Council of Cleveland Neighborhoods hosts mayoral candidates’ forum at Edgewater Park’s pavilion
by Bruce Checefsky
The Council of Cleveland Neighborhoods (CCN) sponsored a Candidates’ Forum with mayoral prospects Ross DiBello, Basheer Jones, Kevin Kelley, Dennis Kucinich and Zack Reed on Tuesday, July 27, at the West Pavilion on the upper level of Edgewater Park. CCN is a deliberative body of Cleveland residents organized around preservation and development issues. It is independent of Community Development Corporations. Missing from the forum were Justin Bibb and State Senator Sandra Williams.
More than thirty Cleveland residents representing Little Italy, Hough, Hessler, Ohio City, Union-Miles Park, and other neighborhoods attended the forum. DiBello arrived early followed by Kucinich, Jones, and Reed.
“I’m here to get my message out that policy matters,” DiBello said while working the crowd. “We have to enact progressive policies on a bigger scale. For me personally, its campaign finance and term limits.”
Reed was surrounded by a small entourage of supporters.
“I hope we can educate citizens on the importance of voting,” Reed said, when asked what he expected from the candidates’ forum. “Less than thirty percent of voters showed up to vote last election. The Jackson administration made a lot of promises but never delivered. I want to change that.”
Kucinich appeared with his wife Elizabeth. He introduced her to several people making their way to seats under the pavilion. “People know me. They trust me,” he said about the challenges facing his election campaign. “I’m tested, many times.”
Kelley was there a few minutes before the forum began. He found his way to the registration table where he signed in and was handed a bottle of water by a volunteer. He paused to look around.
“I generally come to these things without expectation,” he said. “I just try to answer the questions as honestly as possible without much preparation.”
A film crew from News 5 Cleveland set up near the staged area next to a row of tables and chairs. Daryl Davis, organizer of the CNN forum, picked her way through the crowd to the front of the pavilion. She stopped to talk to the Plain Press.
“I hope we get a clear understanding of what candidates have to offer and how they intend to address the concerns that have accumulated during the last six to ten years,” said Davis. “I look forward to a good public dialogue.”
As the start time grew nearer, residents sat on the picnic benches. Some wore protective masks. Candidates were seated at tables behind their name placards. Jessica Trivisonno, Economic Development Director, Northwest Neighborhoods Community Development Corporation represented Justin Bibb. A seat was left empty for Sandra Williams.
David Ellison, a resident of Ohio City, introduced each candidate. The first set of questions was drawn at random, he explained, with each candidate given two and a half minutes to respond. The second set of questions was geared to specific candidates. Mary Ellen and David Samborksi were moderators. Questions for the forum were prepared in advance but not announced to the candidates.
Kucinich’s name was pulled first. Samborksi asked about the importance of an urban canopy in the city of Cleveland and what percentage of the overall budget would be set aside to address the issue.
Kucinich said that Cleveland was known as Forest City because of its abundance of tree canopy, then he paused to introduce Elizabeth, who he declared was his chief advisor on ecology and agriculture. She stood up to a fine round of applause.
“I intend to plant over 100,000 trees in the city,” said Kucinich. “City Hall does not take care of our trees. As mayor, I will save our trees and stop utility companies from clear cutting our best trees.”
He also suggested burying utility lines underground and recommended planting fruit trees so people can pick fruit freely.
DiBello was asked about the role of Community Development Corporations (CDCs) in neighborhood planning. CDC’s work closely with developers some of which disregard the interests of the residents, according to Samborksi. In answering the question, DiBello took the opportunity to talk about the pitfalls of political decision making without public input, a campaign position he has maintained since joining the race earlier this year.
“We have development taking place throughout the city in neighborhoods where people don’t want it,” said DiBello, adding, “Your community is not my commodity.”
He concluded by saying that as mayor he would continue to fund the CDC’s. He also wanted to start a city bank. “My entire platform is about real democracy, putting the power back into the hands of regular people, and eliminating suburban development interests so that investors from Gates Mills are not making decisions for people living in Cleveland.”
Bibb’s spokesperson, Jessica Trivisonno, was asked to comment on the City of Cleveland building department, especially the permits and code enforcements departments. When Samborksi asked if Bibb would make any changes to the system, the audience snickered.
“As Economic Development Director for Detroit Shoreway Community Development Corporation (now part of Northwest Neighborhoods CDC), I spend seventy percent of my time figuring out how to navigate the building and housing system on behalf of developers,” Trivisonno said with frustration. “The biggest barrier to doing business in the city of Cleveland is City Hall.”
During the second round of questions, Jones was asked about the residential tax abatement program and, more specifically, what changes to the program he would make as mayor. He stepped out from behind the table and stood in front of the crowd.
“We’re not trying to bring new people into the Hough neighborhood,” Jones said, referring to the lack of tax abatements in Ward 7. “I don’t mind bringing new people into the neighborhood through tax abatement but what about those living there for more than thirty-five years? What about our seniors? We need a policy that helps and protects our longtime residents.”
Kelley was questioned about transparency at the Cleveland City Council meetings. Specifically, Clevelanders for Public Comment have pressured the council president to allow the public to have a voice at the meetings. Kucinich has been openly critical over the issue of transparency, particularly regarding the Progressive Field lease deal.
Council President Kelley said the City’s legal staff was drafting legislation to change council’s meeting rules. The new rules would permit a limited public comment period. (Council has since adopted a rule change to provide for public comment, including an amendment Clevelanders for Public Comment offered to the proposed rule change by Council leadership. (Councilman McCormack presented the amendment to Council for approval).
Kelley explained that city council meetings are posted no less than twenty-four hours in advance.
“Cleveland City Council goes to great lengths to make sure all of our meetings are posted in advance,” said Kelley. “We want to hear from the public.”
Reed took center stage when asked about the ongoing neighborhood deterioration which has affected large parts of the city, and what, if anything, he plans to do about it as mayor. He said talking to residents was the first step to prevent neighborhoods from further deterioration. He promised to open City Hall and the Mayor’s office every Saturday morning so residents can meet with him in person.
“If the CEO of Sherwin Williams, Cleveland Clinic, or Eaton called the mayor tonight they would have a meeting with him the next morning,” Reed said, adding as a side note that he advanced to the general election in 2017 where he received 40.5% of the vote against Frank Jackson. “You cannot know what to do in the neighborhoods unless you listen to the people.”
As the event drew to a close, Ellison thanked the candidates for participating and acknowledged CCN for organizing the event. He encouraged people to mingle to ask more questions.
“I’m concerned about land use and green canopy,” said Kathleen Knittel, a resident of Ohio City and former Regional Director, Schools of Nursing & Allied Health, Cleveland Clinic, standing up to leave.
“I know there are certain candidates that I definitely won’t vote for, but I haven’t made up my mind about the rest.”