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.