Friday, February 13, 2004

Assorted Civic Stuff

If you missed the Two Tims debate on Adelphia cable a couple of weeks ago, you'll soon have another chance to witness a debate, this time in live flesh, between the two men who are battling for a spot as one of three Cuyahoga County commissioners. Hagan and McCormack are due to tee it up again at 7 p.m. on February 25th at Cleveland State's Levin College of Urban Affairs, in a program co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters.

Let me state the obvious: this race is a big deal, folks. With the city's financial crisis growing ever worse, we're perhaps inexorably headed toward some kind of county government, and thus the three people at the top of that heap will become even more important than they are now. And in Hagan and McCormack you have two old hands of Cleveland. And while they have each long represented nearly identical strains of conventional Democratic big-city, New Deal-era patronage politics, they now also represent something different: Hagan's slavish servility to the monied interests who are trying to hang on to their last threads of power, and McCormack's modestly more maverick diversion from the same. In short, the money guys want to take him out for not helping ram through their absurd pipe dream of a convention center. If you want to delve more deeply into the many issues surrounding this face-off, I'd recommend you check out our friend Chas Rich's brilliantly sardonic take on it all. In his classic lawyerly fashion, he neatly dissects all the issues, laying them out as he might unfold a case before a jury. I'd call it required reading.

Meanwhile, don't forget an equally important issue on the March 2nd ballot: the levy to support the county library system (you can read the library folks' take on that here). While all the artsy crowd is sucking up much of the buzz and oxygen over their worrisome (to me at least) scheme to tie arts funding to economic development (which the PD's Quiet Crisis point man Joe Frolik admitted during an SPJ program yesterday could end up being little more than a slush fund for the county commissioners' pet projects), I'd argue that the county library levy is far more important to real economic development: the development of an informed, educated citizenry. So do please look into that issue some, will you? After all, as I mentioned in a posting last August, about our ranking on a list of America's most literate cities, this region lagged sadly behind many others around the country in various crucial metrics such as the ratio of adults who hold college degrees. But the one area in which we shine is our better-than-average library system, the seeds of which were planted way back in the 19th century by the wise investments of the old wealthy in the Cleveland Public Library. Let's not squander that heritage, shall we?

The Irish Sports Pages. That's the classic tongue-in-cheek term for the obituary pages, a reference to the Irish-American culture's appealing way of turning the occasion of deaths, wakes and funerals into a chance to knit the community together with something more uplifting than simple isolated grief. From a journalistic perspective, it's long been acknowledged (at least in the more enlightened corners of the industry) that you can tell a good newspaper from a mediocre one simply by studying the level of writing and reporting talent it deploys for the obit task. That's because, as a tool for community-building, historical reflection and immersion in the deepest life of a city or region, obits offer among the best avenues for a paper to gracefully tip its cap at fallen giants--both the most prominent and the most common folk.

And by that measure, the PD has been pretty good of late. The paper already had the services of old veteran Richard Peery, a graceful, felicitous writer and a quiet, no-ego peach of a guy. And Doug Clifton has more recently built on that good foundation by adding a nice occasional touch: the special obit-page feature on common people, nominated by their loved ones. My eyes were opened to it last November, when the paper ran a brilliant look at a lady I knew pretty well, Betty Buckner, who died in her 90s as an old-fashioned community activist. She was the single aunt of a good friend of mine, and I had seen Aunt Betty's stalwart spirit in several capacities, socially and just bumping into her on the street.

But one moment was especially memorable: once, while I was covering an annual meeting of the then-newly merged Key Bank, sometime in the mid-'90s I would guess, I witnessed Betty get up to ask the CEO a question, as an average stockholder. You would have to have witnessed an annual meeting of a large public company to really understand how casually dismissive corporate leaders can be of average-Joe questions from the audience. These meetings are, after all, SEC-mandated affairs, and most companies go to great lengths to stage-manage them so as to come off at least feigning interest in what average shareholders might think. Mostly, it's a simple and directed march to a proxy vote, where the board gets to do what it had already planned behind closed doors.

But Betty wasn't having any of that stage-managing stuff on this day. Instead, she rose to her feet, and began asking a question in the loveliest sing-song voice you could imagine (she would have been a great actress in commercials, playing the part of everyone's favorite doting aunt or granny). When CEO Victor Riley began "answering" her with the kind of pre-selected non-answer that presidential candidates are taught to do in order to stay on-message, Betty stopped him, by politely but forcefully noting that he wasn't being responsive. She was so sweet and so elderly. and yet at the same time so full of moral righteousness that he couldn't help but frame his answer better. Which he soon did. Aunt Betty taught everybody a lesson that day. Shareholders' rights advocacy has come to be a large and at times effective industry, with a full quiver of strategic arrows at its disposal. But Betty Buckner will always serve as reminder to me that there's nothing quite like that one small but persistent voice that refuses to shut up as it tries to get an answer it deserves.


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