Cleveland pols frustrated with state's meddling, suggest political price

OBJECTION OVERRULED 

Cleveland pols frustrated with state's meddling, suggest political price

You'd be hard-pressed to find a topic that Cleveland law director Robert Triozzi is more eager to discuss than home rule. The provision to the state constitution was created here in Cleveland a century ago, at the desk of his famed predecessor, Newton Baker, lawyer to legendary ex-Mayor Tom Johnson. It's a source of hometown pride and, increasingly, frustration.

"[Baker] was the one that pushed this amendment because he believed in democracy at its roots," explains Triozzi. "At the time, there was a lot of good, progressive local government, and they were able to put this provision into the Ohio Constitution. Now, a century later, we still have that fight. Even though we won that fight a century ago, we're still fighting."

He refers to the growing number of issues in which the state legislature has taken away cities' rights to regulate matters within their own borders, usually at the request of business interests.

Cleveland's ahead-of-its-time predatory-lending law was the first of several city charter amendments to fall prey — in that case, after lobbying by the banking industry. "Upon passage, special interests convened in Columbus and convinced legislators to pass a law to prevent municipalities from having laws like that," says Triozzi. "That simple."

That's just one example. In this young century alone, a succession of legislative changes has nullified Cleveland's ability to legislate against carrying a concealed weapon, against cable companies running through town willy-nilly, against gas drilling. About 100 other charter cities have had similar laws stripped away.

The latest battle: The Ohio Supreme Court recently unheld the legislature's 2005 ban of a residency requirements for city employees. "This is a classic example of public involvement being trumped by special interests," complains Triozzi. "The entire community here at the ballot box stepped up and said, 'This is a rule, we want employees living here,' and it passes by a large margin."

But that didn't matter. Same with concealed carry, which makes no distinctions between cities like Cleveland and Pepper Pike.

"When a local community wants to run at a problem and figure out how to make their streets safer," says Triozzi, "and then they come up with laws that are not in violation of the Second Amendment or a burden to gun owners, then what they have is special-interest groups off to Columbus, not to pass better weapon-safety laws, but to pass a law that keeps cities from passing any law that seeks to make neighborhoods safer.

"It's extraordinarily anti-democratic. You build up this system of government based on local participation, and what lobbyists find is that coming to communities is too big a burden. They find it easier to go to the legislature, [which is] disengaged from local issues and fed by campaign contributions, and convince them that they ought to tie our hands."

It's pissing off mayors all over the place. Here's Akron mayor Don Plusquellic in a statement about the residency requirement that his city also lost last month: "This is another attempt by the leadership in this state to usurp cities' authority and quiet the voice of the people."

The really frustrating part? It's not just suburban Republicans ramming these measures through the state legislature. Democrats from Cleveland are helping them.

In spring, Cleveland councilman Roosevelt Coats announced suddenly that he was ready to retire. Mayor Frank Jackson called 34-year-old Ohio state representative Eugene Miller and asked him to come home and take Coats' place in council. In an election year. Miller agreed.

"When I went to the Statehouse, people said, 'You're crazy because of Republican rule,'" says Miller. "Now they're saying, 'You're going on the Titanic while it's sinking?' But the city of Cleveland is ... cleaning up its act, and it will, to me, be the second-most powerful institution in the state once it turns around."

If the state doesn't turn Cleveland around first. The whiplash of a sudden move from state-to city-level politics gives Miller a new perspective on the tensions between the two.

Miller is quick to point out that he served 100,000 people in the state House's 10th District, which, like all others in the Republican gerrymandered state, is mixed with as many suburban elements as the number-crunchers could allow. And he wasn't around in 2006 when the residency requirement was nixed.

He says he was on the phone a lot in Columbus, mostly talking with lobbyists who were far better versed in particular issues than he could ever be. He learned from them, he said; several helped him craft good legislation. But he admits to feeling burnt out on the influence peddling, with interests competing in Columbus to the detriment of those with the least resources, like municipalities.

For the cable anti-franchising bill pushed by the TimeWarners of the state, Miller got onboard, over the objections of Jackson and council. He said lobbyists convinced him that it was the right thing to do to streamline their operations and hopefully drive down costs.

"The cable bill taught me a lot of lessons," he says. "You gotta have courage to say, 'Of course I'm here for Cleveland.' But at the Statehouse, we have to look out for other interests too." So you end up listening to the loudest and most persuasive voices throwing words at you, he says. Term limits make matters worse, he adds. By the time you're getting comfortable with issues and procedures, "you're gone."

Cleveland councilman Kevin Kelley agrees that the state house and senate's eight-years-and-out rule — approved by voters in 1992 — exacerbates the problem. "It just seems that now, with term limits, that the special interests know more than legislators," he says.

But Kelley and colleague Kevin Conwell have had it with Democratic candidates for state legislature who beg for dough and volunteers in Cleveland to get elected, then disappear down I-77 come January 1 and vote against many of their constituents' best interests.

"We would work to knock them out if they were Republicans," says Kelley. "But if they're Democrats and they take what I consider to be a very violent action against the city, oftentimes we give them a free ride. That's not acceptable. We need to judge our legislators on how they legislate for and against the city. There haven't been consequences. That's one thing that gets me angry. People can legislate in ways that are detrimental to the city, and we keep sending them back to the Statehouse."

As blogger Bill Callahan (callahansclevelanddiary.com) recently noted, "In 2008, all those Cleveland legislators who voted to strip the city of its cable oversight authority, and then ran for re-election, won easy primaries without significant opposition."

It's a touchy issue; Miller was the only member of Cleveland's state delegation to return Scene's calls. But could Dems really start turning on fellow Dems? These are desperate times, and the stakes are high.

"This is a forerunner of taking away our rights on taxes," says Cleveland councilman Mike Polensek. "They will strip us of our local authority, and they'll be the ones to impose taxes on us. That's what's coming. Give us the ability to be able to deal with our issues, our problems. Don't strip us of revenue and rights and expect urban areas to remain viable."

Polensek points to the battle that brings him the most shame, how Cleveland went after predatory lenders with a vengeance and were told they couldn't by state lawmakers of various denominations, while across the border in Pennsylvania, where those laws were passed, urban cores sustained much less serious blows.

"Why didn't we see the meltdown across the border?" he asks. "Because they had laws in place. These guys [in the Ohio legislature] got pimped by the real-estate and banking industries, and they like getting pimped. In Ohio, they served the public up on a platter like they didn't even care. It was Monty Hall, Let's Make a Deal. They stood up for the Bernie Madoffs of the world, against the people and all the Third Federals of the world who were trying to do the right thing."

dharkins@clevescene.com

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