A Prescription For Our Pain

A reformed county government may be the answer to our region's ills. But are we courageous enough to take the medicine that's long overdue?

Until recently, Cleveland has been our area's political focal point. Regardless of who was mayor, that person was regarded as the region's most important politician and its CEO.

Along with TV and sports figures, the mayor enjoyed celebrity status.

After all, the city was dominant. It drew our attention and aspirations through its entertainment, economics and energy. People who traveled or moved away almost always said that they were from Cleveland (unless they hailed from Shaker Heights, which has always regarded itself as a special place).

Today, not only are the capabilities of the mayor being questioned, but the fate of the city may be at a crossroads. So may the suburbs that make up Cuyahoga County. Many believe that the city no longer has the wherewithal to continue its role as a regional political force.

The effort by public officials and the business community to organize and present a convention-center concept to the public was an embarrassment that stands next to default and a burning river as a benchmark of ineptitude.

However, the fiasco triggered the nearly universal realization that we are all in trouble, no matter where we live in Cuyahoga County and no matter our race, country of origin, country-club membership or political persuasion.

That we have been able to live in denial about this situation for so long is the most remarkable revelation.

In reality, the very sinews of the city have been eroding since 1950, when Cleveland stood as the sixth-largest city in America with a population of nearly 1 million people. Steel and manufacturing gave the town a smoky pallor, but also rendered jobs and a dynamic that would propel many lower-class families into the prosperity of post-war America.

For the past 50 years, individuals have stepped forward to promote the city, champion its virtues and ward off attacks of cynicism by the media, small groups of anarchists and roving bands of intellectuals who warned of looming adversity.

Somehow, these leaders, both from the public and the private sectors, seemed to make things work. In recent times, the development of Gateway and the heady days at Jacobs Field fostered an aura that the city had turned around. For a brief and shining moment, the nation looked toward Cleveland, marveling over its transformation.

After having lived in Boston for nearly five years, I returned to Cleveland in 1995 and immediately sensed a difference. I couldn't put my finger on it, but despite the momentary euphoria, something was wrong. The city did not seem as important as it once did.

Despite the conspicuous civic boosterism, a lack of civic confidence permeated. The Comeback City felt hollow when you considered the desolation of Euclid Avenue, a sinking school system and the departure of the Cleveland Browns.

The schools and the avenue helped make Cleveland a remarkable place in the years following World War I. City government was forward looking and businesses prospered.

The stage for the city's decline was set by the Depression, but the advent of World War II and Cleveland's contribution to the war effort offered a temporary reprieve. The war provided jobs for many working families that migrated to newly developing suburbs such as Parma. This working class had been the backbone of the city.

These were the children of immigrants who came here in the 19th century, labored in the mills and refineries and produced unparalleled wealth for entrepreneurs — and equally unparalleled dissent among the exploited workers.

Out of this came labor unions, governmental reforms and sharp divisions between labor and business.

The combination of ethnic heritage and economic exploitation solidified neighborhoods, not into the diverse ethnic pageantry that we pretend in our festivals, but into balkanized and self-centered political divisions that viewed the least civic compromise as an arcane plot against them.

Almost every politician in the city played the ethnic card. When African Americans gained power, the politics shifted to color.

Over time, as the need to escape this unproductive environment increased, the people and businesses that could afford to leave did so, fleeing to the suburbs and a new life.

While other cities annexed surrounding suburbs by extending their services, our inherent myopia prevented us from halting this exodus and retaining a tax base.

But now, the alarm and anger is such that you hear nearly everyone who is not holding an elective office calling for change. Drastic change.

There appears a natural, if long overdue, opportunity to develop a new approach to government. Much of the discussion has centered on a broader regional government. But don't be fooled, what may work like a dream in political-science class will face harsh realities in practice.

No one in Akron will ever support a regional government with Cleveland as part of it. Therefore, a restructured county government seems like a partial solution, but even that will not take place without pain.

Cuyahoga County is made of up 38 cities, 19 villages, two townships, 31 school districts and 40 other boards and commissions. Changing this calcified tangle represents such a fearful prospect for voters — who risk losing their voice in a larger representation or having to pay increased taxes for services they already receive — that shortsighted politicians need only to play the old cards to trump any vision or future.

County government here needs to do two things: streamline and become accountable. It has too many elective offices that create political fiefdoms out of perfunctory jobs. We don't need to elect a county engineer, coroner or auditor.

County government can be reformed in many ways, including the proposal floated by the Republican Party of Cuyahoga County that advocates a county executive and legislative body elected in a countywide vote. Standing in the way of such change is a past that has strangled the city.

Such an effort at change will be interesting, if nothing else. It will help to separate those politicians who recognize that the hour is late and the need for change great from those who just want to serve another term.

It will also separate us — for, ultimately, the region's people will be responsible for our fate.

The big difference today is that the adverse circumstances are not going to be restricted to the city limits. The lack of a vibrant future will not be a municipal problem for Cleveland alone; it threatens the suburbs as well.

Cuyahoga County residents live in a museum where each day is celebrated by nearly 100 different governmental entities that go about their work to preserve a memory of yesterday that is more important than a vision for tomorrow. The most important choice for the future hinges on the willingness of the people who live here to change.

For the first time in more than a century, it appears that if we are to prosper, change is no longer a matter of choice.

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