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Kevin Kelley and the rest of Cleveland City Council need to grow a backbone in City Hall oversight: editorial

February 20, 2019

Kevin Kelley and the rest of Cleveland City Council need to grow a backbone in City Hall oversight: editorial

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley started off February with an overdue list of needed council oversight of City Hall on matters critical to safety, accountability and economic growth. The list was long -- but not as long as it needs to be. And it remains to be seen whether Kelley, who took over as council president five years ago, is prepared to end council’s yearslong quiescence and make it the true governing partner that Cleveland needs.

Council’s oversight of City Hall has been deficient for years.

Kelley’s list for 2019 includes important oversight matters. They include the recent Cleveland Public Power outages on the West Side that, if unaddressed, could imperil business and commercial investments in booming neighborhoods there; city safety-response time; and LED and security camera placement. Also on the list is a long-demanded but undelivered explanation to council from the administration of Mayor Frank Jackson on the apparently stalled search for a new police headquarters and why a prior contract (for the old Plain Dealer building at 1801 Superior Avenue) fell through.

But notably missing is a demand that Jackson’s administration finally brief council on exactly what happened in two recent airport security breaches. That includes an Oct. 25 incident when Jackson’s chief of operations, Darnell Brown, was escorted around security at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport with an unscreened electronic item so he could catch his plane. The person who did the escorting, Fred Szabo, then the city’s assistant airport director, has been demoted and both men’s pay was docked.

Beyond calling it a “security incident,” Jackson’s team has refused to provide any specifics on what happened to the public or to council.

That’s wrong.

When pressed, Kelley told City Hall reporter Robert Higgs of cleveland.com in December that, “The public should get an accounting.”

Yes, it should.

But where is it? No hearings have been held -- and none is currently talked of.

Concerns about Cleveland airport security practices were compounded by a Feb. 3 airport perimeter breach when a vehicle apparently driven by a drunken driver crashed through fencing and onto the Hopkins airfield, then back out, plowing into a snowbank.

Documents Higgs obtained from the city fail to account for the more than 50 minutes that elapsed between the car crashing into the airfield and the first report filed by a responding officer. Had the malefactor been bent on sabotage or worse, what might that have cost the city -- and airport travelers? The city has failed to address these and other questions on the incident. 

Kelley did summon airport officials to an emergency hearing Feb. 11 -- his first as council president -- but it wasn’t on security.

Rather, council members were angered that they had to read on cleveland.com and in The Plain Dealer that the airport had changed gears and decided to allow taxis, limos and ride-share services to pick up passengers at the terminal curb again -- just weeks after banning them, following council hearings, to more distant locations. The new locations had required travelers to walk longer distances and take escalators or elevators with their luggage -- prompting a public outcry. Airport officials told council they switched plans suddenly because of the need to upgrade the “Ground Transportation Center.”

Council needs to get irked more often.

It also needs to hold more oversight hearings to find out exactly how things are working - or not.

Besides airport security, Cleveland City Council could contribute immeasurably to public accountability by providing more oversight on: Cleveland’s chronically deficient public-records responses; fire safety concerns recently raised by unionized firefighters; and the effectiveness and responsiveness of the city’s management of the West Side Market.

Cleveland needs an engaged and independent City Council looking over City Hall’s shoulder on spending, public safety and a range of issues to ensure that the public is informed and that city money is spent wisely and well. Kelley can make that happen -- if he’s really interested in oversight. 

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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