Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kevin Kelley talks vacant housing, council discipline, East Cleveland merger

My Q-and-A with Kevin Kelley, Cleveland’s new city council president, is out now in the March issue of Cleveland Magazine.

Kelley’s election may lead to a more assertive city council than we’ve seen in eight years. His predecessor, Martin Sweeney, valued cooperation with Mayor Frank Jackson and let the mayor's office set civic priorities. Kelley’s agenda for 2014 includes initiatives on vacant housing and gun violence, both still in the study stage.

The 45-year-old councilman from Old Brooklyn talked with me about his insistence on better discipline and decorum in council, his plans to step up home demolitions, and his thoughts on whether Cleveland should annex East Cleveland. Here’s an extended version of his answers. You can read his comments about why he supports extending Cuyahoga County’s alcohol and cigarette tax for stadium repairs in this blog post.

CM: What are your plans for vacant housing?

KK: The council has commissioned a study to look at the effect of demolition and how it affects property values. We need to aggressively attack these houses. Some homes are candidates for restoration, but what’s really causing the devaluing of real estate is the 5,000 we can all agree need to come down. The biggest challenge is not identifying the houses to come down, but identifying the money.

CM: Councilman Jeff Johnson will often make the case: I don’t just want demolition, I represent a historic neighborhood, I want some of these properties preserved, and I want to find money for that too.

KK: Certainly there are some [houses] that are candidates for restoration. But the biggest part of the problem is those that must come down. Even councilman Johnson or those who are active in the historic preservation community would agree that there are homes that are beyond saving. It’s bringing all of our property values down.

CM: At a retreat just after New Year’s, you told councilpeople to show up to meetings, show up on time, understand what they’re voting on, and pay attention to testimony. But only 10 out of 17 councilpeople attended your retreat. Does that prove your point?

KK: No. That was something I wanted to do before we started the session. I knew it was during the holidays, some people told me they were out of town visiting family. If it were held while we were in session, I’m confident we’d have 100 percent participation.

Look at attendance and punctuality since that retreat. Every meeting has started within 3 minutes of its starting time. We’re acting in a more professional manner. I think we’re taking things more seriously. I’m trying to make people more cognizant of the fact that when you sign your signature or cast a vote, millions of dollars are appropriated. When you consider the enterprise funds and the general fund, we appropriate over $1 billion a year. That’s something we need to be aware of, and that’s why I insist everybody be at their seats when the roll is called.

There was not a lot of chatter during the legislative portion of the meeting. There was not a lot of roaming around. The directors have agreed to come to meetings 10 minutes early to discuss any issues councilmembers might have so that please don’t have to roam around during the meetings. Overall, these changes are being accepted by my colleagues.

CM: What do you think about talk of Cleveland and East Cleveland merging?

KK: We need to commission a study that will look at whether this makes sense for both communities. It’s an intriguing opportunity, but we need to look at the cost of providing services to East Cleveland. There’s a lot of risk, but a lot of opportunity. It’s too early to say whether it’s definitely something we should or should not do. We need to take a very sober, thoughtful approach to this.

CM: What are the risks for Cleveland?

KK: The risks are that our budget is very tight. There’s not a lot of extra money. Our biggest challenges are providing safety forces. They take up 55 percent of our budget. Are we able to extend that level of service to what would be a new part of the municipality? Are we able to deal with the infrastructure challenges that East Cleveland poses? We have our own infrastructure challenges, in terms of the conditions of our roadways.

CM: What are the opportunities for the city?

KK: The opportunities are, there’s a lot of gems in East Cleveland. There’s a lot of nice old houses, parks, industry — [GE’s] Nela Park is still there. They have big city problems on a small city budget. If we come together, and that helps our ability to bond projects, can we be better together because of our now increased population, income tax and property tax values?

When we look at the big-city problems some of our inner-ring suburbs are facing, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate to other communities that by coming together, we can solve these problems together. We can make this work, we can do a merger and keep the local character, but get the benefit of working together.

CM: Could this pave the way for other mergers in the future?

KK: If it’s determined that it’s in Cleveland’s interest, and it is done well, and it can demonstrate that because of its merger, East Cleveland is in a much better position and Cleveland is in a better position — then yes, it can be seen as a transformative step that other communities can take and [a way] we can build a better Greater Cleveland.

CM: What was it like to be Kevin J. Kelley when a J. Kevin Kelley in the town next door was indicted on corruption charges?

KK: That was an interesting time! When it first happened, there was quite a bit of confusion. A couple of callers to my office were “so disappointed” in me. It was a tough time. With each subsequent headline, the effect on me lessened a little bit. But every now and then, one of my friends’ moms would say, “Oh, I know Kevin’s going to be OK. I know he didn’t do anything.”

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

FitzGerald delivers State of the County, with glances statewide

I counted only two rips into Gov. John Kasich in Ed FitzGerald's State of the County address today. Though statewide media came to cover his speech, and a new poll today says FitzGerald is only 5 points behind Kasich in the governor's race, never did the Cuyahoga County executive mention his November opponent by name. He merely criticized the state for cutting the local government fund and not spending more on early childhood education.

Instead, FitzGerald offered a progress report on his agenda, from his early reforms to a lightning-round list of initiatives at the speech's end. He portrayed himself as impatient to create change, not just change jobs.

"Our priority in year one was to restore public trust," said FitzGerald, recounting his role in dismantling the old county government's patronage regime. "The pursuit of excellence replaced politics," he claimed -- true on one level, but funny coming from a candidate for higher office.

Movement, progress, optimism -- FitzGerald aimed to project all three. As usual, he announced new initiatives during the annual address. He wants to wants to issue $50 million in bonds to tear down abandoned houses. "Our economic recovery is still hobbled by thousands of properties which, unfortunately, are beyond salvaging through renovation." It's an issue he hasn't taken on in a big way until now.  

"County government in the last few years has been a battleground between those who have given up on Cleveland and those who will never give up on Cleveland," FitzGerald asserted -- which left me wondering who represents the give-up caucus. 

But the rhetorical move helps him as a local leader and a candidate for governor. Locally, it's the pol's rhetorical version of slipping on a CLE Clothing Co. T-shirt, an embrace of town pride. Statewide, holding his address in the new convention center and declaring that "the list of downtown projects is unlike anything that any of us have seen happen here in a generation" heads off Republican attempts to use Cleveland's struggles against him downstate.

FitzGerald also announced the county will take over operations of the Cleveland and Euclid jails. That gave him a chance to praise Mayor Frank Jackson (whom Kasich has also courted). It also helped him talk about regionalism, an area where he's had to temper expectations.  

Three years ago, FitzGerald helped Orange, Pepper Pike, Moreland Hills and Woodmere launch merger talks.  That idea has faded.  Buzz about a Cleveland-East Cleveland merger arose late last year. FitzGerald implied he doesn't see that happening either. 

"Regionalism in the near term is only likely to be expressed through shared services," he said. He touted the services the county offers to towns, and again suggested they could build the trust necessary for a big metropolitan government someday. Working on shared services is "not as exciting as a merger in one fell swoop, but it has the distinct advantage of being real."

The City Club sponsored the event, and in its traditional Q and A, FitzGerald faced only one tough, conservative questioner: David Tryon, an attorney and local Federalist Society leader. Their exchange sounded more like the debate ahead in the governor's race than anything else today. 

"Cuyahoga County has the highest taxes and fees" in Ohio, Tryon said. "They hurt people who can’t afford tickets to events like this. Why not decrease the sales tax and reduce fees?"

FitzGerald portrayed the questioner as a laissez-faire libertarian and argued that his a has justified a government with a larger role. "I suppose we could have cut taxes," he said rhetorically, "and reduced the number of sheriff’s deputies, or not funded universal pre-kindergarten or early childhood education." 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Why we should build the Opportunity Corridor, and why its critics are wrong

The boulevard to University Circle would begin here, where I-490 abruptly ends at East 55th Street and a junkyard.

When I wrote my commentary about the Opportunity Corridor in the magazine's current issue, I resisted the urge to spend the entire piece arguing against the activists who want to stop the road.

The $331 million boulevard from I-490 to University Circle has funding and preliminary approval. It’s going to be built. I think it’s time to ask a new question. How can Cleveland make sure this project benefits the neighborhoods it’ll go through as well as the neighborhood it’ll go to?

But naturally, when my piece went online, the boulevard’s opponents challenged my arguments for building the road in tweets and comments. Here are some of their responses and what I think.

The Opportunity Corridor’s opponents have dominated the conversation about the boulevard for the last six months. You can read their arguments in The Plain Dealer, Scene, Freshwater Cleveland, on their own website, and on anti-Opportunity Corridor outlets such as RustWire, GreenCityBlueLake and Streetsblog.

I’ve read nearly everything written about the project since summer and listened to leaders of the opposition speak at two forums. I disagree with them.

So I wrote a commentary to ask new questions, advance the conversation, and quote people who haven’t been heard from much – leaders in the neighborhoods along the road’s path who support the project and think it could help encourage prosperity there.

Shouldn’t a shrinking city just fix the roads it has? It’s a wise and sensible argument most of the time. But it’s simplistic and unwise when the existing road network is inefficient, irrational, has an obvious missing link, isolates some neighborhoods, was built for another economic era, and doesn’t fit where jobs and workers are today. A road network should adapt, not freeze in place.

The issue isn't whether the road might do some good, it is whether it does enough good to spend $350 million on - public money that could be spent elsewhere, or not at all. (Anonymous commenter on story)
Tough question for a frugal guy, but I’ll bite.

Cleveland’s road network has major flaws. It isn’t built to get people across town. It inefficiently funnels traffic bound for University Circle, the region’s second-largest employment center, through downtown, our largest employment center. It breaks up around one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods, leaving the area geographically isolated.

Those are problems that a five-lane boulevard, similar to
Chester Avenue, can address. A couple of traffic circles won’t.

The Opportunity Corridor debate reminds me of the argument 10 years ago about the HealthLine, the electric bus line on Euclid Avenue. Critics called it, too, redundant and too expensive at $196 million. They also claimed it would hurt, not help, the corridor it went through.

Now the HealthLine is celebrated as a national model for bus rapid transit. Though much of the billions of dollars in new development along Euclid Avenue would’ve happened anyway, various developers in Midtown and University Circle have cited the HealthLine as one reason they committed to their projects. The Opportunity Corridor could do what the HealthLine did – encourage prosperity to spread to a mostly abandoned neighborhood.

The boulevard’s opponents claim we have plenty of perfectly good roads near University Circle, and for some reason, drivers just aren’t using them. But then they claim a new road wouldn’t solve the traffic jams between downtown and University Circle – it would just attract more traffic.

Well, first, drivers avoid east-west roads like Woodland and Quincy avenues because they aren’t direct routes to University Circle. They’re narrow streets, two lanes each way, broken up by parked cars. Patchwork ideas for using these roads don’t address the most ridiculous flaw in our road network, the fact that a major thoroughfare, I-490, ends abruptly at a junkyard.

Second, if the Opportunity Corridor brings more traffic to University Circle, great. We need more people to come to Cleveland.

Instead, some of the road’s opponents want to constrict traffic to University Circle. Maybe that works in cities more vibrant and dense than Cleveland. Here it would just hurt the central city by encouraging people to stay home.

I think if it’s easier to get to University Circle, it’ll encourage people to work there and visit the city. If it’s easier to get to the Kinsman’s neighborhood’s so-called Forgotten Triangle, it’ll be more attractive to businesses.

But I sense a cliché of political debate behind the question. If someone supports a significant project, they’re often portrayed as thinking it’s a magic bullet that’ll solve everything.

No, good transportation infrastructure doesn’t automatically attract jobs and prosperity. It’s just a prerequisite for attracting jobs and prosperity.

Of course the “Forgotten Triangle” has a lot of problems besides geographic isolation. That’s why didn’t write a simple defense of the road, but an argument about the work Cleveland still has to do for the Opportunity Corridor to live up to its name.