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The Dredge Report 

The port authority levy is asking for too much, too late

Last week Cuyahoga County residents received glossy postcards in the mail asking approval of a levy that would increase taxes collected by the city-county port authority by some 400 percent. The card failed to mention that suburban tax dollars will be siphoned off to shore up a city government that has failed miserably in vision, achievement, and day-to-day performance.

Not only are county taxpayers being asked for millions; they are unfairly represented on the port board, which is politically stacked by Cleveland City Hall.

The money generated by the levy would be used for dredging the Cuyahoga River, building a pedestrian bridge on the waterfront, and stabilizing a crumbling hillside that threatens to block the river. The implication is that thousands of jobs are at risk if the levy fails.

The need to increase the port's normal operating levy is a result of what has been termed a "crisis" by port officials. The Cuyahoga River is in need of dredging to ensure continued shipping to upstream businesses, mainly the steel company ArcelorMittal.

In the past, the federal government paid for dredging the nation's waterways. But in 1996, Congress deemed that localities should shoulder the cost of keeping them navigable.

The city and the port authority had eight years to confront this expensive challenge. What created the "crisis" was a misguided effort at waterfront development that was distracting in terms of both time and money. While the port was promoting development schemes, it failed at its basic maritime responsibilities.

Largely unfamiliar to the public, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority has had an unremarkable 44-year history. Formed in 1968, it was presented to the public as an early attempt at regionalization. The truth was that the City of Cleveland no longer had the wherewithal to run a port.

At the founding, it was agreed that the city would have six seats on the board, and the county three. Representation was to be amended in 180 days to adjust to changes in population distribution. It never was.

The 2010 census showed 1.2 million people living in Cuyahoga County, of whom 801,719 reside in the suburbs, and 478,403 in the city. What this means is that 60 percent of the population is paying 80 percent of the property taxes, while having only one-third representation on the port board.

Over the years, the media paid little attention to the port authority, portraying it as a benign but beneficial arm of government that dealt with ships and cargo while flirting with dreams that never materialized.

In 2007, port officials announced their biggest dream: moving the port to East 55th St. and creating an economic bastion that would support 25,000 jobs and pump $2 billion into the region's economy.

The magnitude of the bullshit in the proposal was staggering, but incredibly, the port board believed it. And even worse, Mayor Frank Jackson believed it, too. The whole thing went completely over the top when port officials arrogantly announced that the public would have no input into the plan.

What followed was a dogged outburst from grass-roots activists that lasted for two years and led to a meltdown of the port authority, resulting in the resignation of the president and chief operating officer, Adam Wasserman. Although Wasserman quit, the port authority awarded him $300,000, probably for his silence.

The project wasted time and several millions of dollars. Meanwhile, an equally expensive and time-consuming waterfront plan created by former Mayor Jane Campbell was summarily dismissed by her successor, current Mayor Frank Jackson.

City Hall was making a mess out of waterfront planning and putting the port authority at the forefront of its fiascoes. But even under the best of circumstances, it was clear that the port authority had neither the people nor the proficiency to manage a project of that size. Plus, the disruption and personnel turnover left the port authority with an institutional memory that only reached back to yesterday.

Lingering over City Hall and the port authority all this time was the costly dredging problem. One estimate put the cost at $132 million. It wasn't until Wasserman's departure and the appointment of an interim port director, Peter Raskin, that a solution to the dredging issue was finally sought.

Raskin declared the East 55th plan unworkable, and formed a task force to find a plan that would keep the river open.

The task force consisted of seven members from some of the most important offices in northeast Ohio. There were representatives from U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown and George Voinovich, as well as a member of U.S. Representative Marcia Fudge's staff. There were also representatives from various state offices, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The group met for two years and could find no acceptable solution, according to news accounts. Then, in a eureka moment, last week port President and CEO William Friedman announced in The Plain Dealer that a solution had been found for the dredging problem. The "crisis" had been averted.

The answer to the puzzle was provided by a consultant who was paid $350,000.

What Friedman presumably did not know was that Dr. Charles E. Herdendorf, professor emeritus of Geological Sciences at Ohio State University, had given the port authority similar information and provided it to the Corps of U.S. Army Engineers two years earlier. He even published his recommendation in a signed article in the June 14, 2010 issue of Crain's Cleveland Business.

"This dredging method has been operating in other areas for a while," Herdendorf says now, expressing surprise that port authority officials seem to have become aware of it only recently.

Herdendorf recalls delivering a copy of his report to the port authority. Current port officials say they were unaware of any such information, perhaps a result of the massive turnover caused by the port board's mismanagement in 2010.

To be fair to Friedman, he was not the creator of this mess. And at least one board member took a critical view of the levy. Richard Koth voted against the proposal, noting that in his opinion, the public was not getting enough value for such an expenditure of money.

But the levy is another reflection of the flawed culture of the port authority as it is constituted today.

For the most part, the nine board members have no real maritime vision. They are political appointees, six picked by the city of Cleveland and the remaining three by county government. Their chief interest seems to be identifying prospects or clients for their own businesses.

Describing the board, chairman Robert C. Smith says, "Our board members are fiduciaries who think for themselves. We are spread out geographically, with some members living in the city of Cleveland and most living in the suburbs. I strongly believe that all of us are accountable to the city, the county, and the taxpayers."

Smith was active in Mayor Jackson's election campaigns, and served on his transition team.

City Hall's influence on the port authority casts a shadow on the levy. To understand both the political and self-serving interests of those involved, it's necessary to go back to 2009, when voters adopted a new county government, discarding the three-commissioner form that had existed for 200 years. The new government was designed to be more regional in nature.

Supporters for the reform had worked long and hard to change a system that was proved to be corrupt and incompetent. At the time, it was feared that without the affirmation of black political leaders, the effort was doomed.

It was a pivotal moment in Cleveland history and an opportunity that Mayor Jackson missed. Instead of using his support as a bargaining chip to, say, aid the city school system, Jackson and other black leaders simply turned their backs on the issue, expecting it to go away.

But the unexpected revelation of massive corruption at the heart of county government awakened a somnambulant public that responded at the polls with outrage, overwhelmingly adopting the change.

The establishment of a new county government made Frank Jackson and the city he represented an anachronism. No longer was the mayor the titular political leader of northeastern Ohio, and neither was the city its flagship.

The government reformation created a new office, one that would supersede the office of mayor in importance — the county executive, who served with an 11-person council.

In 2010, the first election for that office was won by Ed FitzGerald, a former FBI agent who was then mayor of Lakewood. FitzGerald was somewhat of a political accident; he had opposed the reform, but then seized on the opportunity to run for county executive and won.

Upon taking office, FitzGerald mercilessly ferreted out wasteful practices, incompetence, political hacks, laggards, cronyism, nepotism, and other detritus found in American government. He saved the county some $20 million, a totally unheard-of feat.

As it turned out, that was the easy part. The difficult and meaningful work would be to take on political bastions like the port authority. FitzGerald was in a position to dissolve the port authority and create an organization around professionals.

Instead, he alienated county workers with a righteous, draconian approach that saw him berate public employees in speeches that displayed his ambition for higher office. Rumors began to circulate in political circles that FitzGerald wanted to run for governor. He began to travel the state and test the political waters.

FitzGerald's political aspirations are such that he may well need Frank Jackson's political support in the future. And Frank Jackson wants to control the port authority.

Since one of the port's missions is economic development, in effect, it controls part of Cuyahoga County's destiny. Cleveland City Hall these days is struggling with simple housekeeping issues like a water department that doesn't work, a fire department that doesn't come to work, and a lighting plan that failed, as did a plan to turn energy to trash.

The revelation last week that state officials suspect Cleveland schools of having falsified academic and attendance records adds to Jackson's woes, If the accusation proves true, the schools could be taken over by the state, another indictment of faulty local government.

The fact that Jackson couldn't sense the importance of a regional government when he was in a position to promote it is another indication that he possesses little to instill confidence that our economic future is in good hands.

For instance, eager to promote lakefront development, City Hall has generated news story after news story lauding plans for housing, retail, and restaurants on the lakefront. The reality is that any new development probably would hurt businesses on West 6th and East 4th Streets. The lack of critical mass has hurt downtown development for decades.

The pedestrian bridge to the waterfront featured in the levy is one of the mayor's favorites, but is considered by some planners to be unnecessary and expensive. Other City Hall plans call for turning Public Square into a giant lawn.

Ultimately, the question posed by the levy and other lakefront development schemes is not one of economic development, but the leadership that can make it happen. The public was told that a new county government would deal with economic development. Clearly, the county government has made strides. As it stands now, however, City Hall and the port authority are stuck in the past and want the suburbs to finance their mistakes.

At the very least, FitzGerald could have asked for more seats on the port board in exchange for support of the levy. That way, he could have offered voters something other than a naked giveaway.

If you live in the suburbs, you could consider the levy to be taxation without representation. Once, 237 years ago, another government treated citizens in a similar manner. The results changed the world. Too bad Ed FitzGerald forgot that in his quest for glory.

More by Michael D. Roberts

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