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 , Mike Polensek , Kevin Conwell , Jeff Johnson , and Brian Cummins . Their “no” stance is supported by more organized civic outrage than any issue in recent memory, centered principally on two arguments:  the city has much greater needs than improving the arena, and  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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