The town could use a few more good men like Ed Hauser.
Hauser is a pain — a persistent, nagging, unyielding pain. On the medical scale of one to 10, he would rate a 10. What makes him so painful is that he challenges the way the town and its dysfunctional government work.
Take Hauser’s appearance at the Cleveland City Planning Commission meeting in March. Commission Chairman Anthony Coyne was presiding over a session on the relocation of the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority’s maritime facilities from its present location downtown to East 55th Street.
The new port is advertised as an economic engine that will attract $2 billion in private investment and 50,000 jobs. It would be one of the largest public works projects in the city’s history, and would take 20 years to complete, at an unknown cost.
As the meeting started, Coyne appeared befuddled, fumbling with papers and looking over to the commission staff. He asked what the document before him was. It is a resolution, he was told.
The resolution would enable the Port Authority to go ahead with its plans for this massive project. Coyne was clearly confused and had never seen the resolution before. He suggested that the resolution be tabled for a future meeting, but was met by a sharp glare from a staff member. His eyes were saying the mayor wants this passed, and now.
Ed Hauser, 47, an electrical engineer by profession and civic activist by avocation, seized on the moment. He saw that Coyne was not only unprepared to deal with the issue, but also was in over his head.
“Mr. Chairman,” Hauser asked, “have you even read the two studies dealing with the relocation of the port?” These reports have never been made public.
Coyne mumbled the way an errant child who skipped his homework might. He admitted he had not read the studies. This was not only embarrassing for the city. It was an epiphany about how government here is run.
Hauser persisted. He asked if any commission members had read the study. There was mutual embarrassment. Coyne said maybe someone on the staff might have, and there was nodding of heads.
Hauser stripped the veneer off government. The planning commissioners were clueless. Yet before the morning was over, they passed the resolution, giving the go-ahead for the port to begin work on this historic project, without any study.
Probably no one in the room knew more about the Port Authority than Ed Hauser. For 10 years, he has studied every move it has made on the lakefront, attended almost every meeting it has held about the area and videotaped the proceedings. Few understand the way things are done here as well as Hauser does.
Cleveland is a town run by a small group of insiders who essentially do what they please. They use boards and commissions like this one as fronts to cover their real intentions and obscure accountability. The Greater Cleveland Partnership, the business and civic group, propels the interests of its members quietly and links with what passes for government to drive an inside agenda.
Carole Hoover, who once headed this group when it was known as the Greater Cleveland Growth Association, was able to avoid paying any of the $5.4 million in property taxes owed by the airport concession company HMS Host. Hoover’s company was HMS Host’s minority partner at Hopkins Airport, with a 36 percent share of the contract. She had strong links to City Hall. These taxes have yet to be paid.
Insiders maneuver in back rooms to shield their dealings from public accountability. That leaves the rest of us scratching our heads and wondering over such things as the Euclid Corridor project: Who was responsible for this massive construction effort, which has driven away businesses that some believe will never return?
One reason our city is among the most troubled in the nation is that government and civic officials mask their intentions and avoid accountability. At this point, all projects introduced as community necessities deserve suspicion because of the way they are presented. There is no watchdog. At best, The Plain Dealer has become an enabler, at worst a co-conspirator.
It wasn’t always this way. When the city thrived and was regarded as one of the most advanced in the nation, leaders engaged the community in major decisions. When Public Auditorium was proposed in the 1910s, officials took two years to explain its necessity to hundreds of civic groups. Voters approved it by a record margin in a 1916 referendum.
But business and political interests manipulated the public — ostensibly for its own good — in the 1950s, when urban renewal caused disruption and loss of business but benefited powerful interests. Manipulation has been part of the city’s story ever since.
Hauser looks at the port project this way. He thinks it can never be built, because the financial risk is far greater than the potential reward. He believes it is simply a ruse to move the port from the downtown lakefront to nearby Whiskey Island. The possibility horrifies Hauser, who has championed the use of Whiskey Island as a park for a decade. But the move would open the current port property quickly for enormously profitable development. Hauser worries that port board member John Carney might be involved because of his existing real estate holdings near the lake. His partner in Westlake’s Crocker Park, Robert Stark, has made it clear that he’d like to develop the lakefront.
You can see a similar pattern in the way the proposed convention center and Medical Mart has been swept past the public. Last summer, the county commissioners raised the sales tax, without going to the voters, to pay for the project. This tax raises nearly $40 million annually.
County Commissioner Tim Hagan, whose work ethic is to do as little as possible, announced that the public will not be allowed to question where the complex will be built. A panel of businessmen and civic leaders was named to recommend a site to the county. Their meetings will likely be held in private.
The panel includes David Daberko, who just retired as chairman of National City Bank after leading it to financial oblivion in the subprime debacle, and Sandy Cutler of Eaton Corp., who is presently squeezing the Port Authority for tax breaks for a new building for his company.
This group’s meetings ought to be more amusing than the planning commission’s. The commissioners long ago destined the convention center to be on Forest City Enterprises’ property next to Tower City. Why would you want to even be on the committee?
There will be no explanations, no vote by the public and no accountability if the project fails to become the economic boon that the commissioners promise.
Hagan deems the project a defining moment for the city — and he is right. Downtown has been living on life support for years. Millions of dollars in private and public money have been pumped into it to try to keep it alive. This project may be the last chance to make something out of downtown, but don’t bet on its success.
All of that downtown investment has barely kept the city open. The major commercial ventures — Tower City and the Galleria — have failed, Euclid Avenue is a ghost town, the location of Cleveland Browns Stadium has done little for commerce and the area around Progressive Field has never achieved the prosperity predicted for it.
The inability of the mayor to shovel the snow, collect taxes and fight crime is a major reason why people do not want to come downtown. Government at all levels is just a paycheck for its leaders, the tax base is eroding and county voters are among the most heavily taxed in the land.
When Ed Hauser once challenged Hagan on an issue, he says the commissioner responded by saying, “If you don’t like what I do, don’t vote for me.” These days, people don’t bother to vote against anyone. They just move away.
Several years ago, when the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar Association undertook a study of government reform, a longtime business leader responded to an interviewer’s question about the likelihood of a change.
“The existing political leadership will never do it,” he said. “They are too comfortable, and smug with self-interest. Such a change will have to come from the people, and that will not happen until the pain becomes unbearable.”
If that is the case, we need two things: more pain, and more people like Ed Hauser to deliver it.