At the Tipping Point

Indifferent citizens have allowed the city and county to reach the edge of despair.  It's time to forget our obsession with sports and think about survival.

The late political operative J. William Petro was an acerbic man. Once, after this magazine ran a story on the many foibles of then-mayor Ralph J. Perk, Petro accosted me and asked: "Were you born stupid or did you have to study to get that way?"


Petro was particularly contemptuous of politics reporters. He reacted to them as one would to a fly in soup.


He thought reporters who criticized public officials for incompetence and neglect missed the point: Politicians, he argued, could only win office by saying things gullible voters wanted to hear. If government failed, he blamed dull, ambivalent citizens.


"Dummy, don't you get democracy?" he would say.


Sadly, Petro's stinging indictment of the public resonates painfully in Cleveland today. The city and county leadership have become mirrors of the people who live here: indifferent, cynical, bound by the past, obsessed with sports, asleep and unconcerned that their own welfare is at risk.


November's remarkable vote to reform county government was one of the more historic events here in the past 50 years. In decades past, voters had turned down several attempts to streamline their bloated, tangled and gridlocked government.


But I fear the passage of the new charter may turn out to be a brief voter revolt rather than the start of a sweeping transformation. Hopefully, the passage of Issue 6 was an act of enlightened citizenry more than a reaction to the widespread corruption in the county and The Plain Dealer's relentless coverage of it.


Merely voting for a new charter is not enough. We are at a tipping point: The future of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County is in serious doubt, and the danger of remaining complacent is stunning.


Cleveland never became a city like Boston and Chicago — dynamic places that radiate prosperity — because the waves of immigration a century ago balkanized the city just as it emerged from an industrial revolution. The town never turned into a melting pot with a unified focus because of the ethnic fractures.


Now Cleveland faces its most critical time in history, largely because of economic circumstances and a dearth of leadership. Earlier this year, Mayor Frank Jackson spoke less than 700 words in his second inaugural speech. It was more like a coffee break than a spirited declaration.


Jackson stressed regionalism, economic development and education as fundamentals that drive a healthy city. But his record is disappointing on all three issues.


Last year, Jackson ignored the county reform initiative, the stepping stone to regionalism. He rejected the opportunity to help shape reform to protect the city's interests, a political gaffe of historic proportions. He failed to convince Eaton Corp. to build its new headquarters downtown, even as he was pushing to spend millions on a waterfront plan that would have clearly succeeded with Eaton's participation. The city schools have lost more than 25,000 students in the past decade, and a few days after the mayor's speech, his schools CEO announced the closing of 18 schools due to lack of academic achievement.


By giving lip service to regionalism and not leading in economic development, Jackson has slowly abdicated the power of his office. The mayor of Cleveland was once considered the leading political figure in Northeast Ohio. But the new county government promises to reduce that imprimatur, if not erase it.


So this September and November's elections for the new government could be the last chance for this generation to make painful but necessary changes so that the region survives with dignity and prosperity.


We desperately need qualified candidates. We can't afford to let the same old names and politics emerge.


An example is Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Bill Mason, who is facing new scrutiny for his handling of public contracts involving his office. Last year, Mason appeared to be in a strong political position: Backing Issue 6 distanced him from the embattled Democratic Party and put him in a position to take it over should Jimmy Dimora step down as party chairman in the wake of the corruption investigation. With his job preserved in the new charter, Mason seemed a good bet to be re-elected in 2012.


But The Plain Dealer, after suffering criticism that it was soft on Mason, has targeted him for prominent play. Its report that Mason was in the car when his campaign treasurer was pulled over and charged with drunk driving was quickly followed by the revelation that Mason awarded a large computer contract to a crony. Days later, the paper revealed that Mason failed to prosecute a friend, a lawyer who had misappropriated clients' money. Faced with new questions about his judgment and his alliances, Mason now appears politically vulnerable and may ultimately be a victim of reform himself.


Reform, as Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers says, has at least given us hope that our politics can change. Other positive trends from the campaign included the emergence of Akers and other suburban mayors as regional leaders and the civic involvement of a growing community of black businesspeople. As the only prominent elected black official to support the charter change, state Sen. Nina Turner drew both praise and wrath from the minority community. But she may be symbolic of a new era in racial politics, in which the value of playing the race card is diminished due to overplay and the old guard of black leadership can no longer enforce political conformity.


Until last year, local voters seemed to pay little attention to the leaders they elected while public officials helped themselves to pensions, double dipping and other benefits that outstripped those in the private sector. Dimora, for instance, has double dipped for the 11 years he's been county commissioner, collecting his $92,000 salary and a pension from his years as Bedford Heights mayor. Voters did not care: He won re-election with 72 percent of the vote in 2002 and 75 percent in 2006.


The double dippers — those who retire on public pensions, only to be rehired — take umbrage at criticism, noting their maneuvers are lawful. Of course, the people who gave you dysfunctional government also made double dipping legal and profitable. Behind closed doors, politicians laugh and ridicule the public they serve.


Other cities suffer from similar politics, yet they somehow found the means to overcome parochialism and grow. Cleveland did not. The political environment — incompetence, corruption and a lack of confidence in the area's future — has driven businesses away.


Instead, business desperately needs a stable government structure it can rely on, one with long-range plans, a vision and the ability to interact quickly and decisively in a global economy. We need better educated leaders who understand that the old political boundaries no longer matter.


The candidates for the fledgling county government need to come from diverse walks of life and be agents of change, not collectors of pensions and patronage. They, and we, need to understand that the new government is the beginning of a process. It needs to morph into a real regional entity that does away with the 57 local governments in Cuyahoga County, which choke achievement by relying on heavy taxes.


This is urgent because the entire region is downsizing: the Play House, country clubs, the bus system. I worry about the future of the Cleveland Orchestra. I think the financial condition of the Cleveland Indians will be a bigger story this summer than the team on the field. I think losing the team to another city is a real threat.


So this time, voters need to pick candidates like they would a heart surgeon. The town revels in Cleveland Browns minutiae, arguing the merits of Eric Mangini over office water coolers and sports bars. But we're appallingly feckless and unconcerned about our region's future. It's time to turn off Mike Trivisonno and start listening to the League of Women Voters


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