Cleveland City Councilman Jeff Johnson has come out publicly in favor of a merger with East Cleveland. Johnson's Ward 10 on the East Side borders the struggling suburb, and Johnson says his residents have an "intimate relationship" with East Cleveland. That's why he felt it was important to take the lead.
"The direction [East Cleveland] is going concerns me significantly, and I think that this is the solution for both cities," Johnson said in a phone interview with Scene Wednesday morning.
Johnson said he supports the efforts of Council President Kevin Kelley and Mayor Jackson to involve the Levin School at CSU by requesting that they aggregate existing information. He thinks studies are an important piece of the conversation.
"But in the end, what we have to do is present a package that speaks to the future of East Cleveland and the interests of the residents," Johnson said. "What is the incentive for a resident to support it? What is Cleveland gonna bring to the table?"
According to the outspoken councilman and other vocal supporters of a merger, Cleveland can bring economic development along the Euclid Corridor and financial and housing stability for a community with more than a quarter of its total land parcels vacant, and a community which Ohio auditor Dave Yost has characterized to Scene as "in a league all its own" with respect to fiscal management, or spectacular lack thereof.
Council President Kevin Kelley, for his part, preached to Scene the same sermon that he's been preaching to the NEOMG: Financial discipline has served Cleveland well since the recession, and though a merger is an "intriguing possibility," Kelley won't feel comfortable with it until he's certain it's a positive for residents of Cleveland.
"Although we manage ourselves responsibly, we still have a tight budget. We still have our own financial challenges that we’re trying to stay on top of," Kelley told Scene in a phone interview last week. "We need to make sure that this isn’t a net liability for the city of Cleveland."
Both Johnson and Kelley acknowledged that the benefits for Cleveland might not be as immediately obvious as the benefits for East Cleveland, but Johnson said that the long-term perks are undeniable. Things like historic structures, the "gorgeous" parks, and the East Cleveland Public Library were all items he mentioned, but there's a proximity issue for East Side council members as well.
"If we do nothing, we’ll have a city that is the poorest per capita city in the state of Ohio that will continue to drag down economically and socially the East Side of Cleveland," he said.
Johnson added that though East Cleveland residents certainly have pride in their city — a new piece by Cleveland Magazine's Eric Trickey demonstrably states that residents do not want to merge — and that political leaders will need some persuading to relinquish their autonomy, ultimately it's for the voters to decide. He said he hopes to get the merger issue to a vote no later than 2015.
"And convincing Cleveland residents isn't a given either," said Johnson. "I've got to convince the people out in Kamm's Corner that this makes sense, right?"
For now, Johnson would like to see Mayor Jackson take the next step by setting up a specific commission made up of East Side council members — Johnson, Conwell, and Mamie Mitchell whose wards all border East Cleveland — and business leaders on or near the border with a stake in the cities' future.
"This needs to be at the level where business and civic leaders take it seriously," Johnson said. "We need to lead by example."