Cities around the nation elect their municipal legislative bodies in varying ways. Cleveland has followed the tradition of electing councilpersons from districts known as wards since 1914. Other cities, like Columbus, elect all their city councilpersons at large — which means that the entire population of the city votes on everyone elected to the council. Other Ohio cities, like Parma, have a mix of the two systems, with the city divided into four wards, each sending a representative to city council, and three other members elected at large from the entire city.
Cleveland voters would do to well to follow the lead of cities like Parma, Boston and Philadelphia that have a mix of representatives elected from districts in addition to those elected at large. While district representatives are more attuned to the unique problems of their constituents and often guarantee representation of minority populations, at-large members are elected to concentrate on a citywide vision tied to a citywide constituency that elects them.
A mixed system of ward and at-large councilpersons would hopefully free Cleveland City Council of its long-time, unwritten policy that mandates members remain hands off when it comes to any project or program that deals with a specific ward. The “hands off my ward” policy may have some advantages for the individual councilpersons. But it entrenches the political fiefdoms of people who get elected and maintain years of seniority by promising to pick up garbage and shoveling snow rather than dealing with concepts, ideas and visions that stretch beyond the borders of their ward.
Well-thought-out projects and programs that impact the entire city have gone up in smoke because they trespass on the turf of individual councilmen. White elephants have been created because of the quirks and interest of councilpersons desiring to build a monument to themselves while gutless fellow members are reluctant to speak up for fear that their pet project might be voted down.
In a recent analysis of the size and pay of Cleveland City Council, Plain Dealer reporter Robert Higgs points out that Cleveland’s current 17-member body is larger and better paid than any of the councils in the five U.S. cities with comparable populations. Each of Cleveland’s 17 members earn just over $80,000 a year in exchange for representing just over 23,000 city residents.
If you factor in the cost of support staff and their benefits, office space, parking, travel, health care and the generous $1,200 per month expense account for personal expenses, a good guess would be that the city shells out close to $200,000 per councilmember per year. That’s a lot of money when it’s multiplied by 17 councilpersons, especially when you consider Cleveland’s shrinking population and tax base and what that money could do a lot to improve Cleveland Schools — the long-term effect of which would be significant in terms of maintaining and attracting new residents and creating a better educated workforce.
Currently, an activist group known as Cleveland First, headed by Clevelander John Kandah and spearheaded by Westlake businessman Tony George, is seeking signatures to put a charter amendment on the ballot that would reduce the current size of council. The plan would reduce council from 17 to nine members and cut the salary from $80,000 to $58,000. This proposal would bring Cleveland in line with other cities like Columbus whose seven-member at-large council represent the entire city of nearly 880,000 residents and earns $58,000 a year. Or compare Fort Worth, Texas, ranked as the 15th largest city in the nation — Cleveland is ranked 51st. They have 8 council members elected from individual districts. For a salary of $25,000 annually each councilperson represent almost 110,000 residents.
A current Cleveland City Charter provision, enacted in 2010, will automatically reduce council in 2021. The provision requires a reduction of council based on population loss. With a predicted population of less than 375,000 by 2020, the council will be reduced to 15 members and will continue to decrease to 11 members if the city’s population goes below 275,000.
In a photograph accompanying Higgs’ November 11 article, Cleveland City Hall is pictured in the glow of its nighttime lighting. Whether by design or coincidence there is a hearse parked in front of the building and the flag is at half mast. Maybe the copy editor was being cute, or the picture was selected by mere happenstance. But whatever the reason, the image is perhaps a harbinger of what’s to come. Sadly, Cleveland City Council has become an aging, overweight, sluggish giant who members have feed at the public trough too long.
The 2017 election saw some new blood on council. Five incumbents were booted out — but by razor thin margins. The five replacements will join Ward 8 Councilman Mike Polensek who, as the dean of Cleveland City Council, has served since 1978. Second in seniority is Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson. First elected in 1980, there is currently a dark cloud hanging over his head since a series of article by Plain Dealer reporter Mark Naymik raised substantial questions about Johnson’s use of public funds, the management of his Buckeye Shaker Development Corporation, and employment of so-called relatives by the city.
While term limits have their draw backs, perhaps Johnson would have been wise to take the hint from balladeer Kenny Rogers: “you got to know when to hold’em, know when to fold’em, know when to walk away.” Job security, like that experienced by Johnson, makes for overconfidence and a level of arrogance that does not go hand-in-hand with being a public official. With a belief that he will be protected by his fellow councilmen — like when he resigned from office in 2013, became eligible for his retirement and then was re-appointed so that he could “double dip” — Johnson waltzes around council chambers wearing what he believes is a Teflon suit of armor. And fellow councilpersons only polish the armor.
They and city auditors have been noticeably blindfolded while Johnson for 11 years requisitioned exactly $1,200 a month for personal expenses. Didn’t someone question how he always came up with the same amount to reimburse the same person, who just happens to work for the city and just happened to have once resided at Johnson’s home address? Where were his fellow councilpersons and city maintenance supervisors when for years city trucks — parked in city garages — operated openly and notoriously in his ward with signs affixed to the sides that said “Courtesy of Councilman Ken Johnson”?
If council is reduced and members of council are forced into early retirement, as they empty their offices, they should look up at the smiling picture of Ken Johnson and point a finger.
Granted, there are many positive aspects to having municipal representatives elected from single member districts. Johnson’s Ward 4 residents — of which I am one — can brag that our leaves were picked up and snow shoveled. But as Cleveland declines residents must look at the bigger picture.
It’s time for the residents of Cleveland to take a serious look at Cleveland City Council and its operation. Cleveland First and its council reduction plan may or may not be the answer. No matter what, it’s time for Cleveland voters to wake up and realize the aging giant we call Cleveland City Council needs a face lift, a diet plan and a transfusion of new blood, a citywide vision and councilpersons who have the guts to say to the likes of Ken Johnson — what the heck are you doing?
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.