Frank Jackson is Alive and Well, But He's Failing as Cleveland's Mayor at the Worst Possible Time

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click to enlarge Frank Jackson is Alive and Well, But He's Failing as Cleveland's Mayor at the Worst Possible Time
YouTube screenshot: City of Cleveland Office of Communications
There were at least three serious revelations disclosed by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson during a media-only teleconference late Friday afternoon. But the tone of the coronavirus briefing—banal to the point of hypnosis—was such that nothing seemed particularly newsworthy.

Jackson opened with the same pat advisory material he's been dishing out since he declared a civic emergency in March, even acknowledging that he was being repetitive: Stay at home, he said. Wash your hands. Maintain social distancing measures. Wear a mask.

That all notable information specific to Cleveland and its pandemic response was buried, and would have remained that way if not for a few probing questions from local reporters, is classic Jackson. His administration believes more ardently than anything else that the business of City Hall is not the business of the public.

But this posture, which for the record is unconscionable under even routine circumstances, is especially dangerous during a public health and economic crisis. Both Jackson's pathologically tight lips and his refusal to embrace his role as leader (in any meaningful public sense) are likely to have material negative effects on the city.

Jackson only availed himself to the media Friday, during a time slot typically reserved for "news dumps," ostensibly because of repeated interview requests from Fox 8 News.

Unlike Gov. Mike DeWine, who has conducted daily press briefings with state health director Amy Acton and Lt. Gov. Jon Husted; and Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish, who has sometimes presided over the county's thrice-weekly morning briefings; Jackson has been largely absent from the public eye. After a few media appearances in March, and a vapid, headline-free conversation with the City Club's Dan Moulthrop on April 3, he has been content to let the city's COVID-19 emergency task force send out daily press sheets tracking the latest local infection numbers and deal with the media's questions on a case-by-case basis.

Other than an early decision to halt utility shutoffs, Jackson has made very few pro-active announcements of city policy changes. There has been nothing even remotely resembling advocacy.

During remarks Friday, which can be listened to here in full, Jackson provided information that remained unchanged from a month ago. Essential city services like waste collection and public safety are still being conducted. Cleveland will continue to follow the lead of Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine as it relates to stay home orders and so forth. And large-scale strategic planning is underway to lessen the economic burdens of Cleveland individuals and businesses.

But much more serious, specific intelligence emerged during the Q&A.

For one thing, Jackson estimated that the city has lost at least "several million" dollars in revenue. This is not unexpected, given the soaring, unprecedented  unemployment numbers and the closure of all non-essential businesses, but Jackson said that without parking tax revenue, admission tax revenue and hotel bed tax revenue, all of which have virtually dried up during the pandemic, (during what would have been both the Indians and the Cavaliers seasons), the city has lost more than a million dollars. The bigger projected losses will be from the city's payroll tax, its largest revenue source.

He said the City had anticipated a recession and built reserve funds into this year's budget. He said hiring freezes and other measures had been implemented to cut costs "on the front end" and that, though he's been monitoring the budget on a weekly basis, the full extent of the losses will not be known until the April tax receipts arrive in May. "Don't quote me" on the budget numbers, the Mayor of Cleveland told the media.

On a related note, Jackson said that there are no immediate plans to lay off or furlough city employees, but that the city is legally obligated to maintain a balanced budget. Layoffs could certainly happen if revenue losses continue to mount.

In what should have been a shocking admission, Jackson responded to a question about the recovery of small businesses by noting that the city had been overrun with applications for zero-interest loans of up to $10,000. Jackson had previously announced that the city would create a $1 million fund to provide these loans to businesses, and said Friday that the city had received more applications than there were resources available to accommodate them. It sounded like the city was now sorting through those applications to determine who will receive the money. 

This is all very dire, announcement-worthy material. And though none of it should be construed as Jackson's fault, the casual way he discussed it, with no concrete solutions or mitigation strategies, and only in response to direct questioning, was disarming. It frankly didn't seem to bother him all that much.

This attitude from the Mayor has long induced migraines and provoked perilous binge drinking among the local press corps. But today, much more hangs in the balance. Jackson occupies Cleveland's most prominent bully pulpit and ought to be using it to plead the city's case: not only to reinforce Gov. DeWine's orders when appropriate, but to attack him and the state of Ohio for dismantling funding for local governments; furthermore, to pressure federal lawmakers to provide sufficient funding for cities in their hotly contested stimulus bills; in other words, to convey the scale of desperation in Cleveland, one of America's poorest, hungriest and most segregated cities to as large an audience as possible in order to get results. Taking his role as a leader seriously would also mean comforting, and even uplifting, local residents with regular updates on specific fronts: Efforts to house the homeless in empty hotels? Successful (or not?) campaigns to provide meals to CMSD students? Decisions to close major thoroughfares to vehicle traffic? 

To take one of Friday's examples: Instead of deflecting bad press by saying that no city layoffs had yet occurred, Jackson could have taken a more pro-active approach. He could have held a press conference to explain the city's budget numbers in clear detail—using visual aids, even—and to announce that city layoffs were indeed on the horizon at a very specific threshold. He then could have used that threshold, an effective time bomb, to pressure Ohio and Federal lawmakers to provide required aid.

Alas. Jackson can hardly be expected to speak for Clevelanders if he can't even be bothered to speak to them. 

The Mayor's penchant for not sharing information with the press often scans like the script of an absurdist one-act. It's not that he seems overly secretive or cagey. It's that he seems to genuinely believe the world, or at least Cleveland, should exist in a goo of blissful ignorance, where no one really knows or understands anything.

Cleveland's two largest daily increases in confirmed COVID-19 cases were Thursday and Friday, for example. These are scary upticks that journalists naturally are keen to have explained. Fox 8's Ed Gallek asked the Mayor why the City of Cleveland was refusing to release information about infections across the city. Didn't the public have a right to know where these were occurring?

"I think the county and the city, and the state, really, have released maps that show hot spots," Jackson replied. "They'll show census tracts, but they're not going to show anything more specific than census tracts. They're not going to do that... It's not about us being secretive. What it is, is this is the way the health department and the medical people approach this. And this is how they report the data. And any more detail than that they believe to be inappropriate information. And that's just the way it is. It's not about being secretive. We just can't give you the detail you want." 

Gallek said that that was all well and good, but then reminded the Mayor that other municipalities and public agencies had been far more forthcoming about identifying the infected. Why wouldn't the city share its own information? 

"I'm not going to debate it," said Jackson. "What I'm going to say to you is that our approach to this is based on a health approach in terms of information, and we are not going to be that specific in terms of it. Are there people who work for the City of Cleveland who have contracted the coronavirus? My answer to you is yes. I don't even know who they are or where they work. I don't even have that... We have over 7,000, almost 8,000 employees. Out of those 8,000 employees, there are people who have displayed symptoms and have infections, but I don't get into who they are, where they work, and then have someone go there and say, 'Hey, I heard so and so was [infected]. Who is that person?' We don't do that. We simply don't do it."

The 2021 election can't come quickly enough.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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