The Dredge Report

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

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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.

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