Cuyahoga County Dems Violated Their own Bylaws in Lakewood Endorsements

Cuyahoga County Dems Chair Shontel Brown - Cuyahoga County Council
Cuyahoga County Council
Cuyahoga County Dems Chair Shontel Brown
Lakewood's members of the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Executive Committee met Saturday at the Lakewood Public Library to vote on candidate endorsements for mayor and four city council races.

Scene reported Monday that mayoral candidate Sam O'Leary received the party endorsement despite turning in a candidate questionnaire late, after his opponent Meghan George's answers had been circulated.

But another controversy has now emerged relating to the endorsement process. Lakewood is the county's second-largest suburb, right behind Parma, and divisions among ideological wings of the local Democratic party have been pronounced — and sometimes extremely personal — there over the past several years.

The new controversy is of a technical nature. Per the County Dems' bylaws (Article 3, section 13, subsection d), only those executive committee members "within the applicable geographic area with respect to the office for which the vote is being taken” should have voted to endorse.

That means that all of Lakewood's 36 elected and appointed executive committee members should have been eligible to vote on the Mayoral endorsement. But for city council races, only those members living within the specified wards should have voted.

But that's not what happened.

Brad Presutto, who's running for Lakewood City Council in Ward 2, lost his endorsement vote Saturday. He assured Scene that he probably would have lost even if the bylaws were adhered to, but said he's concerned that the party is being either "negligent or haphazard" in its interpretation of its governing rules.

In Parma, these rules were followed when the party made endorsements before its May primaries. So why not in Lakewood?

click to enlarge Lakewood Ward 2 Council Candidate Brad Presutto -
Lakewood Ward 2 Council Candidate Brad Presutto
"I actually think a lot of the results would have been the same," Presutto told Scene by phone. "The last thing I want is to seem like sour grapes. But what's frustrating is that we have a responsibility to make sure that all residents are represented. And when the party doesn't follow its own bylaws, there's a perception that there isn't integrity behind the endorsements. And that hurts people who put their faith in them." 

(In addition to Sam O'Leary for Mayor, Lindsey Wilbur-Grdina was endorsed in Lakewood's Ward 1, Jason Shachner in Ward 2, John Litten in Ward 3, and Dan O'Malley in Ward 4.)

Presutto noted that negative perceptions were amplified by the party endorsements of both Marty Sweeney over Nickie Antonio and Tom Bullock over Mike Skindell in 2018, and by the more recent removal of Skindell from the party's executive committee.

There is a perception, moreover, that personal antipathies are dominating Lakewood politics and that the party establishment has been "at best disingenuous" in recent years, Presutto said.

(He noted by way of example that when he helped organize a campaign event to canvass for both gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray and U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown in the 2018 elections, the Lakewood Democratic Club asked that its logo be removed from a flyer because the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus' logo was also pictured. This claim is disputed by current Lakewood Democratic Club president Erik Meinhardt, who says the logo was asked to be removed because the club already had a separate "official canvass location" picked out.) 

In any case, Presutto took his endorsement concerns to the party's executive Director, Ryan Puente, in the week before the endorsement vote. Puente told Presutto, via email, that executive committee members in Lakewood had historically cast votes in all ward races.

"The Chair [Shontel Brown] determined that we will continue the same method of voting as in previous years but also asked our Legal Counsel for an opinion about the issue," Puente wrote. "Please understand that in many communities, voting by ward is not feasible because of the size of the Executive Committee. Further, with both appointed and elected Executive Committee Members, we want to make sure there is the broadest participation in the endorsement process. In smaller communities, some wards may have only one, two or in some cases no members and we want to make sure that those seeking the party's endorsement can in fact be endorsed should they receive the support of their Executive Committee."

When Presutto noted, in response, that the bylaws were "pretty black and white" on the issue, and that violating the rules in the past was not sufficient reason to continue violating them, Puente directed him to the Party's legal counsel, Eben (Sandy) McNair, who is also a party precinct committee member and city leader for Brecksville.

McNair rendered a legal opinion: "The decision is within the Chair’s discretion and therefore is binding upon all such endorsements.... It is within the Chair’s purview to modify how these recommendations are conducted. The Chair has the authority to permit all Executive Committee members (in Lakewood) to vote regarding the recommendation for each local ward race, even though a particular member may not live in the ward for which the member is making a recommendation.”

Presutto responded with a detailed refutation and suggested that the County suspend the endorsement process until a thorough review, and possible amendments, were made to the bylaws.

"In this context of acknowledged historic violations, and questionable compliance with further provisions of the bylaws," he wrote, "any endorsement vote at the present time would be at best irresponsible, opening the County Party to potential further instances of the Party Chair violating the bylaws and her oath to support them. Consciously extending the historic violations would, of course, go beyond irresponsibility and constitute willful betrayal of bylaws and oath."

McNair disagreed, writing that "courts give an organization wide discretion in interpreting its own by-laws, so long as that discretion is not done for nefarious reasons or constitutes an abuse of discretion. Here, the Chair’s conduct is neither."

Presutto told Scene that he couldn't help feeling that the endorsement process was just another way to suppress, "or at least control," the vote.

"Moves like this," he said, "especially when [the party's] preferred candidates were probably going to win the endorsement anyway, just leaves a bad taste in your mouth."

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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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