Use Cleveland-East Cleveland merger to build a regional approach to problem-solving

by | Dec 23, 2013

The idea of Cleveland annexing East Cleveland could represent a seminal moment towards dealing with Greater Cleveland’s decline in a thoughtful manner.


On the surface, merging two of the nation’s poorest cities, an idea first floated last month by former Council President George Forbes, seems little more than a baby step on the path to dealing with the region’s Balkanized political landscape.


But, if done right, it just might build some momentum around the desperate need for a regional approach to problem-solving.


Five years ago, a common-sense plan that would have merged firefighting services in seven southwest suburbs succumbed to a lack of political will.


Also on hold — perhaps permanently — is a proposed merger between Pepper Pike, Orange, Moreland Hills and Woodmere. And last year, the village council in tiny Woodmere rejected a chance to save $700,000 a year by turning its policing over to Orange.


Because it involves Cleveland proper, the East Cleveland annexation proposal is probably more significant than all those other failed ideas.


“Trends have to start somewhere,” said David Abbott, who, as executive director of the Gund Foundation and a founder of the Fund for Our Economic Future, has been Greater Cleveland’s leading voice on behalf of regionalism.


“Having so many local governments costs us a lot of money and makes it hard to compete in the world because we have such an incoherent voice. A merger between Cleveland and East Cleveland would be a smart step, one I would be inclined to support even if it doesn’t make financial sense in the near term.”


Some business and political leaders are already floating the idea that, if the merger obtained the required approval of voters in East Cleveland and Cleveland, if could lead to discussion of similar consolidation with other municipalities.


The most likely candidates would be Newburgh Heights, Linndale, Brooklyn and Garfield Heights.


That may be an exercise in wishful thinking, but there isn’t much doubt the day will come when consolidation will become a prerequisite to Greater Cleveland’s survival. It may not be for 40 or 50 years, but its arrival is pretty much inevitable.


If elected officials in either Cleveland or East Cleveland squander the opportunity before them now, it will be yet another telltale sign that the region’s political leaderships may lack the understanding to act on that inevitability before it’s too late.


Kevin Kelley, who will become Cleveland City Council president in January, seems to understand the clock is ticking on the need to deal with the region’s problems in a collaborative manner.


That’s why Kelley sees “a lot of potential” for both cities in a merger – provided it would not severely strain Cleveland’s finances.


Cleveland Councilmen Jeff Johnson and Joe Cimperman, two of the body’s more thoughtful members, support the merger idea without equivocation.


“Given the population reduction in East Cleveland and the difficulty they face in identifying resources, it is time for the two communities to come together and work together,” said Johnson, whose ward borders much of Cleveland’s neighbor to the east. “East Cleveland is a beautiful, historic community. We can help prevent them from losing those historic assets.”


Any merger would require the approval of voters in both cities.


Inexplicably, organized opposition is already forming in East Cleveland.


But Charles Bibb, a former councilman and ward leader, the vice chairman of the city’s library board and an influential political operative in East Cleveland for more than 40 years, said if a merger doesn’t happen soon, his hometown “will become Detroit Junior.”


“We’ve lost 1,100 good-paying jobs in the last two years and those jobs aren’t coming back,” said Bibb. “There’s no way for us to recover on our own.”


I understand and appreciate that many in East Cleveland may view with suspicion this, or any other, outsider telling them what’s best for their community.


But for 30 years East Cleveland was my second home. Both my parents grew up and went to school there. All four of my grandparents lived there. My maternal grandparents spent more than 60 years at 13404 5th Avenue.


Perhaps that earns me a shred of standing to speak to this issue.


If not, one who has no standing problem is Louis Stokes. If the merger issue reaches the ballot, no voice would be more influential than that of the 88-year-old former congressman.


“If I can help in any way get this done, I will,” Stokes told me. “A merger with Cleveland would be the best thing that could happen for East Cleveland. There’s no other way out for them.


“It’s time to get this done.”