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Debate, don’t dismiss, proposal to reduce size of Cleveland City Council: editorial

January 4, 2019

Debate, don’t dismiss, proposal to reduce size of Cleveland City Council: editorial

Maybe Cleveland City Council with 17 members representing 388,072 city residents is the ideal size for good constituent service and to represent the diversity of a city of many neighborhoods.

Maybe reducing council size to nine would make it less able to counter mayoral power, as Council President Kevin Kelley says, instead of more able to do so and less parochial in its focus, as argued by backers of a charter petition effort launched late last year to reduce council size and pay. Maybe this petition drive is just sour grapes over a failed city contract bid by one of the charter-change backers, as Kelley also suggests. 

But, maybe it will shake up council to take more seriously its fiduciary role and responsibilities. Council’s seeming determination to pay Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson the maximum allowed $1,200 in expense money every month, no matter how scanty the documentation, suggests it’s time for a wake-up call. 

What this council reform proposal isn’t is something so minor and meritless that it can be treated as a trifling annoyance that need not be debated -- or that can be discussed in secret by council until it goes away. 

True, Kelley hasn’t said he’d suppress debate. Instead, while repeatedly expressing his opposition to the proposal, he’s offering important cautionary words about a proposal that should not be hastily adopted without considering all its ramifications. These include the possible need, if council is nearly halved, to spend far more on council staffing to make sure city residents aren’t shorted in terms of constituent service and responsiveness.

But few on council, all of whom have a vested interest in keeping things as they are, are likely to encourage a full and open discussion of the sort that’s needed on the merits, and demerits, of this idea.

Exhibit One: Council’s improper Nov. 12 closed-door meeting to discuss how to respond to the council-reduction idea. The caucus meeting was held in private and without public notice, both contrary to law -- as cleveland.com noted at the time. Kelley, in response, said it wouldn’t happen again. It shouldn’t.

Cutting the size of Cleveland City Council is a serious proposal that requires serious consideration. Kelley needs to make sure a full, open discussion occurs.

The proposal to reduce council’s size and pay is grounded in compelling statistics. Figures compiled by cleveland.com reporter Robert Higgs suggest Cleveland is out of line, often significantly so, in terms of the size and pay of its council as measured against the city’s population and land size.

For instance, Columbus, with nearly 880,000 residents, has seven council members, although thanks to a 2018 ballot issue, that will soon expand to nine. That still works out to about one council member for every 97,000 residents. The comparable number in Cleveland is one council member per 22,000 to 23,000 residents.

Wichita, Kansas, with almost the same population as Cleveland, has six council members.

In terms of land mass, Cleveland’s council members each represent about 4.6 acres. In Wichita, it’s 26.8.

True, Chicago’s 50 council members each represent 4.7 acres -- but with a population of 2.7 million, that works out to 54,000 residents per council member.

San Francisco’s 11 council members represent even smaller chunks of real estate -- 4.3 acres each. But they answer to a little more than 80,000 residents each. 

In terms of pay, Higgs’ review did not identify any cities of comparable size (or smaller) that pay council members as much as they earn in Cleveland -- currently $80,133 a year -- and many much larger cities that do not. 

Houston, the country’s fourth largest city, pays council members $56,000 annually. Columbus pays $57,738. Wichita shells out $68,010 a year each to its six council members.

It’s a new year: time for new approaches and more transparency by Cleveland City Council. Let the debates begin.

About our editorials: Editorials express the view of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer -- the senior leadership and editorial-writing staff. As is traditional, editorials are unsigned and intended to be seen as the voice of the news organization.  

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