Update, 8/9: Here's Diadiun's defense of the story: "It is fair to question the judgment of a candidate for the state's highest office who allows himself to be put in such a compromising position." Sounds like he's saying the press should not just expose infidelity, but even the appearance of infidelity.}

Maybe some Democrats will close their checkbooks and ask why FitzGerald ran for governor with this police report out there. Maybe some moralistic swing voters will say a potential governor shouldn’t be in a parking lot with a woman at 4:30 a.m., whatever the reason. “Judgment questions,” the Plain Dealer calls it.

I don’t buy it. The paper’s story strikes me as a rather empty exercise in sexual investigative reporting.

Whether or not FitzGerald’s friend from Ireland is just a friend has nothing to do with capital punishment, taxes, schools, job growth, local government funding, or anything else the governor does. It’s just gossip. Who cares?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Civic Commons holds an East Cleveland merger forum -- and it doesn't go well

Photos by Anthony Price
There are some problems that “thought leaders,” “facilitators,” and whiteboards filled with talking points can’t fix.

That became obvious really fast last night at a Civic Commons forum in East Cleveland about the idea of the town merging with Cleveland.

About 60 people came to the event at the East Cleveland Public Library, including East Clevelanders, Clevelanders, and people from suburbs from Euclid to Pepper Pike. Despite the serious financial problems that beset the town of 17,000, no one spoke in favor of a merger, and more than a dozen East Cleveland residents spoke out against it.

Civic Commons moderator Andrew Samtoy asked people to list negatives about a merger, and residents responded with such force that Samtoy never dared to ask for positives.

East Clevelanders said they’d lose their own mayor and council, City Hall and police, autonomy, political power, home demolition program, and direct grants from the federal government. Many questioned whether Cleveland’s poor neighborhoods are any better off than East Cleveland.

“I see Cleveland has a lot of big developments,” said M. LaVora Perry of the East Cleveland Narrator, but “those don’t trickle back to the core community. Certain neighborhoods seem to be thriving,” she added, but in others, “I don’t see anything being done.”

Several East Clevelanders said, to applause, that the Nov. 2012 Cleveland police chase and fatal shooting, which ended in East Cleveland, made them not want to join Cleveland. The East Cleveland police, one man said, have a good relationship with the community and are more likely to defuse a crisis without force.

Many in the room asked why the forum was held at all. Almost all of the merger talk of the last several months is coming from Cleveland leaders and commentators. Public opinion among East Clevelanders is strongly against a merger. So the Civic Commons’ attempt to get them to talk about merging backfired, setting off fears of a condescending and hostile takeover.

“They’re trying to build a narrative to convince East Cleveland residents to support the idea,” said Michael Smedley, chief of staff for East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton. “They want to have a series of community forums to get you beyond your fears.”

More likely, the Civic Commons simply had no idea what it was getting into.

The event was a lesson in how not to introduce oneself to a community. The Civic Commons had no East Clevelanders scheduled to speak when it announced its event. It held the forum on the same night as East Cleveland school board meeting and city council committee meetings. It promoted the event heavily on Twitter, Facebook and public radio, but those outlets don’t reach a lot of East Clevelanders, who still promote civic events with flyers and announcements at other town meetings. Despite a weeklong social-media barrage, many East Clevelanders expressed surprise that the forum was so lightly promoted. By the event’s end, Civic Commons director Mike Shafarenko was promising they’d do better next time.

Exchanges between East Clevelanders and Cleveland city councilman Zack Reed got testy. Reed introduced himself with a joke — “I’m a little late, because [when] we do take over, we’re going to get rid of those red light cameras” — that angered many in the takeover-wary crowd. Reed sharply challenged East Cleveland councilman Nathaniel Martin’s claim that East Cleveland’s mayor is more accessible than Cleveland’s.

The event became a lesson in East Cleveland’s distrust of outsiders. Some residents talked angrily about the flight of businesses and capital from their city, including the Cleveland Clinic’s 2011 closing of Huron Hospital. Some cast the merger idea as a land grab by University Circle interests.

Finally, Cleveland councilman Mike Polensek salved the tensions with a mix of diplomacy and expressions of solidarity. “We came here as guests,” he said. “We’re not trying to take over.”

Most Cleveland city councilpeople are not in favor of annexing East Cleveland, Polensek said. “We’re here as neighbors, to assist,” he said. Cleveland has already taken over East Cleveland’s water department, he said, and he raised the possibility of more shared services and mutual aid agreements.

But Polensek warned three times, in a polite and neighborly way, that East Cleveland needs to deal with its serious fiscal problems if it wants to stay independent.

“The elite cannot push any agenda if your city is solvent,” he said. “If you get your act together, and have a balanced budget, you can make the city what you want it to be.”

Hanging over the forum, but never quite spoken, was the awful math of abandonment. East Cleveland is about to borrow almost $7 million to pay off its many debts and deficits. It’ll borrow against future local government funding from the state, which likely means even more layoffs and service cuts to come. The city’s tax base has shrunk dramatically in the last few years, shrinking its budget from $17 million in 2010 to about $11.5 million this year.

The price of independence is rising. Will a time come when even proud and independent East Clevelanders are no longer willing to pay it?

As the meeting wound down and the crowd thinned, Smedley, the mayor’s chief of staff, who had earlier declared, “there is no benefit at all to a merger,” acknowledged that it could be the fallback plan if the city can’t claw its way out of fiscal crisis.

First, Smedley said, East Cleveland needs to see if neighbors such as Cleveland and Cleveland Heights can help “give us a real shot at saving this community.”

“What we’re trying to do is to position ourselves to give us the best shot at it, and if we fail, we know that we tried our best,” Smedley said.

“And then, if merger is where we need to be at that point, I guarantee you, the government… as well as the residents, who’ve been pouring their hearts and souls into trying to save this community, will be ready to sit at the table.”

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Will the corruption watchdog get protection?

Today, the Cuyahoga County council will debate a bunch of possible amendments to the county charter. The most important would create new protections for the inspector general, the government’s anti-corruption watchdog. It’ll be a close vote.

The inspector general’s office gives employees and the public a confidential place to report wrongdoing. The first inspector general, Nailah Byrd, has looked into a lot of small allegations about misused public money and time and prompted the resignation of several employees.

But the inspector general’s real moment of truth will come someday, when the office fields a serious allegation against a county executive, a council member, or one of their political allies. Will the inspector general be able to investigate without punishment?

Right now, a council that didn’t like an investigation could simply vote to fire the inspector general or abolish the office. A charter amendment written by Dave Greenspan, a reform-minded Republican councilman, would protect the inspector general by adding the office to the charter. An inspector general would be appointed for a four-year term and could only be removed mid-term by a two-thirds council majority.

The amendment has bipartisan support. Jack Schron, the county councilman and Republican candidate for county executive, predicts voters would approve it if they get the chance.

So what’s the holdup?

Council president Ellen Connally opposes the amendment. She questions the size of the inspector general’s budget, about $1 million, and she questions why investigations are made public whether a complaint is founded or not. Worthwhile questions, but the council would still have the power to address them if an amendment passes.

Sunny Simon, the council’s vice-president, could be a swing vote. She wants to allow a simple majority of council to fire the inspector general. That may not be enough protection in the future, if a political machine controls both the executive's office and council.

Another proposed charter amendment would require the executive to get council’s approval to fire the sheriff. Some council members will support this because they don't like the fact that Ed FitzGerald fired Bob Reid in 2012 with very little explanation.

The amendment would also guard against corruption, because a future county executive wouldn't be able to fire a sheriff to stop an investigation.

The council will meet today at 1 pm to decide which charter amendments to move forward.

You may hear more about other proposed amendments. A voting-rights amendment, which would give the Democrats a new weapon in Ohio’s endless war over election rules, is likely to split the council along partisan lines. Schron wants to make county elections nonpartisan, presumably to give future Republicans more of a chance in executive and prosecutor races.

Don’t let the partisan debates distract you.  If you care about keeping Cuyahoga County’s government corruption-free, and if you think the public needs more protection from the power of political machines, then the inspector general is the most important reform of all.

Update, 7/18: The council didn't get to the inspector general amendment yesterday. It's on the agenda for the July 22 meeting at 2 pm. The council voted 6-5 to advance the sheriff amendment to a final vote. But its odds are bad. Amendments need eight votes to get on the November ballot.

Update, 7/23: The council advanced the inspector general amendment yesterday on a 9-2 vote, after approving Simon's change that would allow a simple majority of council to fire the IG. They'll vote Aug. 12 whether to put it on the November ballot.

Update, 9/4: The inspector general won't make the ballot. It only got 6 votes out of 11 last month, and it needed 8. Explaining his no vote, councilman Mike Gallagher compared the inspector general to "Big Brother" and claimed she was trying to spy on county workers by obtaining video feeds. Later, he retracted his criticism -- but he still doesn't support protecting the inspector general in the charter.

This issue isn't going away. Jack Schron is championing the inspector general in his campaign for county executive.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Did anyone call Jimmy Dimora with the good news about the 2016 Republican convention?

Is Jimmy Dimora rolling over in his cell today? Or, lying behind bars in a California prison, does he
secretly feel vindicated that the Republicans are coming to Cleveland for their 2016 convention?

If you’re excited the GOP chose us, there’s lots of credit to go around today. Ed FitzGerald deserves some (as Brent Larkin notes). So do Rob Portman and Frank Jackson. A bipartisan effort convinced the Republicans to hold their coronation in Cleveland.

No one, of course, has thanked Dimora, the former Democratic chair turned disgraced crook. Nor do I expect Tim Hagan, the hotheaded liberal Democrat who made the convention center his last big-spending project, to get much thanks from the pro-RNC crowd.

But the Republicans’ enormous convention wouldn’t be coming here without Dimora and Hagan’s controversial 2007 decision to raise the sales tax and build the convention center and Global Center. That big bet on the convention industry and visitor economy is the first step that made the RNC decision today possible.

Quicken Loans Arena will be the Republicans’ main convention hall, but the Cleveland Convention Center will be the RNC’s biggest supporting venue. More important is the cascade of development the project set off. No convention center means no hotel boom and no convention center hotel. Cleveland didn’t have as many hotel rooms as Dallas, but by 2016, it’ll have just enough.

Even the author of a very critical piece about the convention center hotel admitted as much today:

I’m remembering the argument that Chris Kennedy of MMPI, the convention center’s developer, made in a story I wrote five years ago.

“If you look at cities that have enjoyed urban rebirth, they are almost all associated with tourism and hospitality,” Kennedy said then. “Unless you introduce that element back into Cleveland, I don't believe any other strategy can be successful. Additionally, this strategy can turn a city around all by itself.”

Exciting, if true. And we’ll see. Cleveland is all-in with the visitor economy now.

Today’s news isn’t going to stop the debate about that, nor should it. One of the great divides of Cleveland politics is about projects like this -- big spending on attracting visitors, and on downtown in general.

The RNC is a lot like Dimora and Hagan’s gamble on the convention center, or FitzGerald’s double-down on a county-owned convention hotel. Cleveland will spend $55 million to $68 million to prepare for the convention, to attract visitor spending that can only be estimated, before or after -- $404 million? or $170 million? or even just $15 million?

The boosters and skeptics, the optimists and pessimists, will fight on, just like the Republicans and Democrats will. Neither will be right all the time.

But sometimes events move the debate. Cleveland’s improbable return to the national political convention circuit is a big win for the optimists’ strategy.