You have to connect the dots to know the town.
That thought came to mind with the recent news that Mayor Frank Jackson has named Diane Downing to the board of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority.
Most recently a regional exec for Huntington Bank, Downing is part of a coterie of people who fade in and out between the private and public sector like chameleons, changing roles so often that it's hard to determine who or what they represent. In a town crying for transparency, Downing is a murky figure shaped in the dark days of Mayor Mike White's administration.
She first gained notice as an assistant to White, who put her in charge of construction of Browns Stadium. Downing's tenure was marked by such dogged scrutiny that we still have no idea what the project cost us. Estimates put the stadium tab at more than $350 million — about $100 million over budget, but who's counting? Downing never was.
But what reporters covering city hall during those years found most troublesome was Downing's secretive manner and unwillingness to answer questions. It's what she does best, and also the best reason she should be disqualified from holding public office.
Reminisce about the smoke and mirrors of the Mike White years, and you can't help but include Fred Nance, the ubiquitous lawyer from Squire Sanders who represented the city in stadium negotiations with the Browns. As counsel to the city, Nance essentially helped obligate Cleveland to pay whatever it took to build the stadium.
Nance also negotiated such memorably atrocious deals as the purchase of the IX Center for $66.5 million — twice what other appraisers said it was worth. Ricardo Teamor, a lawyer and former port authority board member, made $6.6 million in the deal. He was later sent to jail for bribing a councilman. Nance also played a key role in negotiations for the convention center and medical mart, public projects that were brokered very privately.
The significance of Downing's appointment to the port authority board involves the Browns themselves. Once the stadium was finished, Downing went to work for the team. Nance, just as conveniently, went on to become the Browns' lawyer. Perhaps neither appointment quite belched the bile of a Frank Russo-style favor, but it's hard to dismiss the coincidence of two key figures charged with building the stadium with public money ending up on the team's private payroll.
Earlier this year, Nance — acting as the Browns' legal counsel, in case you're scoring at home — said the team was eager to help the city develop the waterfront. It just wasn't interested in using its own money. Indeed, the history of waterfront development here would not normally attract the attention of a football team still trying to find its way after 12 years. But it was a perfect way to get Nance back into the picture.
Since taking office, Frank Jackson has been trying to launch a waterfront project, but has been hampered by ineptness at city hall and the port authority. By involving Nance and Downing, he can enjoy greater control over any future project. Of course, there is little evidence that Nance and Downing have been forthright in dealing with public matters, and no reason to think that will change now.
But the port authority already boasts a history of mismanagement to rival that of the Browns. For a group struggling to right itself, the addition of Downing only adds a deceptive new ingredient to a time-honored recipe for failure.
If the past is prologue, we have before us the makings of something that is bound to be costly to somebody. Over the years, millions have been wasted on waterfront planning with virtually nothing to show for it. But I can't wait to see how this plays out. The game off the field may be better than the one on it.
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