COMMENTARY: Looking for Blight in All the Wrong Places

Cleveland councilman Ken Johnson claims he drove hundreds of miles to find these blighted homes within a third of a mile of his house. But what is he doing about them?

Over the last six months, Cleveland Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson has put a lot of miles on his car. The alleged reason for his sojourns was to inspect abandoned houses in his ward. Last December, for example, the peripatetic legislator requested reimbursement from Cleveland City Council for the expense incurred in driving 625 miles within a ward that is only two miles wide at its widest point.

For those keeping track of the continuing saga of the financial exploits of the ponytail-wearing septuagenarian, for more than ten years, Johnson routinely submitted a monthly request to city council for $1200 to reimburse him for what he claims he spent on so-called ward services. The money supposedly went to Robert Fitzpatrick, a city employee who once resided at Johnson’s residence and allegedly moonlighted during his city job performing unspecified labors at the behest of the councilman.

When, last October, council leadership put a kibosh on Johnson’s gravy train and Fitzpatrick’s part-time gig, Johnson didn’t miss a beat in maintaining his cash flow. The next month he was back at the public trough requesting reimbursement for expenditures for the same $1200 — the maximum allowable. In each of the subsequent months he listed expenses for such items as a cell phone, ink cartridges for his printers and his new hustle — mileage.

Since Johnson has served as councilman since 1980 — even though he resigned a couple of years ago and was reappointed by his colleagues so he could double-dip — residents of his ward and taxpayers could reasonably assume that he has a working knowledge of blighted properties within his bailiwick. That’s why it’s amazing that in his 39th year in office he would have to spend tax dollars looking for blight. Maybe he was looking for blight in all the wrong places. He only had to look within a circle of .3 of a mile of his home to find what he drove mega miles looking for.

This past Sunday I undertook a totally unscientific study of abandoned houses in Johnson’s ward, where I have resided since 1976.  Starting at his Hampton Avenue address, I drove around the corner. Five houses from Johnson’s back door I came upon a house with an overgrown lawn that is obviously vacant and has been so for some time. A review of the Cuyahoga County property records shows that there are outstanding property taxes due in the amount of $83,004.59.

Driving the short distance to the end of the block, I came to the corner of Albion and Southington Road. There stands a once-lovely 14-room house that is vacant and vandalized. There have been no attempts to board it up — the doors are wide open. The grass came up to my knees. It has been vacant for years. I was told by a neighbor that several years ago, a young girl was dragged into the house and assaulted. There are outstanding property taxes of $53,470.56.

Moving further up Albion Road, I came across another house in a in similar condition — an aberration in the center of an otherwise nicely appointed neighborhood and a glaring example of urban blight that depresses property values and causes insurance rates to skyrocket. A check of probate records show that the owner has been dead since 2006. The current tax bill is $82,500.

To summarize my unscientific study, I discovered five houses within .3 of a mile of the councilman’s back yard with a total tax delinquency of $233,787.62. This information and more was readily available online. It took less than an hour to find and I drove less than a mile.

Locating and identifying vacant and abandoned houses is clearly a task that should be undertaken by a city councilman. But any information that councilpersons may gather should only augment what the Cleveland Building Department should already have. If the housing inspectors don’t know about the properties, the councilman should be asking why.

If Johnson did all the inspections he claims, where are the fruits of his labor?

No councilman can wave a magic wand and rid a community of abandoned and vandalized houses. But he or she can do things to ease the problem. try to alleviate the tax deficits brought on by deadbeat property owners, and work to maintain and improve existing neighborhoods.

Did Johnson create a list of abandoned and tax-delinquent properties to present to the county so he could put pressure on the prosecutor to commence foreclosure proceedings? Did he seek condemnation or demolition of any of the properties? Did he attempt to contact the owners and demand they board up the properties? Did he contact the Land Bank about acquiring the properties? Did he seek demolition so that neighbors could acquire the adjacent land — a program that has proved very successful throughout the county?

This is a process that Johnson knows well. In 2017 he acquired the lot contiguous to his own property through the Land Bank after the existing structure was demolished. This acquisition allowed him to expand his acreage and create a parking lot for his city bus-sized recreational vehicle. Fortunately for him, the cement driveway was left in place so that he could comply with the city ordinance that requires vehicles to be on a hard surface. Even with the hard surface, whether it is legal to park such a large vehicle in a residential neighborhood is a questions neighbors should put to city hall.

Johnson also knows about rehabbing houses. While so many in his ward stand vacant and vandalized, he took an interest in a house on Becket Road. In a public meeting last September, he acknowledged he had put money into the home, even though it is owned by Buckeye Development Corporation. He was so worried about vandalism that he got a house sitter to stay in the premise to guard against further damage. The house sitter — his so-called son, who now resides in the house rent free.

It’s about time for Ken Johnson to stop lying to the constituents of Ward 4 and tell the truth. He didn’t drive the hundreds of miles looking for blighted property in his ward. He just needed padding for his expense account — like the hundreds of gallons of gas he bought last summer for lawn mowers to cut grass in his ward. He spends most of his time at his self-created temple to himself, the Kenneth Johnson Recreation Center, staffed by young men that he claims as his sons when convenient and denies when there are allegations of nepotism. When the self-proclaimed single dad can’t even give a straight answer as to how many sons he has — no girls in his clan — maybe it’s time for him to get into his motor home and drive off into the sunset.

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.

 

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