The City Council Shuffle
It's no secret that Cleveland has shrunk, population-wise, but because of a city charter that links city council representatives to population, the 19-member legislature had to shrink as well this year. Former council president Martin Sweeney orchestrated a behind-closed-doors redistricting process with consultant Bob Dykes which re-organized the city's wards and cut two council seats. The secrecy ticked everyone off, except, of course former councilman Eugene Miller, the issuer of expletives who vowed allegiance to Sweeney in exchange for a favorable ward shape (which looked much less like a district and more like a weird dumbbell). Sweeney's master plan backfired in a big way. Not only were articles written castigating the manner in which Sweeney attempted to manipulate the process — i.e. with zero public comment or council feedback — but three eastside councilmen formed a bloc against him to thwart his designs. All three, Mike Polensek, Kevin Conwell and Jeff Johnson, retained their council seats in November. Miller wasn't so lucky. Sweeney, who will keep his seat but will cede the presidency to Kevin Kelley, gave a parting address in which he attacked Conwell and Polensek for their opposition, assuring Polensek that the only two words that would be written about him in Cleveland's history were "irrelevant and pathetic." He then exited the room through a secret passageway and waited in darkness until the chambers cleared. Still no word on the receipts for Sweeney's home additions, the construction of which have long been rumored to be linked to the Cuyahoga County corruption scandal.
The Heroin Capital of the Rust Belt
Heroin smoked, snorted and shot up its way into the news in 2013, and this year the suburbs, Ohio's politicians and the media circled the wagons on the epidemic. Cuyahoga County began a forum called "Heroin in the Suburbs" — i.e. "Heroin in white communities" — to address rising overdose deaths in non-Cleveland areas because, according to the Plain Dealer, "it's not just an inner-city problem — more than 50 percent of those deaths involve someone from the suburbs." In Cuyahoga County, the number of heroin-related deaths will hit an all-time record, nearing 200 for the calendar year. Meanwhile, various groups pushed for wider distribution of naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug with no side effects. Project DAWN began distribution in Northeast Ohio, and legislation is winding its way through Ohio's chambers to get the life-saving antidote in the hands of users and their families. In September, the FBI and local cops wrapped up a long investigation into a massive heroin ring centered in the east side of Cleveland (East 117th and St. Clair, specifically) that ended up being the single largest heroin takedown in the region's history: 92 people were booked on federal and state charges related to heroin trafficking. The problem isn't going anywhere, but now more than ever, a nexus of agencies and organizations are committed to stopping the deaths.
It Was Tribe Time Now
One of this year's most compelling sports stories transpired over the final days of the Cleveland Indians' 2013 campaign, during which new manager Terry Francona led a gritty squad to one of two American League wild-card spots. The Indians won their final 10 games of the season on pain of elimination. The statistical unlikelihood was mind boggling. Though they lost to the Tampa Bay Rays, Progressive Field sold out on Wednesday, Oct. 1, for the one-game playoff and Clevelanders sniffed a postseason for the first time since 2007. The winning streak energized the city, which had been beating itself up (sort of existentially) about low attendance numbers all year. The streak's highlights? In general, the late-season dominance of Ubaldo Jimenez and Jason Giambi's walk-off home run against the Chicago White Sox on Sept. 24, moments after Chris Perez had blown his 3,547th save that week. The brief "Hoyer the Destroyer" stint, its subsequent predictable tragedy, and the Cavs' big-ticket signing of Andrew Bynum (and his subsequent nose dive into problem child) were (and remain) big news stories, but the Tribe's streak had the entire town on the edge of its seat, with Tom Hamilton as beacon and scribe: For those 10 days, the magic was back at Jacob's Field.
We Re-elected a Bunch of the Same Guys
Mayor Frank Jackson was elected in November for a third term in one of the silliest and least inspiring election seasons in some time. Not only was voter turnout abysmally low, but the only opposition to Jackson came in the form of Ken Lanci, a Bentley-driving, Jesus-loving businessman with orange skin who regularly used the word "biblical" to characterize the direction of his leadership. Lanci was furious that his campaign wasn't taken seriously... but, I mean, come on. In other election news: Zack Reed, who earlier this year was convicted of driving under the influence for the third time in eight years, was re-elected in a landslide to his ward's city council seat. That's less surprising when you consider that Reed's principal challenger cited a "love of animals" as a leadership credential in what passed for campaign literature. Out in the 'burbs, Beachwood mayor Merle Gorden was elected once again to his town's top office despite wide media coverage -- spearheaded by Mark Naymik at the Northeast Ohio Media Group and a Scene cover story over the summer -- cataloguing manifold financial abuses. Gorden literally used taxpayer money to take his own staff out to expensive lunches, go on trips, buy a luxury car, compensate himself for "unused vacation days," etc. Golden-haired challenger Brian Linnick -- Gorden's first opponent since 1997 -- swore to be more transparent about spending and immediately cut millions from the city's budget. Beachwood basically said, "Screw you, Brian. Who do you think you are? Pass the ribeye, please."
On May 6, everything changed. Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight escaped true hell within the demented walls of 2207 Seymour Ave. — the home of Ariel Castro. They had been locked up and brutalized for about a decade. What happened when they were freed was nothing short of a miracle and, truly, a media frenzy. As the women left the hospital and began to rebuild their lives, things got crazy here in Cleveland. At one point, local restaurateurs were offering free cheeseburgers for life to one of the guys who helped save the women (Charles Ramsey, of course). Yes, that happened. Ramsey declined the offer and became a bit of a media fascination in his own right. Castro, meanwhile, was sentenced to life in prison — plus 1,000 years — before killing himself behind bars. Even today, conversations about the story reverberate around Cleveland. Probably everything that can be said about the rescue has been said (save for the women's own words, set for publishing in book form sometime in 2015). The aftermath of the event pushed law enforcement and the local media to focus on violent crimes against women and the hundreds of missing people throughout the region. Notable cases, in East Cleveland particularly, received widespread attention as the summer of 2013 wore on. In many ways, the impact of the rescue and its legacy in Northeast Ohio will resonate for years to come. Oh, and Ramsey recently signed a book deal, so that's happening too.
The Fire Department's Internal Conflagration
Maybe Mayor Jackson thought he'd seen the worst of it when the city's fire department was raked over the coals by the Plain Dealer for years of abuse with firemen trading shifts, selling shifts, not working shifts and generally doing anything but garnering the public's trust. But 2013 saw new shitstorms for the department, largely because of its former leader, Daryl McGinnis. The longtime Cleveland fire vet was plucked by Jackson to head the department in January and didn't even make it through the year. Instead of rebuilding the public trust after the shift-swapping and payroll disasters, McGinnis ushered in a new round of controversies. He threatened to stab a firefighter in the neck, which was actually among his least significant offenses. There was also the bit broke by the Plain Dealer that McGinnis had failed to complete the required hours of training from 2009 to 2012. And the union hated him — there were a reported record number of grievances filed under his tenure — and the rank-and-file disliked him — there was that salacious bit about folks putting a headshot of McGinnis in a West Park urinal for target practice that made the news. McGinnis was placed on administrative duty over the summer but opted for a quick retirement in August just weeks after that punishment was levied. The bar has been set pretty high for fire fuckups in 2014. Hopefully new fire chief Patrick Kelly will avoid hitting that mark.
Jimmy Haslam's Problems With the Feds
The Tennessee-based businessman bought the Cleveland Browns in the Fall of 2012 but, of course, things didn't go smoothly for the team's new owner. In April, FBI and IRS agents raided the Knoxville headquarters for his chain of truck stops and convenience stores, Pilot Flying J (the sixth largest privately held company in the country, per Forbes) after a two-year investigation. Haslam stepped down as the head of the company when he bought the Browns, but the Feds say PIlot Flying J had been defrauding its customers out of millions of dollars in gas rebates "for years," all under direction of Haslam and other executives. Soon after the raid, Haslam told reporters "the last thing I want to do" is put a put a blemish on Browns or the city. In November, a federal judge approved an $85 million settlement from a series of lawsuits against Pilot Flying J. Meanwhile, the Browns wrapped up another abysmal season, losing double-digit games for what feels like the thousandth year in a row, and then fired their head coach, again. Randy Lerner's absent ownership looks pretty good now, doesn't it, Cleveland?
The Passing of Three Cleveland Icons
Cleveland legend Peter B. Lewis, our daily newspaper, and venerable concert club Peabody's all left us this year. Lewis, the 80-year-old billionaire philanthropist, marijuana advocate and head of Progressive Auto Insurance, died of a heart attack in Florida. He grew his Cleveland-based mom-and-pop insurance shop into the fourth largest auto insurance company in the country in a career that lasted a half century. Lewis didn't just sit on his money, though, he dished out a half billion dollars to causes he valued: art museums, universities and neighborhoods in Cleveland (although not without some conflict), liberal politicians, medical marijuana, and more. A 1995 Fortune Magazine profile on Lewis used this fantastic headline — "Sex. Reefer? And Auto Insurance!" — to properly summarize his wide-ranging passions. The daily print edition of the Plain Dealer died this summer, but there's a zombie version that shows up on newsstands a few days a week. Cleveland.com is different than the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which is different than the Plain Dealer, which is different than the Sun News. The resulting reorganization has led to a mish-mosh of substance and fluff and ruffled more than a few feathers of those on either side of the new digital divide. And over near Cleveland State, Peabody's shuttered its doors. Though a relationship will continue with the Agora, the concert club itself is no more, a sad passing for the Cleveland music community that filled the venue for years.
We Kept Building Things
It seems like every year that continued development in downtown Cleveland is celebrated as one of the more noteworthy items of the year. There are, without fail, new projects every year, but oftentimes it seemed relegated to one street or neighborhood. 2013 saw growth — Development with a capital D — all over downtown as big-ticket projects came together to make downtown look very different than it had just one year prior. The Flats East Bank project sprung up in quick order, sporting restaurants, bars, offices and more. From nothing to something almost overnight. Boom. Down the street, the Medical Mart and Convention Center ticked over to the final steps before opening their doors. And there were hotels — Aloft already in service, many others on the way — that will dot the downtown landscape with vacancy signs for the troves of visitors to the Medical Mart and Convention Center. Or, at least, that's how the conventional wisdom goes. Cuyahoga County and the city are banking on that fact too with the Hilton they will fund with public dollars. Speaking of the county, those offices were packed up and moved with scores of office supplies hitting the auction block. As of press time, no one has yet come forward to finding a secret money compartment in any of the old guard's desks, but we know they're out there.
Hot for School Controversies
Throughout 2013, you couldn't throw a cat in Northeast Ohio without hitting a school district in trouble. Cleveland Metro, Strongsville, Medina: On some days, it seemed like public education in this state was little more than a running joke*. Hell, the National Assessment of Education Progress just recently ranked the Cleveland Metropolitan School District among the worst in the nation. And that comes after routine bouts of praise for Mayor Frank Jackson's "transformation" of the school district (taking place mostly in his dreams, as it were). Down in Strongsville, a very intense teachers' strike took teachers out of the classroom for weeks. Students were literally teaching their own AP classes as their instructors paraded outside the board office and hurled rants at superintendent Jon Krupinski. Incoming substitute teachers were treated to anti-scab rhetoric the likes of which haven't been seen since the late 19th century. (At one point, a pro-teacher protester actually screamed at a sub: "Rosa Parks would be ashamed." The whole thing was really odd.) Further down I-71, Medina's former superintendent, Randy Stepp, was discovered to be quite the finagler of district cash. He fleeced the taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars, paying off his own student loans and hiring his pals for district work. That all happened as the district cut funding to educational assets and extracurriculars. Citizen outrage prompted the school board to fire Stepp, ushering in a process of rebuilding trust in school leadership still very much under way in Medina County as the former superintendent launched a legal offensive against board members. There's an old adage that goes something like this: Public education in Ohio is totally nuts. Here's to our public school overseers getting their shit together in 2014 and beyond.
* It actually is.