Jim Trakas thought he was doing right. In 1987, the last time Cleveland had a major school construction project, the district burned through the money like a crackhead vacationing in Bogotá. Bids were rigged. Patronage was rampant. The books were such a mess, they couldn't be audited.
"When you have $80 million pissed down the sewer and nobody can find what was done with it, that's a real warning sign," says the Republican state rep from Independence.
So a few weeks ago, Trakas proposed an amendment that would delay till next year Cleveland's vote on whether to reinstall an elected school board. Officially, his logic goes like this: The schools are slowly improving under mayoral control. Since voters approved the $400 million construction bond issue with that in mind, we shouldn't even consider an elected board until the job is finished.
Unofficially, the logic is this: We must be stopped before we vote again.
"He's saying he doesn't care what the people of Cleveland think," says state Representative Brian Flannery, a Lakewood Democrat who also represents a portion of Cleveland's west side. "This is democracy. This is not communist China or Saddam Hussein. You're saying the people aren't smart enough."
He's right, to a degree. Republicans tend to view free will as a very dangerous thing -- except when applied to money or dumping chemicals in the river. But it would be a mistake to paint Trakas as the suburban field boss, meddling in a city where he doesn't belong. Though he is a Republican -- a cause for concern when he meets St. Peter -- he makes a valid point, whether overtly stated or not:
Democracy, in the hands of Cleveland, is a very dangerous thing.
After all, neither state nor Republican forced the disbanding of the board. Drop that blame on us, the morons who elected the punks and thieves who drove the district into the ground.
Nor is it like we served penance back in '87, renounced our ways, and now merit new trust. Check out the recent stories from City Hall about books that can't be audited, patronage bought in bulk, millions of dollars that can't be found, finance officials who got their degrees in Happy Meals. Sound familiar?
Fact is, we have a gift for electing blowhards and psychos, whose ability to wreck stuff makes them suited for management at LTV. Our idea of a visionary is a guy with lunch plans for next Tuesday.
Maybe we're just charitable, preferring these people have cake government jobs instead of wandering on the freeway. Maybe we're just pragmatic: For a 50 percent tax rate, we should at least get quality entertainment in return. But there's little doubt our fondness for losers has wrought damage. See the schools. See the absence of construction cranes downtown. See the new hit comedy Dude, I Think We're Managing the Airport.
So forgive Trakas for trying to sabotage the vote. After all, the state is kicking in $600 million toward the construction project. "I was just trying to protect the state's investment," he says.
We can slam him for being arrogant and anti-democratic -- his amendment does have a Guatemalan dictator quality to it. Yet the truth is, most city politicians agree with him. No one will expressly say, "Jesus, we can't let our constituents %$#@ this up." But telling is the fact that no one's leading the charge to reinstall an elected board. Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett has already said she won't work for one. Translation: "I can only imagine the morons I'd be working under."
Trakas admits his amendment is dead for now. (He says it was prematurely leaked before he could line up support.) Still, he believes he has the votes to pass it, which speaks to sentiment in Columbus that Cleveland can't manage its own affairs.
"I get the sense that they don't believe we're able to man our ships up here," says state Representative Shirley Smith (D-Cleveland). "They let us name highways . . . They don't let us handle too much."
"We're often viewed as the Great State of Cuyahoga," adds County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones, "separate and apart from Ohio." This, however, stems not from the weirdness of our politics, he argues, but from the fact that we're Democratic and diverse, with problems more like those of Chicago than the cowpokes downstate. "They don't understand the age of the city, the size of the poverty."
There are also signs we're changing our ways. Electing Jones over Pat O'Malley is one. We've also traded Mike White for Jane Campbell, Mike Polensek for Frank Jackson. In each case, we got a thoughtful technocrat in exchange for a believer in governance by knife fight. "People are beginning to understand there's something more important in life than the bickering we do," says Smith.
Yet the beginnings of change won't immediately translate to trust. Trakas notes that the last time we had an elected school board, we went through a dozen superintendents -- one of whom committed suicide, blaming it on the board.
We are, in many ways, like the alcoholic who wants another chance to manage the liquor store. Don't blame Trakas for pointing it out.
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