Jeff Johnson, Kevin Kelley in Testy Email Battle over Minimum Wage, Ballot Initiatives

click to enlarge Jeff Johnson - Photo by Peter Larson
Photo by Peter Larson
Jeff Johnson
A Cleveland mayoral candidate is waging an ideological war, via email, with a presumed future mayoral candidate on the subject of the city charter, the Ohio Revised Code, and recent hot-button issues at City Hall.

The combatants are, in one corner, Jeff Johnson, the "Neighborhoods" mayoral candidate who is backed by the powerful SEIU. In the other: Council President Kevin Kelley, who is despised by the SEIU but respected by the business community, and who is angling for higher office as well, including the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party Chairmanship. He is a presumed candidate for Cleveland Mayor in 2021.

Johnson kicked off the email exchange Tuesday morning with a request that Kelley and council clerk Pat Britt certify petition signatures for the $15 minimum wage issue. This request was in light of a decision by a Franklin County judge that the ban on municipal minimum-wage legislation was unconstitutional. (It violated the state's "one subject" rule.)

Kelley's argument in response to Johnson was that, as the petition had already been withdrawn, signatures could not be resubmitted, per the Ohio Revised Code 3501.38 (I)(2).  

Johnson rejoined that the only reason the petitions were withdrawn was because Kelley and Mayor Frank Jackson had managed to successfully lobby legislators in Columbus to include the ban on local minimum wage laws in SB331. That bill was related to licensing and regulating of pet retailers. The minimum wage component violated the state's "one-subject rule."

The minimum-wage issue is locally backed by SEIU. In fact, SEIU's endorsement of Johnson for Mayor was due largely to Johnson's support of the minimum wage ballot initiative. It was Johnson who proposed the amended version of the initiative, which would increase wages to $12/hour in 2018, followed by increments of $1 in the three succeeding years.

Johnson's concern in the email chain (which you can read in full below) is more than just minimum wage, though. He says Kelley has shown disrespect for the City Charter and the rights granted to citizens therein. More recently, of course, Kelley was intimately involved in the bogus quashing of the the Q Deal referendum. Johnson, in a council caucus hours after the Q deal referendum signatures were rejected, said that Kelley should be punished for his actions.

"Time to finally do the right thing," Johnson wrote Tuesday night, "and stop blocking the right of our residents to vote on the issues that they have successfully petitioned their government to be involved in."

You can read the spirited exchange below.

June 6, 2017 (10:52 a.m.)
FROM: Jeff Johnson
TO: Kevin Kelley, Pat Britt
CC: All council members

Council Clerk Britt and Council President Kelley,

A decision was made this week by a Franklin County Court that the state legislative ban on raising the state minimum wage by local cities is unconditional. This decision now requires of you to complete the process within our charter (Chapter 7: Sections 55 - 57) at the request of the petitioners by certifying for the ballot in 2017 the question of should the minimum wage in Cleveland be raised to $12 followed by a $1.00 increase for three years until it reaches $15.

The citizens' right to vote provided by Chapter 7 of our city charter cannot be denied by City Council now because of an unconstitutional act of the state legislature. You have to now complete the process legally secured by the certified signatures of Cleveland registered voters requesting a public vote, given the previous action of the official rejection by City Council of the ordinance request by the petitioners.

Not to act now to put the minimum wage ordinance proposal on the September 12 or November 7 election ballot would be in violation of the Cleveland charter law. I hope you will respect this law, and the citizens right to vote, even if you personally oppose the proposal. The citizens are watching. Thank you

Jeff Johnson
Councilman - 10th Ward

June 6, 2017 (2:06 p.m.)
FROM: Kevin Kelley
TO: Jeff Johnson

Councilman Johnson,

Thank you for your recent email. The problem that I see with your suggested course of action is that everything you stated after the first sentence is wrong. Further, your suggestion that we " have to complete the process within our charter..." suggests that your memory of the procedural actions taken by Council is inaccurate and that your reading of the Charter is misinformed.

Council followed each requirement prescribed by the Charter. As you may (or may not) recall, Council took the following actions related to this particular petition:
  • On September 12, 2016, the Clerk certified to the Council that the committee of petitioners submitted certification that the proposed minimum wage ordinance be submitted to a vote of the electors;
  • On September 12, 2016, Council passed Ordinance No. 1011-16, which authorized submission to the electors of the Cleveland Minimum Wage petition at a special election to be held May 2, 2017;
  • On January 9, 2017, the Committee of Petitioners for Raise Up Cleveland submitted a letter withdrawing the initiative issue from the ballot pursuant to RC Section 3501.38(I)(2)(b);
  • On January 9, 2017, Council passed Ordinance No. 20-17, repealing Ordinance No. 1011-16;
  • On January 11, 2017, the Clerk sent to the Board of Elections a certified copy of Ordinance No. 20-17 and a letter seeking withdrawal of the minimum wage issue from the May 2, 2017 election, per petitioners
You, in fact, voted for Ord. No. 20-17 repealing Ord. No. 1011-16.

Therefore, there is no "...process legally secured..." for the Council to take. Finally, I would direct you to the Ohio Revised Code, which addresses this very issue: “No petition presented to or filed with…[a]public office for the purpose of the holding of an election on any question or issue may be resubmitted after it is withdrawn from a public office….” Section 3501.38(I)(2)(b)."

For your convenience, I am attaching some of the relevant documents. Also, the City of Cleveland Charter can be found online at and the Ohio revised Code is available online as well at Please take some time to review these.

Kevin J. Kelley

June 6, 2017 (11:28 p.m.)
FROM: Jeff Johnson
TO: Kevin Kelley
CC: Pat Britt, All council members

Council President Kelley,

Thank you for your response, however, in your analysis you skipped an important action by you and Mayor Frank Jackson that stopped the process of Chapter 7 of the city charter following the vote by City Council on September 12. After that vote on Ordinance No. 1011-16, which authorized submission to the electors of the Cleveland Minimum Wage petition at a special election to be held May 2, 2017, you and Mayor Jackson in effect voided that action of City Council, a body you were elected to lead, and negotiated in Columbus via an amendment in state legislation (Senate Bill 331) a "poison pill" to the legal process in Cleveland that its citizens were following to gain a vote on a new ordinance to raise the city minimum wage.

Because of your actions, along with the Mayor, that legislative amendment you requested and received actually was in violation of the Ohio Constitution and thereby improperly stopped the process under the Cleveland charter which would have led to a vote by the citizens of Cleveland on May 2.

That is why on January 9, 2017, the Committee of Petitioners for Raise Up Cleveland submitted a letter withdrawing the initiative issue from the ballot pursuant to RC Section 3501.38(I)(2)(b). Their action was in direct response to the passage and signing by Governor John Kasich of Senate Bill 331 in December 2016. An illegal amendment put in an unconstitutional law that but for your actions, and others, would not have occurred.

So the legal question is this: Can the President of Cleveland City Council, and the Mayor of the same city purposely thwart the Cleveland City Charter Chapter 7 process of Initiative And Referendum that was honestly followed by citizens of Cleveland seeking their right to vote on a new ordinance? No.

So I go back to my original analysis in my first email, and agree that I did forget that the vote was scheduled for May 2 of this year after the City Council action on September 12. I do continue to stand behind my strong belief that the next steps required of you is to continue the process toward a citizens vote on the minimum wage by putting before City Council in a special session ASAP an Ordinance that, if passed, would authorize submission to the electors of the Cleveland Minimum Wage petition at the election to be held either September 12, 2017 or November 7, 2017. This Council action of passage would then be followed by the retraction of the withdrawal letter previously done by the Committee of Petitioners for Raise Up Cleveland while relying on what they thought was a legal statewide ban on local municipalities created by what was later determined to be an unconstitutional state law.

Finally, Mr. City Council President, I know the Cleveland city charter very well, I took my oath for my elected Council office to uphold its purpose, process and rights created therein. I have not tried to manipulate or deny its empowerment of our citizens as you have done with your actions with the state legislature, as well as with the pending Quicken Loans Arena petition issue.

Please don't claim knowledge and respect for our charter while at the same time deny its designated rights to our citizens. Also, please take time to review the charter more closely, and consider your actions over the last year in disrespect of it. Time to finally do the right thing and stop blocking the right of our residents to vote on the issues that they have successfully petitioned their government to be involved in. Thank you.

Jeff Johnson

June 7, 2017 (12:18 p.m.)
FROM: Kevin Kelley
TO: Jeff Johnson


Thank you for your response. There is no legal or procedural basis for the suggestions you made. Per the Ohio Revised Code, petitions were withdrawn.

Kevin J. Kelley

June 7, 2017 (1:38 p.m.)
FROM: Jeff Johnson
TO: Kevin Kelley
CC: Pat Britt, All council members

Council President Kelley,

I don't agree that there is no legal or procedural basis requiring City Council and the Clerk to certify the proposed ordinance requested via a legal initiative petition by the Committee of Petitioners for Raise Up Cleveland. I believe you and the Mayor violated the charter rights of the thousands of citizens who signed the petitions when you oversaw the passage of Ordinance No. 1011-16, and then took official action in Columbus to destroy the ability of the proposed minimum wage Ordinance to become law if a majority of citizens voted for it on May 2.

As a citizen and elected member of Cleveland City Council I find it offensive and abusive that the legislative and executive leaders of this city have acted with total disregard for the rights of Cleveland citizens provided to them by the city charter initiative petition process. The sad reality is you both continue to circumvent their rights beyond the minimum wage issue with your latest Ohio Supreme Court charade to block a public vote on the ordinance authorizing $88 million public funds for the Q Arena enhancement project. Shameful.

Despite your refusal to act in the interest of the citizens I expect that they are watching and will prevail in the end.

Jeff Johnson

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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