Dan Gilbert Personally Lobbied Cleveland City Council Member Opposed to Q Deal, Opposition Stands Firm as Vote Awaits

click to enlarge Councilman Zack Reed and others at a Public Square rally. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
Councilman Zack Reed and others at a Public Square rally.
At last night's city council meeting, Council President Kevin Kelley decided to postpone the vote on the Quicken Loans Arena renovation legislation. The delay was an odd one, on first blush, as the ordinance seemed to have enough support for passage.

The controversial ordinance (305-17) would have green lit the city's contribution to the public subsidies on the project. Those would consist of a portion of admissions tax revenue at the Q from mid-2023 to 2034, valued at approximately $88 million. If the deal does not pass, that money would go to the city's general fund.

The vote was expected to have been held last night, on third reading, after an 11-6 vote last week meant the ordinance could not pass on second reading. Though the ordinance was introduced as an "emergency," it can only retain emergency status if it secures 12 votes. Given this delay, some think that council leadership, and the Cavs, are concerned about reaching that threshold.

But the emergency designation is not well understood. It puts legislation into effect immediately, thereby complicating efforts for a voter-led referendum. But according to the city charter, even if the legislation does pass with 12 votes (as an emergency), it could still be subject to referendum.

Emergency ordinances are exempt from the possibility of referendum only if they are passed "for the immediate preservation of the public peace, property, health, or safety and providing for the refinancing of bonds, notes or other securities of the city." And because the county is issuing the bonds, not the city, 305-17 should not be exempt.

If not for concerns about a potential referendum, some wonder, why would Kelley delay an ordinance that he was so eager to vote on last week?

In an interview with Scene before last week's meeting, Kelley defended the emergency designation for the Q deal.

"I think we've had enough hearings on this," the council president said. "I think all the issues are out there. There isn't anything we haven't covered, in terms of what it means for the city and what the implications are. For me, it's just because we've had the number of hearings that we've had, and because, quite frankly, anybody that really cared about this followed what happened at the county. We know all the ins and outs. If we're gonna do it, let's do it. Another week or two weeks isn't going to change anything in my mind."

And yet Kelley told Cleveland.com reporter Bob Higgs last night that he pulled the item from the agenda "after some members requested more time to discuss it." He declined to name the members who made the request.

A City Hall source familiar with the proceedings said there was unlikely to be another committee hearing, but "at least one" councilperson did indeed want more time and that the decision to delay the vote was not a last-minute one. Two other sources told Scene that west side councilman Brian Kazy  (Ward 16), and maybe even Marty Keane (Ward 17) had been getting increasing pressure from constituents to change from a YES to a NO vote.

Meanwhile, the Cavs and council leadership have been lobbying hard to change the minds of the current six opponents.

Minutes before last night's meeting, Ward 2 Councilman Zack Reed jogged up the marble City Hall steps toward council chambers. He'd been fielding phone calls for the previous hour or so from Cavs' executives and their emissaries, including one trusted adviser who Reed wouldn't name who tried to flip him.

Reed's stance was: "I've said all along that if I'm going to vote on this deal, I need something for my neighborhood, for Cleveland's neighborhoods. I'm not opposed to a deal. I'm opposed to this deal."

When it was clear Reed wasn't budging, Dan Gilbert himself called. It was the first time the Cavs' owner had inserted himself in negotiations, as far as we know. It signaled to Reed the level of the Cavs' desperation.

For 40 minutes, according to Reed, he and Gilbert talked. Reed has characterized the Cavs' recent offers as "too little too late," — Reed said he'd asked for tangible things to take back to his constituents weeks ago, something akin to the Community Equity Fund that the Greater Cleveland Congregations group has proposed, but had been ignored — and said he conveyed a similar message to Gilbert. The Cavs' owner wanted to know what else there was to be done.

After all, the Cavs had already attempted to lure Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell to a YES vote, but Conwell had promised his constituents that he'd vote NO and said he wouldn't go back on his word. (His wife, County Councilwoman Yvonne Conwell, also voted against the subsidy. She was one of only three county councilpeople to do so.)

"I couldn't go home [if I voted YES]," Conwell joked to Scene. "I'm a hard NO."

Jeff Johnson and Mike Polensek were thought to be rock-solid lost causes. Johnson was using his opposition as a wedge in the division between himself and Frank Jackson in the upcoming Mayoral election. Polensek, council's most strident opponent to the deal, has implored his colleagues to remember earlier instances of pro sports teams begging for public money and failing to make good on promises. Most recently, Polensek has decried the lack of attention on a married couple murdered in Collinwood on Friday.

"What's been the big topic for the last two weeks in this city? Quicken Loans Arena," Polensek told Cleveland.com. "It's not about safety and security, it's not about addressing quality of life issues in our neighborhoods, it's not about making our neighborhoods more livable, it's about supplying more money for billionaires."

So Polensek and Johnson were out. Only Councilmen Brian Cummins and T.J. Dow remained, and both are in council races that are likely to be competitive. Cummins must square off against former City Councilman Nelson Cintron in a ward with the biggest Latino population in the city. Dow, as we reported last week, must now face well-known challenger Mansfield Frazier in addition to the polarizing activist Basheer Jones. "They're in a fight for their lives," Reed said he told Gilbert.

Cummins told Scene that in addition to meeting with Len Komoroski one-on-one two Fridays ago, he met with council leadership (Kevin Kelley and Terrell Pruitt) and clearly stated his opposition. He told Scene that his leadership role on council — Cummins is the chair of the Health and Human Services committee — had never been threatened. He said council leaders have been respectful, even if they disagreed.

In remarks at the meeting last night, Reed said he'd predicted that Kelley would pull the legislation. He suggested that Kelley delayed the vote not so council members could have more time to discuss the matter, but because the Cavs needed 12 votes to put the ordinance immediately into effect, and the extra week would give them time to do whatever last-ditch lobbying they could cook up.

"They're lobbying right now," Kevin Conwell told Scene, confirming that not just Cavs personnel but other leaders had been enlisted for phone calls and private meetings to try to persuade those opposed. "They're just doing their job. But I'm doing mine — my bosses are the residents. We've got to look out for the people."

Reed's remarks last night, like Jeff Johnson's council remarks, were filled with campaign rhetoric.

click to enlarge L-R: Jeff Johnson, Kevin Conwell, Zack Reed; one half of City Council's opposition on the Q deal. - Sam Allard / Scene
Sam Allard / Scene
L-R: Jeff Johnson, Kevin Conwell, Zack Reed; one half of City Council's opposition on the Q deal.
"Mr. Chairman, the maneuvering that you and others used down in Columbus to stop poor people from getting a raise on the Fight for 15..." Reed said, addressing Kelley directly. "It will not work here. Mr. Chairman, us six [Reed, Conwell, Dow, Cummins, Johnson, Polensek] are going to stick together."

Indeed, the six met after last night's meeting. Among other topics discussed were the arrogance of council leadership — How on earth could they not at least tally the votes? Putting the issue to a vote last week, on second reading, and not getting the required 12, was regarded as a major embarrassment — and the silence of Mayor Jackson. At one point, Jeff Johnson challenged Zack Reed (a foretaste, perhaps, of campaign feuds), questioning whether he was firm in his opposition.

Observers have long felt that Reed and Dow would be the most vulnerable, though council members have acknowledged that the longer the Q issue is in the news, the harder it becomes politically to change one's public stance.

It's an open secret that Reed will be announcing his mayoral candidacy. It's a wonder that he hasn't already. And his opposition in the face of direct pressure from the Cavs' brass makes for excellent campaign material. In fact, (intentionally or not) he has carved for himself a middle ground between Jackson and Johnson. If Jackson is out-of-touch and complacent, having okayed a deal with next-to-zero involvement and no suspicion of public outcry; and if Jeff Johnson is brash and unrealistic, a tiger who won't rest until every public dollar is excised from the deal; Reed could portray himself as just combative enough, a candidate who wants more for his residents but is willing to stand up to corporate power. (Whether or not that's true remains to be seen, but he'll no doubt cultivate that line in his presumed campaign.)

What's also an open secret is that Greater Cleveland Congregations, who have been quieter in recent weeks, have been meeting with other groups in town, forming a broad coalition that will challenge the Q deal legislation when and if it passes. If it passes with 11 votes, a traditional referendum will be possible. And even if it passes with 12 votes, the legislation ought to be subject to referendum.

As such, a NO vote on 305-17 is not merely a symbolic stand (as it was for poor Jack Schron, Nan Baker and Yvonne Conwell at the County). In Cleveland, a NO vote means a vote for the people, a vote to let the residents of Cleveland decide.
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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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