This week Cleveland City Council reluctantly approved placing two proposed changes to the city charter on the ballot for the March 17th election. Reluctantly is the proper adverb because the passage of either or both will put an end to life as current members of Cleveland City Council know it. The changes will send some councilpersons into retirement, where they should have been a decade or so ago, save the city a lot of money and hopefully bring some fresh blood into the clogged arteries of the city’s leadership.
The first proposal would reduce the Council from 17 wards to nine. The result would be wards made up of roughly 40,000 residents — a number that is consistent with other large cities around the nation — as compared to the current make up that has councilpersons representing somewhere between 20,000 to 25,000 residents. The second proposal would reduce the annual salary of councilpersons from $83,133 to $58,000.
Cleveland First, the proponents of the changes, is a group headed by Westlake businessman Tony George. Although there are those who say that George has ulterior motives for spearing heading and financing the signature drive to put the issue on the ballot, the group’s stated motivating factors seem to make a lot of sense. They assert that city council is just a rubber stamp for Mayor Frank Jackson and fails to act as a check-and-balance on the executive branch; that councilmembers are out of touch and unresponsive to their constituents; and finally that council is just too large compared to other cities of comparable size and population.
Those points are all well taken, especially when you consider the ostrich-like perspective that council has taken as it relates to such issues as the major security breaches at Hopkins Airport, the decades long problems at the city’s water department, the years of questionable expense accounts filed by councilmembers such as Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson, just to name a few.
When was the last time that council challenged the administration on anything?
But voters should also consider another major factor when deciding on how to vote on these issues — that is, dollars and cents. Without adding in the cost of healthcare and retirement benefits, office space, staff, telephones, mileage and other miscellaneous expenses for each councilperson, the basic cost for the salaries for the 17 members of City Council is just over $1.4 million dollars. Under the new proposal the combined salaries of all nine members would drop to $522,000 a year.
When you add in the perks that go along with the current officeholders, a conservative guesstimate would suggest that each of the current members of council currently cost the city residents somewhere north of $200, 000 annually. That’s over $34 million dollars to have 17 councilpersons show up every Monday night. For a city of just over 380,000 residents — many who live below the poverty line — that’s a lot of money.
When asked about the proposed changes, Council President Kevin Kelley attacked the messenger rather than the message, accusing George of being an outsider who has a vendetta against council. Kelley should realize that enough people thought the proposal had sufficient merits to sign their name to put the proposals on the ballot — that’s significant. Kelley went on to say that the idea “…didn’t come from the Citizens League.” I would venture to say that no matter who made the proposal Kelley would have found fault. Passage will cut into his current gig — including the city car and driver that comes as a perk of the job as council president.
My only concern about the current proposals is that they lack the inclusion of at least one councilperson at-large. At-large representatives, whicht are common in municipal legislatures around the country, would be elected citywide and have the entire city as his or her constituency. He or she could spend time looking at citywide issues as opposed to councilpersons who concentrate on their wards and live by the unwritten rule of Cleveland City Council that requires an hands-off attitude on anything in a ward other than their own. An at-large councilperson would also be a good steppingstone for future mayoral candidates.
But even lacking that provision, the proposed changes to Cleveland City Council appear to me to be a step in the right direction. Voters would be wise to ask themselves this question: What has my councilperson done for me lately? If the answer is shows up every four years and ask for your vote and then go into hiding until the next election while collecting a generous salary, then voters should pull the lever in favor of the changes. Cutting the $34 million that we currently spend on city council even by half would free up a lot of money for needed city services, city schools and road and provide a lot of help for the city’s needy and elderly. Better services and schools would draw more residents to the city and increase the tax base. The bottom line is it’s about the dollars and cents.
As of right now, the proposal has my vote.
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 president 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.