No Fireworks at City Council Caucus, But Important Questions about Capital Spending

click to enlarge The classic conundrum: Media only arrive when they're expecting controversy. - SAM ALLARD / SCENE
The classic conundrum: Media only arrive when they're expecting controversy.
Alas, neither sparks nor projectiles flew during a Cleveland City Council caucus Monday afternoon.

We’ve come to expect a certain degree of drama and discord at these special confabs — see, for example, last week’s meltdown starring Jeff Johnson — and though the sober account of the city’s five-year capital expenditure plan was important, it lacked the puerile panache to which we’ve been treated recently, and which (along with non-corrupt leadership) we frankly yearn for when it comes to our cast of city legislators.

(Do be apprised, as you read, that Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, rabble-rousers #1 and #2, were absent for much of the caucus.)

Not to ignore or forsake the elephant in the conference room, Council President Kevin Kelley kicked off Monday’s proceedings with a stern admonishment about last week’s display — “What happened was an embarrassment to this body,” he said — and an apology to the media — “It won’t happen again.” (The lone cameraman was absolutely beside himself).

Indeed, to make matters worse for the press corps, the humorless Ken Silliman, Mayor Jackson’s Chief of Staff, took center stage to outline the city’s five-year capital program, followed by an only occasionally bristly Q&A.

Councilman Polensek, in fine cowboy boots, and Councilman Brian Cummins, feverishly entering data into a personal Excel file, expressed concern that there simply wasn’t enough available information to adequately explain capital projects to their residents.

“Here’s the big challenge,” Polensek said, (Polensek and Cummins both use “challenge” as a diplomatic stand-in for “reason I’m pissed off”). “We were told there would be a report which rated the roads, which gave one road priority over another. Parks and playgrounds: We were supposed to have a report or document which rates all these. I might be old, but I’m not senile. Mr. Chairman, I request the friggin document.”

Silliman countered that though a numerical rating system may not exist, the ratings — whatever and wherever they might be — were the result of professional staffers’ hard work; not “arbitrary,” as Polensek suggested. It’s true that those ratings are now outdated, but the city is devoting $500,000 to a new road-assessment survey which will help drive Kevin Kelley’s data-driven resurfacing initiative, which will increase resurfacing dollars from $4.4 million to $10 million each year, beginning in 2016.

One prominent concern among council members, though, was what they perceived as the inequitable allocation of dollars.

Silliman stressed that of Frank Jackson’s $100 million bond issue approved earlier this year, the moneys being directed toward neighborhoods are, in theory, intended for those areas that haven’t received big-ticket private investment thus far — sorry Ohio City, sorry Detroit-Shoreway. But council members still noticed a huge disparity in upcoming projects, ward by ward. Joe Cimperman's Ward 3, for instance, is slated for $87.7 million in capital spending over the next five years. Councilman Marty Keane's far west side Ward 17 has only $3.7 million in the pipeline.

Who’s making these calls? They wanted to know. Why aren’t we? Polensek even suggested forming a subcommittee to vigilantly track the allocation of dollars.

“Sometimes be careful what you ask for,” Silliman remarked later. “Right now you don’t take the hits for the choices. We take the hits—-”

“No no no no, you’re wrong. We take the hits for your choices!” Councilwoman Dona Brady rejoined, much-incensed. “Ask my colleagues: Who takes the hits for the streets? Who takes the hits for the rec centers? We do. Nobody calls you, Chief, and if you’d like them to I’d be more than happy to give my residents your phone number. I have it memorized.”