Regarding Deck Chairs and Council Seats

By J.F. McKenna

Tom Johnson must be spinning in his grave. Or at least shifting uncomfortably in his chair on Public Square.

At the turn of the 20th century, Johnson was Cleveland’s mayor, and ours was celebrated as the “the best governed city in the nation,” the place to which people and businesses flocked. That’s why the citizens later erected a statue of Johnson in the center of town. That’s why Clevelanders, for the longest time, proclaimed their home as “the best location in the nation.”

Admittedly, the more recent decades have been tough generally on such northeast cities as Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland. Their economic fortunes have shifted in the wake of an emerging global economy and such consequent lousy breaks as plant closings and Keynesian missteps by state and federal governments. For Cleveland in particular, widely publicized branding miscues—from the Cuyahoga River’s catching fire in 1969 to old Ralph Perk’s mayoral mane catching fire a few years later—haven’t helped, either.

All this came to mind this week while talking with an out-of-town business consultant who had just topped off his breakfast coffee with a quick scan of The Plain Dealer.

“I have a new appreciation for that old expression about ‘rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” he told me. “Your city council loses considerable population in 10 years, prompting a redistricting. Instead of addressing the actual problem, it stages comic opera about who’s going to keep his seat in council. That’s lousy advertising to people like me.”

Point taken.

The morning paper described that day city council’s efforts as “bringing an end to months of secrecy over the redistricting process and controversy so intense, it provoked bitter feuds between members, resident protests in council chambers, intervention of state legislators and the threat of legal action on behalf of Hispanic voters.”

Who wouldn’t want to risk a business venture in that kind of atmosphere?

“Kind of hard for me,” my friend continued, “to tell clients that Cleveland might be the ideal spot to expand in—eh? Business people are skittish as is right now and are looking for as many comfort zones as possible. They want fair, farsighted political alliances, not a bunch of self-absorbed kids passing themselves off as community leaders. Places like Detroit have already taken themselves off the grid because of these kinds of shenanigans.”

Another point taken.

Cleveland City Council needs to spend more time on what it can actually do to rebuild itself as a pro-business town and less time in games of political Stratego. Anyone would think that the shadow over Detroit, now foundering in a fiscal emergency, provides plenty of incentive.

Otherwise, council and its constituents had better prepare to hear new and unflattering slogans attached to the town, including Cleveland—Business Is Part of Our Past.

CBR contributor J.F. McKenna, a longtime West Park resident, is a business journalist, communications consultant, and former editor at Industry Week, Tooling & Production, and Northern Ohio Live magazines. His grandfather, Patrick H. McKenna, once served as a West Side councilman.  Reach McKenna the Younger at or through his LinkedIn profile: Jos. F. McKenna.



  1. This is based on a bias report in the PD. The vote was 17-2, very little dissension and the council reduction was mandated by the city charter. It went surprisingly smooth. Had the writer attended rather than relied on the PD he would have come away with a different impression.

    • JF McKenna says:

      For the record, I did go away, in part, because of the impression made by council. You may have missed the larger point. jfm

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