The problem of systemic corruption in some Cleveland’s fiefdoms

Background and Structural Observations

I love Cleveland, and above all, its people. There is something unique about people who are part of families with generations-long legacies of building a place into a symbol of hard work, middle class prosperity, and making it in America. At its best, Cleveland is a diverse city that proudly features its ethnic and immigrant communities, all of which come together every day. The city grew as one of the nation’s largest manufacturing hubs, with growing factories that didn’t discriminate for labor, extending opportunity to WASP Americans, waves of ethnic immigrants direct from southern and eastern Europe, and the Great Migration of African Americans from south to north. History doesn’t stop there, and for better or worse, that story continues on.

At its worst, Cleveland devolves into a broken tapestry with sections of prosperity, sections of emerging middle class mobility, and sections of widespread and systemic, multi-generational poverty. This broken tapestry tends not to act or think as “One Cleveland,” but rather as distinctively separate communities that deal with each other as weird neighbors. This multi-lateral Cleveland tends to elect leadership and enact policy through tokenism and strong-man relationships, and all three sections of this broken tapestry do it and enable the others as a three-legged stool. City Hall, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, middle class and affluent suburbs, and even lowly East Cleveland, are all complicit in the current status quo that has this region collectively circling the drain while surrounding regions are rebounding. Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and even Detroit, have all performed empirically better than Cleveland on balance; Columbus and Chicago are absolutely stealing Cleveland’s lunch money at this point, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

I have always had an affinity for Cleveland because it resembles America as a microcosm, it is an inherently urban city and surrounding region, and it has the resources and building blocks to tackle big challenges. Along with the rest of the Rust Belt, I have never liked picking on down-and-out communities, and beating a dead horse, while missing the opportunities that still remain.

That brings me to the point of this post: Cleveland can still right the ship, more effectively solve for its problems, and emerge as an urban model for its region. There is all of this opportunity, which isn’t new, and isn’t going anywhere. That said, I have been biting my tongue in calling out the cronyism and corruption holding back Cleveland. I have watched innumerable scandals, mini-scandals, and things that should be scandals, with direct consequences in missed opportunities. I kept my mouth shut, aspiring to professionally take a more direct role in helping Cleveland, and uncertain of how to use this website/blog to constructively talk urban issues while balancing my professional aspiration toward making a difference.

From my last four years of statewide involvement in development financing, I can say from the outside looking in that city politics are eyeroll-worthy. State-level policy and financial professionals are admittedly guilty of tunnel vision on deal volume and just getting deals done, but it has been my observation that the city politics that slows down these deals have less to do with which proposals are best for neighborhoods and people, and more to do with politics.

Every City Hall has favored developers who helped the mayor and council get elected. Most City Halls are also clumsily trying to manage some level of balanced favoritism between non-profit players, for-profit players, politically-active neighborhoods, gentrification, and displacement. The Cleveland variant of this system, however, involves a delicate balance between some good developers, overly-involved gadfly council members, some shady developers, some good non-profits, and woefully mismanaged non-profits.

Structurally, Cleveland’s political system is wide-open and allows for the direct involvement of its citizens through 17 different wards and also at the neighborhood-level with community development corporations (CDCs). These CDCs are a unique legacy of Cleveland’s de-centralized planning system which gives wards and CDCs a significant role in spending CDBG funds and other resources dedicated toward neighborhoods. Regionally, the key factor is the sheer volume of distinct suburbs, spanning several rings in all directions, all with maximum political autonomy for lack of any real regional structure (NO a regional chamber of commerce is NOT a regional structure).

For the most part, this diffuse political system is a good thing. Regardless of municipality, the neighborhoods comprising Greater Cleveland all have direct political participation. However, I will delineate 10 distinct episodes – I won’t call them corruption scandals but rather just public disappointments – and you will see how this system of political diffusion has enabled the region’s lackluster leadership that has proven incapable of tackling any real issues like regional and racial disparities uniquely afflicting Greater Cleveland. Tangibly more than in other peer metros, Cleveland’s current leadership often uses political office for personal gain and to hold onto those offices by spreading benefits to their network of friends.

Public Disappointments

Cuyahoga County Scandal: For the sake of relevance, let’s just start at the beginning of the modern era of Cleveland leadership, which was the end of the last. That was an untimely (or timely for the public) and messy ending to the 90s and 2000s era of regional leadership that ignored the region’s problems and focused on personal gain, much like the current generation of leadership. In 2008, the FBI raided the offices of county commissioner Jimmy DiMora and County Auditor Frank Russo, who sat at the top of a corruption racket involving more than 100 named persons of interest, all benefiting from kickbacks. Those convicted of crimes include county judges, county officials, city officials, suburban officials, developers, non-profit leaders, construction company owners, hospital administrators, school administrators, the Housing Authority CEO, union chiefs, and more. The whole system was corrupt and inhibited from solving the region’s challenges because it was more focused on generating kickbacks for the family.

Ed Fitzgerald: In a bit of Shakespearian tragedy, Fitzgerald was a former FBI agent, tasked with investigating mafia influence and public corruption in the Chicago area, who was mayor of Lakewood at the time of the above Jimmy Dimora scandal, which positioned him to win election as the region’s first County Executive. The County actually made major steps forward toward consolidating political power and enacting ethics reforms with actual teeth, which Fitzgerald championed. However when he later ran for governor, it was revealed that Fitzgerald was abusing his influence and driving without a driver’s license for ten years, which is not a good look for someone casting themselves as an anti-corruption reformer.

Public Square: The reconstruction of Public Square became a costly and stupid Public Spectacle, which is still ongoing, when it became clear that public transit has no role in a Cleveland that has been revitalized by Mayor Frank Jackson. So to transit riders, congrats – your city has been revitalized by Mayor Jackson, according to Jackson – but you are no longer welcome downtown. Jackson used federal grants for the HealthLine, which triggered long-term use agreements with FTA preventing the city from making detrimental changes to the federally-funded project, and then backtracked on those usage agreements when he decided buses had no place in Public Square. Frank Jackson decided this unilaterally, while buses were still included in the plan, and RTA was still attempting to work around the project while still using its Public Square hub, resulting in millions in additional costs to RTA. Additionally, FTA said the city (vis a vis RTA) had to return $12 million and put future funding at risk. In order to save face, Jackson has insisted on safety concerns with buses in Public Square, resulting in hideous jersey barriers being added to the middle of the new public space, which will cost another $2 million to replace with bollards. I don’t believe Jackson benefited any cronies through this, but has abused his power to usurp control over a planning process and save face.

RTA creams: An internal RTA investigation found that 10 different employees had defrauded the transit authority out of $2 million through a prescription pain cream scheme. Essentially a bus operations instructor was approached with this scam opportunity, and recruited other employees, to fill these costly prescriptions that nobody needed, except for their reimbursement value. This scandal shows that corruption doesn’t just exist at the top, but that bus drivers can also get in on the action.

TJ Dow: I have written about the in-your-face corruption of TJ Dow, who was voted out of office, in the difference made by just 13 votes. I find it to be an inspiring story of how every vote matters and how more people should get involved in their community, and I hope it turns out well with new leadership. To recap, corrupt councilman gets booted, then before he has to clean out his office requests to transfer his neighborhood’s remaining resources to his crony councilman’s ward just to spite his neighborhood.

Ken Johnson: That crony councilman to whom TJ Dow tried donating his neighborhood’s funding was Ken Johnson, of Kenneth Johnson Recreation Center fame (seriously Cleveland stop naming your own projects after yourself, and your brother, your sister, your parents, and so on; are there any rec centers that don’t memorialize nepotism?). Ken Johnson is using his neighborhood’s funding, funneled through his useless community development corporation, to give his friends and family jobs mowing yards, and house his son rent-free. His shell corporation, I mean community development corporation, has now been barred from working with federal funds, which is unfortunate for his neighborhood and the constituents he doesn’t serve.

Joe Cimperman: Corruption and judgment lapses aren’t just for east side councilman. My own councilman when I lived in Cleveland, with whom I was always very impressed, plead guilty to 26 ethics charges for his vote to award a design contract to a firm with close ties to him and his wife. The state threw the book at Cimperman here. Cimperman was the most-involved councilman when it came to urbanism, planning, and design, and that contract went to the Land Studio, which is the city’s primary non-profit urban design entity. The Land Studio’s work is ubiquitous in Cleveland, and they are a key player for anyone who wants to bring urban design to a location. Nonetheless, when city contracts were at stake and council votes were being tallied, Cimperman needed to recuse himself. Whether he did so to seal a deal that needed his vote, or whether he was ignorant of the ethical implications, it is obvious that Cleveland City Council would benefit from ethical guidance.

East Cleveland Recall: East Cleveland, the rapidly declining inner ring suburb across the tracks from prosperous University Circle, has long been a public emergency and threatened with state emergency management. The city is dependent on federal funding and red light tickets, and incapable of digging itself out of the vicious cycle it finds itself in. Cleveland is generally supportive of a long-debated merger between the two cities, which would give East Cleveland new life as a part of Cleveland, with enhanced resources and opportunities. Former mayor Gary Norton, an urban planning graduate of Cleveland State, had a deep understanding of this situation and a deep commitment to the community he grew up in. Norton is bright enough to easily find more successful by moving on and elsewhere, but tried to make a difference in East Cleveland, where instead he was recalled for working toward the merger. This ruffled feathers with former and current councilpersons who were drawing comfortable pensions for their “service” in East Cleveland, all while doing nothing to benefit the community as a whole.

Armond Budish’s Chief of Staff: Naturally, the county executive who came in to clean-up after the last disgraced county executive, who came in to clean-up after the county commissioners scandal, has his own scandal. Armond Budish authorized his Chief of Staff, Sharon Sobol Jordan, to pursue an MBA at Ohio State (including travel to Columbus) on the county’s own time and dime. Jordan accepted the Chief of Staff position contingent on being able to pursue this MBA, a $170,000 salary, and education and travel-expenses paid by the county. As the MBA program met 3 days a month, required 20 hours per week of additional study, and two week-long immersion studies (all of which Budish told HR is to be considered time worked), I am not sure exactly when Jordan had time to earn her $170,000 salary.

Amazon and Unify Project: Cleveland’s bungled Amazon bid, which was symbolic of the city’s leadership style, prominently featured an amazing local start-up that will revolutionize the tech world. Unfortunately, this amazing local start-up actually does nothing, except provide employment for Sharon Sobol Jordan, the aforementioned County Chief of Staff who is now in need of another job befitting her new MBA credentials. Despite being implored by anyone and everyone to leverage the useless lakefront airport that chokes the city off from the lake, Cleveland’s lame bid offered up Terminal Tower for Amazon’s real estate needs and focused more of its time fighting open records requests and finding ways to benefit friends of City Hall. Not sure why Amazon wasn’t enticed by that.

Why This Matters

Cleveland has real, tangible issues that stand in the way of regional prosperity, cohesion, and inclusiveness. The region’s transit authority, once the pride of transit planning in the Midwest, is legitimately in danger after being cut to the bone by budget cuts and funding woes, and further denied replacement funding while the county and city instead prioritize stadiums and kickbacks. When Clevelanders complain that recently-repaved roads quickly become impassable with new potholes, it’s not uncommon that the work involved a contractor with City Hall connections.

With one of the nation’s highest rates of minority and family poverty, Cleveland and Greater Cleveland are doing nothing as a regional public sector for those in need. Funding for these neighborhoods/wards and CDCs is usually very well-managed, but in those neighborhoods with the greatest need, instead gets funneled into kickbacks and benefits for cronies. The city doesn’t dare investigate or demand accountability of these CDCs until the media is already on it. Other CDCs respectfully decline to become involved in other communities. The churn continues, and these neighborhoods fall further and further into disrepair, poverty, and violent criminal activity. Well-managed and well-led neighborhoods and wards want nothing to do with the bad leadership across the street, which is understandable, but further perpetuates Cleveland’s inequities.

All of this is everyone’s fault. Solving it will take everyone.

The only real solution to the pitfalls of all these fiefdoms is building bridges and regional partnerships. Cleveland, more than any other region, desperately needs regionalism. That isn’t just a regional non-poaching agreement, although it should include that too. This requires regional funding mechanisms, equitable provision of services, and regional oversight. No neighborhood should be an island, deprived of resources, and left to squander whatever pittance it may receive from City Hall. No neighborhood is a lost cause, lest we will be stuck with these islands of despair and mismanagement.

United Cleveland will rise, but divided Cleveland will continue to circle the drain. On the bright side, Cleveland comes together every day and at numerous occasions, but on the flip side, Clevelanders go home to their own insular fiefdoms every night.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s