Lincoln Heights Block Cluband Tremont West Development Corporation continue battle over voting rights clause in block club’s bylaws
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, May 2019) A stack of Plain Pressnewspapers sat on a chair next to a table in the conference room at the Animal Protective League. The Lincoln Heights Block Club meeting was running a few minutes late. Chairperson Henry Senyak handed out the evening’s agenda along with a copy of the newspaper. From the chatter in the room, a discussion on a recent article published by this author in the March issue of Plain Presswas about to take place. Before I explain, I wish to say explicitly that I stand by my article. There were a few minor errors, but the story I wrote was, first and foremost, a true story. Politics is a messy business and block clubs are not immune to politics. Block clubs are a vital and necessary function of civil liberty and community action. Every community needs and deserves a public forum to express their ideas and beliefs. Every person, every voice, deserves to be heard.
With 20 members and 9 guests in attendance, the block club meeting got underway with a discussion on safety issues by Lt. Michael Betley from the Second District. A recent rash of stolen packages off residents’ porches was reported along with the sounds of rapid gun shots fired late at night. Lt. Betley assured residents that Cleveland Police will patrol the area more carefully. “Look out for each other,” he reminded residents.
Sharon Harvey, President & CEO of Cleveland Animal Protective League presented an update on renovation and expansion of the animal care facility. The $13.5 million-dollar project which included a land swap with Sustainable Community Associates for the transfer of two parcels on Wiley Avenue in exchange for a section of the land bank parcel that is adjacent to their existing property.
“The real thrust of our project is the change in animal welfare that’s going on across the country,” she said. “We invest heavily in the medical care they need. The work of the APL has changed significant over the years and in addition to providing more advance care to homeless animals in the shelter, we’re also trying to extend more care to lower income families. As a result, we’re looking to make significant modifications that will allow us to support those incentives.”
APL’s primary source of funding is through contributions from individuals, corporate support with secondary support from service revenue such as adoption and surrender fees, according to their website.
But the main event of the night was the ongoing conflict between Lincoln Heights Block Club, Tremont West Development Corporation, and Sustainable Community Associates, over voting rights for non-property owners when it comes to property rights.
In October 2018, Sustainable Community Associates sent Tremont West Development Corporation a letter calling for a review of the Lincoln Heights Block Club bylaws and voting policy for non-landowners, asking to revoke their sponsorship of the block club if the policy wasn’t changed to include all neighborhood residents. Prior to the letter, TWDC passed an inclusivity resolution in March 2018 asking Lincoln Heights Block Club to amend their bylaws to include non-property owners as full voting members of the block club.
TWDC Board President Kate Carden issued a letter dated March 15, 2018, with the heading, “Board Resolution to Clarify Commitment to Inclusivity”, stating in Tremont West’s Strategic Plan that all Tremont West constituent groups should “be inclusive and not exclusionary and thereby not exclude anyone from voting on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, income and/or property ownership status consistent with all other non-discriminatory constituent membership requirements.”
An amendment to adhere to TWDC’s strategic plan and change Lincoln Heights Block Club bylaws has failed to pass since then.
Chairperson Senyak cited the recent article in the Plain Pressfor adding to the confusion. “There’s been a lot of people that have questioned the article. They don’t know what it’s about or what happened at our last block club meeting,” he said.
According to Senyak, the Plain Pressarticle mischaracterize the March 11thmeeting and portrayed members of the block club as racists, an accusation managing editor Chuck Hoven didn’t take lightly.
Hoven said, “The quotes from the article were taken from the letter Josh Rosen sent to TWDC. The accusation of the block club as being racist is not coming from the paper,” he added. “You’re shooting the messenger.”
Senyak made the Rosen letter available to the newspaper several months ago. Both Rosen and Riordan declined to comment on the content of the letter. Inaccuracy in reporting the final vote tally during the March 11thmeeting by the Plain Presswas also cited as creating confusion by Senyak. Hoven confirmed that any inaccuracies between the article and final vote count indicated in the minutes of the Lincoln Heights Block Club would be corrected in a future publication.
What’s clear, however, is that block club members are tired of hearing about bylaw amendments.
“A reporter can’t interpret a story,” added Helen Ibraham. “You have to have all of the facts. The reporter should investigate the story more.”
Hoven asked for clarity on any inaccuracies in the newspaper article, reminding readers that the issue discussed was between Sustainability Community Associates and the Lincoln Heights Block Club. But the conversation quickly shifted back to TWDC.
Executive Director Cory Riordan noted that while the Plain Pressarticle sparked commotion within the community, the central issue remained the same: a democratically run block club was in the best interest of the Lincoln Heights Block Club.
“We’re giving the block club ample opportunity to align with our Code of Regulations,” he said, “to insure voting rights in the neighborhood regardless of whether it’s Lincoln Heights or any other block club.”
Constituency groups like block clubs are independent of TWDC, Senyak argued, setting the stage for a final showdown between the two community organizations about representing the interests of property owners and non-property owners.
“If we’re going to continue to have conflicting stories reported in the media we may have to change our policy by banning reporters from our meetings,” said Senyak. “The Plain Pressmay get a letter from my attorney.”
As the noise level rose to a high pitch, with emotions expressed for and against amending the bylaws, while opinions on both sides debated the accuracy of the Plain Pressarticle, Senyak tried to take back the meeting. Josh Rosen challenged the relevance of limiting voting rights to property owners on property issues as the meeting neared the two-hour mark. With 10 votes in favor of the amendment, and 6 votes against, and without a two-thirds majority, the bylaws will remain the same.
Riordan emphasized that since an inclusivity resolution was passed a year ago and the block club was asked to adhere but has not amended their bylaws, TWDC Board of Directors will decide how to proceed including a possible break of all ties with the longstanding block club. Whether a vote to break ties between TWDC and the block club will result in less opportunity for residents to voice their concerns about neighborhood issues remains to be seen.
“The essence of the story is that there is a conflict within your group,” said Hoven. “It’s something people can relate to.”
In a meeting that went late into the evening on April 15th, TWDC Executive Board discussed their next move in dealing with the Lincoln Heights Block Club. Two days later, on the eve of the Tremont West Board of Directors meeting in which a resolution to possibly break ties with the Lincoln Heights Block Club was on the agenda, Josh Rosen, Co-Founder of Sustainable Community Associates, sent the Plain Press an email asking the paper to reprint a letter in response to the recent allegations surrounding racism and exclusivity rights that have escalated the conflict. Here is the email in its entirety:
“Invitations for voting rights should not be withheld because you fear how a certain person, in this instance someone who rents rather than owns property, might vote on a particular property issue. A community organizing group should provide equal access and rights to all members, regardless of how you presume (perhaps incorrectly!) a renter might vote. At the essence of inclusive community organizing should be the principle that all people are welcomed in equal ways, that ideas will be debated and maybe even pushed back against. These occasional disagreements are what make a community a changing and dynamic organism. Harnessing these changes is a better approach then fearing change.We should not rely on how things were done years ago as a justification for why they are being done a certain way today. Sometimes home owners might win debates. Sometimes home owners might disagree with one another. Other times they might have to convince renters, and so on and so forth. So, it goes, in the public square.”
“For the time Tremont West has spent discussing inclusivity and the grants they have received with a more inclusive community as its goal, I hope the board and executive director are joined by Councilman McCormack in taking an unambiguous, full-throated public stance against the voting rights policy of Lincoln Heights.”
On April 18thduring a board meeting held at the South Branch Cleveland Public Library, a majority of TWDC Board of Directors cast a vote in favorof suspending the relationship between Tremont West and Lincoln Heights.
Lincoln Heights Block Club members received an email letter a few days later from Kate Carden, TWDC Board President,stating, “The Lincoln Heights Block Club was found to have by-laws notconsistent with the inclusivity resolution… As such, the Board ofDirectors of Tremont West Development Corporation is suspendingrecognition of the block club. In practicality, this means thatstaffing, printing, mailing and other services related to the upkeepof the block club will no longer be rendered by Tremont West. TheBoard does not take this action lightly and recognizes the 15 years ofcollaboration and cooperation between Tremont West and Lincoln HeightsBlock Club. As the block club is an independent organization, it canand most likely will continue to operate. At any time, the block clubrevises their by-laws to be in accordance with the Tremont WestInclusivity Resolution and the Code of Regulations stipulation of a“democratically run” constituent group, services and support will berestored.”
“Tremont West Development Corporation takes its responsibility ofservice to the entire Tremont Service Area seriously. Although we aresuspending recognition of Lincoln Heights Block Club, we will continueto work with residents and stakeholders in providing services andresources.”
The block club can reorganize andreturn to Tremont West if they choose to do so, according to the governing board. Otherwise, a separate entity, a second block club, can organize and seek a new relationship with TWDC. “They can reform a block club, they just have to be inclusive and not discriminatory on property rights and poll taxes,” said Lynn McLaughlin Murray, Treasurer, adding, “We hope they go out in the next month and reform a block club that has bylaws that are inclusive.”
“It’s probably easier to start again rather than rewrite the bylaws,” added Joe Chura, 1stVice President of Tremont West. “It’s also important to note that this is a block club that is in the next hot center of activity in Tremont. We will continue to support the residents just not through a block club.”
The door remains open for neighborhood organizers to comply with the inclusivity resolution or seek financial support for the block club elsewhere. Either way, this diverse community remains divided with residents are looking for path forward.
Editor’s Note:Please view the letter to the editor on page 3 for the Lincoln Heights Block Club response to Tremont West Development Corporation’s decision.