Friday, May 23, 2014

Do Budish and Schron disagree about anything?

Nick Castele/ideastream
Armond Budish and Jack Schron shared a stage last night and agreed on almost every question they were asked. In fact, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Cuyahoga County executive found so much common ground that I left their first joint candidates’ forum wondering what this election’s going to be about.

Instead of contrasts or any big ideas, the 100 or so voters at the county library’s Parma-Snow branch got a sense of Schron as the inside guy, the county councilman who knows the issues and wants a promotion to the top job, and Budish, the outsider, who’s studying up and can talk about the big picture a little more clearly.

For instance, Schron said he’d be open to talking with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson about the city closing Burke Lakefront Airport. But Budish said so more clearly, without ifs attached, so he got the credit from The Plain Dealer.

The two candidates agree on so much, we can see where the newly powerful county government is and isn’t going, no matter who wins. Budish and Schron agreed on:

- Building a new MetroHealth hospital.

- Building the convention center hotel.

- Talking with Cleveland about closing Burke.

- Not encouraging suburbs to merge, but helping them share services instead.

- Courting the 2016 Republican and Democratic national conventions.

- Extending the cigarette tax to fund arts and culture in 2016.

- Helping the inner-ring suburbs with economic development.

- Resolving the disputes between county judges and the executive.

All that happy unity may pay off if Budish wins in November. Schron has two more years on the county council, so they’d have to work together. Still, is there really no difference between how Democrats and Republicans would run the county?

I think there is, and hopefully we’ll hear about it in the five months before the election. We need to hear more about how Budish and Schron want to encourage job growth, promote education through scholarships, and better provide for the needy – the key goals in the new county charter.

Last night, Budish said he’s a “strong supporter” of current executive Ed FitzGerald’s plan to float $50 million in bonds to demolish abandoned houses. Schron didn’t get asked about it. Would Schron battle blight as aggressively as Budish?

Schron says he wants to guarantee the county inspector general’s independence by making the office a part of the charter. If the county council had put it on the ballot last year, “I’m confident the community would’ve passed it,” he said. Would Budish advocate for a charter-protected inspector general?

Budish said he was “frankly surprised that we come up with a new charter, and there’s nothing in it about expenditure limits” for political campaign donors. Unlike other campaign finance laws, limits on what a single donor can give a single candidate are still on solid legal ground. But Schron voted against putting that on the ballot last year. Could he explain, at one of these forums, why one rich donor should be able to singlehandedly fund a candidate’s entire campaign?

Schron wants the county to aggressively recruit out-of-state companies to relocate or expand in Cuyahoga County. Would Budish do that if elected? Budish wants to create a local venture capital fund and a talent recruitment initiative. Would Schron support those ideas?

Hopefully, the two candidates, who got along so well last night, will meet again often in the next five months. And hopefully, they’ll challenge each other to talk about big ideas. Consensus is great. Complacency isn’t.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Linndale starved for cash without its traffic court -- so it's ticketing more*

Update and correction, 1/16/15: 

Something bothered me in the months after I wrote this post. If Linndale was ticketing more, why did I hardly ever see Linndale police on I-71? Why were other people telling me the same?

I've studied the Parma Municipal Court docket and talked to a court manager.  The result is a new post, in which I report that Linndale's speed trap is now on the decline: fewer tickets in 2014 than in 2013.

I now think the number of new Linndale cases may have also declined slightly from 2012 to 2013. I mistakenly compared the Parma court's annual report for 2013, which listed charges, with the Supreme Court's mayor's court report for 2012, which listed cases (involving multiple charges).

Also, Chris Castro, a manager with the Parma Municipal Court, says the Parma court filed about 800 special cases from Linndale in July 2013 alone. Those cases replaced old outstanding warrants from the Linndale court. They were not new offenses.

I've used strikethroughs to mark errors in this post. Please see the new post for a fuller picture.


Linndale, the tiny town that lives off its I-71 speed trap, has lost at least half its budget without its traffic court – but it’s ticketing more than ever.

The microvillage -- which boasts an official, inflated population count of 179 -- has been hurting since March 2013, when the state abolished mayor’s courts in tiny towns. Now we know how much Linndale has lost: about three-fourths of the money it made off leadfooted motorists.

For years, Linndale got about $800,000 annually from its mayor’s court -- most of the village’s $1 million budget. Now, village police send cases to Parma Municipal Court -- 6,971 in 2013. But Linndale only gets 36 percent of the revenue from fines: $168,449 last year.

Linndale is now the Parma court’s second largest source of cases out of eight suburbs -- far beyond North Royalton (population 30,444) and Parma Heights (population 20,718). The mini-burb with a quarter-mile stretch of I-71 generates ten times as many cases as Broadview Heights, population 19,400, which has two miles of I-77. The village singlehandedly caused the court’s caseload to jump by 16 percent last year, the court's annual report shows.

Linndale’s police got busier last year, even though the town slashed its payroll. Those 6,971 cases charges sent to Parma's court in 2013 compare to 4,677 cases Linndale’s court handled in 2012, according to the Ohio Supreme Court’s mayor’s court report.

[Correction: Parma's court handled 4,102 cases from Linndale in 2013, containing 6,971 chargesLinndale's mayor's court handled 1,126 new cases in 2013 before it was shut down, but an unknown number were transferred to Parma and would appear in both courts' totals.]

A breakdown of Linndale’s 6,971 cases charges turns up some DUIs and drug cases charges. But the vast majority are moving violations.

Linndale’s million-dollar budget is no more. It’ll have to get by on less: about $100,000 from taxes, about $200,000 from the Parma court.

Not licked yet, village residents adopted a charter in September (by an overwhelming 16-2 vote). That gave the town the power to install speed cameras on some of its seven surface streets, including Memphis Avenue (pdf). Village officials also hoped to create a “waiver bureau” to recapture lost ticket revenue. But the cases are still flowing to Parma’s court.

Maybe Linndale will fall into a downward spiral: less money, fewer cops, fewer tickets, and even less money. Maybe its freeway speed trap will shrink until the village either becomes self-sufficient or merges with Cleveland or Brooklyn. Or, will the Linndale police churn out more and more tickets to keep up?

Click here to read Cleveland Magazine’s 2011 story about Linndale’s inflated census figures. The story helped inspire the abolition of mayor’s courts in tiny towns.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

WKYC's Tom Beres hosts his last 'Between the Lines' politics show

On Sunday morning, veteran political reporter Tom Beres hosted the last episode of his talk show Between the Lines. After 11 years, WKYC-TV canceled the show.

“It was a nice long run by most standards in this industry,” Beres says. “I’m grateful for the changing cast of characters in the commentator department.”

It’s a bittersweet moment for the 34-year WKYC veteran. “If I had my druthers, Between the Lines would go on,” he wrote in an online column -- but the station thought its ratings and revenue were too low.

Beres will still cover politics for WKYC’s newscasts and website, but the end of his show is a loss for those of us who care how we’re governed. The 12-minute show, just before NBC’s Meet the Press, was local commercial TV’s only commentary on Cleveland politics and government. Sometimes it broke news. Former Cuyahoga County prosecutor Bill Mason announced his retirement from politics on the show.

The last installment shows how Between the Lines contributed to the big debates in Cleveland. Guest Dennis Eckart, the former congressman turned lobbyist, cut to the heart of the problem with Armond Budish’s runaway victory in the Cuyahoga County executive primary.

Eckart called Budish a “stealth candidate,” called on his Republican opponent to “force Armond Budish out into the public with details, plans and proposals about exactly what he’s going to do,” and warned that if Budish “just coasts because he’s the Democrat on the ballot… that is not going to give him a mandate to govern.” I made a lot of those points in my profile of Budish, but where else in town are you hearing them?

Toward the show’s end, Beres updated viewers on Republican attempts to blunt Ohio’s green energy law and last week’s big setback to plans for a Lake Erie wind farm. Where else on TV are you going to see those stories? Columbus’ Channel 4 and 10 still do politics shows, but with Between the Lines gone, Ideas on WVIZ is all that’s left here.

Maybe Cleveland’s just a less political town than the state capital, and public broadcasting is the best place for a talk-show format here. Maybe, as Beres suggests in his column, he needs to present politics differently to get readers’ attention. Maybe online, not on the air, is the new place for political commentary.

“The wish and hope is I’ll be writing some more columns with more insight,” Beres says, and reporting more in-depth pieces for broadcast.

I sure hope so. Beres has as much institutional memory as any Cleveland political reporter. He’s one of the sharpest questioners at press conferences. His “Perspective” columns, like this piece on the stadium “sin tax,” are insightful.

In a town where the barely-daily newspaper still dominates the news agenda, alternate voices are really important. Beres is one of the best. You can follow him on Twitter and on WKYC’s website here and here.

Update, 5/23: Dennis Eckart called me to say that his criticism of WKYC was edited out of the last broadcast of Between the Lines. Eckart said he and another Between the Lines commenter, Mary Anne Sharkey, made closing comments that WKYC ought to devote more space and frequency to political coverage, not less. WKYC edited their criticisms out of the broadcast.  Eckart says a manager called the remarks "inappropriate."

Eckart points out that he and Sharkey made almost the same argument about The Plain Dealer last year, and WKYC didn't edit them then.

"Channel 3 is one of the most profitable stations in America from political ads," Eckart says. "They’ve made money off politicians, but taken off the broadcast side some of the only objective coverage of politicians."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Sin tax final score: Sports and money 56, frugal populists 44

For Clevelanders who follow politics, today’s the aftermath of a major conflict.

Nearly the entire political and business establishment lined up to support Issue 7, the alcohol and cigarettes tax for stadium renovations. A scrappy coalition of activists opposed it with a ferocity that had nothing to do with spending 7 1/2 more cents on a six-pack of beer.

The final score: Issue 7 passed, 56 percent to 44 percent. What’s that mean, beyond the price of a cigarette pack or a scoreboard? A lot. Here are a few keys to understanding the vote.

It’s a sports town. Someone recently wrote that losing the Browns in 1995 wounded Cleveland as badly as losing the Dodgers did Brooklyn. It’s true. For many Clevelanders, the sports teams make up a huge part of the city’s identity.

The major leagues drive hard bargains with cities. The public cost of owning Progressive Field, Quicken Loans Arena and FirstEnergy Stadium is going above $1 billion with this vote – to $1.2 billion from 1990 through 2035, Cleveland Magazine has calculated. Yet, we learned yesterday, a majority in Cuyahoga County is willing to pay it.

The frugal populists revolt. A lot of people in Cuyahoga County – about 44 percent of people, it turns out – think it’s unfair, outrageous, and illegitimate to spend tax money to build and renovate sports stadiums. Issue 7 gave a new generation a chance to join a rematch of the May 1990 vote on Gateway, which realigned local politics in ways that still resonate.

Many sin tax opponents weren’t just resisting the great expense of being a sports team’s landlord. They were frugal populists who treated Issue 7 as a vote on the entire Cleveland political system, especially the alliance of government and business.

The best way to understand most Cleveland political debates isn’t party politics. It’s, do you believe in spending tax money on “public-private partnerships” that draw people and business downtown? Or do you thinks that’s corporate welfare, giveaway of money better spent on other needs? That debate has run through our politics for decades, from tax abatement in the ’80s through Gateway in 1990 through the convention center debate in 2007, to the sin tax rematch yesterday. (For more on this great divide, check out my commentary after George Voinovich retired – the conflict traces back at least to his years as mayor.)

Populism declines in City Hall. Plenty of voters may have wanted to pressure the sports teams for a better deal, but almost no politicians did. Some were pragmatic, believing the city and county had little leverage to reopen lease negotiations midway through a binding contract. For instance, Mayor Frank Jackson voted against the stadium leases in the ’90s as a city council member, but felt bound to honor them as mayor.

Still, the near-unanimous support for Issue 7 among city and county officials reflects a political realignment. There aren’t many Dennis Kucinich-style leaders, ready to fight big business, in Cleveland politics anymore.

Money talks. Of course money affects elections. And the business-political alliance will always outspend the frugal populists. Issue 7 supporters spent more than $1 million, mostly from the teams, to get their message out. Polls suggest that helped sway undecided voters and turn the election around. Opponents had much less to spend.

What now? The debate about public stadium spending isn’t over. For one thing, the city and county have no agreement on how to split up the new sin tax money. I asked city council president Kevin Kelley about that on WCPN this morning, and he couldn’t say how it’ll be resolved.

The city and teams would like an even three-way split of the funds. But the county council isn’t inclined to do that. It may keep control of the sin tax funds and force the city to come to it, hat in hand, every time FirstEnergy Stadium needs repairs. Or, the city and county may negotiate a cooperative agreement on how to split the money, maybe with some new committee deciding how to set priorities.

I wouldn’t even be terribly surprised to see the Gateway board take over FirstEnergy Stadium. Gateway already has a system for comparing and prioritizing repairs at Progressive Field and Quicken Loans Arena. So why not bring the football stadium under that system, once the funding source is the same?

Whoever’s in charge of spending the stadium tax money will have an important job. They’ll have to manage the teams’ renovation requests so the costs don’t exceed the projected $260 million tax revenue. If the anti-sin tax crowd wants to stay engaged, it has plenty to watch and probe.

Budish wins ridiculously uncompetitive primary for Cuyahoga Co. executive

No wonder Armond Budish hardly bothered to advertise. He knew he didn't have to.

Budish obliterated his hapless opponents in the Democratic primary for Cuyahoga County executive yesterday, winning 56 percent in a six-way race, continuing his ascension to Northeast Ohio's most powerful political job.

When I started reporting "The Anointed One," my May issue profile of the inevitable Budish, people tried to convince me I was making a mistake by focusing on him.

Jack Schron, Budish's Republican opponent in November, warned me I could be setting up Cleveland Magazine for a "Dewey Defeats Truman" embarrassment. Schron warned me a private poll showed state Sen. Shirley Smith and former sheriff Bob Reid just a few points behind Budish in the Democrats' primary. (You can read Reid's email about the poll on Smith's Facebook page.)

Yeah, not so much. Smith got 20 percent yesterday, Reid 7 percent.

In a way, the race was over a year ago. Budish hustled so hard for early endorsements and donations, he clinched nearly all the elite support and discouraged other potential candidates from joining the race. The result was the most ridiculously uncompetitive election in years for a major, open job in Cleveland politics.

Budish's supporters will tell you that's because the candidate's so fantastic, of course.  My fear is he's ushering in an era when the race always goes to the swiftest, most moneyed Democrat, when we'll know who our next mayor, county executive, congressperson, et cetera will be long before our chance to vote.

The task of breaking that up now falls to Schron. He's the Republicans' strongest local candidate in a long while, a county councilman and corporate CEO who'll have plenty of campaign money. That, plus a national Republican surge this November, could give him a miniscule chance to end the Democrats' 22-year winning streak in Cuyahoga County-wide races.

Budish does seem to take Schron seriously. He criticized Schron by name this spring while ignoring his Democratic opponents.  Besides, Budish must be hoarding his campaign funds for some reason -- most likely, to run TV ads against Schron in the fall.

Schron probably won't win, but he can thoughtfully challenge Budish, pierce the frontrunner's scripted talking points, get him to defend and hone his arguments, and extract specific positions and promises he can be held to later. That could position Schron as Budish's chief critic on the county council after Budish wins the executive job.  In this uncompetitive era of local politics, that may be the best anyone can do.