Wednesday, March 19, 2014

East Clevelanders don't want to merge with Cleveland

"Cleveland takes small steps toward merger with neighboring East Cleveland," reads a headline today.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson and council president Kevin J. Kelley have asked Cleveland State's urban school for info on mergers. Councilman Jeff Johnson told reporter Leila Atassi Monday night what he's also told me: he thinks the big city should annex its troubled neighbor, for the sake of both towns.

There's just one problem.  East Clevelanders don't want to be annexed.

While reporting in East Cleveland for my new commentary, "A City's Limits," I discovered public opinion there is strongly against a merger. The idea got booed down at a public forum in December. The long-suffering town doesn't want to give up its independence, its City Hall and cops, its mayor and council. Only one out of the town's 12 elected officials is pushing for a merger.

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton is against merging with Cleveland. Norton is evasive about this with reporters, and Plain Dealer columnist Brent Larkin is slamming him for not giving him a straight answer. Larkin doesn't know that when Norton was sworn in for a second term as mayor Jan. 2, he came out against a merger.

What's going on? Norton got burned by George Forbes, who claims Norton supports merging. But Forbes told me his conversation with Norton happened off the record, during Norton's reelection endorsement interview with the Call and Post. (Forbes is general counsel at the Call and Post and has a strong say in its editorials.) Forbes, trying to play journalist and power broker at the same time, botched both roles. He told the whole town about the "off the record" conversation with Norton -- or at least, his version of it.

East Clevelanders, who've been abandoned after waves of white flight and black flight, are skeptical that anyone else really has their interests in mind. Any move that comes off like a hostile takeover will backfire. Merger supporters like Forbes and even Larkin are in danger of coming off like Vladimir Putin coveting Crimea.

Johnson's metaphor of a marriage sounds a better note. But it'll be a long, difficult courtship.

For more on the fraught politics of a merger, check out my commentary, "A City's Limits." Written for the April issue of Cleveland Magazine, it's online now.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

After 35 years, Dennis Kucinich’s City Hall portrait is finished at last

Matthew Hunt pauses before the reveal. From an easel, he lifts his painting of a young woman looking over her nude shoulder. Behind it stands a portrait Cleveland has awaited for 35 years.

Dennis Kucinich, his hair still black, looks to one side, his eyes narrowed into a thoughtful squint, serious and enigmatic.

“I was hired to go in and try to find the person behind the name and TV interviews, the stuff that everybody knows,” says Hunt.

When Kucinich was voted out of the mayor’s office in 1979, no one commissioned the traditional City Hall portrait. Moneyed civic leaders, aghast at Kucinich’s confrontational two years as mayor, wanted to forget him.

“I wanted a more quiet side,” says Hunt. “Especially because this was such a wrong that was done. I felt that I had a responsibility to try to make it right.”

In 2002, a new generation tried to correct the snub. Then-mayor Jane Campbell, city councilman Joe Cimperman and labor leaders threw a $20 kielbasa and pierogi fundraiser in a church hall in Tremont. The party raised about $12,000.

Then? Silence, delays, small occasional updates in The Plain Dealer’s “Whatever Happened To” feature.

Now, 12 years later, the portrait is finished.

Hunt, 42, won a contest to paint it in 2003. “They said [Kucinich] saw my work, and he really loved it,” he says.

Self-taught, Hunt began painting in 1998 and debuted with a show that year at the McCormick Place gallery in Hudson. He has a gift for painting realistic, psychologically profound depictions of people that invite the question, what is he or she thinking?

Paid a $7,250 advance to paint Kucinich, Hunt tried for three years to meet his subject. First, the then-congressman’s 2004 campaign for president got in the way. Then his office cancelled a post-election photo shoot in Washington. A year later, Kucinich called Hunt to say he’d make it happen. At last, in September 2006, Hunt spent a morning observing Kucinich at his Lakewood office.

“He would look down when thinking about something,” Hunt recalls. “He would hold his left hand to his head, but he would do this sort of squinting. It was really warm the way he did it, but it was very sincere, and it wasn’t for anyone else.”

Hunt watched Kucinich during a press conference and a meeting with aides and spent ten minutes taking reference photos of him. He headed back to his home studio in Copley, that look on Kucinich’s face still in his mind.

It took Hunt seven years to paint it. “I own the fact that it’s taken as long as it has,” he says.

At first, Hunt’s other work took precedence. Commissions rained down. Parents hired him to paint their children, companies their CEOs, universities their administrators.

Then, three setbacks brought Hunt’s work to a halt. He was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes; when it was uncontrolled, his painting hand shook. His basement studio flooded, destroying much of his work. The financial crisis hit, and clients cancelled and retreated.

Now, Hunt has recovered. A sharp doctor helps keep his health troubles in check. “I’m able to work now the way I was,” he says. Jobs are flowing to him again. He recently accepted a commission to paint retired Lincoln Electric CEO John Stropki.

He also turned back to Kucinich. He collected ’70s photos to re-create how Kucinich looked in his early 30s. He studied ’70s suits and tie patterns to paint wide lapels and a diagonally-striped tie.

Thinking hard about Kucinich’s two years as mayor, he decided to add no symbolic props -- concerned that a hint of, say, the Muni Light battle might reduce his subject’s work to a single accomplishment.

Instead, Hunt depicted Kucinich in the mayor’s office, sitting on the edge of a bare desk. The viewer looks on from just above him, an unusual perspective meant to evoke Kucinich's populism. “I don’t think he has the need to be above anyone,” Hunt says.

Kucinich’s interlocked hands rest in the foreground, a symbol of him “bringing together people and different sides, and the struggle that he had,” Hunt says. (That’s a generous interpretation of Kucinich’s mayoralty, commonly criticized as divisive.)

Hunt worked hardest at Kucinich’s face, especially his mouth, which is caught between a slight smile and a hint of satisfaction.

“I didn’t want to have a degree of defeat or worry,” Hunt says. “I wanted to convey someone who was in charge, but someone who was taking the issues very seriously. He might be young, but he’s not a boy.”

Hunt painted the final brushstroke about six months ago. He plans to take it to Cleveland’s Bonfoey Gallery for framing.

When will the public see it? That’s unclear. Hunt’s not sure what’s next, because “there’s no client,” he says.

A portrait committee, made up of representatives of two unions and the Community Partnership for Arts and Culture, owes him a second payment of $7,250 if the portrait is accepted. But whose job is it to accept the painting? The committee? Mayor Frank Jackson? Kucinich himself?

The long wait for Kucinich to join the pantheon of mayors is subtly symbolized in the painting itself. In 2006, Hunt noticed that Kucinich wore his watch upside down -- clasp up, face downward. He painted it that way. The clasp is just barely visible under his sleeve. “Time did sort of get flipped,” Hunt says.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Stadium boosters & critics debate sin tax at Sterle’s

Mark Rosentraub argues for the stadium sin tax at last night's Civic Commons debate.
Should voters support Cleveland’s stadium deals by voting for the stadium sin tax May 6? Or are we struggling under burdensome leases we can barely understand? Advocates on both sides argued the point last night during the Civic Commons debate as beer flowed at Sterle’s Country House.

Each side brought a numbers guy and a guy who argued from the gut. Mark Rosentraub, an economist who served on the Gateway stadium and arena board, made a case for the sin tax extension and the Cavaliers and Indians leases he helped renegotiate in 2004. City councilman Brian Cummins fired off figures to explain why he still has too many questions to support the tax.

Sounding simpler notes, Tom Yablonsky of the Historic Gateway Neighborhood organization argued that the stadiums have attracted residents and businesses downtown, while lawyer and sports blogger Peter Pattakos, with the newly launched no campaign, claimed the public should hold out in hopes of getting a better deal.

The debate format encouraged lots of back-and-forth, so several major questions about the sin tax were tested pretty thoroughly:

Do stadiums help downtown? Rosentraub, an expert on stadium financing, argued that sports don’t grow a region’s economy, but they do change the location of economic activity – meaning, they direct it to downtown Cleveland. He said 123,000 people commute from outside Cuyahoga County to jobs in Cleveland and pay $177 million in income taxes. The teams are part of “an amenity package that makes Cleveland a good place to work,” he argued.

Pattakos quoted Rosentraub’s writing, which calls sports’ spinoff effect on local business “quite small.” Yablonsky replied that downtown had only six residential addresses in 1990, before the baseball and basketball complex was built, and 62 now.

How else could we pay for this? Pattakos argued that stadium supporters should seek a seven-county tax, like in the Denver area, since plenty of Cleveland sports fans live outside Cuyahoga County. Yablonsky said state law doesn’t allow a multi-county tax. Cummins noted the state legislature changed the law to allow the sin tax extension. (Other Ohio counties can’t levy alcohol taxes.) Why not ask the legislature to allow a regional tax? he asked.

Cummins also suggested adding a $3 facility fee to tickets, on top of the 8 percent admissions tax fans pay now. “Could you raise the fees? Hypothetically, anything is possible,” replied Rosentraub. “Would the fans react negatively? Obviously.”

What are our obligations, even if the sin tax passes? Cummins said Cleveland still owes $128 million in debt from the football stadium’s construction, while Cuyahoga County still owes $88 million in Gateway construction debt. That costs Cleveland about $12 million a year and the county about $5 million a year. “The teams and the campaign have not told us anything about the sin tax paying down any of that debt,” Cummins said. The sin tax extension, expected to raise $260 million over 20 years, is meant mostly – maybe all – for repairs and upgrades.

Cleveland also pays $650,000 a year in property taxes at FirstEnergy Stadium, more than the Browns’ annual rent of $250,000. Meanwhile, the Gateway corporation itself has debts of $422 million, Cummins said, most of which “is probably never going to be paid.”

Yablonsky noted that Cleveland instituted several taxes in 1995 to help pay for the Browns’ stadium. “Those are right now dedicated to pay back the debt,” he said.

Cummins acknowledged that. He claimed the city raises: $27 million a year from those taxes, including a citywide parking tax and the sports and concerts admission tax.

“I actually talked to one of the CEO-presidents of one of the teams,” Cummins said. “He asked me, ‘Councilman, why aren’t you using your other taxes that you created to pay off the debt?’ I said, ‘We’d love to.” The problem, says Cummins, is that money is scarce. The state cut the local government fund and abolished the estate tax in the last few years. That cost Cleveland almost as much per year as the parking, admisssions and other taxes take in.

Can we get a better deal? Pattakos argued that a no vote on the sin tax would send elected officials and teams back to the negotiating table to change the leases. “If voters reject the sin tax this May, the teams aren’t going to leave this May,” he said. “They’re not going to leave anytime soon. We’ll end up with a better deal.”

Rosentraub said he already got the public a better deal in Gateway’s 2004 renegotiations with the Indians and Cavaliers. The deals, approved by the city and county governments, obligated the teams to pay for all maintenance that costs $500,000 or less – carpet, seats, etc. – if the public pays for major infrastructure, including roofs, heating and air conditioning. That, he says, saved the public about $3 million a year.

Yablonsky and Rosentraub cast a no vote on the sin tax as self-defeating, implying the teams don’t have much incentive to renegotiate.

“The reality is, if you don’t pass this, you still have to fulfill the terms of the lease,” Yablonsky argued. “So you put general fund money at risk if you don’t pass this. Effectively, you break the lease if you don’t come up with the terms to [make] the lease work.”

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Charges grow vs. Bedford judge in prostitution case

Updated 3/5 with prosecutors' motion about Jacob's laptop.

Prosecutors just amped up the pressure on Harry Jacob III, the judge caught up in Bedford’s prostitution scandal.

He’s been indicted on five more charges – in addition to the 11 he was hit with in December, including accepting sex as a bribe and promoting prostitution.

The new charges include failure to report a felony and records and evidence tampering. They add to the question of what really happened between the 57-year-old judge and the women who worked for Studio 54 Girls, the alleged brothel in a Bedford office building.

I told the story of the judge and two of the young women in “The Bedford Judge and the Brothel Bust,” online now in the March issue. Though prosecutors charged Jacob with three felony counts of promoting prostitution, a law commonly used against pimps, I didn’t learn of any evidence that Jacob was acting like a pimp in the traditional sense.

Instead, most of the felony charges against Jacob centered around a single incident on April 20, 2012. That day, the original charges suggest, the judge appears to have had some sort of sexual involvement with two women – and resolved speeding and contempt of court charges against one of them by levying a $250 fine.

Jacob is now charged with two more felonies on April 20, 2012: tampering with records -- a Bedford court journal entry -- and tampering with evidence. The second charge is somewhat surprising, since it requires a defendant to know that an investigation was “likely to be instituted.” The investigation of Jacob didn’t start until September 2013.

“It’s two theories about the same act, dealing with the ticket for one of the women working with the brothel,” says Joe Frolik, spokesperson for the Cuyahoga County prosecutor. “He deals with it in the hallway and dockets it -- not in open court.”

In the only count tied to a new incident, Jacob is accused of failing to report a felony on July 1, 2013. That’s long after the previous indictment suggested he stopped soliciting the young women. Frolik says he believes the felony Jacob failed to report is someone else promoting prostitution. July 1, 2013 is the day Jacob looked up the online ad of a Studio 54 Girl on his laptop while hearing cases on the bench, prosecutors claim.

Jacob also faces a tampering with evidence charge dating to Nov. 2-4, 2013. That’s days before investigators seem to have caught him by setting up a recorded phone call between him and one of the women. “At this point, he knows the investigation is underway,” Frolik says. “He’s trying to destroy records that could be potential evidence.” On Nov. 8, the day after the recorded call, Jacob allegedly looked up information about sex addiction and the Ohio law against compelling prostitution.

The judge is also accused of possessing criminal tools -- a computer and cell phone -- which he allegedly used either to promote prostitution or to tamper with records or evidence. And the prosecutors aren't done. They've filed a motion asking Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Michael Corrigan to order Jacob to reveal the encryption password that protects some material on his laptop.  It may be a close call. Even the prosecutor admits the Supreme Court hasn't decided whether the Bill of Rights allows defendants to keep encrypted material private.

Friends of Jacob told me the charges against him didn’t fit the self-disciplined, honest man they know. Defense attorneys I talked to speculated the judge may have been overcharged. The two indictments portray Jacob differently, as a man who let illicit relationships thoroughly corrupt him. Prosecutors have doubled the number of felony counts against him. This could lead to Cleveland’s most interesting corruption trial since Jimmy Dimora.