Cuts Like A Knife

Cleveland Council 'right-sizes' For The Suburban Business Elite

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In November, Cleveland voters will weigh six changes to the city charter, all placed on the ballot by Council last week in a preordained show of self-sacrifice.

Most are housekeeping chores: a change in Board of Elections deadlines, a switch from 40 to 30 days for legislation to take effect, a ballooning of the police review board. Other matters would just make life easier for Mayor Frank Jackson - like increasing the limit of how much he can spend without Council approval from $10,000 to $50,000 and forgiving years of hiring outside of civil-service guidelines, grandfathering in the nearly 1,000 city workers who somehow avoided taking the exam.

But one proposed change stands out: reducing the size of City Council. A "right-sizing" plan by Council President Martin Sweeney's handpicked Charter Review Commission suggests one ward leader per 25,000 residents - a ratio city leaders used in 1981 when they carved down from a tumultuous body of 33 to the mostly compliant one of 22 you see today. (Population has continued to dip since the last reduction, from nearly 600,000 to today's estimated 450,000, and shows no sign of resurgence anytime soon.)

The reduction will make Council more "efficient," say the movement's champions from their mostly suburban offices and homes. Translation: It will make life easier for those financing and massaging the campaigns of City Council members. Perhaps mindful of a little deadweight around them or the risk inherent in bucking leadership, Council voted 17-4 to ask voters this November what they think about a reduction.

The plan calls for a body of 19, then maybe 17 when Census figures become available in about four years, with membership prohibited from going under 11 or above 25. The architects say it is the most conservative and time-tested proposal they could place before the people.

Most of the ire from dissenters Mike Polensek, Mamie Mitchell and Zack Reed (Brian Cummins actually advocates deeper cuts and an at-large/ward-based combo) was directed toward the use of a population estimate for the first proposed excision, causing an undue succession of ward redrawings in the coming half-decade. Their rhetoric was guarded. Zack Reed talked about how Fannie Lewis had told him in a deathbed-side chat that she was fine with a trim to 17; his opposition arose because the initial cut would be from estimates suspected to undercount minorities and the disadvantaged.

"The only good thing about this is that the residents of the city get to ask the question," said Nina Turner (during a histrionic speech about how Council "works hard to make crooked paths straight"). "For the residents who depend on us, they need every one of us."

It was one of the few defenses of the status quo, and it came just before she voted to put the measure on the ballot.

Mayor Jackson, in a statement through spokeswoman Andrea Taylor, takes the same tack: "Government that is accessible is the best government." But he boldly avoided voicing opposition (perhaps because a smaller Council is an easier body for the mayor to steer too?). "The people who will vote will have their voice," Taylor says.

Despite the varying reasons for caution, it seems that what everybody's resentful about is the question of who was responsible for starting this snowball rolling toward City Hall in the first place - and why.

"They want to make one call and get their decisions made," spit Jay Westbrook to his colleagues, just before voting yes himself.

Annual cost savings to Clevelanders: about $300,000. To business interests: fuggedaboutit.

"IF YOU LOOK AT other large cities, most are larger than Cleveland, but they, in most cases, have much smaller councils. If it works well in those other big cities, why not for Cleveland?"

This is Pepper Pike Mayor Bruce Akers, who acknowledges being platform committee chairman more than five years ago for a county Republican Party attack on the sometimes unwieldy size of Cleveland Council. (Pepper Pike's ratio of Council representation, by the way, is one member per 857 residents.) Their hopes were for a reduction to 11, Akers says.

That same year, says Richard May, chairman of the West Park Republican Organization, county Republicans embarked on a failed plan to enlist candidates to run in every Cleveland ward, despite the skeletal network of Republicans across the city. The plan died at birth.

Reduction was going to have to be the way to gain more influence. Proponents turned to some well-connected business people to lead the charge, who'd been giving to Council campaigns for years.

First, in May 2005, Westlake-based Tony George, an equal-opportunity political giver and founder of the Harry Buffalo and Slam Jams chains, kicked off the patriotically named Ohio Citizens League with Republican faithful Michael Gibbons, a Fairview Park banker, and lawyer Peter Kirsanow of Cleveland, the local face of the group. Council reduction was their top stated target.

"This thing was never about winning Council seats, really," says May, who's opposed to the reduction; he believes it will make races more expensive and service more erratic. "It's about buying a cheaper Council."

The group collected 31,000 signatures on a petition for the deep reduction to 11, three times the number of signatures necessary for a ballot measure. Top business leaders across the region - mostly suburb-dwellers - passed around a petition of their own in a symbolic gesture of support. Then George and Ed Crawford, another top Republican contributor and resident of Kirtland Hills (council ratio of reps to residents: 1:75), met over lunch with Council President Sweeney.

"I firmly believe their proposal, if it made the ballot, would have been defeated soundly because of the dramatic and nonfunctionable plan they have," says Sweeney, who has run unopposed since he took office in 1997 with campaign help from the likes of Crawford. "We get spurred by all kinds of people on all kinds of issues."

Nevertheless, the OCL ended lunch with a pledge from Sweeney that he would take up the matter during the city's charter review - held every two decades - in 2008. And Sweeney left with a pledge from the OCL that they would hold off on their petition.

Eight-term Ward 11 Councilman Polensek said he wouldn't have negotiated so nicely: "I could care less what these suburban business people think. They're just lucky they're not dealing with me. I would've told them where to put that petition and to go to Sam's Club and get a big jar of Vaseline while they're at it."

But even Polensek can't deny that at least a little trim might be needed. In June, The Plain Dealer came out all for a generous gutting, even publishing an analysis of how seldom some Council members attended regular meetings. But Sweeney says four other proposals with deeper cuts and switches to at-large/ward-based models were discarded as too much, too soon. A drop to 17 members was widely considered conservative, he says. Tony George says it's just a start: "I look at Cleveland as the heart that pumps blood into the suburbs. 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."

It's all part of a broader effort gaining steam, he continues. "We've got 57 municipalities in Cuyahoga County. We need to regionalize this whole area. That's 57 police departments, 57 fire departments, 57 mayors, nearly 500 councilmen. Think about all this."

Yep, a lot of duplication. And chub. And a shitload of money for an equal-opportunity contributor like George to have to be doling out every time an election rolls around.

County Republican Party Chairman Rob Frost isn't so transparent about his group's machinations. In answer to several questions about the reduction, he says, "I think it's up to the voters of the city of Cleveland." Yeah, now that suburban Republicans forced the issue.

To be fair, though, they aren't the only potential winners. Upon approval of the voters, Sweeney and a paid consultant, by law, would be able to gerrymander wards in whatever fashion they deem most helpful.

WHEN PETER KIRSANOW votes, he's reminded of just how alone Republicans are in Cleveland proper.

"We're a small lot," says Kirsanow, who was appointed by President Bush to the National Labor Relations Board in 2006. "For the last 25 years, I've been voting in the same place, and I think every time I go to vote in the primaries, I only see me and my wife's names down there in the book when I sign in."

But that doesn't mean Republican influence can't be brought to bear. The proposal going before voters is a "half-measure," he says, but can only result in "greater accountability," with fewer Council members "ruling over fiefdoms throughout the city, looking for a small slice of the pie to the detriment of the overall city."

"A lot of people are starting to recognize that having so many cooks, so to speak, in City Council has resulted in a moribund City Council," adds Kirsanow.

Not all of his fellow city Republicans follow that logic. Chairman May of the West Park Republicans figures Kirsanow and his fellow strivers have a different set of objectives.

"The only subject you hear them talk about is there being too many people thinking about their parochial interests," May says. "But you know, we love parochial interests. That's why we own our homes here. It's people from the outside that talk about this, and 'Oh, this is horrible that these people are just concerned about their neighborhoods.' Well, damn straight. That's why they got elected."

He views his backyard stance as the truer Republicanism: "Let's combine suburbs then too. Forgive me for sounding like a Republican - I'll just switch into it for a second - but it's always better to have government as close to you as possible. 'OK, let's just be efficient and combine everything' - the Soviet Union thought that would be a good idea."

Though Sweeney appears to have appeased those on both sides of the argument for now, preparations are underway for any gaps in service to come. Some Council members have intensified their advertisements for the new Mayor's Action Center for complaints in hopes its growth will balance out how much longer the lines will be to hook a Council member.

Councilman Cummins doesn't see it that way, though. The Action Center will accept calls that historically have gone to Council members, freeing up their time to address a higher number of citizen concerns. With that in place, he believes a switch to a plan he floated to the Charter Review Commission - switching to seven ward and four at-large leaders - could finally be effective. But Cummins' plan wasn't even heard by any of the five Council members who are on the Charter Review Commission; they failed to show up on the day he presented it.

He's compiled a sampling of 31 peer cities that shows how Cleveland ranks just below St. Louis and Nashville for the size of its council. And, he notes, nearly two-thirds of all cities have at-large leaders, to strike a better balance between public and private expediency.

"The way it is now, we've got the mayor and Council leadership to deal with citywide issues," said Cummins after the Council meeting that sent the reduction to voters. "That's not enough oversight in the discourse. But you can understand why the mayor or Council president would be against the at-large thing. It'd be a direct threat to their authority."

Sweeney passes by a few moments later and asks what all the hushed tones are about.

"He just wanted some at-large seats, that's all," is the answer.

"I'm not large enough?" Sweeney jokes, patting his belly and moving on down the hall, a big, satisfied smile stretched across his face.

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