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Campaign begins to shrink Cleveland City Council and cut member pay: Mark Naymik

November 7, 2018

Campaign begins to shrink Cleveland City Council and cut member pay: Mark Naymik

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Campaigns typically end on Election Day.

But on Tuesday, a new one began.

A small group of city activists, funded by a well-known businessman, asked voters heading to the polls in Cleveland for their signatures on a pair of proposed changes to the city charter. One would shrink the size of City Council from the current 17 ward council members to nine. The other would cut the pay of its members from more than $80,000 to $58,000.

It’s already rattling some council members and is sure to set off a robust debate that could ultimately become a referendum on Cleveland’s success.

John Kandah, a political activist for decades who ran unsuccessfully for council in 2005 on the city’s West Side, is among those leading the effort. He said council has failed to tackle the city’s ills, including poverty and crime. He blamed council members who are too focused on their wards and don’t operate with the big picture in mind. He also said they have failed to act as check on Mayor Frank Jackson, making themselves essentially irrelevant.

“Council’s become a rubber stamp for the mayor,” he said.

Kandah also fumed that council members treat the job as an entitlement.

“Council is not a monarchy,” he said. “It’s the same people, and their brothers and their wives get on council. They have gotten greedy.” (Over the years, council seats have been represented by a husband and wife, Dan and Dona Brady, and by brothers, Pat O’Malley and Mike O’Malley. Several have easily won re-election for decades.)

Kandah said between 30 and 40 people – both volunteers and paid workers – were at polling locations Tuesday. To move the issue to the ballot, they need to collect 6,000 signatures of valid voters on each petition, a figure equal to 10 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the 2017 Cleveland election. He hopes to put the issues on the ballot in 2020.

Council members noticed the petition circulators and traded text messages about the push, said Councilman Michael Polensek, who has represented Collinwood and other parts of the city’s Northeast side for 40 years. Scene Magazine also noted this week that such a campaign was in the works, which caught the attention of some.

The proposals drew an immediate rebuke from City Council President Kevin Kelley, who vowed Tuesday to campaign against the proposals if they are ever put before voters.

“This will ultimately take representation from the people,” he said.

Cleveland currently has 385,000 residents, which means each council member represents a ward of less than 25,000 residents. By comparison, Columbus, which has 879,000 residents, has 7 council members who are elected at large.

Kandah, whose group is called Cleveland First, said he approached Westlake businessman and developer Tony George for help. George was among three business leaders who in 2006 pushed a charter amendment to reduce the size of Cleveland’s council. Then, George, businessman Mal Mixon and industrialist Ed Crawford presented then-City Council President Martin J. Sweeney with petitions in support of shrinking the council from 21 to 11 members. They ultimately backed off when Sweeney agreed to back a charter amendment that ties the number of wards to population. Voters approved the amendment, and since then the number of council members dropped 21 to 19, and then 19 to 17.

George, who has owned property in the city and operated businesses in Cleveland for decades, insisted on Tuesday that he did not initiate this effort, but is backing the effort “financially and morally.”

He said council wards have become nothing but “fiefdoms” for council members.

“Council can’t even police their own,” he said, calling out Councilman Ken Johnson, whose expense reports and family patronage have been at the focus of numerous cleveland.com stories. “They should be meeting with him and telling him to step down.”

George has tangled over business issues with City Hall for years and rarely filters his words. He said council members, including those he claims to be friends with, act as “sheep” for the mayor.

George said his biggest beef with council at the moment is its failure to improve Cleveland Public Power, the public electric utility that has exclusive access to some parts of the city. He said CPP’s rates are not competitive and its service has proven terribly unreliable.

George said his Ohio City restaurant, Crop Bistro, relies on CPP and has lost power six times in nine months, including on a Saturday night, which forced him cancel three parties worth $44,000.”

“What is council doing about all this?” he asked rhetorically.

Kelley pushed backed, questioning George’s motives. He noted that George was part of a business group that failed this year to win an energy contract that the city ultimately awarded to Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council.

“By my calculation, [the campaign] is borne out of spite,” Kelley said.

Kelley also attacked the logic behind the push to shrink council and cut member pay. He said council will not attract better people by cutting the salary. He said council saw high turnover in the 2017 election, which included two members who resigned seats to run for mayor. He also argued that reducing the size of council will make it easier for the mayor to push his agenda past council.

But this is a gamble Kandah and George are willing to take.

And this is a debate some residents surely believe is worth having.

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