Cleveland City Council Members Shouting About Race

Last night, in 2014's first meeting of Cleveland City Council’s Committee of the Whole, heated conversations about race and leadership appointments took center stage.

Under the attentive eye of new president Kevin Kelley, council members focused largely on the issue of councilman Kevin Conwell, and Kelley’s decision to appoint Matt Zone Chair of the Public Safety committee where Conwell had been the incumbent.

In the chambers’ stadium-grade lighting, bolstered by resident support, Jeff Johnson took to his microphone and expressed outrage that Conwell had been removed. Johnson said that an African-American chairperson was more appropriate for the Public Safety committee, given the concentration of crime and safety issues on the east side, where Conwell serves.

Zack Reed spoke next, reiterating Johnson’s concerns, and pointing to an easel and poster board he’d brought with the white faces of law enforcement and policy-making leadership in Northeast Ohio. (Safety Director Marty Flask and Police Chief Michael McGrath were among them).

Conwell then more or less read his resume, but did throw his support behind councilman T.J. Dow.

Ward 1’s Terrell Pruitt, now the majority whip in Kelley’s council, said that Zone should be judged not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. (He did acknowledge that the quote originally came from Martin Luther King, Jr.)

Zone then defended himself by “name-dropping” his African-American godchildren and citing his father’s support of Carl B. Stokes back when Stokes had no other white supporters in Cleveland City Council.

(In the meantime, other council members were chiming in to offer their personal condolences and memories of Arnold Pinkney, the iconic Cleveland black activist who died yesterday. I mean the proceedings were in many respects bizarre).

The Public Safety combatants each spoke once again, with various iterations of the same arguments. Kevin Kelley was at one point literally pounding the gavel to silence Jeff Johnson, who started shouting “Why? Why was Kevin Conwell removed?” at the top of his lungs.

“I aint making no apologies for fighting for diversity,” shouted Johnson.

It wasn’t until majority leader Phyllis Cleveland observed that Kelley had the right to choose his own leadership team — a right that every council president enjoys — and that Kelley in fact made a “courageous step” by assembling a team of ⅔ African-Americans, that the room basically piped down.

—Councilman Marty Keane appeared to be entertaining two high school students from St. Ignatius for some sort of school paper. These poor boys looked first bored and then positively terrified.

—Marty Sweeney was without spectacles or beard.

—Joe Cimperman, Chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, acknowledged that women are now serving on the committee for the first time in five years.

—Jeff Johnson expressed discontent at the last-minute nature of much of Council’s lawmaking. He voted 'No' on the suspension of rules related to the passage of something to do with easements in his ward related to a windmill project. He said the first time he found out about the legislation was “30 minutes ago.” He said the excuse given to him was that folks in the (either law or planning) dept. didn’t have the new ward maps and therefore didn’t realize the easements would be in Johnson’s ward. “Somebody needs to get them a new map,” Johnson said. “That excuse is not gonna fly.”

—Kevin Kelley issued a codified request for “unprecedented levels of openness” among City Council members to “establish public trust in the body.”

—Kevin Kelley was also wearing some truly bitching hipsterish eyeglasses. Looks like he learned a thing or two from that maternally spectacled Sweeney.

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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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