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Cleveland's Legislative Body Needs to Change, But Tony George's Punitive Proposal to Cut Council in Half Would be Disastrous 

click to enlarge PHOTO DESIGN BY STEVE MILUCH
  • Photo Design by Steve Miluch

On May 12, 2017, Cleveland City Council's utilities committee met at city hall for a routine hearing on new legislation. Committee hearings are where the meatiest work of city council gets done. It's where city agencies request and defend expenditures and where experts and department heads provide testimony to explain why certain pieces of legislation are advisable.

The utilities committee is one of 11 council committees. It deals with the water department, Cleveland Public Power, and Water Pollution Control, which manages stormwater and sewage. (If, for example, council were to hold an investigatory hearing on the recent NAACP lawsuit alleging racial discrimination by Cleveland Water, something which Glenville councilman Kevin Conwell called for last week, the utilities committee would be the likely forum.)

Among the items up for discussion on that date was an emergency ordinance authorizing the city of Cleveland to use a new vendor for its electric aggregation services. The city's utilities and sustainability departments had solicited proposals from area organizations, hoping to cut monthly energy costs for the roughly 55,000 residential and small commercial customers who get their electricity from First Energy (i.e., the Illuminating Company).

Having received five bids, an interdepartmental city team evaluated the proposals and selected NOPEC (the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council) as its vendor. Sustainability director Matt Gray told the council members in attendance that NOPEC's program for energy aggregation was deemed the "best overall." He mentioned NOPEC's variable price structure, its experience in customer communication, and its support for renewable energy as top selling points of the bid.

But the city's decision did not sit well with one of the other bidders, TPI Efficiency, which had submitted its bid in partnership with First Energy Solutions. One of TPI's agents was at the utilities committee hearing that day and had requested time to speak, a request that then-chair Terrell Pruitt granted.

The agent was area restaurateur Tony George.

In remarks that would have been dismissed out of hand were he anything but a wealthy business owner with substantial investments in the city, the Harry Buffalo founder disparaged NOPEC and threatened the city with removing his businesses if council didn't go back to the drawing board and use what he called a "transparent process" for selecting a vendor.

"I'm not here to throw darts," he said, "but I don't like what I heard."

George's calls for transparency were absurd at face value, as Matt Gray had moments earlier explained the bidding and selection processes in detail. But George was relentless. It soon became obvious that he was not concerned about transparency in the least. What he wanted was a different outcome. He wanted his own company to win.

George wasted little time before praising himself and his ventures — he employed 400 people in Cleveland, he said — and portrayed NOPEC as a cabal of criminal masterminds working out of a "Taj Mahal" in Solon. "It's like the Jones-Day law firm on steroids," he said, of NOPEC's headquarters.

(NOPEC executive director Chuck Keiper later said that the organization had purchased the property at a county sheriff's auction for approximately $200,000.)

During his speech, George crudely laid out some of the same arguments that he and his surrogates are now using in their bid to reduce the size and pay of Cleveland City Council.

"Just because the administration hands [a piece of legislation] to you," he said, "it's not beyond council's oversight to review their work, especially something of this magnitude. If it's not going to be council, have your consultants look at this, and let's have an open debate about this so that we know that the community is getting the best price. If the city of Cleveland signs a deal like last time, I'm not keeping my businesses in the city of Cleveland and my colleagues won't either."

(George makes threats of this sort on a regular basis. He used similar language when Cuyahoga County council was considering its LGBTQ protection ordinance. In public comments, George said that he and other restaurant owners would flee the county, to "right across the border," if the legislation passed. He said that there were 403 members of his licensed business owners group in Cuyahoga County. "We're all against it," he said. "Pay attention to what I'm saying. If you move forward with this legislation, my group is going to personally finance finding, fielding and funding candidates who vote against it.")

He said that he planned to be vocal about the energy aggregation issue and would get in the ears of city council members and the mayor, if he had to.

"We've got to make decisions in a diplomatic, precise way," he said. "I love Cleveland, but the city needs to get into the 21st century ... Everybody knows me. I'm not saying give me the business because you know me. I'm saying give me the business because we earned it."

George's meandering, bad-faith process complaints were thereby distilled into his true message: Give me the business. If TPI Efficiency had secured the bid, there's a zero-percent chance George would have made the trek from Westlake to Cleveland City Hall to wring his hands about a lack of precision and diplomacy.

In April 2018, city council passed legislation that authorized Cleveland to participate in NOPEC's energy aggregation program. And a few months later, Scene broke the story that Tony George had begun a campaign to reduce the size and pay of city council.

George told Scene at the time that he was backing the initiatives because Cleveland's council members were overpaid relative to legislators in peer cities. More generally, he said, Cleveland needed "fresh voices" and "fresh leaders" who would "keep the mayor in check."

From the perspective of many at city hall, the entire council reduction campaign — both the initiative to reduce the body's size from 17 members to nine, and the initiative to reduce council salaries from $83,000 to $58,000 — can be traced back to the May 2017 utilities committee hearing.

Viewed through that lens, these measures are not sincere efforts to improve city services or government performance. They are petty, vindictive power moves by George — attempts to punish legislators who didn't award him a big energy contract, attempts to show them who's boss.

Viewed through another lens, though, the current efforts are merely the latest example of George's self-interested political activism. This is not the first time he has backed measures to reduce the size of city council.

The most recent was in 2008. To appease suburban businessmen, including George, then-council president Marty Sweeney authorized a ballot measure that linked council size to the city's population, with one representative per approximately 25,000 residents. This has reduced the body from 21 to 17 members, and could reduce it yet again after the 2020 census. George approved of Sweeney's plan in 2008 but considered it "just a start."

"I look at Cleveland as the heart that pumps blood into the suburbs," he told Scene at the time. "What happens in Greater Cleveland if Cleveland dies on the vine? It doesn't matter if you're in Pepper Pike or Brooklyn or Westlake — the region is going to die. We need to keep the heart pumping, and to do that, we have to make it more efficient to get things done. Right now, it's gridlock, very territorial."

"Making things more efficient" is the euphemism the wealthy and powerful use to mean getting exactly what they want with as little friction as possible. "Getting things done," by the same token, is the euphemism they use to mean getting things done for them.

Whether or not it was the utilities committee tantrum that spawned his latest endeavor, George formed the group Clevelanders First in 2019 and paid petition circulators to gather signatures for both council reduction initiatives. Because they propose changes to the city charter, the measures required authorization via legislation from city council. That came last week, and both measures are now set to appear on the March 2020 ballot.

Cleveland voters should not support them.

However, it's important to note that many (perhaps even a majority of) Cleveland residents are fed up with city council for a laundry list of very good reasons. Council knows this. After the deluge of reports about Ken Johnson's misuse of discretionary funds in Ward 4, for example, council caucused about their "perception issues." They know that the George measures stand a sporting chance of passage and are prepared to unleash the full might of their offices and social media accounts to discredit George — a suburbanite! — and attempt to disqualify the ballot initiatives on technicalities.

Council clerk Patricia Britt sent a letter to the city's assistant prosecutor Karrie Howard on Dec. 6, for example, to flag "serious concerns" related to the financial disclosures filed in conjunction with the petitions. One of these concerns was that the name "Clevelanders First" expired on Nov. 15, 2019, and is no longer a legal entity recognized by the state of Ohio.

These tactics should be familiar. They are the same ones that council has used on its own constituents, in the local minimum wage initiative, the Q Deal referendum and the CLASH campaign to force legislation on lead poisoning.

In light of these tactics and other flamboyantly anti-democratic actions over the past several years, it would be easy to argue that city council is now reaping what it has sown. Though the council reduction measures are sponsored by an unsavory restaurateur who's gaga for Donald Trump, Cleveland voters have every right to agree with the spirit of vengeance that animates them: Council ought to be punished for its performance, the sentiment may go.

But that energy would be more profitably expended on campaigns to oust individual representatives and on reforming the body in ways that will lead to positive changes for the city.

Drastically downsizing council without restructuring the ward-based system of representation, however, is not one of them. The reduction would have serious ramifications on city governance. Some of these ramifications would be predictable, others wouldn't. But guys like George will be licking their chops. The quote-unquote "wealthy suburban businessmen" know — and have said as much, in response to the impertinence of council members who refused to immediately play ball during the Q Deal legislation — that a smaller body would be far easier to buy off and influence.

This is a delicate case to argue. It's important to stress that opposing the George measures is not the same thing as supporting council. Council is still largely very bad.

After tentative signs of public servitude in early 2019 which might have been a bulwark against the George measures — lead legislation! right to legal counsel for the evicted! — council members have returned to business as usual:

Ward 4 councilman Ken Johnson is still gainfully employed, for starters, and so is Ward 17 councilman Marty Keane, though no longer as a councilman. He resigned from his post in November, strategically timing the appointment of his successor (Charles Slife) to ensure the maximum term allowable without a special election. Slife will serve for two years and will enjoy the benefits of incumbency in 2021, having never run for the seat. In Ward 1, the major legislative campaign of councilman Joe Jones in 2019 was "bringing God back into City Council chambers." In Ward 6, the most memorable action in 2019 from councilman Blaine Griffin, the presumptive mayoral contender, was a combative floor speech this fall.

"We've got to set a tone that nobody should ever mess with this body," he thundered. "These folks need us because we were duly elected and we put ourselves out there to work hard on behalf of the citizens, not them ... The body of this council needs to be shown respect whenever we go anywhere. We need to send a strong message that when you mess with us, you will be dealt with."

In recent weeks, the biggest council newsmaker has been Ward 11's Dona Brady. She's been doing everything in her power to force people experiencing homelessness from a temporary shelter at Denison United Church of Christ. Servant leadership, indeed!

The point is, these people are extremely hard to defend. Many of them should be voted out at the first opportunity. And it's tempting to shrug and give in to the George measures, to treat them as overdue comeuppances. Might not a massacre be cathartic for city hall? Might it not yield a clean slate?

Sure, but that's Thanos logic. Cleveland voters should not let Tony George snap his fingers and turn half of council to dust.

Moreover, Northeast Ohio has shown a dangerous proclivity for misapprehending the nature of leadership problems. It is often not systems that need overhauling, merely leaders themselves. Mayor Frank Jackson's embarrassing fourth term and the stagnancy of his administration, for example, should not be construed as evidence that the city must abandon a mayoral system. It just means we need a new mayor. Armond Budish and the few chiefs he's got left should be proof positive that a county executive system is not inherently less corrupt or more effective than a county commissioner system. Maybe we just needed new commissioners?

Similarly, having council members who are subservient to corporate interests and the mayor, and who demonstrate contempt for the will of the people, does not necessarily mean we need to create a smaller council. It probably just means we need new council people.

That said, a new system of representation that includes at-large seats should be seriously explored. In 2008, then-councilman Brian Cummins proposed a mix of ward and at-large seats, but his plan was summarily dismissed. (Scene theorized at the time that the at-large representatives would have posed a threat to the legislative supremacy of the mayor and council president).

For now, council members represent wards, not the entire city. That's the main reason why there's so few ambitious pieces of legislation. As we wrote when we inducted city council into our inaugural Worst of Cleveland class, council members "care largely (if not exclusively) for their individual wards and, with limited exception, have abandoned the progress of the city to pursue a warped sense of ward equality." This is what people mean when they talk about "fiefdoms."

In the current system, each council member represents about 22,000 to 25,000 people. Reducing the body to nine members would mean each council member would then represent nearly 43,000. That would correspond to an enormous increase in the time they and their assistants spend answering calls about cracked sidewalks, trash pickup, noisy neighbors, etc. Council members are already not doing a whole lot of policy work. They mostly serve as advocates for their neighborhoods, dealing with individual constituent needs. (And while we ream council for their anti-democratic behavior, we recognize that many of them are committed and responsive in this regard.) Nearly doubling the size of their constituencies would mean even less concern for the sort of bold citywide legislation that's urgently needed.

The appropriate pay for council, incidentally, should also be debated. It's possible that $83,000 is too high (or that it rose too quickly, via sneaky automatic annual raises). On the other hand, $58,000 may be too low. The biggest issue with George's salary reduction measure is not the number itself — we actually dispute the argument that all qualified candidates would disappear at a lower salary — but that cleaving it by nearly 30 percent while also substantially increasing the workload seems especially punitive and illogical.

But it is true that council members are paid more — in some cases, a good deal more — than legislators in peer cities. That fact, along with much of what Tony George has argued about council, is absolutely correct. And calling him a "suburbanite" over and over won't change that. City council is largely a rubber stamp for Mayor Frank Jackson and his administration. Many council people do shirk their committee responsibilities. The city's legislature does need fresh voices and fresh leaders.

But correctly identifying problems does not give Tony George license to dictate solutions. Whether or not the measures were crafted out of spite, they were crafted in George's interest, not ours. For residents, the ongoing problems of a disengaged, anti-democratic, rubber-stamp legislative body will be made far worse with fewer members. These measures should be voted down.

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