Art Modell is a remarkable human being, a man who combines incompetence, depravity, and shamelessness -- all the ingredients we so thirst for in a civic leader.
Alas, he has left our fair city, and can only return under armed escort. Yet his legacy lives on, and we can still celebrate those who continue to follow his teachings.
So we present the third annual Art Modell Awards, which were announced last night at a black-tie affair underneath the Detroit-Superior Bridge. (Special thanks to Arnie Theopolous for donating the Jim Beam and finger sandwiches.) While competition was fierce -- we were forced to exclude such luminaries as Bob Taft, FirstEnergy, and the Laurel teacher who knocked up his 12-year-old student -- we believe Art would be proud of those honored in his name, if only he would return our phone calls.
So without further ado, we present the 2002 Modells . . .
Ross Perna Jr.
Statesman of the Year
In 1998, Ross Perna Jr. was convicted of embezzling $69,000 from Bethany Lutheran Church in Parma, where he served as treasurer. Due to Cleveland's economic malaise, few churches were hiring new embezzlers. So Perna naturally turned to politics.
For years, a West Side Senate district had languished under the stewardship of Dan Brady, a man regarded for his intelligence and honesty, which made him wholly unsuited for elected office. In Perna, the Democratic faithful saw a fresh, new candidate who could bring home the bacon, since the state has way more money to steal than a church does.
When Perna's conviction was disclosed, he showed the nimbleness of all great statesmen, cloaking his candidacy in virtue. "I decided to run to show the court I am serious about turning my life around," he said.
Unfortunately, no one was buying. So Perna deftly struck a pose of humility, allowing that his ex-wife had actually masterminded the church caper, and that he nobly "took the fall" because "I thought my daughter needed a mother."
It was a beautifully orchestrated Blame It On The Ex-Wife Maneuver, but his nuanced performance was apparently lost on the unlettered West Side. Perna surrendered the race, and a great statesman was lost.
Journalist of the Year
Daily newspapers have long been criticized for their tedious columnists. George Will, for example, is used by the Colombian military to interrogate suspected rebels: Confess, traitor, or we will force you to read Will's thoughts on the International Monetary Fund! Closer to home, parents invoke Sam Fulwood's musings on spam and Martha's Vineyard to keep their children from misbehaving: Johnny, don't make me come over there and open up a can of Fulwood on you.
All of which left young readers to view dailies as the print version of being cornered at a party by a human resources specialist. What they really wanted was something relevant, hip, with attitude -- like, say, a column devoted exclusively to a middle-aged lady and her kitchen! So was born Domestic Bliss, by PD reporter Joanna Connors.
J.Co, as she likes to call herself, soon became the rage of the city. Her wacky, harrowing tales of the various Christmas trees she's owned set the standard for foliage-related memoirs. Her shocking column on how she wouldn't be making holiday cookies was gritty and honest, a taut thriller. Yet her finest work was her 68-part series on remodeling her kitchen. "A tour de force on cabinet space," gushed the Pulitzer committee.
In fact, Domestic Bliss has become so popular that The PD plans to launch a similar, male-oriented column, tentatively titled A Crane Operator Named Bob. Expect it to feature wacky tales about the time Bob forgot his lunch, and a multi-part series about routers he's owned over the years.
Philosopher of the Year
There was a day when it was all but impossible to achieve the label "courageous." One had to storm a beach under enemy fire, take a bullet for the president, or serve as legal counsel for Wilma Smith's plastic surgeon.
Then came Roger Synenberg, philosopher king.
We begin our tale with Synenberg's client, Frank Gruttadauria, a stockbroker who keenly understood that rich people have money, and it would be fun to take it. So he did. By schmoozing up to his many elderly clients, playing the role of devoted-son-they-never-had, Gruttadauria was able to steal hundreds of millions of dollars. Then, when he was about to be discovered, he took it on the lam before finally turning himself in.
At an initial hearing, Synenberg urged a U.S. magistrate to grant bail. "Frank Gruttadauria is a courageous man, and because he's a courageous man, we stand before you today and tell you he does not pose a risk of flight."
The earth shook, for it was a dramatic shift of paradigms. Under previous rules, a guy who stole from old people would have been formally designated a "scumbag." Likewise, Gruttadauria's pathetic attempt to flee might be regarded as "candy-assed."
Yet Synenberg was giving us all permission to find courage in our own unique, special way. He was essentially saying, "Let's not get hung up on the details, people. So long as you, say, don't carve up small children with a chainsaw, I think it's safe to say you're courageous."
Upon that day, everyone in Cleveland decided to courageously rob their grandmothers at gunpoint. It was not only liberating, but financially beneficial. Thanks, Roger, for allowing us to see theft in a refreshing new light.
Maple Heights School Board
Best Kremlin Impersonation
As any student of history knows, democracy is best preserved when power is hoarded by a few and outside input is highly discouraged. Witness the Maple Heights School Board's leadership during the teacher strike.
As the conflict dragged on, the board wisely refused to meet with parents. After all, studies have long shown that parental input is the main reason why children suck at math.
When the board finally held a public meeting, it decided to stack the audience with central office employees and prohibit questions from the crowd. The move was widely praised by former members of the Supreme Soviet.
And months into the strike, when the board eventually deigned to let parents speak, residents had to fill out written requests and submit their questions in writing, while the district's security chief filmed their every move.
Now a Monday-morning quarterback might suggest that the board could have made its point more clearly by opening up on the crowd with automatic weapons. But this is a minor quibble. In the end, board members protected an important element of democracy -- namely, an elected official's right to make dumb-ass decisions without public interference. Now that's something we can all get behind.
Employer of the Year
Cuyahoga Community College boldly went where few colleges have gone this summer when it fired two employees for accessing Internet porn. While lesser schools were busy paying lip service to crap like "academic freedom," Tri-C conducted a campuswide computer sweep, uncovering 62 workers who had viewed "sexually explicit material."
Professors were quick to whine that the spying infringed on their scholarly pursuits. They noted that similar laws in Virginia had stymied research of poetry and gay issues. They noted that art often contains sexual themes, and that professors elsewhere have been accused of creating a "hostile work environment" for simply hanging classical nude portraits in their offices. They also noted that scholars in science-related fields never get dates, and need to look at naked ladies so they don't turn weird.
Fortunately, Tri-C's bold leadership stood its ground. The college rightfully believed that the constantly spied-on employee is a happy, productive employee. Besides, what's the point of entering management if you can't toy with people's livelihood?
Mark Hennings & Doug Scott
Union Men of the Year
Nothing is more sacred than our union heritage. If not for our ancestors' courageous struggles against goons, scabs, cops, and company men, we'd all be making 36 cents an hour and sleeping under carpet remnants.
Few understand this better than Mark Hennings and Doug Scott, two Brooklyn school custodians. When eight-year-old Matthew Barrick died of a brain aneurysm, the fine people of Roadoan Elementary School decided to create an outdoor memorial in his honor. Volunteers donated time, as did local landscapers. Contributions from residents and businesses totaled $3,000, with more money going to Matthew's mom for doctor bills.
To the unschooled, these would seem like heartfelt acts. Hennings and Scott knew better. This was a fight over that most blessed of human rights -- billable hours -- and the volunteers were actually part of an anti-labor plot to screw them out of overtime. So the janitors filed a grievance, demanding $37 an hour -- time and a half -- for the weekends the volunteer oppressors had worked.
It was a selfless act. After all, our ancestors had willingly offered their blood, were beaten and shot, so that one day their great-grandkids would have the chance to sponge overtime off memorials to dead children. Hats off to Hennings and Scott for not letting these sacrifices wither in vain.
City of the Year
Cuyahoga Falls has always cherished its Euro heritage. Tourism officials like to call it "a little slice of Mississippi right here in Ohio." The city's annual Honky Days, a celebration of whiteness, brings together people from near and far to dress in mis-matched golf wear, dance poorly, and sue each other over real estate deals.
Mayor Don Robart has done wonders in maintaining the town's image. He's tried to stop public housing from being built. The city has been sued by a Summit County sheriff's deputy, who police detained for Illegally Being A Negro In His Own Home. And even the children of mayoral candidates are greeted with warm salutations like "nigger lover." All of which has Cuyahoga Falls placing in the Top 10 on the Aryan Nation's Best Places to Live in America list every year since 1962.
Of course, there are always naysayers, like the many non-Caucasian visitors who claim they're constantly being pulled over for Driving While Black. Yet city officials merrily laugh off the allegations, noting that police just like to offer personal greetings to newcomers, and the tickets are simply provided as a memento of their visit.
Radio Host of the Year
Everyone knows that the best sports radio is shrill and obvious. Leave the original thinking to those dainty public affairs shows. Good sports talk should make you feel as though you've stuck your head in a drill press.
Though this year's radio competition was feverish -- who can forget Kenny Roda's dissertations on "hotties," which carry all the mirth of your drunk uncle pawing at your sister during Palm Sunday Mass -- one man stands above the rest. That's Kevin Keane, evening sports host on The Big One.
Whether Keane is on one of his hour-long riffs second-guessing a pinch-hitting decision, or boldly noting the Cavs' lack of a point guard, listeners are always guaranteed one-speed, high-decibel outrage. Think of that guy at the bar you really want to shut up, and suddenly he turns up on radio! "He's like having your ears beaten with a ballpeen hammer," bubbled Sports Illustrated.
Public Servant of the Year
Earlier this year, a mystery clung to the streets of this fair city. Outgoing Mayor Mike White claimed he had left Cleveland with an $11.8 million budget surplus. Incoming Mayor Jane Campbell said it was nowhere to be found; she even looked under the couch.
So her aides queried White's finance director, Kelly Clark, on the location of said 11 mil. Clark promptly responded that she didn't know where it was, since she never bothered to balance the books. In fact, she basically just made that figure up, because it sounded a lot better than any number accompanied by the word "deficit."
Clark was soon pilloried by the negative media, which asserted that White had hired yet another finance director better suited for the drive-thru window profession. (Clark's predecessor resigned after it was revealed that he ordered his degree from a matchbook cover.)
What the media ignored, however, was that Clark was merely following the proven strategies of private-sector titans like WorldCom, Adelphia, and Enron -- companies that long ago discovered that when things turn bad, it's best to just make stuff up.