Blaine Griffin Says Lead Legislation still 'A Work in Progress,' Denies Mayoral Implications of Delay

City Councilman Blaine Griffin said in May 2018 that he would pass a wide-ranging ordinance to combat lead poisoning before the end of the year. It is now 2019, and the ordinance is nowhere to be found.

After multiple stories in Sunday's Plain Dealer highlighting the endurance of the lead crisis, Scene reached out to Griffin to inquire about the status of his legislation. He said that he was "wrestling with a huge beast" and that the legislation was still a "work in progress," part of a broader effort to build a coalition around the lead crisis, which he said will include local philanthropic organizations and activists.

"I know people are impatient," he said. "And I know they might think there's not a sense of urgency. I won't duck that. But I will tell you that I do have a sense of urgency and [the Health and Human Services Committee] spent most of 2018 on this issue. We're working on it."

He admitted, however, that there was no explicit timeline or estimate for when an ordinance might be passed. He stressed that legislation was only one piece of a complicated puzzle with "many moving parts" and said he would continue to meet with local academics and philanthropic organizations to build an "intentional" and "comprehensive" strategy.

Much of this engagement work was mentioned last spring as well, in virtually identical terms, but Griffin stressed that the issue is extremely complicated and has required extensive research. He said he doesn't want to push out a piece of legislation "just so it's out there, that won't accomplish what it's supposed to accomplish." 

And yet, residents have reason to be impatient. Former Councilman Jeff Johnson had crafted legislation with the help of community activists and Legal Aid in 2017 that would have held landlords accountable for certifying their properties were lead-safe, but that ordinance (990-17) never received a hearing. Johnson was running for Mayor at the time, and the likely explanation for the stalled momentum was political: Johnson's opponents didn't want him to get credit for an important piece of legislation.

And while a variation on this calculus could explain Griffin's current stalling, he flatly rejected the notion that he was waiting to push the legislation until a more opportune political moment - i.e., in 2020, when he'd be able use it as a key campaign plank for a 2021 mayoral run.

"That's the farthest thing from the truth," Griffin said. "I don't know anything about a mayoral campaign. Right now, I'm the councilman of Ward 6 and Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. This has nothing to do with any kind of political ambition that I may or may not have, and everything — everything — to do with my commitment to children."

But the delay, whatever the cause, has come at the expense of Cleveland children, including those at the three CMSD elementary schools in Griffin's Ward 6: Bolton, Sunbeam and Harvey Rice. Based on the PD's reporting, 34 percent, 27 percent, and 26 percent, respectively, of kindergartners at those three schools had a history of lead poisoning.

The Plain Dealer reported that as leaders have debated how best to tackle the lead issue — community stakeholders have not been able to "coalesce" around a remediation strategy, concluded a Cleveland Foundation-funded report — more than 4,400 children have been poisoned at or above the Center for Disease Control's lead threshold (five micrograms per decileter) and will enter kindergarten at a potential disadvantage.

“The seriousness of this problem cannot be overstated, especially when we understand the consequences of lead exposure for a child’s well-being and success in later years,” said Case Western Associate Professor Rob Fischer, who led a study, published Monday, showing that elevated lead levels are indeed associated with ongoing academic problems.

Moreover, Councilman Griffin's statements about the complicated nature of a lead remediation plan stand in stark contrast to those by members of council's Health and Human Services Committee in May 2018. At a committee hearing, many expressed surprise at how straightforward the proposed legislation was.

"The thrust of the plan," said Cleveland Lead Safe Network's (CLSN) community manager Spencer Wells at the time, "is that the landlord is responsible to have a lead-risk assessment. They then follow an assessor's recommendations to get a lead safe certificate, which will be on file with the City of Cleveland."

In a conversation with Scene Monday, Wells said he was "shocked" that the ordinance has "run into a brick wall" the way it has and speculated that landlords and real estate interests may be "maneuvering behind the scenes" so they don't have to defend themselves in public.

He said CLSN spoke with Councilman Anthony Brancatelli in December and that the Ward 12 councilman had expressed eagerness to hold additional hearings. But the ordinance "wasn't in his box."

Meaning, the legislation was not currently under the purview of the Development, Planning and Sustainability Committee which Brancatelli chairs. The ball, then, is still in Griffin's court, and Griffin is still engaging with stakeholders. Wells said he has extended an invitation to Griffin three times to attend one of two CLSN membership meetings this week to provide an update on the ordinance. Griffin told Scene that he intended to meet with activists, though he did not reference CLSN specifically. 

"Let me underscore again that I know people want a sense of urgency and they have a right to be disappointed," Griffin said. "But I'm not sitting on my hands. We've made a lot of headway, and, quite frankly, no one is as impatient as me."