On Saturday Morning, yellow trucks from the Downtown Cleveland Alliance were seen at various points within the Central Business District, returning the 26 Scene vending boxes that the nonprofit organization had stolen in recent weeks.
In independent conversations with Scene's circulation director Don Kriss, with a Scene reporter and with Cleveland.com, the DCA defended the box removal as a decision motivated by safety — a familiar blanket justification coming from local leaders these days. All 26 boxes, DCA marketing director Heather Holmes claimed, had been knocked over by wind or by sidewalk plows and were becoming hazards.
But the higher-ups, including president & CEO Joe Marinucci, the former Gateway Development boss whose salary at the non-profit DCA is north of $208,000, contended that they had no idea the removal was happening, at least not at the outset. Holmes told Scene that members of the operations team were, as of late Friday afternoon, actively compiling a "very detailed report" about the boxes they'd taken (at precisely the moment we independently discovered that DCA was responsible). But later, she said DCA had no knowledge that DCA Ambassadors, the street-cleaning crew, had been collecting the boxes en masse. That's why no one attempted to contact Scene over the course of the three-week pickup spree. Indeed, DCA blamed the ambassadors themselves over the weekend.
"[The Ambassadors] had no intention of violating anyone's person or property, and they take great pride in keeping downtown sidewalks clean and safe to provide the best pedestrian experience possible," Holmes told Cleveland.com
The boxes were taken in at least three discrete incidents, presumed to have been late at night or early in the morning. According to Don Kriss, 10 boxes first disappeared along Euclid Avenue. Then eight more disappeared the following week. Then eight additional boxes disappeared. All or almost all of them were believed to be downtown. Kriss first pegged the burglaries as the work of scrappers. He filed two police reports and visited eight to 10 local scrap yards, by his own estimation, and found nothing. He did learn that the current value of the metal was about 6 cents per pound, which would put the value of a 50-pound Scene box at roughly $3.
The boxes are weighted with bricks and weigh between 150 and 160 pounds total, according to Kriss. Kriss said 26 boxes blowing into the street was more far-fetched than he was willing to entertain. Still, the DCA stuck to that story.
"Quite a few of them were flipped on their side, in the middle of the sidewalk, tipping over into the street," Holmes said, "and so [our staff] took them back to our operations center for safekeeping."
As to why Scene wasn't informed, Holmes referenced the report in progress, but said she personally agreed that the staff waited much too long to reach out to us.
"We'll fall on our sword on that," said Holmes. "They should've called the moment they picked up the first one. At the time, they didn't know exactly who to reach out to."
This, too, took us by surprise, given that contact information is provided on Page 4 of our print issues, along with the names and positions of all our staff members — this is what's known as a masthead. Additionally, contact information is easily accessible on the Scene website, Clevescene.com, which itself is printed on the side of many of the boxes. Also, Scene's office is just off East Ninth Street, fewer than 10 blocks (0.3 miles) from DCA headquarters on Euclid.
Holmes apologized, but didn't seem to think this was all that big a deal, insisting that all the boxes were indeed "downed."
"I'm not sure how they got knocked down, but they were down," she said. "They were in distress, if you will."
Scene was initially tipped off to DCA's involvement when an advertiser called us Friday morning, after our initial article about the missing boxes. He said he'd seen a DCA truck taking a Scene box last Saturday morning. When he asked the DCA folks what they were doing, they drove away. (He did not indicate whether the box had been in distress).
A DCA spokesperson told Scene, when we first inquired, that picking up news boxes was not something they would "typically do." We certainly hope not. Those boxes are, of course, private property and permitted by (as in, with individual permits from) the city. It's still unclear whether whoever at DCA instigated the removal viewed themselves as enforcing a city ordinance, or were merely fulfilling their capacity as street cleaners. It's also unclear at what point DCA protocol dictates that the ambassadors should collect the downed boxes, as opposed to the simpler solution: just standing them up.
The DCA represents downtown interests, and in fact is the only local nonprofit "dedicated to making Downtown Cleveland the most compelling place to live, work and play." Both Len Komoroski of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Dan Walsh, board chair of Destination Cleveland — both of whom were among the handful of presenters at the Quicken Loans Arena Transformation plan press conference in December, of which plan Scene has been consistently critical — sit on DCA's 18-member board of directors; the rest of the membership is composed chiefly of bigwigs from the worlds of real estate and finance.
Cleveland media being bullied or silenced by powerful players is nothing new. The most obvious example is when companies or organizations use advertising dollars as a weapon. The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District and the Cleveland Metroparks have all pulled significant advertising contracts with Scene in recent years after we'd written about them in less than flattering terms.
There are examples of more political attacks. In the 1980s, city council president George Forbes enacted a citywide ordinance whereby publications would have to pay a $50 fee for every vending box in the city. Forbes had been angered, according to longtime Cleveland reporter Roldo Bartimole, by the Plain Dealer's coverage of him, particularly a water rate hike in which Forbes had offered council members block grant incentives in exchange for their votes. The PD came down hard on him for that maneuver. At the time (1985), the Plain Dealer had 1,000 vending boxes in the city, and Bartimole's interpretation was that the ordinance was payback, to the tune of $50,000.
In 1994, the city of Cleveland removed 20 boxes of the alt-weekly magazine the Free Times, which the Free Times discovered only when someone provided a photo of a city truck hauling one away. This was back when Cleveland was a two-alt-weekly town. The justification by the Mike White administration was that the boxes were rusty and unsightly, but Free Times president Randy Siegel suspected that the removal was "politically motivated" due to negative coverage of Mayor White.
"I'm absolutely outraged," Siegel said in a May 20, 1994, story on the controversy in the Plain Dealer. "It's an attack on our First Amendment rights to publish a newspaper." Though the boxes were eventually returned after legal negotiations, Siegel claimed in the same story that the issue was bigger than the boxes.
"It's the principle of removing them and the arrogance of the city," he said.
The Free Times box removal wasn't the only instance of media hostility during the Mike White years. Throughout his 12-year tenure, White frequently worked to undercut the Plain Dealer.
"It has long since been forgotten, but there was a time when Mike White didn't think the Plain Dealer was run by beady-eyed jackasses bent on his destruction," wrote Scene's Andrew Puts, in a 2002 reflection on the administration. "He just thought it was run by beady-eyed jackasses."
From his second term onward, and in particular after editor Doug Clifton arrived in 1999, White began "publicly denouncing [the PD's] stories. He refused to talk to PD reporters. He had his press office tip off other media to the paper's records requests." On May 23, 2001, he had reporter Mark Naymik kicked out of the press conference announcing that he would not be seeking a fourth term.
The DCA's recent actions are similar to the above assaults in some ways and different in others, most notably in its stealth. This was not an overt declaration of war. This was not George Forbes grabbing Roldo Bartimole by the lapels and tossing him from a council meeting; this was not Mike White having Naymik removed from the auditorium at Miles Standish Elementary School. This was a silent offensive.
But the effect is just as harsh. The removal of 26 boxes is a devastating blow to Scene's reach. These days, Scene has only 85 boxes within the city limits, according to Kriss, 65 of which are located in the Central Business District. The DCA stole exactly 40 percent of the most visible form of our downtown distribution, and though they promptly returned our boxes once we found out they'd taken them, how long would they have persisted if we hadn't?
DCA asserts that its ambassadors removed the boxes, over the course of three weeks, without notifying superiors or Scene, of their own accord. The assertion strains credulity. It's far more believable that DCA and Cleveland's current batch of corporate and political leaders prefer the city to be as Mike White did, or at least hoped for: without critics, without dissent, without citizens.