Cleveland to paint over vehicles branded with Councilman Ken Johnson’s name

August 3, 2018

Cleveland to paint over vehicles branded with Councilman Ken Johnson’s name

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Councilman Ken Johnson did not purchase the vehicles that are branded with his name and used exclusively by his favored nonprofit as the councilman has claimed, a top city official said this week.

Darnell Brown, the city’s chief operating officer, said he has verified that the city bought and owns the vehicles and trailers used by the Buckeye Shaker Development Corporation, including about six that are painted with the message, “Compliments of Councilman Ken Johnson.”

Brown also said he intends to dispatch a city crew to paint over Johnson’s name on the vehicles.

The announcements come in response to my series of columns about Johnson and BSSDC. One column questioned the ownership of the vehicles branded with his name. Another dealt with his dealings with BSSDC, an organization he supports that is supposed to be revitalizing impoverished neighborhoods.  

For decades, non-city employees working for BSSDC have used the vehicles while cutting grass and cleaning lots in Johnson’s Ward 4. During that time, Johnson has earmarked hundreds of thousands of federal dollars to the organization and insisted that the money be spent on the grass-cutting and cleanup program, which employs his son, his council assistant and other residents.

Cleveland.com asked Johnson last month why the vehicles, which are stored in a city lot and are maintained at Cleveland taxpayers’ expense, promote his name and are used for the benefit of only residents in his ward.

Johnson, a 37-year veteran of City Hall politics, said he personally paid for some of the pickup trucks and box trailers that bear his name. He added that he received permission decades ago from then-Mayor George Voinovich to put his name on city vehicles and use them to serve residents in his ward.

The city confirmed to cleveland.com that such an informal deal existed. Brown acknowledge this week that the city had for years essentially ceded grass-cutting and lot-cleaning responsibility to Johnson and BSSDC.

Asked why the city allowed this, Brown said, “I wish I could answer that, but it has been going on for several decades.”

Brown said Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, which has been in charge for more than 12 years, had been “maintaining the status quo, making sure equipment and inventory is adequate for the [grass-cutting and lot cleaning] and that the work is being done.”

Brown said the city will now take over the grass cutting and cleanup of what he said is about 2,000 lots and abandoned properties in the ward. He said the city is hiring additional employees who will do the work. Brown said he expects the city to be ready soon. When the city takes over, BSSDC will not longer have access to city vehicles. (Johnson did not respond to a request to clarify his earlier comments.) 

Up until now, Johnson and BSSDC controlled which lots got cut and cleaned in the Buckeye, Larchmere, Woodland Hills and Shaker Square neighborhoods. Johnson’s council assistant, Garnell Jamison, who fields calls from residents and accompanies Johnson to events throughout the ward, is also paid by BSSDC to be one of crew chiefs of the lots program.

Brown also said that the city has paid for the gas for the vehicles used by BSSDC. Brown said the city was justified in doing so because the vehicles were used to provide services to residents. He said BSSDC has been responsible for insuring employees who drove the city vehicles.

The lots program and related payroll have been straining BSSDC’s budget for years. Public records show that while BSSDC maintained its lots program, it failed to pay property taxes and make loan payments on residential and commercial properties that it owns.

Last month, the City of Cleveland officially cut off BSSDC from any federal funds because the agency has failed to provide an independent audit of its finances, including details about its payroll and other expenses. This means BSSDC will not receive more than $200,000 that Johnson has earmarked in the latest fiscal year for BSSDC. Every community development corporation that receives federal money through the city is required to submit an annual audit.

Update hourly