Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Notes On The Recall

Blowout. Not even close. Over when it started. Wiped the floor with 'em.

We've got the cliche wagon pulled over and I'm sure my fellow pundits will exhaust the supply to describe Tuesday's results of the Change Akron Now bid to recall Akron's Don Plusquellic. I don't know anyone (including Warner Mendenhall) who believed CAN could DO it. Citizens For Akron ran a smart campaign -- how could they not with a 22-to-1 money advantage? CFA understood all too well the value of CYA, leaving no stone unturned, the value of a professionally-positioned "grassroots" base and effort to define issues, control the agenda and get out the vote. And they did this all without the one candidate on the ballot stepping out in front of the target painted on his back. Don Plusquellic's defense worked best when his team played offense around him.

In the end, GOTV trumps shouting from the Town Square.

The 20% turnout is nothing to be proud of, summertime or no summertime. In the end it wouldn't have mattered if half that number turned out. A 3-1 advantage spells landslide, especially when "absentee voting" -- why can't we just call it early voting? -- provided everything the anti-recall forces could have hoped for. This is the strategy executed to a "t" by Obama in 2008, by Citizens For Akron in 2009, and future politicians smart enough to understand a 30-day voting window means 30 days to win.

Even with the crushing defeat, Change Akron Now promises a slate of council candidates, one led by oh-so-close Plusquellic opponent Joe Finley in 2007. I'll be very surprised if this works, unless they learn from their defeat in June and turn it into fresh strategy for September. These next few months will see the game continue, only with surrogates now carrying the standards for both sides. Those on the outs still want their piece of those on the inside, and the incumbent machine knows all too well they cannot afford to let their guard down now.

That said, I'm still wondering if this recall election was the reaffirmation of love Mayor Plusquellic needs? Or was the vote more a reflection of what most editorials noted: not really a personal endorsement of Don Plusquellic, and all his personality brings to bear, but rather a rejection of the concept of tossing the bull out from the china shop because he hasn't broken anything?

Despite the branding of "our" mayor for "our" city, there are few who disagreed that Plusquellic's style leaves much to be desired. In between stomping around with hurt feelings after opponents questioned the obvious timing of a flood of pro-Akron announcements, cherry-picking interview opportunities -- did he do ANY radio live or long-form? -- he still managed to rub many the wrong way with behind the scene hardball which lends easily to depictions of him as "The Don." I give him great credit for the rep: he's earned it.

This isn't just my observation; the Beacon Journal, Plain Dealer, WAKR/AkronNewsNow, other bloggers, other media -- all made note of the ill-temper described as "passion" as not enough to warrant being tossed out. His own supporters, at the same time calling the vote a mandate for the mayor, also hope he learns to tamp it down; this scuffle cost a quarter-million dollars and plenty of their time. Which Don comes out of this as the smoke clears? Does he sit down and bury the hatchet with the FOP as they've asked? Will he ever talk with enemy-for-life turned anti-recall ally Don Robart again? Will he ever say the name of his chief opponent in public?

Even Obama knows how to say Cheney. The key to the next chapter in this political soap opera is whether those in support offer honest counsel and not just what he wants to hear. That a head-on approach need not be offensive to be a good offense; that being defensive need not be so offensive. That a legacy politician with an iron grip on the job can and should be satisfied everyone knows he's the driving force without having to tattoo it on their foreheads. Which Don Plusquellic will we see, the statesman elected to represent his nation's mayors or the one stepping into the ring?

This is a legitimate question, and one not so easily glossed over. As owner of the "company," Akron voters are the managers; they decided their highest performing employee gets results and needs to stay, even if he can occasionally be a real piece of work. The stakeholders want to keep him because he gets the job done. Even if he snorts and throws his weight around, so long as the dishes don't break. The main message conveyed with such clarity over the past 90 days has been he leads, even with a few scratches; Akron voters know to not mess up a good thing.

But the danger, if he allows the ego of unchecked incumbency to swell beyond his vision, is in continuing to ride that wave of performance goodwill for those times when the next big challenge comes. When a younger, fresher, more energetic version seizes the moment. When Akron's good name is finally dragged down to the level of the other northeast Ohio big cities. Those times when some with new ideas poses a real threat to more people beyond the 25-30% who always say no.

Blogger Pho's Akron Pages is no fan of Change Akron Now nor it's tilting-at-windmills leader Warner Mendenhall. His observations are pointed, but thoughtful. His post "Whither Akron" reads from the heart: who will step up and challenge the status quo, in this case Plusquellic, in the interest of confronting power? It's a core question: just how healthy is the cult of Don for Akron's function as a democracy over the long haul? Akron, Pho writes, needs a "sensible loyal opposition."

Unlike the fairly universal acknowledgments of Plusquellic's prickly personality, this isn't a concerned aimed at him as a manager, a political leader, or as a person. Few of the serious thinkers in this debate disagree in private that more open debate and decision-making is a bad thing. We just want it to mean something, and drive the community forward in ways that Cleveland and Youngstown just can't seem to figure out. We know Akron is too progressive to be considered a fiefdom, but we fear losing the iron will to fight to keep the train running on time will mean we will be lost having to do it without the conductor ahead.

It's easy now to villify those who dare ask the question, or push the system to hold a midsummer's day vote. But even losing in a landslide, voices wondering about alternatives or even succession planning can be heard. And the conventional wisdom won't be able to drown them out forever.

- - -

A note on the media coverage of the election: what a vacuum we are seeing develop as a city of a quarter-million people boils down to a handful of outlets. Former WKYC-TV producer Chris Hyser notes correctly in his "Diminishing Returns" post the brave new world of learning results. Those good old days of multiple, competing media outlets using all the tools at their disposal have shrunk when it comes to servicing Akron. The blog world hasn't stepped in, and those outlets in a position to step up didn't show it Tuesday night.

I have a very vested interest in this; for the most part we did what we thought was best on Election night, just as the Beacon Journal did in getting results, analysis and coverage to the public. But seeing the region's second biggest city shunted aside to true suburban status on a single, important issue ought to be an eye-opener for all of us.

This was a campaign successfully managed professionally to maximize positives while minimizing risk of damage, which meant no town hall-style forums on cable, broadcast, or digital television. No Press Club luncheons at the Martin Center, where a couple hundred folks could feast on split chicken breasts as the pros and cons were delivered. This was a great example of controlling the message, and not allowing it to get messy. Using websites to position and parry, and employing social media such as Twitter and Facebook to bypass the mainstream. Who needs to sit down with Ray, or Larry, or Howie or Matt? Can't control what they ask, but you can control what others hear and read.

This is the new politics, and Akron's media landscape is not ready for what is to come.

- - -

For those who missed hunky Lt. Governor Lee Fisher's "guns," note YouTube has taken down videos containing the copyright material.

The posts are still up on this blog but you won't be able to see the buff Lee flexing over a late-night video visit while he's answering email.

The Fisher folks worked quickly to flag the video, so it's a no-no now. Fisher followers, rest easy; Brunner backers, at least you had a laugh over the last week.

Back to good government now...

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

LIVE VIDEO The 2009 Recall

Unfortunately, not live video streaming from locations where the candidates are. Our efforts to pin down locations so we could assure more reliable wired access to the web fell short and, in fairness, we opted not to just webcast from one location and not another.

That said, our partnership with Dan Mosher of Mosher Media here in Akron allowed us to stream live video and audio from our newsroom. Early on it'll be pretty boring, but once we start getting reports and results in you'll be able to see how our newsroom functions during coverage of an election.

This tends to be a full-steam ahead exercise punctuated by long stretches of "is this what they do?" It's news sausage being made...

VIDEO The Stud: An Update

On a day when Akronites are going to the polls (well, OK, a few of 'em ARE trickling into voting booths) to determine Don Plusquellic's political future, I just can't shake the image of the hunk who just might be our next United States Senator.

In followup to the post last week on the video snagged from a documentary on Ohio Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher comes word from Karen Kasler, who heads up Ohio's Public Radio and Television news bureau in Columbus.

Sure enough, Karen't popular "The State of Ohio" had the Lt. Hunkmeister on the plate for discussion and sure enough, there's now a YouTube selection of the pundits talking about the candidate -- complete with a more suitable soundtrack:

Methinks Mr. Fisher and company will be glad to get this out of the way before campaigning for real in 2010, although one has to believe the campaign gurus at Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner's headquarters would like to see this get more views...

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dad: A Letter For All Of 'Em

Part of carrying the "guy card" is understanding just when it is OK to give an emotional shake of the head, allow a catch in the throat, or God forbid shed a tear.

It doesn't happen often, according to the John Wayne rules: shy of our favorite sports team winning a championship (good news, northeast Ohio guys -- the only ones doing that are OSU fans or those of you living in Youngstown during the Tressel Years or Alliance cheering on the Purple Raiders) or losing our dogs these tender moments are best reserved for immediate family only, please.

The my pal Joe Bialek of Cleveland forwards an open letter he penned to his father earlier this year. Speaks for itself. Hits home.

Thanks, Joe...

Dear Dad,

I am writing to you for two reasons. First, because I want to apologize for being unreceptive to your advice and second, because there are some things I want to say before you pass away from us. I want you to know that no man has ever been blessed with such a loving and understanding father as you. You have taught me what is necessary to adhere to the principles of the faith and at the same time demonstrated (by example) what it is to maintain a strong and upstanding character even in the face of extreme adversity. I think about you every day and am preparing myself for the day when you and I will be temporarily separated and you will be permanently reunited with all of our relatives.

I remember when we were at one of your birthday parties and somebody suggested that each of us write out (on your birthday card) a memory of a time that was important to us. One of my memories was when you used to bring us home from Busha's house (never could spell it right) to the house in Parma Heights and I would fight with Tweety to stop you from driving away because your leaving us would cause me alot of sadness. Knowing the fact that you may be leaving soon brings back memories of that sadness. You said to me afterward that when that when you used to leave us, your heart would ache with sadness.

My heart will ache with sadness everyday that you are not here because one of the very few people who truly cared about me will be gone. I love you Dad and I am sorry for all the times I caused you grief and anxiety like the times when you used to stop at Dairy Dell and I would throw a tantrum just to get you to buy me a stupid comic book. I am sorry for any contempt that I may have had for you especially at times when you were trying to help me; like the time over at Busy Bee when I said things to you and the owner's son that no fool in their right mind should ever think, never mind say.

I am sorry for the times when you got yourself hurt trying to help me and I did nothing to help you like the time at that service station when the clerk caused you to panic and trip over that bar in the garage and you shattered your knee. I should have rushed to your side when you called me but instead you had to drive yourself to the hospital. If anything ever happens to you or anybody else in this family, I will beat down the Great Wall of China to help them.

I am also sorry for not powdering your toes that you could not reach because of your knee. Before Jim Bonkowski died, he apologetically asked me to put his socks on because his feet were so swollen and he pulled a back muscle; I told him I would gladly do it because it was God's way of giving me a second chance to do something I had failed to do before. There are so many other things that I am sorry for but either I cannot remember all of them or it is getting too difficult to type while I weep.

There are some things I would like to thank you for as well. First and foremost, for being my dad who always looked out for me and made phone calls on my behalf whether it be while I was at work or looking for work. I remember when I used to work nights at Coca-Cola and sometimes we would have to work straight through the night and you would call to see where I was. I remember feeling embarrassed that my father would call looking for me but the dispatcher told me that some guys don't have a father who cares enough to look out for them.

Thank you for staying in a marriage that has been difficult for you and Mom. A former professor of mine once said to the class that anybody who can survive marriage ought to be canonized. You both have done very well in upholding your vow before God. You both have also done very well in raising us the best way you could as there has yet to be a perfect way of raising children. I have come to realize that there comes a point when each of us (supported by our family) needs to take responsibility for our lives and play the cards we are dealt.

Thank you for supporting me the best way you knew how. Thank you for feeding, clothing and sheltering me especially the time you came home from work and had to put the storm windows up in the middle of a driving rainstorm. I remember feeling sad watching the mud drip from your shoes as you struggled to put them up.

I have your army picture in front of me and am always struck by how handsome and dignified you are. You are a man's man. Well, the kleenex box is about empty and my eyes are not drying so perhaps it would be wise to end this letter. Always remember Dad that I love you very much and will miss you even more. As Patton said about his father, you are and always will be my darling papa.



Walter Joseph Bialek celebrated his 91st birthday on January 6, 2009

Friday, June 19, 2009

VIDEO Lee Fisher: Stud Candidate

There's a video making it's way through the blogosphere showcasing Ohio's Lieutenant Governor as a man who won't sleep until he's sure his message is getting out -- and this message shows off more than just political will.

On one hand, I'm not sure this is the kind of message a sitting government official really wants to get out; on the other hand, it is slice of life -- kind of -- just like the photos of the hunky Senator Obama in the Hawaiian surf in early 2008.

Couple thoughts here before things get too weird:

- I first saw this version of the video on Gateway Pundit, a political website with a conservative skew. If the intention of the video maker and campaign is to show Senator-to-be Lee Fisher in a rare moment of candor, they might want to consider the viral nature of where voters will see this;

- Don't know about you, but this kind of stuff hit it's apex with those creepy laughing-during-the-affair plane interviews then-presidential candidate John Edwards did with the film producer, the one he was caught cheating with. This one's a bit creepy, too, especially with the music in the background;

- Is that Jackson Browne singing in the background? Too bad there are no candles to help set the mood even further...

- Note to ALL political campaigns: DO NOT SHOW YOUR CANDIDATE HALF NAKED. Does anyone really think we don't keep this image in our minds when your hero steps to the microphone during a debate to discuss global warming? Not the most flattering photo when we're looking to leadership rebuilding a shattered economy.

Finally -- gotta admit, Lee's in good shape.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Numbers Game

Wednesday's official announcement -- after the news broke Tuesday -- of jobs coming to Akron is welcome news from any camp. The question is: just how many, really?

There's no reason to doubt the people behind this latest announcement of good times to come (with a week before an election; nice timing!) in Akron, but AkronNewsNow's Chris Keppler asks some pointed follow-up in a video Q&A featuring PlusOne Communications Bob Madden about the number of jobs to be created in their new support center in the old Firestone Bank building.

When Mayor Plusquellic first included the project in his listings of accomplishments (2008 State of the City address) it had 300 jobs attached. The actual number was closer to 250, if the reference was directed at construction jobs renovating the building. Madden and his wife Jill Bacon Madden spent about $2 million dollars on the project, a hefty investment but not bad considering they bought the empty building for $2 (no million) from the City.

Call me a cynic for wanting a better understanding of all this, especially with less than a week to go before the election. The biggest economic activity lately seems to be the frequent news conferences, video opportunities, photo ops and media push both for and against the recall. But even as a cynic, I think it is admirable the Madden's put their hard work and money (most of it coming from themselves, according to what we can ascertain) behind their mouths in recognizing opportunity here at home.

It's easy to say "oh, again?" when any politician holds forth on the next best thing; if all of those best things really happened the way they are presented we'd at least have a perception things are getting better. At least we keep throwing it up against the wall to see what sticks.

On Tuesday, City Hall advised the media there would be a big announcement, with the promise of a thousand-job announcement. By the time it wound up in print this morning in the Akron Beacon Journal, that number was 1500. Note, though, it'll take awhile to ramp that up to the thousand or even 1500 level if hiring at 40 or 50 jobs a month.

Comment postings on the story note some of these jobs may be coming at the expense of another Akron-area telephone support company, so does that mean we get over a thousand new jobs or are we moving pieces around on a chess board? Without more information on which clients make up this new economic base for PlusOne Communications it's difficult to figure out the gross job picture from the net job picture.

But at this point in economy-starved northeast Ohio maybe it's treason to examine the fine print. After all, the headline's what matters, right?

- - -

Speaking of timing, 1590 WAKR and the WAKRNewsNow all-news online stream from AkronNewsNow will be re-broadcasting our two-hour special on the recall election. "WAKR Primer: The 2009 Recall" airs from 7:06 p.m. through 9:00 p.m. on WAKR Saturday, and we'll repeat our continuous stream of this program online again on Sunday from noon to 10:00 p.m.

At this point I figure there aren't many voters in Akron who haven't made up their mind on the simple question of stay-or-go for Plusquellic, but just in case here's another chance to listen to each side make their case. You can also access more audio and video here on AkronNewsNow.

- - -

Akron voters can still vote early (or late, at least until 8:00 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Monday evening) in the recall election. The Summit County Board of Election is keeping absentee voting booths open for duty at the 470 Grant Street offices from 8:00 in the morning through 8:00 at night each weekday and from 8:00 a.m. through noon on Saturday. Maybe by Tuesday everyone in Akron will have voted early so we can find out the result early on June 23 and get back to hoping the Indians bullpen figures out how to hold a lead...wouldn't it be wonderful to get back to winning instead of whining?

Monday, June 15, 2009

R Minus 7; No News2Night; Marriage Politics & Got Safe?

Both AkronNewsNow and the Akron Beacon Journal provided extensive coverage over the weekend of the Mayor Recall race, and with just over a week to go you can expect to see a stronger push from both sides. That'll include saying anything to energize their vote.

At this point, the question isn't what voters think but how many can be counted on to turn thought into a mark on the check box. So far, the conventional wisdom is the Citizens For Akron crowd have done a better job of getting their vote out early.

CFA have performed extremely well in Ward 8, expected to be a stronghold for Mayor Plusquellic's bid to turn aside a recall push his side is already toasting money-wise by 40-to-one. The interesting thing about this election, however, is the sense that big money may not be a big factor. Funny thing about grass roots efforts -- and despite the spin, the ChangeAkronNow folks are grass roots for sure -- is they are not predictable. Nobody really knows for sure just what motivates voters to apply shoe leather on their own to cast their ballot; even in the 2008 highly-hyped Presidential election the actual turnout percentages were higher four years prior.

Likely doesn't translate into for sure, which is why there will be a flood of web postings, emails, news conferences, robocalls, direct mail and photo ops showing either the foot soldiers who wrap themselves in reform or the Administration wanting to be seen as on the job.

Wonder how many events the Plusquellibots and Mendenbots can squeeze in?

The final decision still rests with the votes cast right up to 7:30 p.m. a week from this Tuesday. Early voting continues all week at the Board of Elections 8:00 a.m. - 8:00 p.m. through Friday, 8:00 a.m. - 12:00 p.m. Saturday and against 8:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m. next Monday.

- - -

The timing couldn't have been worse for PBS 45/49, aka Western Reserve Public Media, forced to bump NewsNight Akron from the usual Friday night lineup because of a mandate from the public television network. With a week and a half to go, host Eric Mansfield lined up Akron FOP Lodge 7's president to stop by and explain the vote his members took last week on the recall. No go, not even online, but Eric tells me they did talk with Paul Hlynsky and it's slated to air this Friday.

Among items in my goofy file: the listing of Mansfield in the Citizens For Akron financial report. On WAKR this morning, Eric related how his name also appears with wife Lisa's on their checks; I know, joint checking -- who'd a thunk? So when she signed up for an under-$30 fundraiser because she's running for the Akron School Board and is politically active, the CFA folks gladly took the check but instead of listing her they listed Eric.

This sexism in financial reporting is very common; campaigns (all stripes) will look for the names and addresses on the check when listing a contribution. Enter the CAN conspiracy theorists, who first cried out it showed bias and then switched gears to show sloppy book work from CFA.

I guess anything works to stir up the crowd to close to an election. Memo to any couple who ever thinks about attending a political function: set up separate checking accounts.

- - -

The Downtown Akron Partnership, in the meantime, picked a strange time to circulate a poll asking folks just what they think about safety and security downtown. Crime in Akron is one of those "under the surface" issues getting lots of comments and ink from folks following at home, but it wasn't a major topic addressed by either side in interviews over the weekend. After reading and listening to the respective combatants, and our (the media's) focus on the economy and pure politics at play, maybe you have something to say to the power-that-be that can help track just how the public feels about downtown Akron as a safe place to play.

It's a good idea to get a read on how the true customers of Akron's downtown entertainment offerings feel about the social core of this region. We've seen how center cities can drive perception, and despite the political back and forth on downtown v. neighborhood it doesn't take a rocket scientist to compare the health of cities with more vibrant downtown neighborhoods and the impact it has on quality of life overall. This kind of polling -- asking questions we all ask ourselves -- is invaluable in moving beyond the anecdotes and working on policies to address problems.

The link to the poll in an email says the poll can also be accessed from the Partnership's web site, but I couldn't find it when I checked this afternoon. The Downtown Akron Partnership advises it is in an orange box on the left after a scroll down.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Mayoral Recall: A Media Planning Guide

With two weeks to go before the June 23, 2009 Akron election to determine if Mayor Don Plusquellic will continue in office, here's some thoughts and planning advisories.

When petitions were first delivered then certified, it was pretty clear there would be a vote this summer on the ChangeAkronNow push to recall Plusquellic. No more talking; a deadline to finally put this issue to bed.

Akron Beacon Journal Editor Bruce Winges and I had been having some conversations on issues where it might prove useful for both our respective news organizations to not only coordinate but even collaborate with a joint project. We thought the recall election was one of those issues, and agreed to try and pursue interview opportunities with both sides where our respective reporters would be able to bring multiple views to bear on the key players.

Unfortunately, things didn't quite work out that way.

Mayor Plusquellic's response to WAKR was that we publish (on AkronNewsNow) and broadcast (on WAKR) coverage of his chief opponent's tax troubles before he would accept our joint invitation. The ABJ has already reported the issue, including in a story last year, but we made an editorial decision to skip that issue. It is our view that while Warner Mendenhall's personal finances were certainly fair game for the Mayor to go off on, it wasn't our role to tee up the shot for him. We feel there's been plenty enough childish name-calling and personal attacks on both sides, a viewpoint many individuals on both sides also privately share with us. Our policy has also been exercised in the case of Plusquellic's opponents, who haven't been shy about their own attacks on the personal behavior of mayor and those close to him.

There was also a small matter of accepting conditions for an interview with the mayor, who appeared on our airwaves as a guest on the Ray Horner Morning Show on April 1st. We feel it was inappropriate to accept such conditions, and reserve the right to make up our own minds when it comes to our editorial direction and policies. We respect the right of the mayor to decide who he will talk with, but think Akron deserves more independent voices, not fewer.

Full disclosure: our parent company, through our radio stations, has a business relationship with the city, primarily in the form of a partnership to help promote events and activities such as Lock 3's summertime concerts and events. This type of relationship extends back decades; many will remember when the "WAKR Good Guys" helped promote local concerts and venues. In addition to being good business, we view this as important to our community. That said, it does not influence the editorial decisions made by our newsroom. Anyone who's been around the mayor when those deicisons come up can attest.

As of this week, the mayor's office neither accepted nor rejected the invitation. We decided to move forward. It is the mayor's right to decline our interview request, but our listeners and readers should be fully aware the offer was extended. Both WAKR and the Beacon Journal will offer up their own comprehensive stories, including separate interviews. We have agreed to promote our competing coverage, because the issues involved with the recall are simply too important for one news organization to "own" by itself.

Both of our news organizations already feature extensive coverage with easy-to-navigate special sections online through these links to the Beacon Journal and AkronNewsNow coverage. In some cases, stories date back more than six months. There are also a wealth of other online sites in Akron produced by proponents and critics of the recall, including those of the two main organizations noted below. Some are serious, some are entertaining, but all add to the general debate: what decision should Akron voters make June 23rd?

On Sunday's 1590 WAKR and will feature portions of what the mayor said in April in addition to a full sit-down with State Senator Tom Sawyer, heading up the anti-recall Citizens for Akron group. Our full interviews with Warner Mendenhall and Patti Longville of ChangeAkronNow will also be broadcast and available online. In addition to our on-air coverage "WAKR Primer: The 2009 Recall" to air Sunday, June 14, 2009 from 12:00 to 2:00, we will also feature repeated webcasts of the audio on our news stream WAKRNewsNow and video on AkronNewsNow. We will also include easier-to-digest podcast "chunks" of these interviews, but feel it is important to present full and complete versions as well.

The Beacon Journal will also feature extensive coverage, including in-depth interviews conducted by Stephanie Warsmith. She and other staffers at the newspaper have done a wonderful job of presenting viewpoints and issues for voters to consider, and on Sunday, June 14 it should be required reading to compare as both Plusquellic and Mendenhall make their respective cases.

On a local journalism note, there may likely be critics of the decision of the Beacon Journal and WAKR in promoting our "competition." But with local television pulling their limited resources closer to home and shrinking news budgets impacting the number of bodies covering stories despite the urgent need for news of our communities, we may be seeing even more collaborative projects in the future. Personally, I hope so; it seems we spend a lot of time worrying more about the masthead or frequency number than what matters most.

Our readers, listeners, viewers and visitors need to know what's going on more than ever.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Stimulus Bait & Switch

It has been a slight talking point here in northeast Ohio, but down south there is plenty of hot conversation and downright hostility over reports Columbus, Georgia may get federal stimulus money to build new headquarters and manufacturing facilities for Dayton sell-out NCR.

Unless you were out of town last week, it was pretty hard to miss the news that the former National Cash Register Company -- with roots deep in Dayton -- would be pulling up stakes and moving to Georgia. Thanks for the state incentives, but no thanks. Big jobs gone. Think adios Goodyear. Remember au revoir Firestone. Left behind: retirees and history but no more high-paying executive jobs.

Then came whispers of federal stimulus money, in part our tax dollars, being used by those crafty Southerners to lure our jobs to the sunbelt. That set local officials off, including U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown. He may love the whole idea of Uncle Sam bankrolling stimulus packages across the nation, but this one has political nightmare written all over it; imagine running for re-election as the party that bankrolled the NCR to Georgia? Might work if you're looking for votes in Columbus, GA but it won't play well in Columbus, OH much less Dayton.

Now the Dayton Daily News reports it really isn't the case; it's only that officials of the southern Columbus only applied to use stimulus money to help pave the way (literally) for a new headquarters building and new manufacturing center to house 850 employees. Whew, glad that worked itself out: they don't have the money, they're just applying for it.

We should feel so much better now.

Compare the NCR story in Dayton with what's happening in Phoenix, where there's a rebellion over using government money to provide retail real estate developers with what amounts to no-money-down safety nets. Arizona's constitution forbids such publicly-funded gifts, but as is the case across the nation (including here in Ohio) the use of public funds for such private purposes has become a very blurry proposition. Some of the western sunbelt state's thinkers are now musing things have gone too far, putting local governments on the hook for what should be the risky business of real estate magnates. It's in the courts, anti-"gift" politicians have replaced the go-go pro-developer officials and all in all there's quite a bit of discussion on just how much public should be part of the private partnership.

Rule of thumb: take the total amount of money going into the project, then divide by the number of jobs to be created/retained/promised. That's one simple metric that might make this whole debate a bit more understandable for the general public.

That is, if having the public understand matters.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Getting Nailed v Getting Screwed

Observations on how the courts, at least in the case of one of the biggest bankruptcy actions to ever grace the docket, can mean less about fairness and justice and more about power and where one stands in line.

It is worth noting that auto dealers, on the whole, don't really get a lot of love from us. Granted, car salesmen do rank higher on the public confidence scale than Congress but that's not much. The events of the past couple months may be changing that vision.

Enter the bankruptcy of Chrysler, and soon to come General Motors. Spurred on by the rotten economy, management decisions to keep cranking out inventory even though buying ground to a halt, union contracts once the builder of the middle class and now decried as the last straw to topple American auto power -- the perfect storm leaves entire classes of people who put their money where their mouths were on the sidelines, holding the bag.

The State of Indiana is fighting back, noting the public pension funds that backed Chrysler shouldn't be shoved to the back of the bankruptcy bus behind the nation's taxpayers and the union who stand to benefit if Chrysler-Fiat figures it out. They argue they shouldn't have to settle for pennies, or nothing, on their investment. One can also argue the decision to pour millions into Chrysler stock on behalf of the Hoosier State's public workers wasn't made under duress, and the owners of the company (shareholders) knew the risk of ownership. With reward comes risk, and the profit potential has an alternative - flat broke. That would be called getting nailed. Their choices, their harvest.

Except the government, which says the billions and billions we pour into keeping Big Auto alive will be repaid to taxpayers. Someday.

In the meantime, the way a bankruptcy should work -- secured creditors in line first, all others behind -- displays a real flaw in our system.

Which brings me back to car dealers, and the getting screwed.

Only when we seriously think about life without the neighborhood car dealer do we get a real sense of how the impact comes home. And for the dealers now shoved aside, those who put heart and soul into shilling for Chrysler and GM, they have less than a week to unload inventory they won't even be allowed to sell after next Tuesday.

Putting this in perspective: you buy that hula dancer lamp at a yard sale you visited last October; you plan to unload it this summer, and yes you know you may not sell it for what you paid for it but what the hell, it at least made you laugh while gathering dust in the basement. But along comes a judge who says hold off -- you have to sell it today even though you bought it on your time, fair and square, with the understanding you could sell it when you wanted to. Or could sell it.

The double whammy for dealers losing their franchises isn't just losing the line; sales representatives have lost primary clients for years, and understand with every peak comes a valley. But these are local business people, our neighbors, people who support the Little League teams and the bowling teams and the local charities and high school sports. Along with scrambling to figure out how they're going to make a living, they can't even sell what they already own.

Unless a bankruptcy judge comes to his senses and sees that there is a bigger picture involved in this quickie divorce between an American car company and the partners who made the mistake of taking Detroit at their word.

For these local dealers to have 30 days to unload inventory they took on good faith, often as a sign of support for a company now driving the cruelest of paybacks, isn't just unfair it is un-American. These dealers took the cars with the intention of selling them. If a hardware store took possession of a truck-full of shovels wouldn't you consider it theirs to sell, even if the shovel company went belly up? At the core, how is a car any different? Inventory is inventory.

Let our good neighbors sell the goods they were sold, without penalty, just as any used-car dealer would have the same option of doing. Or tell Uncle Sam's new auto overseers to take those cars back, and roll that inventory into the already bloated pool of autos waiting for savvy consumers to see the benefit of what a fire sale really looks like.

Common wisdom is seeing how the powerful treat the meek for a true picture of character. Now is the time for those still holding the reigns of power when it comes to cars to display some character.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Remembering The Glory: Ten Cent Beer Night

With three weeks to go before the Akron mayoral election, GM's bankruptcy today, Chrysler coming out of the bankruptcy judge's chambers, a month to go for Ohio to figure out how a shrinking budget pays for all those education reforms -- looking back at one of the truly pivotal moments for northeast Ohio.

Can there be any doubt?

Kudos to the boys for this...