Another Day, Another Mockery of the Democratic Process as Phyllis Cleveland Resigns from City Council

click to enlarge Cleveland dropped the ball in bridging culture barriers during the pandemic - Cleveland City Hall, Erik Drost/FlickrCC
Cleveland City Hall, Erik Drost/FlickrCC
Cleveland dropped the ball in bridging culture barriers during the pandemic

It's difficult to comment with any originality on the news, today, that Ward 5 Cleveland City Councilwoman Phyllis Cleveland has tendered her resignation and nominated a veteran community activist named Delores Gray to replace her.

This anti-democratic process, council's so-called "appointment tradition," is universally reviled. It has been criticized to death for years by local media and by residents, who naturally object to their ongoing marginalization by the very people who are supposed to be representing them.

Council does not care. They continue to resign before the conclusion of their terms at a startling clip. The stated reasons for their resignations vary, but the outcome is the same. They get to personally select their own heirs. This tradition is among the most sacred on council, and it is honored, at each iteration, with unanimous support. City legislators simply cannot part with this final exercise of their beloved power and influence. 

Martin Sweeney, Joe Cimperman, Mamie Mitchell, Martin Keane, Dona Brady and Matt Zone have all resigned in recent years. They all hand-picked their successors. Among them, only Cimperman gestured toward the idea of a process. He allegedly interviewed multiple candidates before settling on Kerry McCormack in Ward 3, whom he'd been eyeing all along. The rest simply presented the name of their chosen replacement to council, after which council ratified the new member without a word of protest. Council President Kevin Kelley always invokes the Unit Rule to ensure unanimity on these votes. Welcome to the club!

The process is a double-edged insult to voters: That elected representatives routinely don't bother to finish their full terms should be an outrage, first of all. The sense of entitlement is appalling! Some of them, like Marty Keane, get sick of the job and its rigors. (The solution to that dilemma is: don't run again.) Some of them, like Mamie Mitchell, experience the onset of age and/or related ailments. (The solution there is: retire gracefully at the conclusion of your term.) Others, like Joe Cimperman and Matt Zone, want to explore local leadership opportunities in the private sector. (The obvious solution is: Inform the organizations courting you that you won't be eligible for a new position until you've completed your term!) But the "fiefdom" mentality of city council reigns. It means, among other things, that sitting councilpeople believe it is their right to exit the position whenever they feel like it. They also believe it is their right to ignore voters completely in what they view as succession planning.

Phyllis Cleveland, to whom council ascribed unspecified "health issues" last week, may truthfully be very sick. Who can say? If she is, she has her colleagues to thank for the fact that most voters will regard the explanation as hogwash, given that it's arriving only a few months before the election in Ward 5. Even if she's suddenly so enfeebled that she has to retreat from regular meeting assignments, the summer recess is on the horizon and slack could be picked up by her colleagues and/or her assistant until a new representative is elected in the fall. But then, she wouldn't get the special privilege of sidelining voters to pick the ward's next representative.

In a related case, it was widely known that Councilwoman Mamie Mitchell was deteriorating mentally in 2017, long before council orchestrated her resignation to appoint Blaine Griffin. Council leadership waited for months, long after Mitchell could meaningfully participate in council meetings, (though she faithfully voted YES on every Q Deal vote), before giving her the boot to bring Griffin on board a few short months before the end of her term.

There was no mention of Cleveland's illness at the caucus Monday afternoon, no somber get well soons. Cleveland announced Delores Gray as her heir and everyone took turns thanking Cleveland for her years of dedicated service. They all promised to stay in touch and said they expected to see her around. Real retirement party vibes.

Like Jenny Spencer and Charles Slife most recently, Delores Gray may be well-qualified as a replacement. Her various organizational affiliations (Burten, Bell, Carr, CMHA, ACLU, Legal Aid, Sisters of Charity), are listed on her bio, which by the way already appears on the city council website as the Ward 5 councilwoman. If she were to run in a Ward 5 election, she might even win! But the point is: that's for residents to decide.

(Gray is a twin, incidentally, and her sister Deborah has pulled petitions to run for City Council in Ken Johnson's Ward 4.)

It was impossible to watch the caucus Monday without rage at the persistence of these anti-democratic antics. But the steadfastness of council's refusal to change and the discipline with which they've ignored citizens' pleas has led to more direct assertions of impatience. A wave of new candidates are running on pro-democracy platforms citywide. And at the same time, broad coalitions of citizens are organizing to foist democracy on the mewling narcissists at 601 Lakeside whether they want it or not. Enough is enough. 

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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