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Cleveland Councilman Ken Johnson needs to go: editorial

November 18, 2018

Cleveland Councilman Ken Johnson needs to go: editorial

Cleveland Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson should immediately step down from City Council over the abuse of his position that cleveland.com’s Mark Naymik has exposed -- abuse that’s harmed the interests of the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood of Cleveland that he represents.

And Johnson should not be allowed to name his successor, a destructive practice that City Council should discard. Then, Cleveland City Council needs to re-examine – openly and fully -- how it polices its own. 

Along the way, City Hall also needs to correct oversight practices and explain why it took until this year to crack down on Johnson’s group getting exclusive access to city trucks for his grass-cutting. And it needs to explore whether Johnson improperly used federal community development block grants given to Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp. to advance his own political agenda -- and apparently to use the development corporation as a personal hiring hall. 

And finally, our editorial board acknowledges our error last year in endorsing Johnson for re-election as Ward 4 councilman. Although the extent of his abuse wasn’t known then, we knew enough about his nontransparent and self-serving practices to have issued a nonendorsement in the race.

The 72-year-old Johnson has represented the Buckeye-Shaker area of Cleveland for nearly four decades. For years, questions have lingered over the way Johnson used taxpayer-underwritten lawn-cutting and snow-removal programs employing local youth to propel his popularity and political career. More recently, those questions have extended to the opaque way Johnson allocated federal block grant funds.

Those concerns -- and assertions that Johnson has stymied efforts to find new ways to keep seniors in their homes and advance the ward’s interests -- drew seven opponents to Johnson’s primary re-election bid last year. It was the biggest opposition field he said he’d faced since he first ran for City Council in 1980. The depth of interest and concern was striking and caused our editorial board to recommend a November showdown between Johnson and retired Cleveland police officer Rowland Mitchell, the standout among the field of challengers, to enable Mitchell to expand on his vision for the ward. 

Unfortunately, Mitchell didn’t make it to the general election, when Johnson instead faced Gail Sparks, a former Larchmere boutique owner with a genuine commitment to the neighborhood but whose lack of practical ideas for ward leadership and prior missteps in her real estate efforts led our board to feel she wasn’t ready for the job. So we endorsed Johnson.

That was a mistake, and not just because of what Naymik has since uncovered about Johnson’s abuses and possible use of taxpayer money and his influence to provide jobs or other benefits to former housemates and at least two of his sons. A year ago, we already knew Johnson lacked transparency about his spending of block-grant money, and that he was using the grass-mowing operations to advance his candidacy.

We will not make that mistake again. After the Jimmy Dimora scandal, our editorial board re-examined its endorsement practices in cases where flawed incumbents had noncredible opponents -- and decided we would issue nonendorsements rather than endorse a deeply flawed and possibly corrupt incumbent. We should have applied that standard to the Ward 4 race last year.

Whether or not Johnson voluntarily steps down, federal, county and city prosecutors should aggressively look into how he spent federal block grant money over the years and whether those funds were misused -- either directly or via pass-throughs to the Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp. -- for the grass-cutting programs and to pay salaries of his associates and relatives doing city jobs in ways that do not appear to be allowed if federal money was being used.

And because, until recently, the development corporation drew other grants that may have allowed it to mask exactly how the federal money was spent, those probes should look more broadly into what happened to all that funding -- which a recent forensic review ordered by one grantor suggests lacked important internal controls and documentation.

Meantime, City Council needs to review its uncritical approval of $168,000 in reimbursements to Johnson over the past 11 years for what were only described as “ward services,” none of which were otherwise detailed, but which Johnson has told cleveland.com were to pay a moonlighting city employee -- who once shared Johnson’s home -- to check on whether grass-mowing and other lot maintenance was occurring. If so, that’s a lot of money for not a lot. But more significantly, its routine approval by some unnamed staffer pulverizes council’s credibility as a steward of the city’s precious resources. Council has yet to identify who signed off on those expenses over the years. 

City Hall, for its part, seemed to see nothing wrong -- until Naymik exposed it -- with Johnson’s favored group getting exclusive access to city trucks painted with his name to advertise himself and conduct his lawn-mowing efforts. Saying the practice dated to the administration of the late former Mayor George Voinovich, who’s not around to talk about it, hardly constitutes an explanation

So to review: Johnson must go. City Council and City Hall must re-examine and change all the ways in which they looked the other way. Prosecutors must probe Johnson’s disposition of federal block grant money and other taxpayer assets. And our editorial board recommits to not endorsing flawed incumbents like Johnson in future -- and admits its error in so doing last year. 

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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