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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Could East Cleveland Forums Be as Contentious as Sound of Ideas? Find Out Tonight!

Posted By on Tue, Jul 22, 2014 at 11:15 AM

click to enlarge eastclevelandpubliclibrary.jpg
“I may disagree with Mayor Jackson,” said Cleveland city councilman Jeff Johnson during the heated final third of Tuesday morning’s Sound of Ideas broadcast about a Cleveland/East Cleveland merger. “But when we’re in a room together, our focus is Cleveland.”

Johnson’s implication was that the leadership in East Cleveland, the financially beleaguered suburb of 17,000, has been fraught with petty personal conflict, that officials there haven’t been putting their heads together and (in unofficial parlance) getting shit done. Johnson said he’s in favor of a merger — he coined it a “marriage” at a Cleveland City Council meeting back in March — but that he thinks it’s important to have these conversations on the streets, not just at City Hall(s). 

Turns out that the folks at Civic Commons, Ideastream’s community engagement arm, are hosting two “salon-style” conversations this week which aim to do just that: get residents involved. Tuesday evening’s will be held at the East Cleveland Public Library. Thursday’s will be held at Market Garden Brewery in Ohio City. Both will try to determine the pros and cons of a merger from residents' perspectives.  

On the Sound of Ideas, Levin College professor Norm Krumholz observed that these community meetings and forums are merely reiterations of something that has been made extremely clear: the vocal majority of residents in East Cleveland are opposed to a potential union.

“It’s not like we don’t have any information,” Krumholz said.

The champions do exist, however. East Cleveland residents in favor of a merger have long maintained that their city’s fiscal situation is untenable. They’re not confident new sources of revenue will arrive at necessary capacities and are attracted to the improved infrastructure and services that the city of Cleveland would bring.

Opponents counter that University Circle development is on its way.

“[University Circle’s] need for additional housing units will overpower any resistance,” argued East Cleveland School Board member Pat Blochowiak, when Johnson suggested that developers might balk at new projects in East Cleveland’s unstable economic climate. Blochowiak and others voiced confidence that new development will ultimately garner sufficient income and property taxes to right the ship.

If the conversation on the radio was any indication, this is a topic that still has people jumpy and impassioned. A salon-style forum in close quarters should generate no shortage of heat and raised voices, even though SOI host Michael McIntyre and others have repeatedly said that any potential merger is a long way off.

Perhaps the most troubling thing about all this is that East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton has remained deliberately silent throughout. McIntyre said that Norton, in interviews, simply does not answer questions related to the merger. He begins speaking once you pose a new question. Norton gave an interview to Ideastream’s Nick Castele about East Cleveland’s plan to sell city bonds to investors to pay off outstanding debt, a last-ditch strategy in which he nonetheless appears confident, but he gave no comment on the merger topic. (He has yet to officially sit for an interview with Scene).

On Tuesday, Krumholz called Norton “outstanding” and referenced his Masters’ degree and experience to argue that leadership in East Cleveland was not an issue. Joe Cimperman and other Cleveland leaders have praised Norton in the past as well.

But this seems like a true opportunity for Norton to lead, and it’s an opportunity he appears, in this publication’s view, to be squandering. He subtly acknowledges that he is opposed to a merger among his residents or via his Chief of Staff Mike Smedley. But he makes no public statement and contributes nothing to the public conversation. For a city of 17,000, the merger is one of its most important (and most hot-button) issues. He must get more visibly involved. 

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