Talking Tough on Trash

 By Robin Adair

In the spirit of The Untouchables’ Elliot Ness, the city bureaucracy cracks down on trash. And even out-of-towners take notice.

“Hey, Adair,” an acquaintance yelled to me, “I see by the paper here that the town’s really getting tough on garbage. You’d better be careful! The Trash Police are pulling out all the stops, I hear.” The sarcasm was not lost on me. This fellow’s reputation is as a well-traveled businessman, a fellow who has an appreciation for urban politics as well as for strategic management. His background served only to underscore his sarcastic tone.

Loyal homer that I am, of course, I responded as any good self-appointed city ambassador would.

“Hey yourself,” I replied. “It’s part of the Cleveland tradition. Didn’t you know that Elliot Ness was once the city safety director? Maintaining order and cleaning up the streets were Ness’ stock in trade. We’re just following in those footsteps.”

“Ness cleaned up the rackets in Chicago—then he came to town,” was my chum’s rejoinder. “And if memory serves, Cleveland wouldn’t even elect him mayor back in the ‘30s.”

Point taken.

So I present for your consideration the issue of optics versus substance, a curbside case study on how putting silk on a goat still does not make that four-legged creature a thoroughbred race horse. As worthy a task as upgrading city refuse management is, it fails to masks myriad problems Cleveland is facing today—from chronic unemployment to a shaky public-school system.

What’s worse, Cleveland handles its trash maintenance with all the tact of 16th century Chinese mandarins, emphasizing the stick over the carrot misplaced in the official City of Cleveland recycling bin. The visitors are smirking, and the residents are fuming.

Here are the redoubtable waste-management details as reported by the Plain Dealer: Cleveland is putting the tools to punish people who violate the city’s garbage policies into the hands of Waste Division employees. Workers will be able to quickly address property owners who don’t comply with the proper disposal of garbage with just a click of the button. Starting Tuesday, employees will use handheld devices to record infractions. The devices can take pictures that include the time and date. They can also produce a notice for the homeowner. The information goes to a centralized computer, and the clerk of courts office will process it and mail a citation to the homeowner. The homeowner could expect to receive the citation in up to two weeks and will have 20 days to contest it or pay the fine, which will range from $100 to $500 for each offense. After 60 days, unpaid fines will be sent to collections.

More optics. The city fathers have explained the consequences of not following the rules, by Jove. But it is tough love as practiced by the do-as-I-say-not-as-I do school of municipal management.

As my friend Joe McKenna wrote on the CBR site last year, “Cleveland has to ensure it has the infrastructure to convince businesses that ‘a stake on the Lake’ is smart investing. Municipal basics—from public safety to well-kept highways—attract and keep commerce within corporation limits and, in turn, generate jobs and wealth. Accordingly, the city fathers need to begin a serious audit of the municipal infrastructure, with a commitment to fix what is broken or out of date. Casinos may be considered a good deal, but safe streets and reliable resources are always the smart bet. Speaking of the smart bet, I once again find myself at Cleveland’s school door. No city, of any size, can be successful without a feeder system for its business community.”

Yep, tidy tree lawns are part of an attractive town. But even the appearance of prioritizing lawn control over much bigger issues makes Cleveland a target for more jokes, within city borders and certainly outside them. Municipal leaders should consider that aforementioned businessman as a critical focus group.

City leaders should also consider that a hardline trash-enforcement policy does not make them The New Untouchables. Remember, there’s always another Election Day.

Writer Robin Adair, having missed his friends and Lake Erie, found his way back to Cleveland. He is currently writing fiction and hanging out at ice cream parlors on the far West Side. 

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