The Scuttling of Council Reduction is Another Sad Example of Cleveland's Anti Democratic Leadership

click to enlarge The Scuttling of Council Reduction is Another Sad Example of Cleveland's Anti Democratic Leadership
Cleveland City Council/Steve Miluch
Monday evening, Cleveland City Councilman Joe Jones and Bill Ritter, a leader of the group which gathered signatures to place two council-reduction measures on the March ballot, appeared on a radio show hosted by the Cleveland Clergy Coalition's Aaron Phillips to discuss the council issues. 

The show aired only hours after Clevelanders First delivered a signed letter officially withdrawing their petitions. It concluded less than an hour before City Council voted to accept that withdrawal and repeal the authority to put the issues before voters, as required by city charter.

(Scene and other outlets have reported that it remains unclear what will happen on primary election day. The two measures will still appear on ballots, which are already printed, and various state and local authorities are now being called upon to determine how to legally proceed. The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections may place signs at polling locations indicating that votes on issues #3 and #4 will not be tallied.)

Update: The Board of Elections issued a press release Tuesday saying that "All votes for the withdrawn [council reduction] issues are void and will not be counted.”

The Monday conversation, which aired on 1490 AM, shed little new light on the wheeling and dealing that may have precipitated the withdrawal, (what some supporters of council reduction felt was an inexplicable surrender), but it did showcase familiar positions from Cleveland leaders that articulate their permanent fear and loathing of the electorate.

To recap: Clevelanders First withdrew the petitions after meeting with the Cleveland Clergy Coalition and agreeing to commission a study on council reform. Bill Ritter has told Scene, and he repeated Monday, that Clevelanders First "didn't want a divisive situation." The group's leaders respected the clergy's stated fears about racial divisions that the council-reduction campaigns could theoretically instigate.

Joe Jones admitted Monday that some of his council colleagues were "adamantly opposed" to making a deal with the clergy and "wanted to fight" because they felt they could defeat the measures at the ballot. This confidence may or may not have been based on data. Scene has heard that polls were conducted on the council reduction issues, but no results have been published or shared. A city council spokesperson told Scene that council itself did not conduct a poll.

Phillips said that a key player in the negotiations was Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, and that the meeting to hash out the council reduction agreement took place in Fudge's local office.

In a bizarre twist, Phillips said that he personally delivered the withdrawal letter to Council President Kevin Kelley Monday. (The reason that's bizarre is because Phillips is not a member of Clevelanders First. He was merely enlisted to help broker a deal. Local journalist Richard Andrews has reported that Phillips' typical clients are white judicial candidates who want face time with prominent black ministers in order to drum up support on the predominantly black east side.) When Ritter asked Joe Jones about Kelley's stated refusal to honor the findings of the supposed forthcoming study, Phillips stepped in to say that he had talked with Kelley when he delivered the letter and that Kelley was on board with reform.

"[Kelley] has clearly indicated to me that they are very open minded," Phillips said. "I can trust him."

I'll refrain from commenting on Kelley's trustworthiness, other than to say that Phillips' report of a private conversation contradicts the council president's publicly quoted position, in which he has said it would be "unreasonable" to agree ahead of time to recommendations. 

In Kelley's defense, no one has offered an explanation for what this supposed independent study will attempt to demonstrate, or even what questions it will ask. Both and local justice advocate Mariah Crenshaw have compiled data to show that Cleveland has both a larger and better-paid council than legislative bodies in peer cities. That's just a fact.

Cleveland City Council is unique in some respects — council members have smaller staffs than those in other large cities, they perform constituent services that other legislators don't, etc. — but much of the relevant data has been organized and published already. There are more representatives per capita (which could be good or bad, based on your views!) and they make a lot more money (which could be good or bad, based on your views!) than council members in cities roughly Cleveland's size.

(Note that council members have made a big deal about the ratio of representation in Cleveland versus Cuyahoga County suburbs, in large part because the signature-gathering was funded by Westlake resident Tony George. But these are not meaningful comparisons. It's less like comparing apples and oranges than it is like comparing apples and extremely small, insignificant apples.)

It's not necessarily the case, as Aaron Phillips said Monday, that "we need data; we need information so that we can make an informed decision." What we need more of, I believe, is interpretation and argument, the type of information and exchange you'd expect to see in the context of a heated campaign. 

If council wants to defend their high salaries (and explain the provision, enacted under George Forbes, which grants them automatic six-percent raises every time anyone gets a raise of any size at City Hall) they should do so directly to voters. If council-reduction proponents believe that they'd be better served with fewer members, they should say why at community forums and neighborhood gatherings — and indeed, on their social media pages — in the days and weeks preceding the vote. Everyone should have tuned in to the City Club debate between Kevin Kelley and Clevelanders' First's John Kandah (an event that was canceled in light of the petition withdrawal) and read what would no doubt have been a lively account in the local alternative press. 

But none of that will happen, and the reason why is familiar: The people in charge are worried that voters in Cleveland will make the wrong decision. All three men on Monday's show seemed to recognize that voters would have had legitimate reasons to vote for council reduction. Phillips said that while there are good, committed council members, there are also those who give the body a bad name.

"The truth is that 22,000 people signed that petition because there are times when [council people] have not been responsive, and our communities are disastrous," he said.

Ritter added that on both sides of town there is voter apathy. "People feel like the government is not working for them, not listening to them," he said. "I think that's why we got 22,000 signatures. They don't feel like their voice is heard."

Phillips, then, correctly pointed out that there's so much trauma and anger in Cleveland's communities that "it would take just one little thing" to send voters over the edge at the polls. "Our people are hurting," he said. "Everybody wants to blame this person or that person."

The implication was that council should not be punished by the blind anger of the masses, what James Madison called the "confusion and intemperance of the multitude." Brent Larkin used this very Madison quote in a column denouncing council reduction last week. It was an example, he wrote, of "democracy at its worst."

That's horseshit.

A much worse and more fundamental debasement of democracy happens every time leaders in Cleveland forbid the electorate from weighing in on how the city is run, how it spends its money and how the people are represented. It's possible, of course, that the electorate may not make what leaders feel is the wisest decision in every instance, but it's the electorate's prerogative to make, and learn from, its mistakes.

Our people are hurting, Phillips said. Clevelanders are furious. They see that half of the city's children are living in poverty; that black women have worse educational and economic outcomes here than in any other big city in the country; that in 2017, teens at CMSD attempted or thought about committing suicide more than students at any other metro school district nationwide, and they want to hold somebody—anybody—accountable. Why do none of these council people seem all that bothered? Can't they see how detestable it looks when they spend their time cheerleading for Sherwin-Williams and the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse in light of these realities? 

There's no doubt that individual council members are trying their best to address the city's woes in a piecemeal way in their own wards. The solutions are by no means easy or straightforward.  But voters live here. They know the score. They've seen that on balance, council has not taken steps to address the city's most urgent problems in bold or even obvious ways. It took them years, and the threat of another citizen drive, to rouse themselves to do something about lead poisoning, a shocking example of lethargy on an utterly non-controversial piece of legislation.

As we wrote in earlier coverage of the council reduction measures, "Cleveland voters have every right to agree with the spirit of vengeance that animates them: Council ought to be punished for its performance, the sentiment may go."

For the record, we sharply disagree with the initiatives themselves, in large part because of the ways that a smaller council would give even more power to those with money and influence. Moreover, we feel that serious efforts to reform the contours of the city's legislature should be undertaken after the 2020 census, which may result in one or two fewer representatives anyway. That said, we revile efforts to subvert democracy and are so sick of seeing voters sidelined by leaders who claim to know better.

Phillips' solution to the rage of the electorate, Monday, was that "cooler heads, spiritual people" must be the ones solving the problems. Joe Jones agreed. He said that in participating in the agreement, he was merely obeying his father, God, and that Cleveland now needed healing and peace. 

That's the sort of response that further entrenches and angers voters. They don't need healing from invented divisions. They need healing from shitty representation and warped priorities at City Hall. They need jobs, family-sustaining wages, affordable lead-free housing and affordable, reliable public transit. 

Here are a few places to start:

Joe Jones, in conclusion, adopted the paternal tone of many of those who tsk-tsked at Q Deal opponents while incongruously claiming to support democracy.

"There is so much pent-up anger and frustration," he said. "But at the end of the day, when you really look at the situation, [voters] don't have the venues. You have to open up those venues. It takes pastors. It takes people like you [Aaron Phillips]. You need to re-engage the public. You can't just look at the surface of it, you've got to dig a little bit deeper. You've got to set up summits, get them engaged. The bottom line is engage the people." 

Like other Cleveland leaders, including many of his colleagues, Jones may not recognize how absurd and dishonest it is to claim to support "engagement" while actively restricting the electorate's ability to engage in democracy's most visible participatory act. 

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.

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...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.