As a resident of Cleveland’s Ward 4, I am justifiably concerned about recent revelations made by Plain Dealer reporter Mark Naymik regarding the expense account of Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson. After the stories first ran last fall, Cleveland city council put a stop to Johnson’s routine payment of $1200 a month to reimburse him for payments he made to Cleveland recreation department employee Robert Earl Fitzpatrick for “ward services.” The payments that had gone on for at least a decade total in excess of $168,000. Granted, Fitzpatrick preformed his extracurricular service on his own time, so they did not conflict with the employment with the city, but $1200 a month is a nice side hustle for anyone.
Once the payments to Fitzpatrick stopped, Johnson became more novel in his approach in seeking reimbursement for expenses — but always magically coming up with a request for $1200 — the maximum allowable.
Among his most recent request for reimbursements, which include a myriad of cell phone bills, office rental and copying expenses, he seeks $134.98 for gas used to drive around the ward and inspect abandoned houses. Since abandoned houses are a cause of concern in Ward 4 and the entire city, the councilman should probably have compiled a list so the building department or other government agencies could start to address the problem. But since he did not list any pens and paper on his expense account, he probably had no way of recording the information.
Considering the amount of money Johnson said he spent during the month of March, let’s try and put his gas and mileage into perspective.
Several weeks ago, I drove to Cincinnati to a wedding. Upon arrival I drove around the city visiting several historic sights. Later that day I drove to the wedding and got lost several times thanks to the San Francisco-type hills and bad directions. From Cincinnati I drove to Dayton to the U.S. Airforce Museum. When I returned home and checked my odometer, I found that I had driven a total mileage of 554 miles, which took me 10 hours and 52 minutes.
Since I did not calculate the cost of my gas, I went to Map Quest attempting to guestimate how far $134. 98 in gas would take me. I found that if I drove from Public Square to Philadelphia Pennsylvania and back a distance of 433 miles each way, the cost of my gas would be roughly $139 — just $5 more than what Johnson spent in his own ward in one month’s driving. Combined with the 700 miles Johnson reported on his expense account for November and the 625 miles during December, Johnson has racked up a lot of miles on the streets of his ward.
My grandmother had an expression when people drove the same route all the time. She said you could sweep up their tires off the road. Citizens of Ward 4 should get out their brooms and sweep up Ken Johnson’s tires off their streets and then take their pitchforks to the next city council meeting and demand answers as to where their tax dollars are going.
With all the driving that the councilman did, one wonders when he had time to attend to council business, especially when he drove to Sam’s Club in Bedford several times to buy the gas. Last summer he was a frequent customer of Get-Go Station on Mayfield Road in Mayfield Heights, where he spent hundreds of dollars on gas for the lawn mowers used to cut the grass of senior citizens in his ward. How he got that many gallons of gas from Mayfield Heights to lawn mowers in Ward 4 without using a tanker truck is still open to speculation.
When Johnson wasn’t doing the driving, he had drivers. The two people he named were Darian Johnson and Garnell Jamison. Darian made the news a few months ago when questions of nepotism arose, due to his employment at the city-run Kenneth L. Johnson Recreation Center. The councilman denied that Darian was his son, although he listed him as his son from 1989-2003 when he submitted biographical information to the Plain Dealer Cleveland.com editorial.
According to public records available at the Cuyahoga County Probate Court, Johnson served as the legal guardian of Darian starting when he was 14. On Johnson’s application in 1991, Darian’s last name was changed to Johnson. Johnson told a Cuyahoga County Probate Court social worker in 1997 that he had a son named Darian. But since Darian is not the councilman’s blood kin and no longer resides in his household, I guess it doesn’t count as nepotism.
Garnell Jamison was his other driver. Jamison serves as Johnson’s executive assistant and has been the treasurer of Johnson’s campaign fund for many years. In addition to his pay from city council, he is paid an additional $800 a month out of Johnson’s expense account — a procedure that is perfectly legal according the council rules.
And remember $1200 a month Robert Earl Fitzpatrick? If you Google “who lives at” the councilman’s address, Fitzpatrick’s name comes up as having once lived in the Johnson household.
Interestingly, both Fitzpatrick and Jamison live in houses located in Ward 4 built by Rysar Properties. The land for each house, according to Cuyahoga County property records, previously belonged to Buckeye Area Development — Johnson’s community development corporation. It was transferred to Rysar, who built the houses and then sold to Fitzpatrick and Jamison.
In a recent Channel Five I-Team Report and story by the Plain Dealer, it was revealed that Kevin A. Johnson, a native of the Marshall Islands and a person that Johnson has identified for many years as his son, resides rent-free in a home on Beckett Avenue in Ward 4. The property is owned by the Buckeye Shaker Development Corporation — a nonprofit community development corporation that relies on earmarks from council members for the bulk of its funding. Johnson admitted to the Plain Dealer that Kevin resides at the property but justified his rent-free status by saying that he was house sitting to keep the property from being vandalized — just another example of someone close to the councilman who got easy access to housing in Ward 4.
If the accounting firm of Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder were engaged by Cleveland City Council to review the Councilman’s expense account, they could probably see that there is something amiss. Isn’t it about time someone on city council stepped up and puts an end to this shameful abuse of the taxpayer’s money? Since no one else on city council seems concerned, one wonders if they are making the same types of requests for reimbursement and are afraid to kill the goose that lays golden reimbursement checks.
Since the citizens of Ward 4 continue to re-elect Johnson and the leadership and members of Cleveland city council remain silent, Ken Johnson lives on as the poster child for council reduction. If you calculate the salary of each councilperson, along with support staff, office expenses, health care, parking and reimbursements, the city spends somewhere in the range of $250,000 a year for each member of council. When you multiply that number by seventeen, that’s a lot of money for a city with an ever-shrinking population and tax base. It also creates ample fodder for those who assert that Cleveland city council is too big and too much of a drain on the city’s finances.
In the past I have not been a fan of council reduction, but the times they are a changin’ and so are my opinions, in large part thanks to Ken Johnson.
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.