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Command and Control in Cleveland

12 February 2014 No Comment

Writer Jim O’Toole wrote recently in Politico about the “political makeover of a rust belt city.” “Pittsburgh finally banished the old boys’ network” he says, “but it took a generation.”

Peduto

The article is an upbeat look at the city’s recent about-face after the election of progressive Mayor Bill Peduto.

The city’s political shifts reflect the dramatic demographic changes of an old city getting younger—and helped produce it. Peduto, an enthusiastic 49-year-old former councilman who tweets almost as much as Cory Booker, ran on appeals to “the new Pittsburgh.” He embraced a trendy, bottom-up, community-based approach to development, in contrast to rule of power brokers that have characterized much of the city’s history.

As I’m reading this, I find myself wondering, how did Pittsburgh become the exact opposite of Cleveland? Young, high tech, progressive — casting off the dinosaurs. If you could die of jealousy, I would.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, we just reelected our “it is what it is” mayor for a third term, without any real challenger. There was only one really competitive council race this time around — and that was only because the guy had ticked off the council president, so they gerrymandered him into a competitive district. Pittsburgh’s undergoing a dramatic “political makeover,” meanwhile the guys in power in Cleveland don’t even have real challengers.

Reading about the “old Pittsburgh” reminded me of Cleveland today. Probably nobody represents that “command and control” “old-boys” power broker element in Cleveland quite like the Greater Cleveland Partnership. Over howling about class warfare, these guys are pushing a six tax renewal right now to raise millions for Cleveland’s professional sports franchises. Cigarette and booze taxes paid for by Cuyahoga County’s poorest residents subsidize those lousy teams and their plutocrat owners. “I want Cleveland to remain a big league town,” their leader Joe Roman said in their defense.

Someone recently told me this private organization — Cleveland’s chamber of commerce — has, for decades, informally, had the leverage to choose how the region’s transportation money gets spent. They recently issued a list of their preferred projects, for another pool of money, to the state. GCP has a lobbying arm just for this purpose it calls Build Up Greater Cleveland. Through this entity it lobbies the city of Cleveland’s Public Works Department, NOACA, ODOT and Cuyahoga County.

I heard Roman say recently on the radio that Cleveland needs more roads and bridges. Which really struck me. In fact, there’s a sort of a consensus among the planning community that our shrinking region needs to embrace a fix-it-first approach to infrastructure. Even Crain’s, the business newspaper here, has acknowledged planning efforts that seek to “right-size” the region’s infrastructure are critical to our economy. In an editorial titled Wrong Road, Crain’s leadership wrote: “How long will this generation keep adding to the bill future generations in Northeast Ohio will be stuck with paying to repair and replace the infrastructure we create in our unabated push outward from the urban core?”

But apparently Roman didn’t get the message. The same week that was published he was calling for “more roads and bridges.” Is Roman just completely out of touch? Is it because GCP represents major construction firms, and new construction is slightly more profitable for them that road maintenance? I don’t know the answer. Those guys don’t engage with people like me. I’m not really privy to what happens behind the scenes. That’s the way it’s designed.

So our chamber of commerce gets to pick what transportation project happen in the region. Not some sort of broader consensus. Not grassroots groups advocating for better environmental outcomes, or more services for the poor. Sure, politicians representing ordinary people are at the table helping decide this stuff, but the only organized outfit with money is GCP, and they spend a fair amount of money helping elect politicians like Frank Jackson.

GCP is not only choosing which projects happen with tax money, in our region, what seems extra, extra crazy to me is, they also seem to be entitled to actually lead the public planning process. GCP’s baby is the Opportunity Corridor — a three mile road planned to bisect some neighborhoods on the east side of Cleveland. This private organization helped build the project’s “steering committee,” and steered it all the way through the federally required planning process. This is how completely everyone in the region has handed over the reigns for a supposedly pubic project to this outfit that represents construction firms: When philanthropic foundations — Cleveland and Gund Foundation — wanted to help with the planning for this project, they paid for an employee. That employee was housed, not at the city, but at GCP.

Here’s another example of just how much control GCP has over this controversial $331 million public project that will force 79 low-income families out of their homes in Cleveland. In a recent article about the project for Cleveland Magazine, GCP refused to release renderings of how the project would look, unless it could extract promises about the tone of the article from the reporter.

“The Greater Cleveland Partnership, the business group leading the charge for the road, balked at sharing renderings of the boulevard unless the magazine assured it that this story wouldn’t be negative,” wrote the magazine’s Eric Trickey.

Trickey endorsed the project anyway, without really even engaging with the opposition, saying only that GCP and ODOT “need to be more open as the project launches.” LIKE IT’S THE MOST NORMAL THING IN THE WORLD. I love that reaction. Sternly admonishing them, like children, for withholding public documents — an act that would be illegal, if they were a public entity.

They’re not. They aren’t bound by the laws meant to protect the interests of taxpayers. Interests like being able to view renderings they paid $30 million to produce. So why is GCP playing the role of a public agency? I don’t understand it, but it’s unquestioned. Everyone from the Cleveland Foundation, to the state of Ohio, to Cleveland Magazine seems to think it’s the natural order of things. And I guess it is around here.

Pittsburgh’s new mayor has embraced “a trendy, bottom-up, community-based approach to development.” Here in Cleveland, the rich guys, the big boys, still call the shots, to a degree that, in my opinion, goes well beyond the basic protections that are supposed to be afforded to taxpayers. It’s not even questioned.

Command and control. One more stadium, one more road, maybe Cleveland will turn into a place like Pittsburgh. All we can do is trust the big boys at GCP have it under control, despite all the evidence.

-Angie Schmitt