Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Coalition forms to put Q Deal on the Ballot

A newly formed coalition has come together to challenge the $282 million deal to expand Quicken Loans Arena by putting it before Cleveland voters.

Announcement of the coalition came less than 36 hours after Cleveland City Council approved the deal Monday night in council chambers packed with supporters and opponents of the controversial legislation.

The coalition, comprised of Greater Cleveland Congregations, Service Employees International Union Local 1199, Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, AFSCME Ohio Council 8, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 268, will need to collect 6,000 valid signatures from registered Cleveland voters within the next 30 days to bring the Q deal before Cleveland voters through the referendum process permitted by the city’s charter.

Given the membership bases of these groups, and their organizing skills and experience, collecting the necessary signatures could probably done in a matter of days. It is likely, however, that the coalition will take longer, possibly to make a show of strength by submitted considerably more than the charter requires.

Once the signatures have been gathered, the petitions must be presented to the clerk of city council. When the petitions have been verified, Council has the choice of either reversing its 12-5 vote or placing the issue on the ballot.

Council would set the date for any referendum vote. Possibilities include this year’s primary or general election dates [Sept. 12 or Nov. 7] or a special election.

The debate over the expansion of Quicken Loans Arena has centered on several issues. Proponents assert that the facility, built in 1994, must be modernized to keep it and Cleveland competitive among its peer groups: the National Basketball Association and the regional venues that seek to attract events ranging from truck shows, concerts, circuses, etc. They point to the Q’s importance as the area’s leading driver of economic activity with nearly 200 events a year. Without this bill, they say, promoters will bypass Cleveland and the Cavaliers could leave when their lease expires in 2027.

Critics have expressed many concerns. They say the deal was done behind closed doors without adequate representation of the public interest. They question whether Q expansion is an appropriate expenditure of public funds in this manner at this time and in this amount. Almost all of this expansion will be paid by public dollars, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. The city is committed to $88 million, Cuyahoga County will pay $16 million, and the quasi-public Destination Cleveland will contribute $44 million of tax revenues. The Cavs will pay the remaining $122 in the form of increased rent for the improved facility, the rent of course being public revenue.

Greater Cleveland Congregations has repeatedly sought to engage Cavaliers management and public officials in dialogue about a community benefits agreement that could enhance the entire community and not merely the arena. In this morning’s press release announcing the coalition, GCC co-chair Pastor Richard Gibson of Elizabeth Baptist Church said:

“From the beginning there has been an unwillingness to develop a deal that addresses the critical ills in our neighborhoods like high unemployment, inadequate mental health crisis centers, increasing gun violence, and persistent challenges in schools. More energy has been spent attacking our proposal than considering or developing a deal that would more broadly impact our city and county.”

Critics say beyond the deal’s finances are these larger questions: why are neighborhood needs consistently shuffled to the back of the agenda in favor of downtown? When will the corporate and political leaders abandon the discredited notion that “trickle down” economics works? How can we build a community that prioritizes human needs over athletic shrines and play palaces? How might we create a community where all voices are equally valued?

As the Q question moves towards a likely ballot battle, it may be hard for voters to keep these larger questions in mind. A court challenge to the referendum by corporate interests is a distinct possibility. Personal attacks are likely to escalate. And all of this will unfold in the midst of a citywide election that sees the mayor and all seventeen council seats on the fall ballots.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Q deal: "It Ain't Over 'til the Fat Lady Sings"

Proponents of the Q expansion deal may have been high-fiving themselves over the goal they scored last night by flipping Ward 14 councilman Brian Cummins but we think that’s just the end of the first quarter. Cummins’ about-face, which could not possibly have been about the trinkets and beads the Cavs offered [largely, refurbishing two or three dozen basketball courts at city recreation centers and high schools — does that mean varnish and buff?] and their cheerleaders raved about. The last minute maneuvering done to secure what may turn out to be a pivotal 12th vote in favor of the deal largely showed how weak County Executive Armond Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson have been in representing the public interest. Seldom have last-minute cosmetics been such obvious lipstick on this pig of a deal.

By our calculus, the second quarter starts tonight at Olivet Baptist Church where the Greater Cleveland Congregations will likely have a very large crowd for their strategy session on next steps. And it is pretty plain what the next step will be: an intense citywide petition drive to secure enough signatures from registered Cleveland voters to force a referendum on last night’s vote. (I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody’s choir was singing “Ain’t nobody gon’ turn me around” as part of the meeting.)

Our understanding is that Cleveland’s charter requires ten percent of the number of voters at the last general election to force the referendum, or about six thousand signatures. GCC and its allies, who include SEIU and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus, should have no trouble getting twice that number in far less than the required 30 days. Councilmen and mayoral candidates Zack Reed and Jeff Johnson will no doubt be lending their support as well.

Call it halftime if enough valid signatures are submitted to force a vote of the people. The parties will switch sides, as it were, and the opponents of this deal [not a deal but this deal, as GCC likes to point out] would suddenly seem to have the home court advantage.

Assuming the corporate interests don’t find a way to tilt the court by resorting to the courts [this is where that 12th vote may play a role in arguments over whether “emergency legislation” of this nature is subject to referendum], the parties will fight to persuade the voters in a campaign that will be reminiscent of the Kucinich mayoral recall of 1978, decided in the mayor’s favor by something like, as I recall, a scant 238 votes.

To extend this metaphor a bit, if voters reject this deal, then the 4th Quarter would see some hard bargaining for the first time on this construction deal. But the playing surface would be enlarged, and new players would be recognized.

The Cavs would still get their expanded playhouse, but the price of the ticket will have been adjusted significantly.

At the end of the game, Dan Gilbert and his Greater Cleveland Partners may finally learn that you shouldn’t always play a Zero Sum Game with the public interest.

Now wouldn’t that be a Transformation worth celebrating by an entire region!!!!

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Sightings from Mt. Pleasant, Hough, Lee Harvard

Zack Reed enters mayor's race from home plate; Hough council candidates use batboys to toss infield dirt at one another

I’m a little more than halfway through a marvelous book focused on a distinct group of Cleveland neighborhoods. I thought it was going to be about the Lee-Seville area on the city’s southeast side but it’s turned out to be so much richer, deeper and broader than I had anticipated. Look for my review in a couple of weeks.

Even those familiar with our city’s history are likely to seldom reflect that the confinement of black Clevelanders almost exclusively to the Central/Cedar neighborhood for about the first 150 years of Cleveland’s founding in 1796 has done much to shape our city. There were of course a few pioneers and outliers scattered here and there, but their presence and experience simply confirms the human condition; they were the exceptions that proved the rule.

Sheer population pressures after World War II forced expansion of the black community into the Hough, Glenville, Mt. Pleasant and Lee-Harvard neighborhoods at an accelerated pace. Learning about the histories of these communities can inform our understanding of the people who live there now, even if the denizens of those neighborhoods are unaware of the dynamics that foretold their arrival.

The neighborhood lens shapes and guides our local politics in many ways; the effects can be healthy or toxic. This is likely to be especially true in the next few years: almost every one of the city’s 17 wards and the mayor’s seat will likely see very competitive races this year. Next year will be a 2018 statewide election that will set the stage for what has become a hyper-contentious and almost criminal redistricting process following the latest decennial census results.

This backdrop had us looking with fresh eyes as we boarded the #14 bus from West Third and Frankfurt just off Public Square along a route initially as circuitous as the Cuyahoga River. We eventually sliced through Tri-C’s Metro campus and straightened out going eastbound on Woodland Ave. Soon we reached the intersection of 55th and Woodland Ave., once the undeniable cultural and commercial heart of Cleveland’s black community. (One might ask if the “heart of Cleveland’s black community” still exists, and if so, where, and if not, why, and whether any of the answers represent progress.)

Eventually the bus got us onto the long stretch of Kinsman Road, still the undeniable main artery of the euphoniously named Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Much of the street has a weary feel to it, as do lots of the other once vibrant thoroughfares that electrified mid-century Cleveland, carrying factory workers, students and shoppers all over town. For a long time Mt. Pleasant was one of the city’s model neighborhoods, full of Hungarian and Italian descendants, Jews, and blacks up from Alabama and Georgia.

I didn’t know it but when I got to the Murtis Taylor Services Center — a longstanding community anchor at 137th and Kinsman — I would soon be listening to Warrensville Heights mayor Brad Sellers reminisce about growing up on the tail end of that era. “The Mt. Pleasant I know is vibrant”, he would recall. “It is rich in tradition. It is rich in people.”

Even as he moves through the neighborhood today, Sellers continued, he does not see decay.  “We [Ward 2 councilman Zack Reed and I] see a world of potential ready to be unleashed.”

Does the “heart of Cleveland’s black community” still exist? If so, where is it? If not, what happened to it? Is that progress?

Sellers was at Murtis Taylor to introduce Reed at the official launch of Reed’s entry into Cleveland’s 2017 mayoral race. Nodding at the oddity of his intrusion into another city’s politics, Sellers forthrightly observed, “Blood is thicker than water”. He and Reed are brothers. Though the legal status may actually be half-brothers, neither used that term and the warmth between them was clearly genuine.

The themes of home and family were clearly prevalent as Reed told the assembly that he was running for mayor and what he wanted to accomplish. Indeed, that sense of home and neighborhood was why he chose the Murtis Taylor venue for his announcement.

Outside the comforts of Mt. Pleasant, Reed may be best known for his three D.U.I. convictions, and he was not far into his relatively short speech before he addressed that issue. He acknowledged and apologized for the hurt, pain and embarrassment he had caused the community, his family and the city, and he averred that a period of self-reflection and treatment at the Cleveland Clinic had helped him get straight.

Reed talked about the city’s “depressed wards” — a phrase he used more than once — and talked about rebuilding neighborhoods. Key to accomplishing that, and anything else, Reed said, was public safety. He proposed adding 400 police officers trained in community policing. Reed also talked about job creation and youth services.

Reed said a couple of times that “this election is not about Frank Jackson” but about new leadership and new ideas. But he did take direct at the mayor when he referenced how one man without consultation or public discussion, “closed Public Square”.

Our political watch yesterday actually began at the County Board of Elections where a challenge to Basheer Jones as a lawful candidate for the Ward 7 was being heard. The challenge was filed by supporters of the incumbent, T. J. Dow, who won a second term by defeating Jones in November 2013. Dow won that election by fewer than 600 votes, a closer margin than one might expect, given that Jones was running for the first time. Jones had the endorsement of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge in that first campaign, and some observers were expecting an even closer race this year, even before Mansfield Frazier joined the already crowded field last week [see here and here].

Jones pulled his petitions to run on December 28, 2016 and filed them on March 7. Each time he listed his residential address as 6400 Whittier Ave. The Dow camp submitted documents indicating that the lienholder took title to that property last October and subsequently filed eviction papers against the occupants, including Jones’ surrogate father, Timothy Roberts. Heart-tugging tales were offered by the candidate’s side regarding how the house was lost [divorce, delay, miscommunication, “religious marriage”, etc.] all of which were irrelevant. A successful challenge hinged solely on proving by clear and convincing evidence that Jones did not consider the Whittier address his home and that had no intention to return there for domiciliary purposes.

When the challengers could offer no proof in this regard, the elections board voted 3-0 to dismiss the challenge. At least one board member was troubled by the fact that Jones obtained a new driver’s license after the challenge was filed. His new license shows the Whittier address; the old one, Jones admitted, bore the South Euclid address where Jones’ three children now live with their mother, from whom Jones is estranged.

Jones will need to update his license once again. He was scheduled to move today, along with his surrogate family, to a new home on East 74 Street near Superior, in the wake of the eviction proceedings.

Dow supporters had only a little time to gloat over how their lightweight maneuver vexed and embarrassed Jones. As we were leaving the Board meeting, we learned that only the day before, Clark Nelson of Lexington Ave. in Ward 7, had filed a challenge to Dow’s candidacy, “protesting the validity of his address and accusing Mr. Dow of voter fraud … and election falsification.”

The eagle-eyed Mr. Nelson noted — or was perhaps advised — that Mr. Dow’s Decker Ave. voting address differs from the address on a May 2014 traffic ticket issued to the councilman in Shaker Hts. The ticket hit the news when after news reports there was an active warrant out for the councilman for his failure to appear at a court hearing. He had apparently been cited “for improper use of earphones” while driving in that fair city.

We called Mr. Nelson to inquire as to his preference in this councilmanic [manic council?] contest but were unable to reach him by publication time.

Word on the street is that former Ward 1 councilman Joe Jones is circulating petitions to reclaim his old seat from incumbent Terrell Pruitt. Jones would be another strong candidate in the race that also includes Kimberly F. Brown, who has had Pruitt in her sights ever since he defeated her in 2013.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

REPORT: Q ‘Transformation’ deal facing strong headwinds in crunch time

If deal gets through city council, it will likely face referendum in an election year

The most intriguing year in local politics in a generation got even more interesting last night when Cleveland City Council president Kevin Kelley held up final passage of a bill that he and the Jackson administration want to pass as emergency legislation.
Last night Council meeting was to have been the third and final reading on the legislation to expand Quicken Loans Arena for a total public cost of $282 million. But Kelley postponed the vote with the thoroughly implausible explanation that some council members wanted more time to study the issue.
The controversial bill has already had more hearings than most city hall legislation gets. On April 4, Council’s six-member Development, Planning & Sustainability Committee, chaired by Ward 12’s Tony Brancatelli, found all but two of Council’s 17 members spending large parts of the day at the six-hour session.
The bill’s proponents assert that upgrading the publicly owned arena — they like to call it “Transforming the Q” — will enable Cleveland to keep pace in the escalating race among municipalities to retain or attract professional sports teams and various entertainment events. They claim that without the upgrades, the Cavaliers are likely to leave and bookings will wither, leaving the city with an expensive white elephant. The proposed deal extends the Cavs lease with the Q an additional seven years until 2034.
Six council members have announced opposition to the legislation: Zack Reed [Ward 2], T. J. Dow [7], Mike Polensek [8], Kevin Conwell [9], Jeff Johnson [10], and Brian Cummins [14]. Their “no” stance is supported by more organized civic outrage than any issue in recent memory, centered principally on two arguments: [1] the city has much greater needs than improving the arena, and [2] the deal is an inequitable transfer of wealth from poor, neglected neighborhoods and residents to downtown interests that are not only wealthy but already heavily subsidized.
Kelley’s delay in moving the bill final passage to final passage was not totally a surprise. Speculation was rife over the weekend that council leadership was seeking to inoculate the bill from a referendum challenge by securing twelve votes in its favor, meaning it would pass as “emergency legislation” by a 2/3 majority. While some doubt whether a 12-5 vote would achieve that aim — a court challenge by opponents would be all but certain — another reason for the delay may be closer to the truth: the measure may be more in danger of losing support than in gaining that crucial extra vote.
Indeed, the unpopularity of the measure among the electorate is widely acknowledged: the bill stinks to high heaven of privilege, greed, and disdain for neighborhood development. Arguments that speak to the Q’s value as an economic driver fall have little currency to an electorate that has been repeatedly sold the same trickle-down bill of goods even before the Gateway development that built the Indians a new ballpark and brought the Cavs downtown was first proposed in the early ‘90s.
While the Cavaliers and their emissaries have worked diligently behind the scenes to court wary members of both Cuyahoga County Council and Cleveland City Council, they have consistently refused even to acknowledge the concerns of the citizens groups that will likely drive the coming referendum effort. Instead, the team left it to county executive Armond Budish and the respective council presidents to carry their water. 
Budish was almost over the top in championing this deal, while county council president Dan Brady seemed to have his patience taxed by the organized opposition. Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson appeared at the December press conference announcing the deal and lent it his typical stylistically tepid support. Since then, however, he has been conspicuously absent from waving the flag publicly for the deal.
With good reason, no doubt. Jackson is running for an unprecedented fourth term this fall, and he will encounter the most intense opposition of his long political career. He’s been mayor for twelve years, long enough to have accumulated a long list of wounds and a resume with several major shortcomings that stand alongside a litany of accomplishments.
Budish and Brady managed to get the legislation past County Council by an 8-3 vote but Cleveland was always going to be a harder play. Its full time council people are collectively far more seasoned as a political body and they play a much harder brand of ball than their county counterparts. City council members are structurally much closer to the people — city wards average about 23,000 citizens, while county districts are each about four times that size. Moreover, city residents tend to be poorer and would be paying for this deal twice, as both city and county taxpayers].
Most importantly, however, getting this deal through city council would be a supreme challenge because every one of its members is on the ballot this year. Only two of them have not declared or signaled intent to run for re-election — Jeff Johnson is challenging Jackson’s reelection bid for mayor, and Zack Reed is widely expected to join that race as well.
The lobbying will no doubt intensify this week, but it is probably too late. Any council member who switches sides to support this bill would almost certainly be defeated this fall. And while Zack Reed told Scene magazine that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert lobbied him directly, there is no sign of any concession on the horizon that could lead to a compromise.

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