It's the first warm afternoon of April, and Frank Jackson is ducking a call. The city elite is abuzz with talk of regionalism, but apparently no one has talked to the city council president. He's feeling neglected.
"Frank can't force his way into any private discussions about regionalism," says his spokeswoman, Maxine Greer, her voice sharpening to a pencil point. "Somebody might just want to fill him in on just what the hell they're talking about."
Over at City Hall, Mayor Jane Campbell has her defenses up. She won't discuss the issue either. At least not until she gets assurances from Team NEO, a Growth Association subsidiary, that regionalism won't mean further pillaging of Cleveland. "If Team NEO really has the good of the region in their mind," Campbell says, "the first order of business is to make sure they will use none of their resources to raid businesses in the region."
Then there's Peter Lawson Jones, the county commissioner with two degrees from Harvard (as he loves to remind you). He's feigning ignorance. "When it comes to regionalism," he says, "we still need to figure out exactly what it is we're talking about."
Surely you've come to expect this. Whenever a tough issue arises in Cleveland, the politicians who should be leading the charge hide in their offices, waiting for someone to call them.
Acting like a stood-up prom date may make for smart politics. Regionalism does mean change. And to someone who holds power, change presents the very real possibility of losing it. Far better to wait for the next guy to say something stupid, then cut him down at the knees.
Which is why Cleveland's discussion of regionalism has thus far been a series of timid steps and cautious warnings. The only people willing to step up are those without power, who have nothing to lose.
Republicans have proposed installing a county executive and an 11-member county council, which they claim will increase efficiency and make politicians more accountable. But since they're Republicans, the plan doesn't have a chance in hell.
Academics propose merging governments and rewriting the tax code. Yet Cleveland has never run on the principles of higher learning. Its fuel is raw power. And the county's political elite are so focused on power, they'd gladly captain the Titanic to the bottom of the sea, as long as it was their hands on the wheel.
Yet all this evasion is a little odd, since regionalism is such a simple concept. It's really just a three-dollar word for sharing. When various governments pool their resources, they can use the savings to improve the region's economy. The idea has worked everywhere from hippie paradises like Portland to redneck strongholds like Louisville. And it could work here.
"This city has been in decline for 54 years," says Mark Rosentraub, dean of Cleveland State's Levin College of Urban Affairs. "We need to get moving."
But we aren't. Here's why.
Blame the pols!
The people who run Northeast Ohio's largest companies are the ones most freaked out by the region's continued suckitude. And according to CEOs, the difficult business climate is directly linked to inefficient governments and inept politicians. Democrats couldn't even pass a slam-dunk proposal like the convention center, they note, though businesspeople believe it would bring thousands of jobs to downtown.
Politicians also have let corporate taxes climb so high, it's impossible to recruit new business, says Joe Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership. "This is a high-tax community in a high-tax state. I don't think higher taxes is the way to spur new investment."
Corporate titans fondly recall the days when Cleveland's mayor had enough juice to dominate the region. CEOs needed to call only a single politician to get things accomplished. Now, businesspeople have to influence mayors and council members across the county. The end result: Nothing ever happens.
"The dysfunctional form of government we have is costing us every day, in terms of jobs," Roman says. The only way to fix it, he argues, is to change our government so that one politician -- like a county executive -- has enough power to call the shots for the entire county. "Business leaders want to deal with one leader who can make decisions," says Roman.
The CEOs' arguments conveniently ignore their own culpability. After all, they're the same people who pushed projects like Gateway, the Rock Hall, and the rail line connecting Tower City to Browns Stadium, which carries approximately six passengers a year. Their promises of thousands of new jobs and visitors never came close to materializing. And a new convention center -- an idea that's met failure in virtually every city in America -- would only add to Cleveland's long list of expensive boondoggles. It was by an act of accidental brilliance that political leaders killed it.
Moreover, talk of high taxes is a red herring. Check the stats: In the mid-1970s, corporate taxes covered 16 percent of the state's budget, according to the research group Policy Matters Ohio. By 2002, they paid just 4 percent. Ohio ranks 30th in the nation for the tax revenue it collects per person, according to the Center for Community Solutions, a Cleveland research group. Only seven states charge less in corporate taxes. "This whole notion that Ohio is a high-tax state is just simply wrong," says David Ellis, spokesman for the center.
In fact, given the CEOs' impressive catalog of disastrous projects, truthless assertions, and incessant pleas for handouts, it could be argued that their legacy of ineptitude surpasses even the politicians'.
Next on our tour of obstacles: black politicians. All this talk of regionalism is making them very nervous.
They already know what happened in Louisville, where many blacks saw regionalism as a fancy term for "Whitey lost control of the city, and now he's stealin' it back." African Americans used to control a third of Louisville's city council seats. But in 2003, the city merged with Jefferson County, which is overwhelmingly white. Now blacks control just six seats on the 26-member county council.
Blacks in Cleveland have even more to lose. They make up more than half the population and control almost half the city council seats. If regionalism means merging with Cuyahoga County, which is less than a third black, they will lose considerable power.
"Blacks perceive it as a way for whites to maintain their power on a broader base," says NAACP President George Forbes. "I think most blacks are opposed to anything that would diminish their political power."
So they approach regionalism gingerly. In a recent City Club speech, Jackson bobbed and weaved on the subject for half an hour, throwing more tired passes than Tim Couch. But the unspoken message was clear: If regionalism can lure jobs to the city, great. If it fixes Cleveland schools, terrific. But if it costs black politicians control over thousands of patronage jobs in city government, the municipal courts, and the RTA, they will sink regionalism so fast, you won't see the bubbles.
"We're in a position now where we can declare who should be the mayor of Cleveland," says Mike Nelson, president of 100 Black Men of Cleveland, a group promoting economic and educational opportunities. "That kind of power is something that minority groups have struggled to gain. We do not want to give it away."
Big talk for people getting their asses kicked
African American pols think they hold the trump cards in the regionalism debate, pointing to the city's control of the region's water, airport, and port authority. But like the CEOs, they too refuse to acknowledge their own culpability.
The two biggest strongholds of black political power -- Cleveland and East Cleveland -- also happen to be the most pathetically run cities in the region. And you can bet that if black residents were offered better schools, better government, and a better economy, they'd trade in their so-called leaders in a heartbeat.
Black pols also don't seem to realize that Cleveland needs the suburbs more than the suburbs need Cleveland. Who will pay to improve Cleveland's failing school district, which is 70 percent African American? Who will raise the money to attract new businesses to Cleveland, where more than half of all black men don't have jobs? Not Cleveland. The city is so broke, some council members hope to raise money by bottling Lake Erie water. (This, tragically, is not a joke.)
Black pols are right to approach regionalism with caution. But if they cling too tightly to their waning power and refuse to compromise, they'll only screw their own people.
"If the goal of people in the city of Cleveland is just to hold onto their city jobs, while the economy declines and the poverty rate goes up, what's the point?" asks County Commissioner-elect Tim Hagan. "What kind of power do you really have? You have the power to preside over the decline of a city, like East Cleveland."
The brightest 20-watt bulbs you ever saw
You only need a modest skill set to be the star of the Tribe bullpen. And suburban mayors don't need to be officers of MENSA to be the smartest pols around. They were simply the first to realize the obvious: Politicians have really screwed this place up.
Why does the town of Linndale, population 130, have 30 officers in its police department? Why do Cleveland Heights, University Heights, and Shaker Heights all buy their own million-dollar fire trucks?
So the suburban mayors have started to change things on their own. Parma, for example, used to store all its road salt at the city's service garage, in the northwest corner of town. Every time the snowplows ran out of salt on the south side, they had to drive across town for another load. That left thousands of Parma residents doing donuts in their 1975 Impalas. But a new salt dome for the south end would have cost $100,000. "So instead of doing that, we worked out an agreement with Seven Hills, so we could store our salt with them," says Parma Mayor Dean DePiero.
That's regionalism -- in its simplest, purest form.
Not only are suburban mayors beginning to see that they need each other, they're also realizing how much they need Cleveland. They get a powerful reminder every time they fly to New York to grovel at the knee of Moody's, the powerful firm that determines cities' creditworthiness.
"When I go to Moody's, their first question is not about the health of Lakewood," says Lakewood Mayor Tom George. "They always ask how healthy Cleveland is. They know that the health of Lakewood is tied directly to the health of Cleveland."
Hold the music
Before we invite suburban mayors to sing "We Are the World," let's take a good whiff of some smelling salts.
These guys remember the bad old days when former Cleveland Mayor Mike White treated the suburbs like trash. And they aren't too pleased about Cleveland's plans to hog almost a billion dollars worth of state and federal highway money over the next decade to rebuild the innerbelt, the Shoreway, and the I-71/I-480 interchange. "That doesn't leave a lot of money for anybody else," says Steve Hambley, a Medina County commissioner.
The mayors realize that their wagon is hitched to a giant bully. So they refuse to allow that bully to come to any of their meetings. "Whatever happens, we don't want to lose control to the county commissioners or some other Cleveland entity," says Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, who's leading the suburban regionalism effort.
That kind of thinking won't win them any friends. "Of course I don't trust their intentions!" Forbes says.
There is also division in the suburban ranks. Akers is making noise about an economic-development fund that would use suburban money to help Cleveland create jobs. But he's about to be called offsides by his own linemen. Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough, whose town has $61 million sitting in the bank, is not about to send a dime to the financial sinkhole that is Cleveland. "Who says Cleveland would need most of the resources?" he asks.
Hey, big spender
To cast it in a family dynamic, the county's mayors are akin to teenage daughters. The Cuyahoga County commissioners are the father with the Visa card. They're the only people who can put a tax increase on the ballot without first gathering thousands of signatures. They have financial power, but their sway over voters is almost nil. "People don't know what the county commissioners do," says Hagan. "They have no idea."
So while the county can bankroll projects, the mayors must lead the charge.
"The county will never have the power to take the lead politically," says Campbell. "When I was a commissioner, what we did that was most successful was support the city's hopes and dreams. The Rock Hall of Fame, Jacobs Field, the Gund, Browns Stadium were all projects where the county's principal role was to assist in financing."
Each of the three commissioners has a different take on regionalism. Peter Lawson Jones is the big thinker. He's organized development summits that have drawn people from as far away as Ashtabula County. "I think you'll find there are many different kinds of regional plans out there that the commissioners could support," he says.
Hagan is the hangdog pragmatist. He might be willing to go along with some ideas, but he's not gonna waste his time on feel-good initiatives that sound great on paper, but have no chance of passing. "All the idealism in the world doesn't make a difference, if you can't get it done," he says.
Jimmy Dimora sees regionalism as a passing fad whipped up by The Plain Dealer. He also sees it as a royal pain in the ass. "We'd like to conform to the media's hot topic of the year," Dimora says. "We'd like to comply and have the media off our back. But we're not in any bind. We don't have to do it."
But Dimora has ulterior motives. As head of the Democratic Party, he certainly isn't eager to referee all the hand-to-hand combat that will inevitably take place. So, if he must discuss regionalism at all, he wants to be rewarded for his trouble up front -- by forcing Cleveland to relinquish control of the port authority.
More than half the port's money comes from the county and the suburbs, he argues. So why should Cleveland still call the shots? "Cleveland's got to get past its parochial perspective," Dimora says. "They don't want to lose control over the port, the water department, the sewer district. But what've they got? It's falling apart around them."
Two out of three ain't bad
If Cleveland and the suburban mayors manage to get their act together, Hagan and Lawson Jones are ready to play ball. Dimora is ready to throw bombs. His call to change the port authority will essentially leave the regionalism debate stillborn. That's because the city's power players, white and black, already worry that regionalism will only mean the county stealing the few things in Cleveland that still work -- the port, the airport, the water department, and the sewer authority -- while leaving them with everything that sucks, namely the schools. "You can't regionalize the assets and ignore the responsibilities," Mike Nelson says.
The county may demand control of the port authority in exchange for helping Cleveland's schools, but the regionalism discussion is still too fragile to handle such explosive topics. If Lawson Jones is serious about regionalism, he needs to let the port issue lie, outmaneuver Dimora, and win Hagan to his side.
The PD factor
In the teeny social club that is Cleveland politics, the grand poo-bah was never elected. But since The Plain Dealer has far more sway with voters than all politicians combined, its clout cannot be ignored.
The paper's editors have made it abundantly clear that they really like regionalism. Since last October, they have printed no fewer than 30 news stories and editorials on the subject.
Editorial page director Brent Larkin makes no bones about his preferences. "I personally think we should explore uni-government" to merge Cleveland with the county, Larkin says. But he understands the need for moderation. "We haven't gone that far as a paper. This community is averse to change, especially dramatic change, so you have to move with some caution."
Whoa there, Trigger
The problem is that many politicians believe The Plain Dealer has already reached the broader conclusion: We have too many powerless little governments, and it's time to get rid of them. When the loudest voice in town starts shouting for something that could cost politicians their jobs, it's bound to incite panic. "Merging governments?" says Cleveland Councilwoman Sabra Pierce Scott. "That's scary."
In fact, the merger issue is so radioactive and can so easily be manipulated to alarm voters -- Do you really want to be a resident of Cleveland? -- that politicians are bound to maul any plan that includes it. So here's some advice to our friends at The PD: Lay off the merger talk.
Here's the final score
CEOs want easier influence, but can't stop blaming everyone else for their own failures.
Cleveland wants money, but it won't give up anything in return.
The suburbs want to get regionalism rolling, but they're not about to give Cleveland their money.
And two of the three county commissioners just want to be left alone.
This doesn't look promising. Then again, nothing ever looks promising in Cleveland politics.
What follows is a list of ideas that could improve Northeast Ohio. The best would likely be gnawed to death by competing self-interests. But a few are simple enough to be mastered even by our leaders.
Megagovernment! Geeks love it!
Cuyahoga County has 57 cities. There are more than 500 in the whole region. Mayors and city councils use tax breaks and sweetheart deals to steal companies from each other. They could better help the economy by simply dumping all that welfare into Public Square, and letting the panhandlers fight for it.
"The fact is that government fragmentation is hurting your economy," says Mark Muro, a policy analyst at the Brookings Institution. Geeks like Muro love mergers. Cleveland is not competing with Strongsville or Mentor, they point out. It's competing with Phoenix and Atlanta -- giant, low-tax cities that corporations dig because they have only one set of inept politicians to deal with, not 500. We could follow their lead by merging Cleveland into Cuyahoga County. At the very least, we could ditch a few unnecessary suburbs.
"Why do we need Parma, Parma Heights, and Middleburg Heights?" says Mike Nelson. "I think some borders need to be eliminated."
Zrrt! You just touched the third rail
Though merging governments would bring efficiency, no one will live to see it happen in Northeast Ohio. "I don't believe that will work," says Michael Canty, mayor of Bentleyville, an East Side suburb of 1,000 people. "We have too many communities that aren't willing to give up their personal touch and their sense of community."
The idea would also require 500 governments to give up much of their power. Many would sooner become provinces of Canada than merge with their neighbors, especially Cleveland. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. "We hold out all these unrealistic expectations, and when we don't meet them, we think we failed," says Ned Hill, an urban-planning professor at Cleveland State. "They're setting a bar that we can never meet. A Cleveland-county merger? That will never happen."
This idea is dead.
That's why we call it the Dark Ages
Since we're stuck with all these cities, how about reorganizing the most screwed-up government this side of the Iraqi Governing Council?
On paper, Cuyahoga County is run by three commissioners. On Mother Earth, all they do is approve the budgets for a bunch of small-time elected officials like the county coroner and engineer. Voters don't care about such dull, middle-management jobs. So these obscure politicians stack their buildings with patronage employees, whose primary job is to haul all their family and friends to the polls every election day.
"The commissioners hand money over to people they have no power to manage," says Dave Abbott, the executive director of the Gund Foundation, who became intimately aware of the county's shortcomings during his eight-year stint as county administrator. "So there's very little accountability. No one has the power to say, 'This is how we're going to save money.'"
The Citizens League teamed up with the Republican Party to fix this. Their proposal would make jobs like engineer and coroner appointed positions. It would roll the auditor, treasurer, and recorder into a single financial director. And it would replace our county commission with one executive -- akin to a county mayor -- and an 11-member county council. Republicans are gathering signatures to put the plan on the November ballot.
"This [current] form of government started in England in the Middle Ages, and it worked OK back then," says Mike Thomas, director of the Citizens League. "But it just doesn't work at all in an urban county of one and a half million people."
Know your place, weaklings
The Citizens League is basically just two guys struggling to pay the rent on their Euclid Avenue office. The Republican Party is so weak, it doesn't bother running candidates in county elections anymore. And while their proposal might be a good plan, it's also the Republicans' own naked attempt to grab power. "This looks to me to be a way for the Republicans to change the rules because they're not able to get elected countywide," says Dimora.
These are not the guys you want pushing any kind of reform. "This issue has a lot of built-in opposition, so you have to carefully fashion a coalition to support it," Abbott says.
But the Republicans slapped this thing together so fast, they barely had time to spell-check it, much less build a coalition. Without a single heavy hitter on board, it's virtually guaranteed to go down in flames.
So let's start small
We already have plenty of good examples of functional regionalism. For starters, we get trains and buses courtesy of the Regional Transit Authority. We have low sewer rates thanks to the Regional Sewer District. These partnerships aren't sexy, but they save money, and they work.
Eight towns in the Hillcrest area have created a technical rescue team, which trains police and firefighters. In the western suburbs, five cities are studying how to merge their fire-dispatch services. "This is a kind of regionalism that's already working, and I think you'll find significant support for it," says Lawson Jones.
The suburbs are already doing this without any help. The county could speed the process by offering low-cost loans to help cities integrate things like police-dispatch services.
Cleveland also needs to get into the act. Does the city really use its tree chippers every day of the year? Doubtful. It could earn extra cash by renting them out to other cities.
Wow, does our economy suck
While the rest of the nation recovers from the jobless recovery, Cleveland is still begging the crack dealers in lower Tremont to hire some assistants. Everybody has their own idea for luring new jobs to town.
Suburban mayors wanted to create a county-wide development agency. That idea quickly fizzled.
Private foundations plan to spend $30 million over the next three years on loans and grants to help companies expand.
Council President Jackson wants to create a separate, Cleveland-controlled pot of money to clean up contaminated land and bulldoze abandoned buildings. "We need to do this in order for Cleveland to be competitive within the region in terms of land availability," Jackson said at his City Club address.
Lawson Jones's development summits are drawing leaders from seven counties. Eventually, they may lead to some sort of multicounty agreement on development strategies. But this may be years away. "We're at the very beginning of that process," says Medina Commissioner Steve Hambley. "We don't even have a structure yet where we can talk about these kinds of issues."
The main problem is money. Cleveland doesn't have any. The only way to raise it would be through tax hikes in each of the 56 suburbs. Which will never happen.
Lawson Jones's multicounty initiative looks promising, but it will take years to produce dividends.
Poachers keep out
Whenever a city steals a company from its neighbor, it's like a bum stealing a dollar from a wino. In the end, both guys still wind up dumpster-diving for food. All it does is blow precious tax dollars, with no real benefit to the region.
Campbell says she won't even discuss regionalism until she gets a promise from Team NEO that it won't help suburbs steal businesses from Cleveland. And the mayors' and managers' association wants every city to sign a similar no-poaching pledge.
You and what army?
So far, Team NEO has given Campbell the Heisman. "They have not been willing to sign," she says. "Until we have that kind of clarity, that regional resources will not be used to raid things from one community to the next, we're not going to be able to have regional cooperation."
Team NEO Director Bob Farley was the only bigwig in town who declined to be interviewed for this story. But one can imagine his position. If a company wants to expand but can't find suitable land in Cleveland, why shouldn't Team NEO help it move to Strongsville?
A broader no-poaching agreement between cities might be nice. Then again, the mayors' association knows of no other region to attempt this, and courts would be powerless to enforce it. The worst punishment for breaking the pledge would be a royal noogie at the next Democratic Central Committee meeting.
Can't . . . Talk! . . . Drowning!
Northeast Ohio is like the asthmatic runt trying to make the varsity swim team, and the Cleveland school district is the anchor around its neck. The schools barely managed to graduate 30 percent of their students last year, and that was before a $100-million budget deficit came calling. Meanwhile, the trickle of failed suburban school levies has swelled to a flood.
Some have gone so far as to suggest that Cleveland merge its schools with those of the suburbs. "If you want to talk about regionalism, let's start by talking about the school system. A metropolitan school system," says Mike Nelson.
Don't hold your breath
The suburbs would be fools to send money to the Cleveland district. Some of them can barely afford their own schools. To take on the added burden of Cleveland -- a perennial contender for America's Worst School System honors -- would be akin to paying top dollar to put a noose around your neck.
No one wants responsibility for the city's schools, not even Cleveland. "To start with the schools means that it's going to fail," says George Forbes. "I'm just being politically realistic."
Dream big by dreaming small
Here's an operable mantra: We are not doomed. Breathe. We are not doomed. Breathe.
True, we have more warring factions than Afghanistan. We have a battalion of elected leaders who combine the vision of George Bush with the humility of Mussolini. And we can't expect any help from the state, which may be the one entity that surpasses us in incompetence.
But everyone is at least talking about regional fixes to regional problems. And there are countless approaches that could work. They just have to be modest in their goals, politically neutral in their effect. As Ned Hill likes to say, "For regionalism to work here, it has to be functional, practical, and nonideological."
These words have never been used to describe our system of politics. Then again, every drug addict must hit bottom before he decides to clean up. Perhaps we'll be among the few to rise again. After all, we've already got the hitting-bottom part covered.