ROLDO: Is There Any Honesty Left in Cleveland Politics?

By Roldo Bartimole

There were many ironies and more than a few disgusting examples of cowardness in City Council’s vote to reinstate one of its members who choose to retire to pad his wallet.

Ken Johnson didn’t want to lose his full paycheck. He also wanted his full retirement pension. Greed demanded action.

What a shame that he should have to give up a $74,000 job just to collect a public pension.

City Council voted Monday to reinstate Johnson as a member even though he recently retired. A perfect example of the low level of the moral code in the city.

A dead and deadly city.

I had to check my gut to read about Jeff Johnson’s defense of his buddy Kenny.

That’s because I remember a different Jeff Johnson. The young (and some would say naive Councilman of the 1980s, though not I) Jeff Johnson was a fire brand. He (and Dan Brady, now a County Councilman) really brought down George Forbes. They openly attacked and defied Forbes to the point that the powerful former Council President knew he couldn’t continue as boss for another term. So in 1989 Forbes had to break a promise to his buddy Mike White and run for mayor. You’ll remember that White won.

But for his efforts to honestly represent his ward, Johnson was brutally attacked by Forbes. Actually, Forbes had his fellow Council henchmen and women do the attacking for him.

And who was the most brutal. Of course, it was Kenny Johnson. He’s probably the member most deserving of a public investigation.

Kenny Johnson helped in the Forbes choreographed bashing session of Jeff by saying this:

“You have been a disgrace to me, my people, to this Council,” said Kenny to Jeff at the Forbes’s bashing session. (You might remember that Forbes also tried to bash Jeff with a chair at a closed meeting.) Neither of Forbes attacks deterred Jeff.

Forbes was holding up legislation for a shopping center in Jeff’s ward.

Jeff has had a hard road back after being jailed on corruption charges, which I believe were a set-up for his political independence. So now he’s a play-along to get-along politician. A losing strategy, by the way. But hard to begrudge him.

One of the most hypocritical Kenny supporters has to be Councilman Jay Westbrook. He also once had his struggles with the former Boss Forbes. (Forbes was supposed to attend the meeting, giving his questionable imprimatur on this sleazy deal. He fell ill, I was told, and couldn’t attend.)

Council tradition – part of the finessing of Kenny’s reinstatement – has to do with the right of a Councilman to name his or her successor. Kenny named himself, of course. Privilege has its benefits. And Kenny passes up none of them.

Many years ago Jay Westbrook was the successor choice of Benny Bonanno who was leaving his Council seat. Forbes didn’t appreciate the choice. Westbrook was then a firebrand, a staunch Dennis Kucinich supporter at the time. So Forbes broke tradition and named someone else. It worked. For a short while. Then Westbrook ran and won the seat. He’s been there ever since.

Now Westbrook is one of the bosses. He stays cleverly behind the scenes. Better than when he actually became Council President. Too many verbal bullets were fired at him. Now he’s more the boss behind the throne.

He operates out of the line of fire and he has his ally Allan Dryer to run Council’s offices. Rumor is that Westbrook may also take his pension and go elsewhere. With his wife, Helen Williams, at the Cleveland Foundation earning above $130,000, the Westbrooks are sitting pretty. Not bad for a former “radical activist.”

Other stomach upsets out of this incident include, as the Plain Dealer columnist Mark Naymik gave this joke exposure, was his noting that Tony Brancantelli and Joe Cimperman said nothing. All quiet on the thoughtful front. The usually plucky Cimperman ducked behind the TV cameras to avoid notice, along with faint-hearted though ambitious Matt Zone taking what amounts to the Fifth by keeping silent.

Three had the courage to vote “No” – Brian Cummins, Dona Brady and Mike Polensek.

What is most disgusting about this action isn’t the extra tax money Kenny will pocket, nor even the feeble ethics of Council but rather how this supports the push by right-wing forces to kick around public employees.

This is just the kind of behavior that invites those forces wanting to privatize government and kick public employees.

It plays into the powerful forces that are bent upon destroying the public sector, ala Senate Bill 5. It took a costly fight to overthrow the anti-labor bill. But this kind of blatant greed gives credence to the enemy.

City Council members Monday gave nourishment to those who want to bash public employees and destroy unions. All Democratic Council members, too.

What do they care? They hold Special Privileges. Insured by each other.



Roldo Bartimole has been reporting since 1959. He came to Cleveland in 1965 to report for the Plain Dealer where he worked twice in the 1960s, left for the Wall Street Journal in 1967. He started publishing his newsletter Point of View in 1968 and ended it in 2000.

In 1991 he was awarded the Second Annual Joe Callaway Award for Civic Courage in Washington, D.C. He received the Distinguished Service Award of the Society of Professional Journalists, Cleveland chapter, in 2002, and was named to the Cleveland Journalism Hall of Fame, 2004. [Photo by Todd Bartimole.]


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6 Responses to “ROLDO: Is There Any Honesty Left in Cleveland Politics?”

  1. Allen Freeman

    Know how to stop all of this nonsense? Make the “job” of Councilman a $15K part-time contractual position with no pension, because in reality that’s all it needs to be. (Same with County Council.) Then watch all the self-serving poli-rats jump ship while only those with the true intention of representing and serving their communities join in…

  2. Dick Peery

    Roldo–You said everything except what they did wrong. Yes, it was clumsy, but anyone who hits 65 can draw Social Security and a private pension and keep working. PERS participants have to jump through special hoops to do the same thing, but so what?
    Criticism of double dippers seems to be based on the false assumption that they are drawing on taxpayer receipts that could be otherwise used to provide public services. Wrong. Money in the public retirement fund is part of the compensation that employees earn as they work, just like their salaries. It is theirs, not the public’s. So why shouldn’t access it, just like everyone else?
    There maybe a lot of good reasons to jump on Ken Johnson, and overwhelming ones for criticizing council, but this frivolous diversion is not one of them.

  3. IndyCA35

    The only good news is that we now have a rule that states that the number of councilmen are automatically reduced as the city loses population. We’re now set to lose two at the next election. Would anybody notice if it got down to zero?

  4. Cindy Meyers

    Can someone explain how you can retire and then start back at the same job. That isn’t retirement. I work for the city and am approaching retirement. I want to do the same thing. Please explain.

  5. Roldo Bartimole

    Some Council members may be worth only $15,000 but not all.
    I would say that the $76,000, as I’m told is the present salary,
    is too much for a part-time job.

    Dick, I think I tried to highlight the dangers of this kind of
    finagling in the final few paragraphs. The public sector is under
    fire and this gives ammunition for the kind of laws that we see
    in a number of states. Anti-labor laws.

    Then there is the matter of inequality that also raises hackles these days.

    Most people can’t collect their benefit and have the ability on their own
    to keep their jobs by their decision. In Ken Johnson’s case, Council gave
    him that privilege.

    Finally, we are going to have to face the severe problem of joblessness.
    Older people are going to have to get out of the way to allow younger
    people to be employed. That’s another reason that increasing the age for
    Social Security is a bad one.

    Our problem is that technology is making it more
    and more difficult to have enough jobs for our citizens. When that happens
    double-dipping, especially by public employees, will become more of a target
    for destructive forces that would like to do away with the public sector.

  6. Roldo and @Dick Peery:
    Roldo, I love the way you use the past to illuminate the present. We have less and less of that in our area reporting.
    Dick, I agree that what Ken Johnson and Council have done is legal, but it does not pass the smell test. I still believe elected officials ought to be held to a higher standard. That’s why we call them public servants. My take on this is at

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