(LFC Comment: We are pleased to have Jeff Beck write his personal story on how he became such a successful community activist in the City of Euclid. There is usually an adverse event that “starts the ball rolling” for the average citizen to get involved in local political issues. In Jeff’s case, it was a TREE!)
Becoming a Political Activist
Written by Jeff Beck
Most communities have 1 or 2 people who continually attend meetings , follow their elected officials, and speak on various issues. Unfortunately, it’s not enough. If the same 1 or 2 people always speak publicly then they are easy to ignore as malcontents or worse.
Generally they don’t coordinate with each other so it’s a very fragmented process. Elected officials, in many cases, like it this way. These people will raise your taxes through imposing fees and even give tax abatement to ill fitting businesses.
A good set of activists can hold our elected officials accountable.
But how do you get started?
I run a group here in Euclid called Euclid Citizens in Action. We have successfully defeated 5 tax levies in a row and this past November defeated a proposal to close our city tax department in favor of going to RITA. This was done through a referendum petition drive where we gathered over 2,300 signatures in 30 days in the dead of last winter.
Accomplishing this did not happen overnight. It was a lengthy journey I started on about 15 years ago.
It started with a tree. I was very naïve back then about how cities ran. I did not even know my council person . My neighbor behind me had a 100 plus year old oak tree that stood about 80 feet tall. It was on the edge of my property, and it was dying. To clarify the part hanging over my property was dying. It would drop branches in my back yard which I gathered for firewood so I really didn’t think too much about it.
Then it started dropping limbs. I spoke with my neighbor who said to me he couldn’t afford to take it down. The week before Thanksgiving that year I had a 10 X 12 shed put up in my back yard. A week later a limb came down and went through the roof. Another “Act of God” .
I had had enough. I called City Hall to get the name and contact information for my council person as I did not know whom else would help. I called. He came out and said “No problem. We have an ordinance that states you can’t have a dead tree on your property”. He gave me the city arborist’s number. I called several times with no response. So I went to his office. I received the usual “I was getting ready to call you” .I explained the issue and he told me that Council had changed that ordinance the year before to only include trees over the right of way. He said my Council person voted for it so he knew it was changed. He stated there was nothing he could do.
So now I am getting mad. I called City Hall to find out when the Council meetings are held and if the public could attend. (I told you I was naïve). I received the information and attended the next meeting. The chambers were nearly empty. One other person, and me were there. I summoned up the courage, got up and spoke about my issue. All I got back were a few sympathetic remarks and no help.
So I re-grouped. This tree ran next to the power, phone, and cable lines for my side of the street. I remembered a bad storm in 1993 that dropped a limb from this tree and took out power and phones for 8 days. So I made up a flyer about how dangerous this tree was for anyone on oxygen or who relied on power for health reasons. I listed the home phone number of the Council person as well as the mayor (which I found). I then handed it out to all the houses that could be affected by this tree asking them to call. I waited a few weeks and went again before council, this time a little more emboldened than before.
The response I received from both Council and the mayor was a little more hostile as they had received a few calls from my flyer. I also received a call from someone who suggested I check the ordinances closer. I did and found a little surprise.
There was an ordinance on the books that stated you cannot have a dangerous tree on your property. So now I needed to have this tree declared dangerous.
Fate came into play here. By this time, it was late summer of the following year. CEI was clear cutting away from power lines along the property. I spoke with the lineman who told me they can do so much but couldn’t handle the height of this tree – only branches running through the lines. He gave me a number to call. I did. A CEI spokesperson came out and after listening to me and seeing the damage declared the tree a danger to the power lines.
I also hedged my bet and called the local Sun Journal. They came out and did a story on the tree and took my picture in front of it. I was pleasantly surprised when the paper came out and my picture was big and bold on page one above the fold.
With this information I went back to Council, cited the ordinance, and demanded action. The city had been informed by CEI and they had seen the paper. A few weeks (and a few more glitches later) the tree came down. The process had taken nearly a year and left me very frustrated at our elected officials.
I attended the next Council meeting but didn’t speak. After it was over I had 3 Council people come up to me and take credit for working behind the scenes to take care of my problem. I just looked at them because I knew it was BS. But my resolve was set.
I not only continued to attend meetings, but volunteered for different committees. I ended up on the City’s Charter Review Commission in 2007-2008 during the time the Department of Justice sued the City over the ward makeup (a suit we lost). I received a much better education on the workings of government, and developed friendships with several Council people who had been elected by that time.
In 2011, I was given information on the City’s shared income tax with the schools. I researched this and found that the residents had been sold a bill of goods on this tax and it was starting to hurt the city. I formed a PAC to deal with this issue and have spoken on it several times. Unfortunately, it is a complicated issue and without a volunteer lawyer cannot move forward.
Fast forward to 2016. The schools placed a $136M bond issue on the ballot to rebuild our high school and Early Learning Center. By this time my name had become fairly well known and I had several people approach me wanting to fight this issue as unaffordable.
We met in my back yard and decided to be the first group, using my PAC, to fight a school levy in Euclid. I researched this as thoroughly as my tree issue several years before. What I found was astounding. It was a deliberate attempt by our school board to lie and deceive the public on this levy. (Details for another story). We fought hard but this levy narrowly passed. The experience was priceless though. Plus, we were small but on the school boards radar and gained more public notice.
In 2018, 3 tax levies were placed on the ballot. We decided to fight and started actively recruiting members. A long story short, we defeated all 3 levies and now had over 100 members. Success begets success. Residents now saw you CAN fight City Hall.
When the administration and the majority of Council decided to outsource our tax department to RITA. We mobilized, ran a referendum drive to get the issue on the ballot, ran a campaign, and defeated RITA and saved our tax department.
We now stand at 243 members. I am retired now. I now attend Council, committee, and school board meetings. Along with me I can count 15-20 of our group to also attend and speak when needed. A far cry from 15 years ago.
You can fight City Hall. If anything, you can force them to explain their actions. Mine was a circuitous route. Yours can be more direct. I encourage everyone to take an active role in their government. Keep them honest. Keep them accountable.
Categories: Community Activist Training