Public Comment to Cleveland City Council:
My name is Arthur Hargate. I live in Ward 6 in Little Italy. I am writing to express concern over the firing of Tessa Jackson from her position as the City of Cleveland’s Economic Development Director.
First, this is a matter that should be of great concern to City Council.
Ms. Jackson’s recent testimony to City Council and its reporting in the media was a welcomed breath of fresh air and finally offered some encouragement to me and many taxpayers I know, in which she questioned the wisdom of certain taxpayer subsidies like abatement and Tax Increment Financing, highlighting their ineffectiveness in truly helping the situation of poor people in our community.
These are City policies and practices that many, many taxpayers have known to be gigantic problems for decades, and finally someone in government here was willing to call them out for what they unquestionably are: grotesquely inequitable.
It seems ironic then and highly coincidental that she speaks out like that, and now just weeks later she’s gone? Apparently developers didn’t appreciate her candor and as a group complained to the City. I wonder if her demeanor, as described by a developer in a Plain Dealer article, would have been perceived to be less “harsh” and “abrasive” had it been coming from an older, white male?
It’s critical for taxpayers to know exactly what happened here.
Because it seems pretty obvious that powerful business interests and developers pushed back hard and got her fired, because she expressed an honest, informed professional opinion about public money subsidies that have to date failed to benefit disenfranchised people in Cleveland in any economically measurable way. She seemed to very much be an advocate for all Clevelanders, but developers apparently think that’s a bad thing.
It smells really bad, that’s for sure. It appears she was canned for simply speaking an inconvenient truth about how economic development in our community has benefited some but by no means all. If that’s the case, it’s frightening, embarrassing and emblematic of why Cleveland remains one of the poorest big cities in the United States.
It suggests strongly that our “leaders” answer preferentially to the business elite, investors, banks and speculative real estate developers, but not so much to neighborhood residents, voters and the overwhelming majority of taxpayers. Because we know that poverty is a policy choice, it’s clear our “leaders,” both in government and in civic life, have refused to make poverty a high enough priority here for the last fifty years.
So this is what happens when you have the courage to speak truth to power in Cleveland? Unconscionable.
Results matter. Data matters. Facts matter. Tessa Jackson simply brought forward the results, the data and the facts regarding Cleveland’s track record in subsidizing economic development. And the results, facts and data were not pretty, so she was expunged.
The facts are it’s been a great ride for the posh, powerful and privileged in greater Cleveland the last fifty years, but not at all so great for the middle class and positively tragic for poor people. This firing suggests not much is changing under Mayor Justin Bibb, and initial indicators are our new County Executive is on the very same wave-length as our mayor: catering to big money special interests and ignoring average and poor people, while glossing over the raw inequity with slick marketing and feel-good bromides of verbal gobbledygook.
Let’s hope Tessa Jackson stays here and helps to push for an equitable Cleveland in other ways. We need a lot more truth-tellers like her in our government and civic organizations.
Nonetheless, this looks like another bleak and embarrassing confirmation of the deeply outsized influence the business, investor, real estate development and finance community has on government in Cleveland. Tessa Jackson likely was fired because she spoke the truth as she and many taxpayers understand it, and it obviously peeved some of the power elites, so they had the Mayor show her the door.
Councilpersons from the forgotten wards get it, but the overwhelming regional push now is for even more glitzy, expensive new stuff to try to attract population back to our region, especially downtown, to pump up the tax base and fill the pockets of the power elite.
So, the shakedown of taxpayers in subsidies and lavish public money for private wealth development is likely only going to get worse: for the failed MedMart, to county council members pet projects, to the Browns, to the CAVS, to a pricey gargantuan unnecessary land bridge, to the lakefront, to Bedrock, to a jail, to a courthouse, to more tax-abated luxury rental paradises and now to “reimagine” how the lower level of the Detroit-Superior bridge can entertain tourists and the well-to-do.
And correspondingly, because trickle-down economic development is a cosmic lie we have been force-fed here in Cleveland for the last 50 years, we will almost certainly remain one of the poorest big cities in the United States, affordable housing to rent and buy will remain elusive, as will plentiful living wage jobs.
Our public schools will remain underfunded, infant and maternal death rates for people of color will stay tragic and the city will remain particularly unlivable for black women and families (as reported in the media.) Our rapid transit system will stay anemic, and the tree canopy that can protect the most vulnerable of us from the climate crisis will take an inordinate amount of time to build back.
Because there has never been a nexus between Cleveland’s ever changing and chaotic economic development schemes chasing the most recent bright and shiny object of attraction for the wealthy and the desperate need here for more living wage jobs accessible to poor people. Because our economic development priorities have to date not directly addressed the region’s aching deficiencies in living wage jobs, affordable housing, segregation and discrimination, funding to public schools and violent crime that have driven population away.
But the urban buzz-speak, effervescent toxic positivity and blah, blah, blah bloviating boosterism of our government and civic “leaders” will continue. We’ll all be “dreaming big” and “reimagining” in our “high density,” “vibrant,” “walkable, multi-modal” “15 minute city.”
Right. Sure we will.
Because our Mayor asserts his number one job is being Cleveland’s biggest cheerleader, and truth be told, he’s getting darned good at it. Seriously? We elected him to fix Cleveland’s big problems, not flit around the country and world selling the virtues of our, by all objective measures, eminently below average city. Population will return when we finally fix our endemic problems and shore up our obvious deficiencies.
It’s time City Council pushed back and pushed back hard on economic development initiatives and their tax subsidies that do not directly benefit ALL Clevelanders, and in particular the poor, disenfranchised and middle class in our community. Community Benefits Agreements can certainly help, but that’s just a start.
Tessa Jackson had it exactly right, but having it right got her fired. Her advocacy for the underserved in Cleveland should be a model for City Council and the City Administration to follow, and follow closely.