Bravehearts

Blog post Bravehearts.pub

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It seems I have a penchant lately for combining observations on certain things with references from popular culture.  In late January I drew comparisons between Downton Abbey and Youngstown’s City Hall which I renamed Downtown Abbey.  In early February I recast New Jersey’s Governor Chris Christie as Col. Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men with the governor having a “You can’t handle the truth” moment to justify his alleged involvement in the burgeoning George Washington Bridge scandal.  And just a few days ago I painted YSU’s suddenly-departing new president Dr. Randy Dunn – the New Kid In Town who’s Already Gone – as a one-man Eagles concert.

Apparently I’m not done.  Friday’s column by Vindicator politics writer David Skolnick has provided yet another such piece of inspiration.

Skolnick’s “Knives come out in Y’town council” took me immediately to Braveheart and the misty, gray/green, windswept highlands of Scotland where the three main leaders of the Scottish rebellion – William Wallace, Stephen (the live-wire Irish ally who “speaks to The Almighty”), and William’s childhood friend Hamish – are debating the tenuous virtue of Wallace’s invitation to meet with the noble heads of Scotland’s clans.  Huge, ruddy man-mountain Hamish smells a trap and in a fit of frustration spouts this about the nobles:  “The nest of scheming bastards couldn’t agree on the color of shit!”

Of course you have to have seen the original version of the movie to catch that line and not the sanitized version that’s been on AMC a thousand times lately.  Nevertheless, failure by Youngstown City Council to agree on the color of poo seems to be a pretty accurate way of describing long overdue ward redistricting in the city.

How long overdue?  Look at it this way.  If your baby boy or girl was born the last time ward lines were redrawn, then they’re now nearing their mid-30’s and have provided you with a couple of grandchildren.

That’s an embarrassing lifetime ago.

When the seven wards were last reshaped in Youngstown in the early 80’s, the city’s population had dropped 17% from the previous decennial census to 115,000 and the districts were redrawn per the city’s charter to provide equitable balance.  The 2012 U.S. Census Bureau estimate puts the current number of city residents at 65,405 which would be an average of about 9,300 for each district.  Existing ward populations range right now between 7,200 and 12,100.  So there’s the problem.  Things are a tad out of balance.

There are several issues at play in City Council’s kerfuffle over redistricting.  First, Section 83 of the City Charter, amended and adopted by Council in 2012 and subsequently approved by the voters, states, “Following each Federal Census, Council shall re-district the city whenever there is a reasonable population change, so as to maintain a reasonable equality of population among the seven wards.”  While the word “shall” momentarily strengthened Section 83 to make redistricting mandatory and not whimsical, the phrase “reasonable population change” – added by Council to the amendment submitted by the Charter Review Commission – produced elements of vagueness and subjectivity that took the steel rod back out of the law.

Next, there’s a big argument over whether or not to include in the population figures those serving time in lock-up, and given that there are three major corrections facilities within the city limits, this is no small issue.  The Prison Policy Initiative, based in Northampton, MA, says “don’t” but Member of Council Annie Gillam (D-1st) says “do.”  Loudly.

Finally, certain members of Council have done nothing to hide their disdain and/or discomfort of redistricting proposals created by Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies.  More on this to come.

Let’s go back to the charter issue.  Redistricting should not be deferred to the Municipal Department of Caprice and Whimsy every decade.  Legislative districts at the federal and state levels are reapportioned every ten years and there is no good reason – none – why any municipality should be exempt from that same exercise.  This should not need any explanation, particularly in a country founded on fairness and equality.

The question of whether or not to include guests of the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, the Ohio “SuperMax” Penitentiary, and the Mahoning County Jail is a bit dicey.  Council members are predictably divided on this, only one city in Ohio (Lima) does not include prison populations in their wards (although there are about 200 cities nationwide that make exclusion a practice), and the transitory nature of incarcerations further muddies the water.

Apartment dwellers and college students can be regarded as just as transient as prisoners, so the argument for exclusion needs to be made with care.  This should be remembered above all, though: inclusion or exclusion in redistricting has no bearing at all on a prisoner’s representation.  The interests of any single prisoner are no less important or less represented than those of a Vallourec employee who resides in Boardman, a St. E’s patient who’s from Poland, or a college transfer student lodged at YSU’s Lyden House.  In these instances, the interests of Vallourec, St. E’s and YSU are still fully represented.  Likewise, the prisons and jail are represented even if each individual inmate isn’t included in the numbers.

And so why exclude prison populations?  The most convincing argument is in this portion of a law from Essex County, New York, prohibiting prison-based gerrymandering:

Persons incarcerated … live in a separate environment, do not participate in the life of [the county], and do not affect the social and economic character of the towns…. The inclusion of these federal and state correctional facility inmates unfairly dilutes the votes or voting weight of persons residing in [the county].

And finally Part III of this mess, The Lines.  Last July, Tom Finnerty of YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional studies came to City Council’s caucus room in City Hall for a public meeting of Council as a Whole and very carefully, professionally and patiently explained the process of creating the maps, one of which was based on Census tracts, the other on precincts.  There were subtle differences between the two.  Each followed guidelines as prescribed in the Ohio Revised Code and/or in Ohio State Supreme Court rulings which say that districts should be composed of adjacent and compact territory using common sense boundaries like streets, waterways, or other significant geographic features.  He wasn’t pulling rabbits out of a hat.  He had nothing up his sleeve.  He merely explained how the Center took existing laws and guidelines and applied them to the map-making process in order to achieve equitable representation.

This and a handful of other meetings before and after that did not create anything even remotely resembling universally acclaimed results.  Quite to the contrary, these meetings of the minds produced some notable head thumpers. Council person Gillam was very distressed to see that her home had been relocated to the 2nd Ward from the 1stJanet Tarpley (D-6th), was quoted in the Vindicator, saying, “Another firm could ‘give us a better map,’ and said the expense, even if it reaches $50,000, shouldn’t be an issue.”  T.J. Rogers (D-2nd) expressed some dismay over the geographical size of his ward.  John R. Swierz (D-7th) and Nate Pinkard (D-3rd) said, respectively, there’s no cause to rush forward and that due diligence is the order of the day.

This is where Members of Council Mike Ray (D-4th) and Paul Drennen (D-5th) are revealed as the true Bravehearts in this whole debacle.  They comprehended the logic used in executing these maps and supported YSU’s effort.  The political cost?  Drennen has been removed from two committee chairmanships and Ray one.   Ray has also lost his position as Council President Pro Tempore.

The other five council members are acting like the nobles in Braveheart who were more skittish than Scottish, more concerned with titles and estates than the welfare of the people, more focused on self-interest than a united Scotland.  It’s certainly not the first time that city wards have been treated like private fiefdoms, a concept that undeniably calls into question the general welfare of Youngstown because there is absolutely nothing – repeat, nothing – that goes against the public interest in the maps drawn by YSU.

One-by-one, let’s look at those misgivings and opinions noted above.

If one’s home is now in a new ward, so be it.  You’re not being exiled from the city.

If a member of council thinks spending another dime on more opinions is a good idea, then perhaps that member should be introduced to the Board of Control that executes the City’s contracts and agreements.  Mayor John McNally – a member of that board who’s sort of taking on the role of Robert the Bruce in this Braveheart scenario – has already publicly stated he sees no compelling reason to spend any more than the nearly four grand already paid to YSU for their work.  And he’s quite correct about that on a number of levels.

The land mass of the 2nd Ward is really, really, really big?  Of course it is.  It’s got a ton of land but it is sparsely populated.  And as Mr. Ray so eloquently pointed out once, “We represent people, not trees.”  If size mattered, then Montana – a state whose land mass is about three times  larger than Ohio (which has 16 House districts) – would have 48 U.S. Congressman and not just one.  Representing citizens is what’s part and parcel of the constitution, not the ground they live on.

And as for not rushing into things?  William Wallace was still alive when Youngstown’s wards were last redrawn.  Okay, that’s a small exaggeration, but the point is made.  There is nothing wrong in being careful and paying attention to detail, but really, we’re discussing something that should have taken place in 1991 and again in 2001, and here we are chugging our way toward the middle of yet another decade.  How much time do we need?

Well, time has run out.  In the words of Robert the Bruce when he visited his father, “A rebellion has began.”  A group of tired, frustrated, and angry Youngstown citizens are preparing to take matters into their own hands to secure passage of a charter amendment that will end this nonsense forever.  When someone suggested an organizational meeting on the matter via Facebook, 50 people replied almost immediately with a “like.”  Stay alert to your social media channels for updates as they become available.

Meanwhile, I’ll stand with William Wallace’s Irish buddy Stephen and say, “The Almighty says this must be a fashionable fight. It’s drawn the finest people.”

Fowl play: How a lame-duck Penguin becomes an Eagle

Dunn Eagle blog art

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As the shockwaves began to soften and recede from the announcement that YSU’s recently installed president was already moving on to greener and more familiar pastures in Illinois, something slowly occurred to me.

Everything surrounding this situation makes Dr. Randy Dunn a one-man Eagles concert.

Seriously.

And if I were Dr. Dunn, I’d give strong consideration to adding this to my curriculum vitae.

When word leaked out that Dr. Dunn was the front-runner to fill the position of president of Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, my first thoughts were, “He’s Already Gone?  He just got here! He’s still the New Kid In Town.  And he’s heading to a university in a town the size of New Castle?  Even if it pays more it doesn’t sound like Life in the Fast Lane.  Stuff like this makes me lose my mind.”  Thus the Dunn-as-Eagle concept began.

Word of his abrupt plans to depart YSU filtered out through SIU’s student newspaper, the Daily Eqyptian.  By the way, if you want an explanation for that name and a reason why the Carbondale region is called Little Egypt, all I can say is I Can’t Tell You Why.  Nevertheless, the Daily Egyptian broke the news with a very quiet tweet that incubated for several days before hatching into a giant, steaming omelet 514 miles away.  It did not create a Peaceful Easy Feeling in this town.  The rumors, which eventually proved to be true, painted Randy Dunn as an academic Desperado.

From the appointment of Homer Nearpass in 1924 until the departure of David Sweet in 2010, YSU saw only seven presidents at the helm, an average of over 12 years each.  Given the disturbing news – or if you will, another Heartache Tonight – that the University was now going to be seeking its third president within four years, there was no way anyone in the Mahoning Valley could be expected to Take It Easy.  Suddenly YSU was in jeopardy of becoming Rodney Dangerfield University whose motto according to Google’s translation tool would likely be Et nos ergo non secundum, or “we get no respect” (everything always sounds better in Latin).  No one wants their school viewed as The Last Resort of job seekers.

Most public opinion on the matter was pretty clear.  Dunn’s decision not to stick to his contract and Take It To The Limit was overwhelmingly viewed as a betrayal of trust of the highest magnitude.   His credibility evaporated.  Any expressions of commitment made by him in the last seven months were now perceived as having been delivered through Lyin’ Eyes.

At a special meeting of YSU’s Board of Trustees after the news broke, Dr. Dunn did indeed confirm that he agreed to an offer from SIU.  Somehow the board managed to keep the two and a-half hour meeting from becoming contentious, apparently choosing instead to show The Best of [Their] Love and let him off the hook, electing not to hold his feet to the fire by enforcing the Hotel California clause in his YSU contract.  You know, the one that states he can check out any time he wants but he can never leave.

Youngstown State is a strong and resilient place.  It always finds a way to “sing it’s vict’ry song.”  And in spite of this recent drama there is belief that YSU will be better off in The Long Run.  Dr. Dunn’s pending absence leaves a hole in the executive staff but not a Hole in the World.  And in spite of the Wasted Time and money that brought him here in the first place, YSU will land on its feet soon with a new president who won’t have to promise No More Cloudy Days to gain community support so long as he or she demonstrates true commitment to the University and the city.  As a bonus, whatever baggage Dr. Dunn brought to YSU from Murray State can now be quickly loaded back onto a moving van and shipped off to Carbondale, Waiting in the Weeds there instead of here.

If Dr. Randy J. Dunn is moving on, then so should we.  So go downtown One of These Nights, enjoy another Tequila Sunrise, and just Get Over It.  Don’t invest any more time stewing over this miserable episode unless you want to plan Dr. Dunn’s reception should he return in the fall when SIU arrives at Stambaugh to play some tackle football with the Penguins.  For what it’s worth, it should be the kind of party truly befitting an Eagle, one that says he’s always welcome back – When Hell Freezes Over.

Musings, morsels and other miscellaneous brain byproducts

020314 post collage

I would not be surprised if Omaha’s city council is meeting in emergency session today to discuss an injunction prohibiting Peyton Manning from using the name of their fair city in any more audibles.  At the beginning it was fun.  And then the game started.

Very first play from scrimmage, Manning was all “Oh-ma-CRAP!!!” while Seahawk fans were “OmaHAHAHAHAHA!”

Eastern Nebraskans would probably prefer Denver to keep all the embarrassment to themselves after last night’s one-sided Seahawk/Bronco contest.

By the same token, Defend Youngstown should consider an arrangement with the Seahawk defensive unit.  Next season when opponents come up to the line of scrimmage, it might be fun to hear Seattle linebacker and Super Bowl MVP Malcom Smith barking out, “Youngstown!  Youngstown!”

* * * * *

While it has nothing to do with Youngstown (as this blog is advertised as being “on Youngstown”), this next topic has been impossible to escape because of the tons of national media attention it is receiving.  So please indulge this left turn into the world of New Jersey’s spider-webbing George Washington Bridge scandal starring their Republican governor Chris Christie.

Breaking news last Friday reported that David Wildstein, a former ally and high school friend (or acquaintence?) of the governor, insists that Gov. Christie essentially knew about the allegedly politically motivated lane closures on the GW last September despite the Governor’s very public claims to the contrary.

This story has all the potential of evolving into the climax of A Few Good Men.  Consider:  The setting is a hearing room in the state senate at Trenton.  On the panel asking the questions is a member of senate counsel who looks incredibly like Tom Cruise.  Let’s just go with it and say his name is, well, Daniel Kaffee.  At the witness table is Gov. Christie, a man whose persona is becoming increasingly painted as an arrogant political bully (hey, there is something Youngstowners can relate to after all).  Questions and testimony have been rapidly escalating, leading to this final heated exchange:

KAFFEE:  Did you order the lane closures on the George Washington Bridge?

GOVERNOR:  You want answers?

KAFFEE:  I think I’m entitled to them!

GOVERNOR:  You want answers?

KAFFEE:  I want the truth!

GOVERNOR:  You can’t handle the truth! [pauses]  Son, we govern in a world that has walls, walls that have to be closely guarded.  Who’s gonna do that?  You?  You, Wildstein?  You weep for the people of Fort Lee and you curse me.  You have that luxury.  You have the luxury of not knowing what I know.  That traffic jam, while tragic, probably saved jobs.  And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves jobs.  You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at fundraisers, you want me within these walls, you need me within these walls.  We use words like favor, goad, loyalty.  We use these words as the backbone of a life governing something.  You use them as a punchline on MSNBC.  I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very governance I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it.  I would rather you just said “thank you” and went on your way.  Otherwise, I suggest you run for office and get elected to a post.  Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!

KAFFEE:  Did you order the bridge closure?

GOVERNOR:  I did the job I …

KAFFEE:  Did you order the bridge closure?!?

GOVERNOR:  YOU’RE GODDAM RIGHT I DID!!!

[Dead silence in the hearing room except for the clicking of cameras and the sound of television news reporters running out the door to get to their stand-up locations.]

Someone please call Aaron Sorkin.  I think there’s something good here.

* * * * *

It was reported last week that the City’s revenue projections for last year were less than originally predicted.  Revised downward a few weeks ago to $42.1 million, the number dropped another $289,000 when the final tally was in.

Financial forecasting is a tough business.  Dave Bozanich and the rest of the City Finance Department last year projected $44,157,000 in tax collections for 2013.  The actual figure came in at $41,844,100 or 94.7% of the budgeted goal.  When we were in school, a 94 or 95 on a test was a solid A.

A good grade is probably warranted in this case, too, even though it doesn’t help the City meet its budget demands.  But here is some unsolicited advice to our new mayor:  There is a big decision to make in a few months about naming a successor to the retiring Bozanich.  The City needs someone who’s a good and honest but conservative predictor, someone with an excellent background in finance and accounting, someone with good people skills to foster relationships like the one the City has with Vallourec, and someone who can speak above a barely audible tone of voice at City Council’s Finance Committee meetings.  Just sayin’.

* * * * *

If this …

Old Point

… became this with a lot of work and political will …

New point

… then what exciting things could become of this?

Yng Riverfront

More ideas on this subject will likely appear in multiple future posts.

 * * * * *

Congratulations to U.S Rep. Tim Ryan (D-13th) for being mentioned as a “rock star” in Time magazine’s recent cover story about mindfulness.  It’s a refreshing change from the days not long ago when we had a congressman routinely recognized for mindlessness.

* * * * *

This week’s post concludes with another detour out of our local area.  Here’s a very entertaining and spot-on observation about who’s really responsible for obstructionism in Washington.  Ladies and gentlemen, Jon Stewart.

Chocolate-chipping away at Youngstown’s Cookie Table Legacy Redux

The cartoon image of the young lady above is from an article published in December 2012's edition of Pittsburgh Magazine featuring the article "Cookie Table Throw Down" by popular blogger Virginia Montanez, also known as PittGirl.  The caricature of PittGirl for this post is superimposed over a rendering of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society's Tyler History Center in downtown Youngstown where the annual Cookie Table & Cocktails event will be held Saturday, February 8th.

The cartoon image of the young lady above is from an article published in December 2012′s edition of Pittsburgh Magazine featuring the article “Cookie Table Throw Down” by popular blogger Virginia (“PittGirl”) Montanez. The magazine’s caricature of PittGirl is superimposed for this post over a rendering of the Mahoning Valley Historical Society’s Tyler History Center in downtown Youngstown where the annual Cookie Table & Cocktails event will be held Saturday, February 8th.

[NOTE:  This is an encore presentation of a post published a year ago in the short-lived Letters to My Inner Editor blog.  It proved to be a very popular post and is being published again in honor of the annual Cookie Table & Cocktails event upcoming soon - Saturday, February 8th - at the Tyler Center in downtown Youngstown.  More information is available by clicking here.  Ignore any dates or times in the post as they refer to last year's event.]

Have you ever had an instance in your life when a person came along and informed you that something you hold near and dear is not true?  Or at least not totally accurate?  Like when you learned that your grandmother’s spinster sister Pearl was not really in charge of organizing the Petri dishes in Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine lab but rather was a dish washer at Petri’s Acropolis Restaurant downtown somewhere?  Yes, that was crushing and took years of therapy.

Most of us hold our customs and traditions to be inviolate, to be among the things that define us, the things that get carefully handed down to each succeeding generation in a shiny silver-plated bowl.  We trust that these things are true and rooted deep in the fertile ground from which our families sprang and flourished.  We talk of these things almost reverently, self-satisfied smiles beaming across our faces at cocktail parties as we lift ourselves slightly up on our toes with a bit of pride, the pinky on the hand holding our cabernet extended just so as we say, “Yeah, we came up with that.  Been a custom for generations.  And no one else can lay claim to it but us.”  You sniff and savor a sip of your wine as if it’s a 100-year-old vintage Rothschild.

Then someone taps you on the shoulder and points to a woman standing behind you who is shaking her head and sticking out her tongue at you while her fingers are planted firmly in her ears.  She is denying your claim, and worse, she is taking credit for that prized, solemn thing on behalf of her city, her state, her nation, her world.  It becomes hard to tell if the red in your face and the heat crawling up behind your ears comes from mortification at being contradicted by a creature known as PittGirl who’s wagging a wax-tipped finger at you or if it is caused by the impending embarrassment of perhaps your being proven wrong.

This should give you a sense of what happened (at least to this writer) after reading an article published in last December’s Pittsburgh Magazine “Cookie Table Throwdown” menacingly stabs at Youngstown’s presumed ownership of the time-honored custom of the wedding reception cookie table.  You know, that long L-shaped thing at your cousin Gladys’s wedding reception that was lavishly adorned with buckeyes, apricot kiffles, seven-layer cookies, and a billion other varieties of baked treats like pizzelles made with a trace of anise and old lace.  That white linen-skirted line of tables that holds more potential for tension in the planning of the post-nuptial gala than the selection of just the right centerpieces.  That buffet of baked confections that has caused legions of out-of-state grooms’ families to pause doe-eyed as if confronted by the Kan-Telan child bonding ceremony on Vulcan.

The author of the magazine piece is Virginia Montanez, the über-popular writer of the blog called That’s Church.  How popular?  Ginny got something like 15,000 visitors to her site the moment she re-launched her blog after revealing her true identity three and a half years ago.  In the interest of full disclosure, it was Ginny who inspired at least one Youngstown resident to start a blog cleverly entitled Letters to My Inner Editor.  Yeah, that one.  And now like a cookie-ravaging canine, that Youngstown-based writer is about to bite the hand that feeds his muse.

Pittsburgh, not Youngstown, is the rightful birthplace of the wedding cookie table, Ginny asserts.  She cites items painstakingly researched from Wikipedia and other flimsy parts of cyberspace as proof of her argument, willingly admitting “everything on the internet is true.”  Well, two can play that game, Ginny, as will be demonstrated in a moment.

It seems that while we were looking down, the jester indeed stole our thorny crown.  And while this should not be cause for men of Youngstown to hide their women and children and gird their loins for battle, the apparent co-opting of this sacrosanct Youngstown tradition must be met with resolute and courageous action.  There is nothing less at stake than the continuing erosion or even blatant looting of other long-held truths, customs, and traditions that are peculiar to this city.  It’s a slippery slope if you just follow the trail of cookie crumbs.

One should ask, “What’s next for someone to steal?”  Could it be this city’s gilded honor as the cradle of that yellow hankie that gets flung with authority by gentlemen in vertically-striped shirts on autumn weekends at Heinz Field and other stadia – football’s penalty flag that was invented by YSU’s very own Dwight “Dike” Beede?

Will Youngstown’s rightful place in history as the birthplace of Good Humor ice cream melt away until we’re left holding an empty stick?

Or – here’s a biggie – Youngstown as the home of the Warner Brothers.  Yep.  Those Warner Brothers.  Even right here on Jack Warner’s Wiki it quotes him saying about the town of his youth, “J. Edgar Hoover told me that Youngstown in those days was one of the toughest cities in America, and a gathering place for Sicilian thugs active in the Mafia. There was a murder or two almost every Saturday night in our neighborhood, and knives and brass knuckles were standard equipment for the young hotheads on the prowl.”

Thanks for the affirmation, Jack, but did you really have to bring up the mob thing?  You’re killing me here.

At any rate, the debate over the paternity of the cookie table custom will rage on short of DNA testing but not without a fight from the proud denizens of the Mahoning Valley.  They will continue to stake their own claim to this birthright, and by a wonderful coincidence the concept will be supremely celebrated at the Tyler Mahoning Valley History Center on Saturday, February __th.  The event called Cookie Table and Cocktails starts at 7 and ends at 11 and is billed as “all the fun of a wedding reception – without the wedding.”  If you look at the online information, please ignore the comment “No one can prove for sure where or when [the cookie table custom] started.”  It was likely said in a sugar-shock induced moment of disorientation.

If they have not already done so, organizers of this veneration of Youngstown’s vital role in cookie table tradition should ensure that Virginia Montanez is properly invited and escorted to this affair – a genuine cookie table throwdown.  One presumes she will be easy to spot with her fingers in her ears, and should that be the case, a firm poke to the ultra-sensitive hollows of her armpits – a skill that most of us practiced enthusiastically in the fifth grade – will give Youngstowners the opportunity to state their case with the dignity it richly deserves.

Dear Abbeys

Downtown Abbey

We are into the fourth week of the administration of Youngstown’s new mayor John McNally.  We are also four episodes into the new season of Downton Abbey.

One thing is abundantly clear.

Only one of these things is providing a full complement of drama.

Of the two – at least at this early stage of the game – the worldwide phenomenon known as Downton Abbey, seen Sunday nights on PBS, is continuing to feed its millions of fans a delicious diet of skillfully crafted theater, stories that series creator Julian Fellowes marinates in a wonderful blend of juices containing just the right balance of joy, bitterness, hopefulness, angst and other important ingredients.

Drama of late from City Hall, thankfully, has been in rather limited supply.  It’s actually a refreshing change of pace from the combination of comedy and tragedy that was performed by last year’s ensemble at 26 South Phelps Street, a place we’ll call Downtown Abbey.

A year ago, Downton Abbey – named for the fictional estate of the equally fictional Robert Crawley, the staid and proper Earl of Grantham – brought us the sparing of Downton from financial calamity, a pair of shocking deaths in his lordship’s immediate family, the birth of an heir, a wronged man’s release from prison, and recognition that change from doing things the same old way is a not only a necessary part of growth but also of survival.

The previous “season” of Downtown Abbey, by contrast, featured among other things a sexual harassment scandal, a city streets department employee running amok, fringe mayoral candidates that defied description, head-thumping bickering about embarrassingly long overdue ward redistricting, and a recognition that change is to be ignored for as long as possible as the old ways work just fine, thankyouverymuch.

A sneak preview of Downton’s first hour of Season Four was offered at a special screening early last month at Stambaugh Auditorium, the same place where nearly a decade ago the City once spectacularly unveiled the Youngstown 2010 Plan.  Where the Downton Abbey premier successfully whetted the audience’s appetite for its forthcoming season of eight or so episodes on public television, the opening scenes of our new version of Downtown Abbey are just beginning to unfold.  As they do, it’s hoped they arrive at a better destination than that much-heralded planning document which quite unfortunately seems fated to become a largely ignored, dusty old relic.

Now just because the shiny new edition of Downtown Abbey may lack much of the emotional nuance of its English cousin, it doesn’t mean that it will be bland.  One hopes, in fact, it will be anything but and that each successive piece of progress forged under its new leadership will be better than the last as everyone settles into their roles.  Of course, every new administration always showers us with gobs of optimism as if ordained by nature.  In this case, however, there is every distinct possibility that the rich and resonant tones struck at the onset by City Hall’s new cast members will be sustained for the long run.  And grand potential can be realized as long as earnest work doesn’t dissolve into Benny Hill or Monty Python sketches as has been known to happen in the past.  God forbid that any member of Team McNally morphs into a Minister of Silly Walks.

Just as his lordship the Earl of Grantham has challenges in the days ahead, so indeed does our new mayor.  By the way, when writing within the context of Downton Abbey it’s a little hard to curb the impulse to refer to our city’s new chief executive with a title of landed gentry – something I’m willing to bet he will embrace only on March 17th – but forgive me if I cave in to that temptation just this once.  While Robert Crawley faces major problems in preserving his beloved Downton along with his legacy, Lord Mayor McNally (it does have a nice ring to it) has quite a full plate in front of him, too.

A simultaneously declining and aging population, weak city schools, neighborhood blight, crime, a business economy stuck somewhere between neutral and first gear, riverfront development: these are real problems at Downtown Abbey and sufficient enough for any lord mayor to tell the staff to keep the curtains closed, the doors locked, and the drawbridge up.  Where Lord Grantham needs to accept new efficiencies in continuing Downton’s self-sufficiency, John McNally is staring at hard choices in the face of projected budget deficits.  Where Mrs. Patmore runs a disciplined kitchen at Downton, the lessons and issues from the matter of an allegedly undisciplined Kitchen at Downtown Abbey should be heeded and not ignored.  Where Lady Mary must come to terms with her grief and rejoin the living, the collective population surrounding Downtown Abbey must simply not moan about the past and the problems of the present but join in the solutions for the future.

If only Downtown Abbey had a Mr. Carson who not only insists on properly running a tight ship, but whose deep, dulcet voice and velvet-gloved fist reassure all that everything is in good hands without being a bully about it.

It could be that the current star of Downtown Abbey is quite possibly the best-equipped gentleman to handle the job in decades.  While none of Youngstown’s last three elected mayors were particularly effective in stopping the city’s bleeding, they did bring certain highly regarded qualities to the office.  Pat Ungaro – at least to this writer – was always accessible and did not hide in his office.  George McKelvey understood business, or so it seemed.  Jay Williams promoted a vision.  Perhaps in Mayor McNally we have someone who is a combination of all three.  And then some.

This much is certain: the script for Downtown Abbey is being written every day.  And like the award-winning Downton Abbey whose loyal viewers have ensured its success, excellent performances from the stage of Youngstown City Hall will likely ensure “series renewal” when the time comes.

 

 

I Tawt I Taw a Puddytat

Sample Security logo

The findings on the widely reported sexual harassment case involving DeMaine Kitchen, Lindsey Hughes and the City of Youngtown have finally been released and the report is astonishingly appalling – for its quality as well as its content.

The tipoff that the report was going to be weak by professional presentation standards was the cover.  The furrowed brow of a presumably large feline creature greets the reader.  It’s hard to tell if this feline is supposed to be ferocious or cranky or confused.  Perhaps those eyes are simply glazed over from reading the contents within and I wouldn’t blame it.  But there is no discernible connection between the name of the investigative agency and these “eyes of the tiger.”  I’m not sure if I’m supposed to be intimidated by the expression on this cat’s face, but for all I know maybe the investigator was just copy-and-pasting his favorite high school sports mascot on the cover.

The report – all 67 pages of it – will never be confused with any document in the Hall of Erudite and Learned Letters (my apologies to NPR’s Car Talk duo Ray and Tom Magliozzi for using their acronym which in this case very ironically spells HELL).  This thing that Sample Security & Investigation Inc. passed along Friday to all involved parties and the media breaks down this way:  The kitty cover, a three page summary, a copy of the City’s sexual harassment policy, interview summaries (the biggest chunk composing half the report), nine pages of cell phone text message transcriptions, the sexual harassment policy (again), and various letters, emails, and memos pertaining to this case.  The only components not seen are the CDs and a DVD that contain cell phone billing and text message data and email information.

The most disconcerting portion of this report is the largest portion, the part that details interviews with 22 individuals involved in this case on different levels, the most prominent, of course, being Mr. Kitchen and Ms. Hughes.  Actually, “details” is too charitable a word.  This is the part of the report that is truly outstanding in its curious presentation.  The reports are not titled with the name of the interviewee, so one does not know which interview one is reading until you typically get to the second line of the narrative where the witness is identified.  From there it becomes even more baffling as the interview narrative shifts back-and-forth between a third person and first person account.

It made me dizzy.

Lyndsey Hughes’ account is the most difficult to read.  It looks sort of like this:

Ms. Hughes is the Director of Downtown Events … she said things started when … and I was like locking the doors … and I’m like oh my God … and then I’m all eww!  Make him go away!

Here’s an actual sentence from the report (English majors should close their eyes or turn their heads):

Mr. Hughes [sic] states there’s been a few times where they’ve sent people to her office that they want to do something in their Ward and they’ll push for me to do it, but she has always kind of been like, she would rather not go into Wards because her focus is downtown and if she started going into Wards she can’t do all by herself.

If you struggled mightily with that sentence, just try to walk it off.  I could give you the context of that line, but I have neither the time nor the inclination to put myself through that torture.  It would hurt way too much.  I would rather you torture yourself by going to the Vindicator’s website and downloading the report for your own reading displeasure.  Be prepared, however, to jitterbug your way through a grammatical minefield and derailed syntax.

If the City of Youngstown was prepared to spend upwards of ten grand on an investigation, I think they could have at least vetted the hired agency’s ability to compose a cogent report.  The most egregious error was the misspelling of former City law director Iris Guglicello’s last name which was written on page eight of the report as Gooklacello.  Seriously?  You’re potentially earning a hefty fee but you don’t have the time or courtesy to check proper name spellings?

For all I know, the investigator on this case, Steve Sample – a retired detective from Akron – is tremendously skilled at his craft but writing is simply not his strong suit.  A Columbo in need of a ghost writer.

Unfortunately, for the tidy sum of money the City will dump into this investigation, the findings were not presented in anything even remotely resembling a sophisticated document reflecting the gravitas of the matter.  The writing was amateurish, the interviews should have been laid out in either a Q&A transcript or an intelligent narrative, a table of contents and proper page titles should have been in place, and the big puddytat should have been left off the cover.

In spite of the report’s lack of polish and professional appearance, this much is certain:  The allegations against Mr. Kitchen are solidly incriminating and Charles P. Sammarone still appears to have mishandled this case from the start, beginning with his sexist “you’re a pretty, young girl” comment to Ms. Hughes.

And the beat goes on.

This case will very likely proceed into federal court by virtue of a filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  That means more investigation, depositions, news coverage and quite possibly a trial.  My guess is the outcome probably won’t be known until sometime halfway through 2015.

Meanwhile, I need to do something to get the song “Eye of the Tiger” out of my head.  Maybe I can replace it with “What’s New, Pussycat.”

 

In Excelsis Deo on this December 7th

 

On this date which continues to live in infamy, when brave young men and women 72 years ago at Pearl Harbor gave what Abraham Lincoln once called “the last full measure of devotion,” I thought it appropriate to share this 4+ minute segment from the television show The West Wing. It is seasonal – “Little Drummer Boy” plays in the background – it honors our military dead, and it remembers our homeless veterans. It is a very touching and moving piece and comes from the Emmy-winning episode “In Excelsis Deo.”

As a side note, the mother-in-law of the bearded gentleman playing the role of “Toby” (Richard Schiff) is from Youngstown.  Her name is Kate Holway Thom Kelley, she is a Rayen grad and grew up on Ohio Avenue on the North Side.  Richard married Kate’s youngest daughter Sheila, an actor in her own right.

Please take a few minutes to watch this, and on this December 7th please keep all those past and present who have honored our country with their service in your thoughts and prayers, particularly those who have no work or shelter this Christmas season.

The outcome

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The results are not pretty if you are a fan of the Travers for Youngstown campaign.

I received 1,553 votes.  Everyone else got 8,991.  Of that second number, the mayor received the lion’s share of 7,053 in his bid to start year number 18 in his old president of council seat.

I am not sad.  I have come away from this experience richer for it.  I have made new friends.  I have learned much about our city.  I have learned much about myself.  I have learned … much.

At this time, I think it’s important for me to do only three things.

First, I want to congratulate Susie Beiersdorfer on an incredibly strong showing.  The Green Party should be proud of her.  She represented herself and her ideas with thoughtfulness, class, and a lot of enthusiasm.

Second, I want to thank the 1,552 people who – other than myself – believed in me and what I stood for.  You literally opened your door to my vision, embraced my campaign, and provided the fuel that kept Travers for Youngstown moving forward for six grueling months.

I have personally thanked each of the people that made enormous contributions in guiding and maintaining this campaign.  But the one special person I want to thank publicly is my wife Patricia.  Her love, energy, ideas, wisdom, patience and enthusiasm – not to mention her tireless efforts as my campaign treasurer – have meant everything to me.  I simply would not have been able to function without her by my side.  I am a very lucky man.

Third and finally, I want to let you know that I am not discouraged.  This election, to some, may have been nothing more than a study in foregone conclusions in which I was expected to lose by a huge margin, but the outpouring of support I received from people all over our community is still too big and too important for me to ignore.  Therefore I promise I will continue to find ways in which I can serve you and contribute valuable progress to this place we call home.  And to assure you of that, let me borrow these words from the late Edward Kennedy:  The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

Accountability takes a holiday

Non-endorsement

When Mayor Charles P. Sammarone packed for his current Florida vacation, he must have packed up and taken his accountability with him.  It sure as heck was nowhere to be found when his direct mail campaign literature landed in my mailbox last Wednesday.

In case you didn’t receive one of those postcards (the same one of which I wrote a blog post on Halloween), an untruthful portion of that card is displayed above.  Circled in red on the left is an endorsement the mayor claims to have received from the Western Reserve Building Trades.  The problem is the Building Trades endorsed no one in the council president race.  In fact, the only endorsement interviews they conducted were for the Youngstown mayoral election.

WKBN Channel 27 First News confirmed with the president of the Building Trades, Don Crane, that no endorsement was awarded to any candidate running for president of Youngstown city council.  They ran the story at 11:00 p.m. as did WYTV Channel 33.  The local Fox affiliate broadcast the story at 10.  In case you missed it, you can click here to see the story.

What’s very ironic about this is that the falsely claimed endorsement appears on the post card less than an inch away from the word accountability.  Talk about a disconnect.  Accountability has been the self-proclaimed centerpiece of Mayor Sammarone’s administration, yet he lays claim to something he did not earn and in doing so does a grave disservice to voters and his supporters.

Like you, I only want what’s fair.  I want truth.  I want transparency.  I want to put incidents like this out at the curb with the rest of the stuff we want to get rid of in our city government.  Please remember all this as you walk into that voting booth today.  And then perhaps you can help me honestly lay claim to the most important endorsement of all:  the seal of approval of the people of Youngstown.

Go vote today and be proud you did!

Now you see it, now you don’t

Now you see it

If one is seated for a football game on the west side of Geneva College’s Reeves Stadium in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, one can gaze directly across the Beaver River valley to a forested hillside where a humongous “G” sits in the midst of a small clearing.  For decades, students at rival Westminster College were well aware that the G was created by a formation of very large rocks painted white.

Every other year – specifically those years in which the Westminster Titans and Geneva Golden Tornados battled it out at Reeves – the denizens of Geneva would enter their stadium and take their seats only to discover that their beloved stone monogram had become a magnificent “W” on the verdant hillside across the river.

“The Miracle of the Dancing Rocks” it was called.

Perhaps not coincidentally, in alternate years certain Westminster College signs would manage somehow to be spirited away and held for ransom at Geneva.

It was harmless fun in the midst of an intense rivalry on the scale of Yankees-Red Sox or Browns-Steelers or Buckeyes-Wolverines.

In political races, it’s not the same.  An election rivalry might be intense, but you don’t get to play another game next year.  In most cases you have to wait four years for another chance to play if you lose, so there’s pressure to win.  And sometimes the pressure to win – regardless of the actual motives for competing in the first place – leads to actions against a rival that can range from simply mean-spirited to outright despicable.

Some political dirty pool came to my attention yesterday as I was driving through town and noticed that my campaign signs were missing from the front yards of two of my supporters that live next to each other.  I contacted one of them by text (the “lazy man’s way” of communicating, I’ve been told) and was informed by return text moments later that a person hereinafter referred to as my venerable opponent (the one seeking a return to his old job) had a firm hand in their removal.

Let’s be clear about one thing.  They were not stolen; they were removed by my supporters.  But the reason for their removal is rather remarkable.  The yard signs were taken down because of an alleged thinly-veiled threat of reduced or discontinued support of an organization with which my supporter has a relationship.  It apparently was a classic case of “if I can’t threaten you directly, I’ll threaten those around you.”

My supporter was well within his legal and ethical rights to display his endorsement of my campaign, but he felt cornered and did not want to be, understandably, the guy that caused any sort of retaliation toward an organization.  He told me he hated doing it but he and his neighbor (to whom he is related) became so fed up by this mess that they removed not just my signs but all signs for all candidates they are supporting and will probably never put up a yard sign for anyone else again.

I know that hardball politics were not invented by my venerable opponent, and neither was I born yesterday (although my venerable opponent might think so), but there is no place in an above-board, transparent and ethical world for this to happen.  If you want to compete, then compete fairly and buy your own damn sign and find a place to stick it.  I might even be inclined to offer a few suggestions where.

I will not reveal the parties involved in this situation because I don’t want a valued civic-minded organization and those involved with it to potentially suffer from any fallout.  I certainly don’t want to see any portion of their support system short-circuited.  My needs are short term and can be met without further disturbing the water.  Their needs are much greater and much longer term.  But I will say this:  My supporter knows what happened, several people connected to the targeted organization know what happened, and my venerable opponent knows what happened.  For now, it’s sufficient for me to respond in a way my venerable opponent might understand.  Allow me to repeat a phrase he is alleged to have used in his apparent mishandling of a sexual harassment claim a few years ago: This s**t needs to stop.

By the way, Geneva’s “G” and Westminster’s signs are set in concrete these days with no hope of their ever being changed or taken again.  Kinda took the fun out of some annual shenanigans, but steps had to be taken, I guess.

When I become the city’s next council president, maybe my first contribution will be to pour concrete around local campaign ethics.