Friday, January 31, 2014

Roldo rises again to fight the stadium tax

Last week, Roldo Bartimole, the 80-year-old independent journalist, took a step most writers wouldn’t take – up to the speaker’s podium at a Cuyahoga County Council meeting.

An old debate has returned anew, and Roldo arose, as he did in the ’90s, to rail against the alcohol and cigarette tax that funds Cleveland’s stadiums.

“I think this is beyond reason, and I think any serious person would feel so,” he told the council in his high-pitched rasp. “Why would you want to place on the ballot another heavy tax burden, for who knows what real reasons these three team owners would use the money for?”

The council did not take his advice. This week it voted 11-0 to place a renewal of the “sin tax” on the May 6 ballot. A couple of hours later, I called Roldo and told him about the unanimous vote. He laughed. “Really unbelievable,” he said.

In my 14 years in town, I’ve never seen Roldo speak in public on an issue before. But his journalism has long had an activist bent. He recalls arguing with Mike White and Tim Hagan at press conferences and with Art Modell on the field of old Municipal Stadium. For 24 years, with more doggedness than the Browns chase quarterbacks, Roldo’s nipped at the ankles of Cleveland sports team owners, growling that the public shouldn’t build or own major-league stadiums.

The sin tax is "an unfair tax, a regressive tax, welfare for wealthy people,” he says. “All three owners are either billionaires, or members of families that are billionaires.”

I tried some pro-sin-tax arguments on him. The city and county own FirstEnergy Stadium, Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena. So shouldn’t the public pay for their upkeep?

“The point is, they should get themselves out of the business,” Roldo replied.

We’re the landlord. The teams are our tenants. If we break the leases, will the teams leave?

“The teams can leave, then,” Roldo answered. But he added, “I don’t think they’re going to go up and leave. They would take a lot of flak themselves for leaving a city. They’ve already done that with the football team. Would they do it again?

“No, I think Cleveland has an opportunity to start something that will go national: the teams start supporting themselves. They stop becoming welfare clients of a city that can’t even afford to educate their children.”

I read Roldo often, and I think he can spend too much energy fighting battles lost in the ’80s and ’90s. Public stadium funding and tax abatements for new business, the two biggest evils in his worldview, are common across the country now. Cities face tough compromises if they want to compete.

Yet a recent poll shows the stadium sin tax losing by almost 10 points. Greater Clevelanders are weary of the cost of public stadium ownership. Sports teams have gotten richer since the 1990s, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County have grown poorer, and everyone knows it.

So Roldo is relevant again. For him, the May 6 vote is a rematch, a sequel 24 years in the making. In his career-defining battle against the stadium and arena project in May 1990, Roldo printed “LET JACOBS PAY” buttons and bumper stickers to tweak then-Indians owner Dick Jacobs.

The Gateway project squeaked through with 52 percent of the countywide vote, but it has haunted local debates about public-private projects ever since. Last week, Roldo gave the county council copies of an infamous 1990 pro-Gateway ad, filled with grandiose, broken promises.

“I want to get the teams off welfare,” Roldo says. “A free stadium and not even pay property taxes? Does the museum come and say, give us $100 million over a long period, it’s hard to keep up?”

Friday, January 24, 2014

Council president Kelley defends Browns deal, supports sin tax

Kevin Kelley got grilled about Browns stadium funding on Tuesday. Cleveland’s new city council president sat in a circle at Speakeasy, the bar below Bier Markt on West 25th, and took questions at the end of a Civic Commons event. Five straight people asked him about the council’s November vote to pay $30 million for stadium repairs and upgrades over the next 15 years.

Kelley said the Browns’ lease binds the city to make the repairs. But he found the agreement between the cash-strapped landlord and billionaire tenant a tough sell.

“Are we always going to own Browns Stadium?” one woman asked. “Is there a plan ever to have the Browns buy Browns Stadium?”

“The city owns the stadium, and we probably always will,” Kelley said. “We owned the one before it.” That’s common in most cities, he said.

Kelley said he voted for the agreement because the city’s lawyers and a study by the engineering firm URS pegged the city’s lease obligations at about $30 million. “I wasn’t going to authorize a nickel that wasn’t contemplated in the lease,” he said. The Browns wanted the city to do more, “and the city pushed back quite a bit.”

Three weeks into the 45-year-old Old Brooklyn councilman’s job as president, stadium funding is the big question he’s got to face. Yesterday, Kelley urged the Cuyahoga County Council to put the “sin tax” on alcohol and cigarettes on the May 6 ballot and encouraged county residents to vote for it.

“We as a community made a decision through the ballot box that we wanted to build these sports facilities,” Kelley told me today. FirstEnergy Stadium, Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena are all publicly owned, part of the deals struck in the 1990s to bring the new Browns to town and make the Indians and Cavaliers happy long-term tenants.

“We own these,” Kelley told me. “We have to make these repairs. It’s either going to come out of the sin tax or it’s going to come out of the general fund, which pays police officers, firefighters, which pays EMS, which pays for recreation centers. It maintains the parks our kids play at. It plows our streets.

“It’s not a giveaway of public funds to rich owners,” he insisted. “It’s meeting the obligation that we as a community made many years ago -- because the city and the county have to make these repairs. We have leases, we have obligations. It’s either a penny a beer, 4½ cents on a pack of cigarettes, or it’s going to come out of the general fund.”

The Browns’ stadium lease, approved in 1996, looks different to many Clevelanders in 2014. Back then, Cleveland, wounded over the Browns’ forcible removal to Baltimore, was determined to get an NFL team back.

Now, the bills are mounting. City Hall is tapping its general fund for $2 million a year to fix and improve the football stadium. It still owes $11 million a year on the stadium’s construction debt. Up to now, the sin tax has covered those debt payments, but it expires this year.

To my surprise, Kelley told me the county council hasn’t decided if a sin tax renewal would cover all of the football stadium debt. The council still has to agree on how much of the hoped-for tax money would go to FirstEnergy Stadium and how much to the Q and Progressive Field. That may or may not happen before the tax renewal goes on the ballot.

At Speakeasy on Tuesday, one voter suggested the city needs to demand better lease terms from the Browns. “Many people say that deal was made somewhat under duress, there was a desperation for some kind of team,” he told, “so it wouldn’t be out of line to renegotiate in some fashion by being really aggressive.”

I asked Kelley about that. “You would need both sides come to the table to open it up,” he replied. “I don’t know that that discussion has been had yet.” He suggested the city would find itself in a tough bargaining position. “It’s difficult to open negotiations in the middle of a lease,” he said. “Now that we’re in this lease, it’s very challenging to say, ‘We’ve changed our minds.’”

Monday, January 13, 2014

Arnold Pinkney (1931-2014), veteran Cleveland political organizer and strategist

Arnold Pinkney during his 1971 run for mayor.  (

Arnold Pinkney ran for mayor twice, but that's not why most people in Democratic Party circles remember him. Nor is it the main reason they're mourning today's news of his death at 83.

Pinkney lost in his attempt to succeed Mayor Carl Stokes in 1971, and in his second run in 1975. His political talents lay instead in getting other people elected.  He ran successful campaigns for all three black mayors of Cleveland -- Stokes, Mike White, and Frank Jackson -- and Louis Stokes' successful run to become Ohio's first black congressman.  

He worked on national presidential campaigns too. He was the No. 2 guy on Hubert Humphrey's 1972 campaign and Jesse Jackson's run in 1984. He also served for years on Cleveland's school board. But Pinkney was best known locally as the go-to guy for get-out-the-vote efforts in black neighborhoods on Cleveland's East Side.

In 2001, I spent a day watching Pinkney and his machine work on behalf of mayoral candidate Raymond Pierce.  I rode with him in his car as he visited his ragged army of polling station canvassers, employed for a single 13-hour shift.  At one stop, he got out, shook hands, and asked people to choose Pierce in that day's primary race.  Most of the voters recognized him. "How come you're not running?" one asked, 26 years after Pinkney's second try.

His job that day was a challenge: mobilize political support for Pierce, a former Clinton Administration lawyer and political unknown. On a floor of his Pinkney-Perry insurance agency, converted into a war room, volunteers fired off phone blitzes based on mid-day precinct vote counts and a floppy-hatted professor's projections. He deployed 400 people across "each side of town, northeast and southeast," as he put it.

His effort lifted Pierce into the runoff election (where he lost to Jane Campbell). That night at the victory party, the crowd cheered for Pierce, then chanted "Arnold! Arnold!" I remember Pinkney's offhand confidence, even cockiness, as he talked to one side of the stage.  I'm paraphrasing from memory, but it was something like this: I don't know why people are so surprised. We've been doing this for 30 years. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Jeff Johnson wants to be mayor; Nina Turner says, 'Never say never'

“If somebody asks me, ‘Would you like to be mayor of Cleveland?’ I tell them, ‘Yes, I would,’ ” city councilman Jeff Johnson says in my new profile of him. “The best thing I can do is do a good job in Ward 10 [and] be rewarded with serious consideration.”

Johnson has pulled off the biggest comeback in Cleveland politics since Dennis Kucinich went to Congress. In 1999, an extortion conviction seemed to end his career. But he’s worked his way back to city council and won reelection in November, defying gerrymandered ward lines that threatened to do him in.

In the January issue of Cleveland Magazine, Johnson, 55, talks with me about his past, his future, and how city council and the East Side are different now than in the ‘80s. You can read my profile of Johnson here.

Cleveland isn’t looking for a new mayor, of course. Frank Jackson was sworn in for a third term yesterday. But Jackson, 67, told me last year, “I would have retired but for the school effort.” Few expect him to run for a fourth term in 2017. So who are the younger politicians who could step into leadership?

Elsewhere in the January issue, I ask state senator Nina Turner if she, too, would like to be mayor someday. “Never say never!” she says. “I love the city of Cleveland. I’m a daughter of the city.” Any 2017 ambitions are far away for her; she’s already running for Ohio secretary of state this year against Jon Husted. But if she loses that race, Turner, 46, could be free to take a shot at succeeding Jackson. And my guess is she’d be more likely than Johnson to get Jackson’s endorsement.

Turner’s one of our Most Interesting People for 2014. In this issue, I also talk with her about her family, the history classes she teaches at Cuyahoga Community College, and her co-sponsorship of Jackson’s plan to reform the Cleveland schools. You can read my piece about her here.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Scowling Sweeney strikes again

Like a glowering gnome, his eyes smoldering with hate for his enemies, Martin Sweeney lurks on the Plain Dealer's front page today. The paper looks gleeful at a chance to kick the hapless ex-city council president one last time.

Sweeney has ended his presidency with a final indulgence, and the file photo makes him look furious to be caught out.

Totally unsurprisingly, Sweeney retired for a few days to collect his pension -- the same cheesy double-dip he allowed Ken Johnson to pull last year. Then he rejoins council on Monday for another four years.

There ought to be a law against elected officials' week-long fake retirements, but there isn't. Double-dipping drains government pension systems of cash and credibility (take a look at Detroit to see how that ends). Yet Cleveland councilpeople have just made double-dipping even more a part of their insular culture, restoring double-dippers' ceremonial seniority honors. They meant to come back, council explains. Everyone knows their retirements are fake.

I still can't figure out how Sweeney lasted eight years as council president. He survived a sexual harassment allegation. He dodged multiple ethical questions arising from his friendships with Cuyahoga County corruption scandal figures. He never turned over those receipts for the work that Michael Forlani's company did on his house. He never explained the relationship between Forlani's fundraising for his council leadership fund and the contractor's wiretapped boast that he could count on 14 votes from the council majority.

Last year, Sweeney's ruthless gerrymandering backfired. His old majority too slim for comfort after the November election, he delivered a score-settling farewell and handed off the presidency.

"Let's move on," says Kevin J. Kelley, the council president-elect, "and deal with the vacant housing problem [and] the gun violence epidemic." Sounds good.

Update, 3 pm: Speaking of Kelley, he scolded council members at a retreat today to show up for meetings and pay attention. But many councilpeople weren't there to hear it -- they skipped the optional meeting. says only 9 of the 17 council members came, though Joe Cimperman is also tweeting from it, so let's say 10.

Kelley said committee chairpersons and vice-chairs often ignore the mayor's cabinet members when they testify. “One of my personal pet peeves is when the chair is off talking to someone else or checking email, while the director is addressing the group and looking around for someone to make eye contact with,” he said.  No kidding!