Public-Private Partnership: Behind the Scenes of the State of the City Address


The State of the City Conversation - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
  • The State of the City Conversation

Just in case you were wondering: Mayor Frank Jackson never "rehearsed" the State of the City conversation with Beth Mooney, President and CEO of KeyCorp and Chair of the Greater Cleveland Partnership.

Jackson communicated to Scene via a spokesperson that to prepare for his annual address earlier this month, he had a couple of informal conversations with Mooney, but they were "few and far between," and Jackson's staff  didn't participate to "coach" or help craft a message. 

This story is old news, perhaps, and as we've spoken with folks in the immediate and less-immediate aftermath of the address, the most persistent frustration we've encountered with the selection of Mooney — and with the address itself — has come from the media. That's likely because, in the two previous years when Jackson has opted for a Q&A format, he sat across from journalists. 

"Every journalist in that room wanted to be on the stage that day," said Russ Mitchell, the WKYC anchor who moderated the State of the City in 2014. "I mean what an opportunity: to be able to press the Mayor on those issues, in a year of such incredible highs and incredible lows, and in such a public forum. But it was probably presumptive of us to assume that this was a 'Meet the Press' moment."

It's Jackson's party, and he can deliver the message any way he wants to, basically. He told journalists — NEOMG's Leila Atassi and WCPN's Nick Castele — after the address that he may select a media member as moderator next year, or he may not. The selection of Mooney was just what he wanted to do this time around.

Which is fine, I guess, or at least the result of certain easy, logical, political calculations: Business leaders are by and large the folks paying for tables at the venue (this year, the Cleveland Public Auditorium); business leaders should get one of their respected luminaries onstage. Right? Sure.  

But the way officials were treating the selection of Mooney, (silently), left journalists no choice but to speculate, a sinister business indeed. Everyone was so tight-lipped about the whole thing. Before the address, city spokespeople and Dan Moulthrop, City Club CEO, wouldn't reveal Jackson's interviewer. 

"You'll find out soon," was their go-to line. 

"I sent Valerie McCall [Jackson's Chief of Government & International Affairs]  a text earlier that day asking who the moderator was," Russ Mitchell mentioned, anecdotally. "And she just said, 'I'll see you there.'" 

Mitchell said that after he had been approached by the city to moderate last year's address (an invitation he was honored to accept), he, too, met informally with Jackson. But he said there was never any directive about topics that were on or definitively off the table.

"I never received, not even a whiff, from the Mayor or his office, any indication that they wanted me to ask certain things. In fact, I would say that in the actual event, 60-70 percent of the things we talked about were not necessarily things we’d talked about in previous sessions. I felt very comfortable in having the autonomy and the freedom to pretty much go anywhere I wanted to," Mitchell told Scene.  

On the one hand, this is encouraging intel. It calms the skeptics who would suggest that the Q&A format is a farce or illusion, a speech disguised as conversation; that when Mooney set out the rules of the conversation in her prologue — "be candid, don't be afraid to ask the hard stuff, and leave plenty of time for questioning" — she intended to follow them.

But on the other hand, the autonomy of the interviewer means that his or her priorities become the content of the State of the City address, not the Mayor's. And that's more like a missed opportunity than a problem, as it's the one official chance Jackson gets each year to articulate his agenda and priorities. 

City Councilman Brian Cummins, along with many of his council colleagues, was Tweeting during the address. (This is standard operating procedure these days). Cummins suggested that he wasn't terribly fond of the Q&A format. He elaborated when we reached out to him the following week.

"A straightforward speech gives the Mayor a format to completely own his message, the topics he covers etc., and allows the speaker to be concise and on point. It allows the speaker to directly engage with the audience," Cummins wrote in an email. "Because the City Club puts this on, we know there will be a free-form Q&A, so there seems to be no need for the one-on-one discussion." 

Cummins' point is an interesting one. There's already a Q&A built into the program, so an entree conversation seems not only potentially rudderless, but self-evidently redundant. One of the big knocks on Mooney, even from non-media observers, was that she failed to corral Jackson when he repeated himself, and didn't do a very good job managing the public Q&A. 

Ward 5 Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland admits that she probably prefers the traditional direct address, but told Scene not only that she thought Jackson came off as balanced and strong, but that Mooney, as moderator, was the most effective yet:

"Beth Mooney has been here for a long time and has done a lot of things to help the community," Cleveland told Scene in a phone conversation, "whereas last year, Russ Mitchell had just come to town [he began his career as WKYC anchor in January, 2012] and didn't have the sort of historical memory. Beth Mooney was coming from a place of trying to make the city better, whereas a journalist has a different job."

KeyCorp's External Corporate Communications VP Drez Jennings, a crisis communications specialist, didn't stray far from the company message when we inquired about State of the City prep from Mooney's camp. Did she receive any guidance, we wanted to know, either from the city or from the City Club? When and how was she invited? What were her goals as moderator? Did she feel she achieved them? What was the reaction from her Greater Cleveland Partnership colleagues? 

Here's Jennings, via email: 

"Beth was very pleased and proud to accept the request, as she believes Cleveland’s rejuvenation requires collaboration between the business community and the city. Cleveland is a city on the move, and the partnership between the business community and the City helps to drive that momentum.”

Straight out of a glossy tri-fold: Cleveland is a city on the move, folks.   

Dan Moulthrop wouldn't respond directly either when we followed up on some cryptic comments he'd made on social media relating to the selection of Mooney: "Some decisions are more collaborative than others," he'd Tweeted.

In an email to Scene, he said only that the mayor was "very substantive in his comments on a range of issues. And, true to City Club tradition, he took unscripted questions from the audience, and those questions came from members and guests."

"It's worth saying," Moulthrop added, "that we remain committed to free speech and inviting all of our speakers and panelists to work in the format that best helps them deliver their message and connect with the community." 

The business community, anyway, in this case.

GCP President and CEO Joe Roman certainly found a way to misappropriate a Jackson quote in a hurry. At the press conference announcing the final funding and construction start-date for Public Square, two days after Jackson's address, Roman kicked off his remarks with a "paraphrase" of Jackson's most oft-quoted line: "Cleveland is hard times. Hard times is what we do,"  a message meant to celebrate Cleveland's gritty, by-the-bootstraps approach to self-promotion and -betterment.  

Roman's version was only barely recognizable as a paraphrase: "Cleveland is public-private partnerships. Public-private partnerships is what we do." 

We certainly do do public-private partnerships around here; so much so, as it turns out, that the county's capacity to borrow money has been severely handicapped. County Executive Armond Budish announced yesterday that thanks to massive projects like the Global Center for Health Innovation ($460 million), the Convention Center Hotel ($260 million) and the County Headquarters on E. 9th Street ($80 million), not to mention an internal accounting problem which failed to segregate earmarked taxes, it's unlikely that the county can take on any new projects for a decade or more.

(So when Dan Gilbert and co. come calling for that $70 million county contribution for his Quicken Loans Arena overhaul, an overhaul he reportedly wants to complete in time for the RNC, everyone should be prepared to hold Budish to his word).   

How does this all relate to Beth Mooney and the State of the City conversation? Maybe it doesn't. But the city's finances, and in particular, costly preparations for the RNC — secured and propagandized by a corps of business leaders hellbent on "changing the narrative" of Cleveland — never came up in Mooney's questions. Nor did the conditions of Cleveland's streets, despite an early hint.

The fact that city leaders continue to court the business community — have a look at the "Keep Cleveland Strong" after party; the fact that city leaders engage in partnerships which certainly seem advantageous but which tend to eviscerate public financing at the expense of things like Metro Health; the fact that on the sidelines, most non-corporate-leaders just want smooth roads and tangible progress with the all suggests the deepening of an existing divide.  

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