Friday, October 31, 2008

Can You Smell It? It's SOO Close...

Yes, Ohio matters. Canton gets Palin, Cleveland gets both Obamas Sunday with time running out to convince those undecideds to swing their way.
Governor Sarah Palin visits the Field House at McKinley High around noon Sunday, November 2, 2008 with a final Victory Road Rally (campaign's words) and big vote that's filed under GOTV (Get Out The Vote) label. Doors open at nine in the morning. Here's where Republicans and McCain-Palin supporters can get tickets:

Stark County - behind Gabrail Bldg. 4875 Higbee Ave NW, Canton. 9a-9p hours;
Portage County - 1180 West Main Street, Kent. 9a-9p hours;
Summit County: Canal Place Building, 520 South Main, Akron. 9a-9p hours;
Medina County: 124 North Court Street, Medina. 9a-9p hours.

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The Obama Campaign has Senator Barack and Michelle checking in with Bruce Springsteen supplying an acoustic GOTV set around 3:45p.
Keep in mind the Browns are home against the Ravens, so parking will be at an extreme premium but what great timing to draw a crowd. Depending on how tough the Ravens defense is even hard-core GOP Browns fans may be walking up the bluff to get a taste of something different.

Those of you with memory going back four years remember it was the site of a Springsteen show on behalf of Kerry-Edwards in 2004 to close out the campaign. This is also free and no tickets required but supporters are being asked to RSVP (don't know why if there's no tickets...unless they just want the web traffic) to ahead of the event.

Massive Turnout

Want an idea of just how things have changed since 2004? Think over a million people already in both Florida and Georgia alone, standing in line for hours in some cases to get in their vote early.

Here in Summit County, the same: Wayne Jones of the Board of Elections notes the following numbers as of yesterday:

2004 Absentee cast: 33,000
2008 Absentee requested: 53,671
2008 Absentee returned so far: 36,055
2008 In-person voting: 28,133

Forecast by Tuesday PM: 100,000 early votes (a third of the expected total)

Now there are two items to consider over the weekend: how long can you stand in line Saturday, Sunday or Monday to do your civic duty or how long will you stand in line Tuesday when it's E-Day across the nation? The early in-person voting at The Job Center on East Tallmadge (make sure you aim for the east doors; that's where the voting machines are) is likely to be pretty busy with 12-4 hours over the weekend and morning through 8:00 p.m. Monday. Summit County elections workers are putting in extra effort to try and make sure voter lists are as up-to-date as possible but don't be surprised to see this topic play out after the vote counting Tuesday night and then as a repeated theme through 2010 when Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner goes before voters for re-election.

ACORN-issues aside, we probably ought to note it is a miracle much of the registration and vote counting happens at all in a system for a national election that depends on what every local outlet does. We vote as a nation, but governed by the home rules of every state and, in the case of Ohio, every county level charged with administering and carrying out the vote process. In Ohio's case we can't even make computer databases talk with each other to figure out the bad from the good -- who thinks it'll work that way across a nation?

Some might make the case the easy answer here is to register nationally; how such a list might eliminate the talk of multi-state registration, answer questions over where college students vote (and how often) but it flies in the face of our time-honored tradition of the individual and not the group. We consider ourselves Americans but it is as Ohioans and then Summit County voters we make our decisions.

Basic message: vote early, but not often is what we'll take out of 2008. The irony of much of the political fighting over the process in 2010 is that Brunner's name will probably be the key target race for all to watch in just two years and her actions in this election will be sliced and diced hundreds of different ways just waiting for the spin.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Oops...More Biden

On this one I'm with Biden...if you're going to take a hard shot at least have the right facts when you go on the attack. Still, it takes the wind out of the sails of those who claim Democrats get a free pass. I'd still like to see the same kind of hard questions aimed at all the candidates, but it does call to question just lobbing the grenade without knowing where you are supposed to be throwing it.

Thanks to for this find...

Sunday, October 26, 2008

How About More Of This?

There's been quite a bit of talk lately about the strategy of the presidential campaigns in "using" local media availability to get their message out, and cynics opine it's because the rubes in the hinterlands are easy marks and won't ask tough questions. I'm one of those cynics, but the latest softball turned hardball and it would be nice if we local broadcasters held the glitz candidates to a similar standard.

This strategy is called "free media" because it turns to be another opportunity to enhance the candidate or campaigns brand or message without having to pay for it. Stations usually like to belly up to the bar for "free media" opportunities because we think it enhances our own brand, so it is few and far between when we actually treat it as a chance to treat the politicians like -- well, politicians.

Check out WFTV Orlando's satellite Q&A with Senator Joe Biden; it's pretty clear the anchor's strategy was hit-'em hard rather than the usual easy going...

This "cost" the local station; the Obama campaign cancelled another interview, this time with Biden's wife, and notified the station they were persona non grata for future interviews. I'm sure the station is absolutely crushed at the news they won't get to interview Jill Biden, who isn't running for any office. It also shows how the campaigns running for the most powerful elected office in the free world can't stand the heat when they visit the kitchen and have to defend or explain themselves against their most vigorous critics. Maybe this is why there are really so few head-to-head debates and unrestricted town hall format discussions.

It really isn't a partisan issue, examples frequently come down to the way the GOP goes overboard managing access to VP candidate Palin. She was far more photo-op than chat time not only with the softball locals but also the big media outlets, although national correspondents now say Palin's talking with them on the campaign trail far more than Biden. It shows the way the pendulum swings.

Overall, anytime local media gets the opportunity for a sit-down, the campaigns figure we'll lob easy questions such as "Gee, how are you liking (my city/state/region, just fill in the blank)?" so the candidate (Obama, McCain, Palin, Biden, spouses, again fill in the blank) can answer what he or she thinks they should have asked or they'll provide the soundbite on how tasty the local fine dining is (Stricklands, Swenson's, Skyline, Luigi's, fill in the blank.)

I'd suggest that strategy has merit because more local voters watch local TV, and besides the local broadcasters all want to showcase their "exclusive" three minutes one-on-one with the big names. Makes us look more important, even if we do treat the opportunity more like a photo op promo than a chance to hold feet to the fire and do what should be our jobs: cut through the bull and get 'em to the point. Make them respond to what their critics say; make 'em answer the questions the toughest voters ask; put 'em on the hot seat rather than add to the buildup of inane spin that seems to substitute for political coverage.

Kudos to WFTV for having the guts to jettison the same-old, hackneyed coverage model and doing the service to remind us all the media does a better job confronting and challenging than it does adding to the spin din.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Issue 8: Akron's Not Kalamazoo

"Kazoo" refers to Kalamazoo, Michigan, the mother ship of offering college scholarships to local students. Mayor Plusquellic frequently refers to this western Michigan city's Kalamazoo Promise as his primary inspiration for his Akron Scholarship Plan.

It is important to note there's some pretty big outstanding differences; one big item is Kalamazoo's big-dog status as the biggest city in the southwest corner of Michigan. It's not even close to Akron, however: Kazoo less than half of our population. We have names like FirstEnergy, Goodyear and Firestone as giants of our economy while Kalamazoo has Pfizer, Eaton and Stryker. We have UA; they have WMU, Kalamazoo College, Davenport University and Kalamazoo Community.

Our friends up north in Wolverine country have much in common with Ohio; we have Cleveland and Youngstown, they have Detroit; we have the free republican of Athens, they have the free republic of Ann Arbor. We both have lakeshore. They have Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo with economic engines driven by more than automotive; we have Columbus and Cincinnati. They have a tax system business says is enough to drive them south; Ohio's been working on that. Both states have an aging population watching too many kids head for opportunity elsewhere, to return for holidays and deer season.

Kalamazoo funds their "Promise" program through private donations, sparked by what Plusquellic rightfully points out are the founding families of Kalamazoo who still have the resources to pony up for the greater good. We used to have those kinds of families here in Akron, too, and our landscape shows much of their impact: Goodyear Heights, Firestone Park, Seiberling Naturealm...the Seiberling, Goodrich, O'Neil and Firestone names still live on even though most of those families have already scattered to the winds and taking their money with them. Our sugar daddy days are done, left with Harvey's bronze reminder off South Main of glory days gone by.

The economic impact of the dollars today, however, is clear in Kazoo. The promise of jobs and development sparked more interest in living in Kalamazoo since this program started in 2006, just two years ago. I've included a report from Todd Kulman, our news director at our stations in Lansing, on the impact with this link. It's not even worth debating -- the plan works well for Kalamazoo.

But it's not the Akron Scholarship Plan.

Kalamazoo sends it's graduates to any state college or university, 52 at last count in Michigan; Akron's plan limits graduates to just eight institutions, including the University of Akron. The Kalamazoo Promise pays tuition; Akron's plan is a considered "last dollar", meaning recipients would exhaust other avenues and use Akron's scholarship as last resort. The Promise doesn't require recipients to return to Kalamazoo or pay it back; Akron calls for a 30-year term paying city income taxes either as a resident of the city, a worker in the city, or even making tax payments from wherever they land.

These are important distinctions and driving much of the discussion. Kalamazoo estimates $200 to $250 million generating enough money to fund scholarships for 500 students to start, anywhere from three to five million in tuition payments.

There are plenty of reasons to support the concept; 1200 graduates estimated to benefit from a step up, not a hand out. As the Administration and supporters rightfully point out, Akron made history with the first free public high school and this is a logical extension of that vision. But it is worth asking the question: if graduates of Akron's free high schools in the 19th and 20th centuries were free to move about the country without strings pulling their wallets back to Akron shouldn't the graduates of the 21st century version have the same ability to become ambassadors to the world?

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Issue 8: The Royal Flush

With dozens of candidates on the ballot -- ranging from national, state and local -- it may very well be the future of the flush that attracts most interest from Akron voters once they've made their choice for the White House.

Not to dismiss the importance of the other contests, mind you; after all, I'm sure Summit County awaits with baited breath the result of the Engineer's head-to-head. But much of the smoke from the political fires seems to burn around Issue 8, Akron's sewer lease-for-scholarships program.

On Wednesday we aired on WAKR a discussion program that provided callers the opportunity to pose questions directly to supporters and critics, and the late decision by two of the participants added some fireworks to the program. Mayor Plusquellic clearly has no time for Warner Mendenhall, the former councilman and now lawyer for the Save Our Sewers Committee which doesn't like the Administration's direction in leasing the sewer system to fund college with the Akron Scholarship Plan. Both were last-minute appearances to the panel and both took vocal and up-front positions in what turned into an excellent debate running over an hour.

The full program is available for listening using this link, but in the event you want to catch this on the air WAKR is airing an encore presentation following the noon news this Sunday, October 26th.

Overall, I think the debate showcased both sides favor some type of scholarship program; they disagree on how to pay for it. Mendenhall is fairly late to the party (less than two weeks from the election) with his idea of a city income tax to fund a scholarship program if Akron voters think it's that good of an idea. The Mayor jumped quick to tag Mendenhall as favoring increasing taxes, but the former councilman-turned-thorn-in-the-Don's-side didn't seem too bothered by the label. In fact, should Issue 8 fail it does offer supporters a comeback proposal to make.

A key issue here is whether Akron is willing to put either it's sewers or its money behind where their mouths are. It is easy to push for a more educated workforce and this is one way to get there, but it's another to take the money directly out of your pocket (as an income tax would do) or even push off a city asset to private management (as leasing the sewer system would do) to raise the cash.

There is a great deal of talk surrounding comments made by Public Service Director Merolla in The Bond Buyer, which bills itself as THE newspaper of public finance. On this topic I think the Administration has some work to do in more fully explaining what Merolla's comments mean, especially how any up-front payment for a lease would mean a net benefit to the scholarship plan. In the September article he notes the debt from the system would be paid first, and there seems to be some confusion on that point.

Another sticking point is the Administration's insistence that Akron get a payback from the scholarship in the form of income taxes, whether the recipient works and lives in the City or not for 30 years. The critics score points when they say it's a loan -- after all, it comes with strings. Plusquellic counters it is fashioned on the federal government's description of education assistance scholarships tied to working in rural areas, for example as doctors. Sure, Uncle Sam may call it a scholarship -- but most folks I talk to understand if getting money comes with strings we usually call that a loan.

It quacks like a loan, why not call it a loan? Because "scholarship" sounds like an easier sell, and at this point in the campaign it is doubtful supporters will back off such a key selling point. Issue 8 signs are growing, especially on every piece of public real estate around schools, and the cable TV ads are already on Time Warner Cable with radio expected to follow next week.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Cost of Presidential Politics

A recent trip to the Big Apple actually provided some needed quiet moments -- from political ads. Unlike Ohio, mother of all things Presidential every four years, the leaning of the Empire State is a given and neither the Obama nor McCain campaigns were wasting much money convincing blue-state Noo Yawka's how to vote. TV was actually fun to watch again.

Fast forward a week, and this morning's observation by Sue Wilson, WQMX's Program Director, on the complaints we've been getting to "Your Station, Your Country" from listeners who usually don't get the political spot carpet bombing.

WQMX is one of those stations that usually airs only the political ads we're required to by federal law, such as for President. Listeners to the FM dial have been getting an earful from Obama and less-than-an-earful from McCain, and their music-fed ears are getting weary from the political talk. Unfortunately, it won't end until November 4th because as noted above -- federal candidate ads can't be turned aside. It is one of the costs of doing business when you hold an FCC-granted license to broadcast.

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On the subject of real costs of the media: the Chicago Sun-Times' Lynn Sweet has done some great reporting on this year's election...and her piece today on charges to cover the Chicago election night party for the Obama campaign is a classic.

A thousand dollars to play for TV and radio types -- newspaper folks will have to pay for phone and web access, too, including reservations of the prime spots photographers need to get those shots of the candidate on election night at the podium. Best location to watch, plus a heated tent, phone, cable TV and web service and some grub hits $935...less attractive location with a view from the riser about $880.

Reporters too poor to pay can still attend free, but will have to provide their own phone and web access and we assume a couple bags of Cheetos and a six-pack.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Notes From the Leadership

An interesting session with the latest class of Leadership Akron at City Hall, as the NewsNight Akron panelists got in an hour of yapping (our favorite pastime) in between University of Akron Bliss Institute Dr. John Green and Mayor Plusquellic.

On center stage: Eric Mansfield from WKYC-TV; Jody Miller, formerly print but now more work for public television; M.L. Schultze of WKSU-FM; Steve Hoffman of the Akron Beacon Journal and yours truly.

After doing more than a few of these panels I am always struck by one thing just about everyone agrees with, regardless of their political much danger Akron is of becoming marginalized as yet another suburb to the idea of "greater Cleveland." Some may view this as rather parochial, opting instead for a more regional approach to solving the considerable problems here, but I think it goes deeper than simply waving that magic wand of government consolidation. People south of the lakeshore really don't want to see their identify swallowed up in the whole of a larger NEO-identity.

From a radio perspective I think it is important to note the Akron market ranks 75th nationally with 596,500 listeners measured by Arbitron, the ratings company. Among the big markets in Ohio, the Cincinnati market (#28 with 1, 773,000) outranks Cleveland (#29, 1,764,000) by just a tick. In reality the Cleveland market is generally considered bigger because of it's "throw" across the market boundaries to include influence into Akron, Canton, Lorain and a reasonable chunk of the Youngstown area.

But if you were to consider Akron and Canton (#129, 347,800) markets as an area with far more in common than apart it puts our interests at 944,300 -- comparable to a Buffalo, New York, Louisville, Kentucky or Richmond, Virginia. This is something we've long seen in TV coverage of this area -- a third of the Cleveland television market, big enough to pay attention to but small enough to warrant the same kind of coverage given the "East side" or the "West side" when making editorial judgments on stories earning precious time in a 30 or 60 minute newscast.

Now you can call me parochial for the mindset that the five-county metro of greater Akron (south Summit, northern Stark, parts of Portage, Wayne and Medina) matters more to the economic health of Akron-Canton than what may necessarily matter to the NEO-region led by Cleveland but it is those local interests, I think, that hold the key to how and why Akron-Canton can prosper as an entity and market unto itself.

Most would agree the health of the region is important, but political decisions are still made on a local level and not as a region.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Talking Points: Issue 8

Both sides seem to have their talking points down pat in one of the few face-to-face forums on Issue 8 and 9...not that everyone at the Town Hall meeting sponsored by the League of Women Voters seemed to have an open mind in listening to the other side.

About a hundred people were in the FirstEnergy meeting room in the basement of the American Red Cross headquarters on West Market Street, a decent turnout for a Saturday morning. It was pretty clear the room was half-for, half-against judging by the number of city and community officials in tow to push for the Akron Scholarship Plan and the half-dozen or so wearing lime-green t-shirts reading "Hate 8, Vote No" above a "City of Akron For-Sale" sign.Following the opening statements moderator Susan Vogelsang noted the tenor of the meeting was non-partisan, and said they wouldn't proceed with the rest of the program unless the t-shirts were either reversed or turned inside out. There wasn't much grumbling -- in fact, even a few smiles -- as opponents of Issue 8 complied and then sat down to the ten work group tables set up to encourage more focused debate and working together to come up with ten questions for the panelists to respond to.

My favorite "strange bedfellows" pairing was the table where Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth sat opposite frequent Administration critic Greg Coleridge of the Save our Sewers and Water Committee. Not exactly your normal buddy-buddy combination but both were far more civil than the normal chatter heard at Mayoral news conferences.

The questions:

1. Can the operator of the leased system commit the City to spending decisions?

No, says Akron Public Service Director Rick Merolla; rates can't go up more than 3.9% but he added EPA mandates have to be paid for regardless of who operates the system, and that falls to ratepayers. Save Our Sewers and Water Committee campaign chair Jack Sombati says the City can't make promises it isn't sure it can keep and it's tough to answer because no lease exists.

2. Why not look at another way to fund scholarships?

Sombati says they asked Mayor Plusquellic this when he first made the proposal and he wasn't interested; Children's Hospital CEO Bill Considine noted Akron is a generous community but raising $200 million privately won't happen. "We can't wait for someone to win the lottery," Considine said, adding "there's a sense of urgency here."

3. Explain Issue 9 pro and con.

This one was easy; both Merolla and Sombati agreed a "yes" vote was a good thing to make sure the public has the ultimate vote in the lease, transfer or sale of city-owned utilities.

4. How to you ensure compliance with EPA standards?

Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Washington-based Food and Water Watch, says we won't know until we see the actual lease agreement -- which doesn't exist. Merolla says nobody gets away with violating EPA options and there are a thousand municipal-run systems with problems just as there are with those run by private management. "I'm not going to sign a contract that puts Akron at risk," Merolla said.

5. What if the company breaks the lease or doesn't live up to its side?

Merolla: if there's a breach, the City takes back control with no payment to the lessee. Sombati says it would still be costly by the time lawyers got involved and used Akron Thermal (the bankrupt Akron municipal steam generator) as an example, noting the millions still owed the city in back taxes.

6. How do you link the scholarship plan with the business community?

Considine pointed to the BioInnovation agreement involving local universities and Akron's three major hospitals as programs bringing 2500 new jobs here in the next five years, and how they'd like to have those skilled jobs filled by Akron residents. Sombati charged the scholarship is really a loan program because of strings attached that tie graduates to paying Akron incomes taxes by staying here for 30 years, continuing Akron taxes if they leave or repaying the scholarship. He also noted Michigan's Kalamazoo Promise, offered up as a blueprint for Akron, provides a free ride without a 30 year commitment. Merolla shot back in a later segment the City was simply asking for a continued contribution to the community that made college possible, and wouldn't collect if graduates had no income (such as stay-at-home mothers or fathers.)

7. The City didn't enforce Time Warner's obligations for public access channels, why believe they will hold a lessee to an agreement?

I'll take this one...and note the cable TV issue has nothing to do with the City. The State of Ohio actually changed the law mandating cable companies hold responsibility for so-called local access channels, turning over the burden to local governments to manage. Not the same thing since it was the State, and not the City or a lessee, to actually change the rules.

8. We want more details on how the scholarship plan works.

Already covered above, but Merolla said 1500-1600 students would be eligible in the first class. The trigger on "repayment" comes with whether graduates pay Akron income tax by living or working in the City; Sombati says that's a loan, not a scholarship.

9. Who's responsible for storm sewer runoff?

More agreement; Sombati says the City is responsible and turned that into an attack on "just trust me" power voters would agree to without more lease details; Merolla countered the City is responsible and either way ratepayers would still pay the bill, lease or no lease.

10. What's the oversight, and how could we terminate the lease if needed?

Merolla: City still owns it, and there are plenty of examples of third-party managers doing city work -- such as highway construction and road resurfacing. Hauter says road maintenance isn't a good example since there's a big difference involving water and sewer quality.

11. Why does the Akron plan cover some communities but not others outside of Akron?

Suburbs are simply customers, says Merolla, and aren't owners so they don't have a voice in this decision. It's different for Akron residents who have children in non-Akron districts (such as Woodridge, Revere, Copley-Fairlawn, Coventry, and Springfield) because JEDDs have them in city limits but attending other schools. Sombati used this to say suburban customers will be just like Akron customers, at risk of big rate hikes because a lease operator will have to get their profits from somewhere.

It was interesting the Mayor wasn't in the house, but was keeping tabs on what was going on.

Proponents tell me this is by design because the Mayor doesn't want to have Issue 8 turned into a referendum on him, although that's probably a little late by now since he's already called those who disagree with him liars. It was a refreshing change to listen to competing sides made their points without calling each other names.

WAKR will air a live version of this town hall Wednesday night at 7:00 p.m. and while we'll get the same points it offers folks playing at home the ability to pick up the phone and get their questions right from the source.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Ohio's Voting Mess

As the final Obama-McCain debate starts what a sad story crosses the wire from the AP's Terry Kinney:

"Close to one in every three newly registered Ohio voters will end up on court-ordered lists being sent to county election boards because they have some discrepancy in their records, an elections spokesman said Wednesday.

Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner estimated that an initial review found that about 200,000 newly registered voters reported information that did not match motor-vehicle or Social Security records, Brunner spokesman Kevin Kidder said. Some discrepancies could be as simple as a misspelling, while others could be more significant."

What is really sad about this is it comes after a court fight where Brunner had to agree with judges who determined she simply had to get off the can and start doing the job.

Some basic questions we should be asking all of the politicians, statewide and local, charged with safeguarding not only the right to vote but the expectation it's clean; starting with why did it take so long? Why did it take those embarassing reports on (a college-based news took college students to get to the meat of this story) to force an honest evaluation of the shenanigans going on? Why did it take stories of one person registered 76 times and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo listed as registering to vote in Ohio to wake up Columbus to the fact that something was amiss? Why does it take a lawsuit in federal court to make elected officials do their duty?

Critics say ACORN...the group of community activists who earlier noted there were problems with their registration drives but it really wasn't their fault...knows full well how these numbers look more like a parody of Chicago-based ward politics. I did a quick Google search this evening on ACORN offices located in Ohio and no surprises as offices in Akron are not only in the same block as local Democratic Party headquarters (also the Obama local campaign headquarters) but the same building. One is 3 Merriman Road, the other 9 Merriman Road. Add that to the growing list of search results on the story. At least there's a nearby Rockne's for lunch to compare voter registration strategy, maybe over a Firestone salad.

There are local examples of this mentality. Summit County Elections Board member Brian Daley took issue with a recent posting where I took the four members of that board to task for the excessive partisanship that's led to decision after decision having to be decided by the fifth member of the board -- Secretary of State Brunner. His point was that much of the blame should go on the shoulders of Democrat Wayne Jones, and for him to side with a Jones-Tim Gorbach block would ignore the issues. The flip side argument, of course, is that Daley and Jack Morrison do the exact same thing on the Republican side.

My response to Daley was that he and Gorbach actually have a great opportunity if they both were to exercise judgment on behalf of the people instead of partisan interests. Should the voters and taxpayers tolerate these blind lock-step votes that deny parties and candidates the opportunity to have observers at early voting? Our Summit County board deadlocked on what is a basic premise of fairness: watching the watchers.

Must the hiring of clerks actually become something that requires a decision by a state official? This week two Summit County elections workers, both in their 70s, actually got into a physical fight with one another when one was apparently marked a ballot for Obama when the nursing home voter wanted to vote for McCain. It was enough to trigger a police report and now a special meeting Thursday morning (yet another one, so how special can they really be?) of the elections board members to review the case. The issue: the one worker who discovered the problem was taken off the job along with the one who made the mistake.

According to this rationale both Jones and Alex Arshinkoff should have been removed from the local elections board on the philosophy that since both of the kids are squabbling send 'em both to bed without supper.

Should any of us be surprised this winds up as yet another tie vote?

We deserve better. A lot better. From all of 'em.

Last Bad Words

An interesting discussion for the journalism wonks: if the last words are words you cannot say on broadcast radio and television or print in the family-friendly newspaper are they still newsworthy?

First, bad words.

When asked for any last words before execution Richard Wade Cooey responded " mother******s haven't paid attention to what I've had to say the past 22 years, why are you going to pay attention to what I have to say now." It isn't surprising to know that would be his final statement; Cooey never took responsibility for the kidnap, rape and murders of Dawn McCreery and Wendy Offredo during interviews in 2003 with the Beacon Journal's Phil Trexler or myself, and he didn't seem to have any remorse in his last interview with the Associated Press.

Behind the view of the story: this was one of the topics our reporter, Chris Keppler, was concerned about before heading down to Lucasville. What if those last words were nothing but profanity? How would we -- should we -- report for the record? Should his reporting of Cooey's statement exclude those words we won't say on the air out of deference to our audience and the threat of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines? Does it glorify someone of Cooey's stature to give his vulgarity the same treatment we would a White House pronouncement?

Phil Trexler and Eric Mansfield, our colleagues at the Beacon Journal and WKYC Channel 3 News, must have had similar thoughts. These are words we hear often in the context of anger and hate, far too often...but not those we would share with friends and family back home. They carried the additional burden, as did Chris, of serving as witnesses for the media and charged with presenting what happened in Ohio's death chamber to the rest of the media waiting outside.

They were the record.

The concerns Chris had were appropriate and on the money; it was profane, it was something we would normally not report verbatim on the air, and like it or not it did get the treatment of a top story, even to the point of making national newscasts.

State executions in Ohio are still relatively rare enough to make the news, although certainly not at the level when they first resumed in 1999 with Wilford "The Volunteer" Berry. Summit County's Robert Buell died by lethal injection in 2002; their story and that of the victims of their crimes were and will continue to be news. We are an odd mix of readers, listeners and viewers when it comes to these stories: on the surface we don't want to be confronted by such evil, but we don't shy away from looking for these stories. In a world of grey the choices of right or wrong are never more stark than in capital cases, even as the debate continues on whether the death penalty is ever appropriate.

For our part in our newsroom, we decided it was important to frame what Cooey said as clearly as possible. Our Operations Manager ran into the room when Chris first filed his report on WAKR, saying the use of "M-F" was wrong. I disagree, and told Chris this morning it was appropriate since it conveyed the record of what happened -- the reason Chris was in Lucasville as a witness. His job was to act as the eyes and ears of those back home, and act as a filter only in the extreme. Not using the entire phrase verbatim was responsible, but somehow downplaying it as "expletive deleted" soft-peddles the evil killer without a soul portrayed by Wendy and Dawn's families.

It isn't pandering to report how and what he said, as clearly and honestly as we can without crossing that line. I tend to side on reporting the truth, and the truth is Richard Cooey left this world much as many of you reading this post expected -- a man condemned by more than a three judge panel.

I had a similar issue in 2006 when Glenn Benner was executed for the slayings of Cynthia Sedgwich in 1985 and Trina Bowser in 1986, but this time the profanity came from a family member who wasn't buying Benner's last words. As a pool reporter it was my job to report what I had seen and heard, which I did -- in true detail -- following the execution. For our reporting I noted the family had strong language but didn't cross the line of a verbatim report.

It wasn't my job to filter what was happening; we can leave that to pundits on news talk shows; as reporters it is our duty to report.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Web Weasels, Part 2

According to an Akron Beacon Journal story -- updating this blog's report last Friday -- the Summit County Prosecutor's office is now investigating how two County Council members wound up with campaign links on their county websites.

You'll recall the original story I posted last week, and the broadcast reports on Sunday and Monday morning. Now the other shoe is dropping with both District 1's Nick Kostandaras and District 3's Louise Heydorn denying any knowledge their county-provided sites contained links to their campaign sites.

I'd give 'em a benefit of a doubt, especially after seeing quotes that putting the link up was either a "bad joke" or came on behalf of a candidate who doesn't even "know how to use a computer."

That means one of the webkins at the county took it upon themselves to add the campaign links to both a Republican and Democrat, right?

This kind of stuff usually launches theft in office charges, but since the links were taken down today (the first business day following the Columbus Day holiday period) it may be found it was just a mistake by someone who thought they were being helpful without giving any thought to the ethics of putting campaign links on a publicly-financed web site, in this case the County of Summit official pages.

Likely every other office holder right now is asking the web gurus to do what's called a "site audit" to make sure they don't slip up along these lines as well.

Nice to see sunshine will works so quickly...and the folks on Exchange and Main do pay attention to stories that don't necessarily start in their pages.

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On another subject, webmaster Bryan and I are wrapping up a trip to New York where this website was honored with a national Edward R. Murrow Award. At the same time Chris Keppler of our staff was covering today's execution of Richard Cooey for the murders of Wendy Offredo and Dawn McCreery 22 years ago.

While our feet are on the ground here our hearts and thoughts are with the families Richard Cooey and Clint Dickens actions ripped apart -- including their own. Cooey went out pretty much the way I imagined he would when I interviewed him five years ago on Death Row; a man who showed no remorse, asking for no forgiveness, telling me his appeals came "because he could" and his legal defenders honored that to the end.

There are few lessons to be learned we don't already know but the chapter closes on this part of the nightmare for family and friends of two women described as vibrant and full of potential and life. The chapter closes, but the nightmare will only fade -- it never goes away.

Opponents of capital punishment say it doesn't solve the crime or bring back loved ones, but for many that isn't the argument.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cooey Isn't The Victim

There's been plenty of writing and reporting over the past few weeks on the scheduled execution of Richard Wade Cooey that refers to his kidnap, rape and murders of "...two University of Akron coeds."

Enough. The real victims have names.

Wendy Offredo and Dawn McCreery were simply wrapping up a night's work at the Brown Derby restaurant and were looking forward to a night of fun before turning in. It was simple until Cooey, buddy Clint Dickens and a friend thought it would be a hoot to drop chunks of concrete from a highway overpass onto the vehicles below.

Vehicles driven by people just like Wendy and Dawn. It was Wendy and Dawn in that car when the man-made rock crashed into their car. Cooey and company flocked to the scene like vultures, but at first they were the doves of peace -- offering to help, even driving the girls to use the phone to call their parents. Wendy and Dawn were found later, when it was too late for any help.

Cooey, 19, got a death sentence handed down by three judges; Dickens got life in prison thanks to the calendar and being under 18 at the time.

Wendy and Dawn had full lives ahead of them, both attending University, both working hard to make their way through the world. They were so typical of young women then and today: opportunities they had the power to make for themselves. Wendy and Dawn are your daughters, your sisters, your friends, your girlfriends, your mothers.
But they've been somehow lost in this equation as the attention of the legal system and the media following behind focuses on one of the men who victimized and are not victims. We must remember them, we should mourn their loss, we shouldn't forget their faces forever frozen in memory, we shouldn't describe them as just the "coeds."

What he took away from Dawn McCreery and Wendy Offredo and their families is the reason Richard Cooey is where he is. He's not in this situation because the law was stacked against him; judge after judge has heard the case, to the point where it is a new generation of judges and appeals panels that listen to the petitions of an even newer generation of public defenders who represent him. It is a new generation of prosecutors who represent Dawn and Wendy, and the families that have waited for what the justice system promised them more than two decades ago. It is a new generation of reporters who write the stories who need to remember behind the tale of a killer is the stolen hope and promise of two young women who deserve to be remembered for who they were, not what Richard Cooey turned them into.

On Tuesday morning, barring again any last-minute rulings from appeals courts that have already ruled on fitness to take a needle, or turned aside arguments prison food made him too fat to kill, or the medicines he got behind bars makes injection cruel, Richard Cooey will lead the story but it is Wendy and Dawn who should be on our minds.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Web Weasels

Just when I thought it couldn't get worse...take a look at your tax dollars at work supporting partisan political candidates. I can't imagine why the web designer and webmaster at Summit County Council would let this go through -- actually using the County's website to promote links to candidate websites not only soliciting votes but also contributions. Is there no shame?

Every member of County Council has a profile page on the County's site; certainly not unusual except for the two members who include a web site reference in addition to calling or emailing.

Summit County Council District 1's Nick Kostandaras official Summit County Council page (seen at left)includes a link at the bottom of his contact information. Follow the link and go to Nick's election page (seen at right) which asks not only for your support but also includes links to contribute.

So taxpayers shell out to build the government-run page...which then directs users to the campaign-run page? Anyone else out there struck by how how inappropriate it is to use a publicly-funded resource to direct voters and citizens doing business with the county to a campaign website?

But wait, there's more...Nick's not the only one.

Louise Heydorn, who represents Summit County Council's District 3, has the exact same deal on her official County site (seen at right) using a link below her profile to drive voters and citizens to her campaign web site (seen at left) which not only encourages us to "Meet Louise" but also to write-in her name. Again, thanks to your tax dollars an official government web site has a direct link to a partisan campaign site.

Isn't technology wonderful? Just think of what this opens up:
  • Mayor Plusquellic, County Executive Pry join forces to list Obama links on County, City
  • Mayor Robart, Sen. Coughlin agree to list McCain links on City, State sites
  • Board of Elections lists ACORN links for ease of voter registration
  • Summit GOP agrees to link to Secretary of State Brunner's home page, party photos

OK, that last paragraph is political sarcasm in case you couldn't tell; what isn't a joke is the use of government resources to further partisan election efforts. Kostandaras is a Democrat; Heydorn is a Republican; both should work fast this weekend to remove those links and put the people's websites back in the realm of the people where it belongs and not some political perk add-on that abuses their power of office.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

If It Quacks and Waddles...

...then it must be a duck, right? However, what if it quacks loudly but the waddle is more like an occasional hop and skip? Even during some of the most trying times for the nation since September 11, 2001...

For all the times we need real leadership: it seems neither candidate for President is willing to go out on a limb in addressing the core issues of the Wall Street meltdown that every household in America talks about but Washington and New York seem not to hear. Obama can't commit to tell us how he'll run a more expansive government run on our running-out money; McCain won't fess up and hold tight to the basics he's old enough to remember coming from parents who grew up during the Depression.

Both talk about sending Washington a message while voting for the bailout plan, loaded down with pork at the absolute worst time, because our political system is greased on bribery. Even then, it always seems as though it is other members of Congress and not Ohio's getting those sweetheart deals. Both sides cleared the path for Fannie and Freddie's most excellent train wreck, one side by jamming through changes in the law and the other waxing with impotence enforcing it.

We just don't trust 'em anymore.

The clip of President Bush offering words of encouragement as the Dow Industrial dump another nearly seven hundreds points worth of value are contained above; it won't satisfy you or fill you with confidence. It is, for the most part, the same set of quotes we heard in Rose Garden after Rose Garden appearance a few weeks ago before Congress passed that bloated, no, "rescue"...plan that was going to help stop the bleeding. How's that been working out for you in the past two weeks?

In neighborhood after neighborhood housing values tumble, workers fear for their jobs, nobody wants to buy anything on credit (even if they could get it) because common sense tells you it ain't over yet. They still have plenty of our cash as investors move what they can into insured checking and savings accounts but they're pretty stingy about lending it back to us. The experts say it's because the banks don't trust the banks to pay it back, so is it any wonder we don't trust either of them?

In Tuesday's debate neither Obama and McCain would say what just about every American believes now, that this mess won't be over by next year -- not by a long shot. There's more bleeding of the stuck pigs on Wall Street to be done, more loss in our 401k plans to the point they become 101.5k plans. If we ran our houses like they want to run our government we'd be living in our cars. Instead they're flying around the country on the electoral lecture circuit telling us what their consultants advise we want to hear instead of what they're going to have to do.

Wanted: Harry Truman. Teddy Roosevelt. Ronald Reagan. FDR. Someone with a set, even if it is a set of ideas, to punish those who abuse and help for those abused.

Someone with a set of principles to reward those who paid their bills on time, who put money down on their homes to build equity, who understand the path to credit heaven isn't paved on plastic. Someone with a set of values to tell those who loaded up on speculative condo building in Florida and Las Vegas that we aren't holding the bag on their no-money-down dreams, and the power to tell the influential that they've got to at least go through the motions of sharing in the pain. Someone to tell AIG's fuzzy-headed executives they have to pay back the company for their spa treatments during a half-million dollar corporate retreat a week after bailout, and someone to show Congress the door for whoring out the American dream by forcing look-away bankers to give money to anyone, anytime.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Afraid To Watch?

Today's vote by the Summit County Board of Elections -- deadlocking yet again, this time over whether political parties and candidates should be able to watch democracy in action. Funny how the very officials who should stand for open and transparent government won't put their votes behind the rhetoric.

This really isn't a partisan issue, it's pretty basic: allowing people to watch the voting process. Other counties in Ohio are doing it but because it isn't specifically spelled out in Ohio's complex election laws, so the Secretary of State left it up to local election boards on whether to allow party and candidate observers to watch voting.

Important note: watch as in observe, not challenge.

This includes the early absentee voting taking place now at The Jobs Center on East Tallmadge, in a cavernous building big enough to easily handle two hockey rinks and an arena football game. I got a good sense of just how big, when I joined a friend in doing our patriotic duty earlier this afternoon. Dozens of voting machines, helpful elections workers making sure the t's are crossed and i's are dotted for those of us who know who and what we'll be voting for and against.

Why, for example, can observers watch the political process in Baghdad and Kabul but not Akron? To avoid "confusion," says Board of Election member Wayne Jones. I guess walking in, signing a paper, going to a booth and filing in the circles away from public view from people watch you is too much for the average voter to bear. Remembering the joy of people enjoying and employing the right to vote (left: it hasn't been that long ago in Iraq, has it?) stands as a reminder of what really makes democracy strong: the will of the people, symbolized by ink-stained fingers.

In years past Democrats such as Jones had a powerful argument when the state law actually allowed observers to personally and physically challenge votes; it was a major bone of contention in 2000 and 2004 that some voters felt uncomfortable with the prospect of some blue (or red) nose peeking at them doing their business, then trying to get their vote thrown out. The General Assembly wisely updated the law to remove the challenge but left open the basic American concept of transparency in government by not removing the ability to observe.

This actually has a parallel in case law; in 2006, then-Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell tried to argue having the media observe people casting ballots was disruptive, and precinct leaders were justified in tossing reporters and photographers out. The Akron Beacon Journal led the charge at the time in bringing the matter to U.S. District Court -- I know, because RTNDA joined in that case arguing it was contrary to the public interest and a slap in the face to democracy in suggesting that open and honest elections would be held without the open. It didn't take long for a judicial two-by-four to the head, ordering the State to cut it out.

Now in Summit County a free press can do what a free people cannot -- observe our fellow citizens voting.

It isn't surprising Democrat Jones opposes observers: the political Yin to his Yang, Republican Alex Arshinkoff, is the one pushing to get observers in The Job Center. What Wayne wants, Alex doesn't want, and vice-versa. You might make the same observation about GOP member Jack Morrison; he's been around the same partisan block a time or two. But for newbies Republican Brian Daley and Democrat Tim Gorbach to agree to treat the election process as something to be done out-of-sight is just plain sad.

Jones and Morrison can be excused in forgetting some of the basic lessons learned in local government since they've played bigwig insiders for so long, but Daley and Gorbach aren't that far removed from their service on city governments in Hudson and Cuyahoga Falls. Can you imagine the outcry if the same standard were applied to council meetings in those cities, denying interested parties the right to even sit in the same room while government marched on it's merry way?

Here we sit with another deadlocked Board of Elections, another vote that must be decided by Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. At this point Akron should ask for a piece of her salary to satisfy city income taxes, with all her work as a defacto fifth member of the Summit County board. It will be even sadder if she, predictably as in the past, sides with her own party leaders who mistakenly believe the business of the people is too "confusing" to be observed by the people.

Of the people. By the people. It would be refreshing to remember "for the people."

Keeping the voting process open -- even to critics -- is exactly the kind of transparency that makes the American body politic a work of wonder in the rest of the world. It may not be pretty; at times it very well may be "confusing," but at the very least it is something for the entire world to see.

And observe.

Monday, October 6, 2008

We Are DEVOcrats!

Too bad Republican fans of the band won't want to see this reunion show...the money's going into the coffers of Summit County's Democratic Party and to help get Sen. Barack Obama elected next month.

The big show is set for the Akron Civic Theater, naturally, and according to a joint news release from Anita Mothersbaugh (wife of Mark) and Wayne Jones (head of the local Dems) should rake in some serious green for the blues.

"Ohio is where we need to be," says Mark Mothersbaugh quoted in the release noting Anita reflected the frustration of voters in states already in the column -- either red or blue -- that their votes were already taken for granted, and shy of dumping more money into the campaign coffers it is tough to feel engaged in the race when the race is being fought in just Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. The band lives in California now, solid Obama land.

So what to do? How about a trip home for the cause? There are cheaper seats to be had (as low as $25) but the well-heeled can don their yellow rainsuits and red flower pots for moments with the band in a VIP reception at a fat-cat price of $150 a pop.

The Akron Civic Theater and Ticketmaster will have tickets.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Hoping For Hoodie Heaven

Yet another school has fallen into the trap of hoodie hell; this time Akron's North High is sending students home for daring to wearing warmer sweatshirts to take away the chill of the first mornings of autumn.

Hey, it's been downright COLD these mornings, but dress codes are dress codes and the rush by school administrators seeking to keep students from looking like the Unabomber sometimes ends up making bureaucrats like...well, bureaucrats.

Such is the case at Akron North High School, where apparently the Vikings should be tough enough to withstand wake-ups in the 40s. Today's story (it'll play big on local TV; here's a story made for the six o'clock news) is ironic given the sale of hooded sweatshirts bearing the names of local high schools at stores all across the region.

Within walking distance of the Akron Radio Center, for example, you could pick up a green or yellow Firestone hoodie for under $15, just the thing to show our school spirit so long as you don't show it in school.

This isn't the first time the dreaded hoodie has led to such disarray in our education system; a quick search reveals GlenOak changed their hoodie policy (it just makes me laugh simply writing those words) in November of 2007, just five days after WKYC posted video of the hoodie hoopla before students took their Thanksgiving holiday.

Akron's school officials were huddling to figure out how to interpret this challenge of the dress code that wound up empowering students to protest to the point where a couple dozen wound up suspended.

At least they got to go home and get warm.

This'll Drive You Nuts

With all the political yapping over ACORN (that group of "community organizers" at the heart of GOP charges of vote rigging by liberal groups) this is a note that may sound an alarm.

Ohio DNR News release:

Ohio's fall crop of acorns is variable this year, but will provide a vital food source for more than 90 forest wildlife species. Overall, white oak acorn production is similar to last year but varies by region, while red oak acorn production declined by 57 percent over 2007 figures, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Wildlife.

"Good white oak acorn production was observed on some wildlife areas in northern and southern Ohio, but white oak acorns were much less abundant across central Ohio." said Mike Reynolds, forest wildlife biologist with the division. "Red oak acorn production declined statewide this year."

The Division of Wildlife is currently participating in a multi-state, on-going research project to estimate regional acorn production throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states. Wildlife biologists hope to use the acorn production information gathered in the study to forecast wildlife harvest and reproductive success rates on both a local and regional basis.

Acorn production is cyclical, with some trees producing acorns nearly every year, while others rarely ever produce. This year, Division of Wildlife employees scanned the canopies of selected oak trees on 38 wildlife areas in the state to determine the percentage of trees that produced acorns and the relative size of the acorn crop. Results varied regionally, but an average of 42 percent of white oak trees and 30 percent of red oak trees bore fruit this year.

Wildlife prefer white oak acorns, because red oak acorns contain a high amount of tannin and are bitter in taste. Mast crop abundance can affect hunting plans as well. Hunters can expect to find deer, wild turkeys and squirrels concentrated near areas with heavy crops of white and chestnut oak acorns this fall. In areas with poor acorn production, wildlife are more likely to be feeding around agricultural areas and forest edges.

Source: Ohio Department of Natural Resources