Justin Bibb vows to modernize City Hall
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, October 2021) For Cleveland mayoral candidate Justin Bibb, leadership is all about relationships. The 34-year-old son of a social worker and first responder advanced from the primary to the general election November 2 along with City Council president Kevin Kelley in the first mayoral election without an incumbent on the ballot in Cleveland since 2001.
The Cuyahoga County Board of Elections reported only 15 percent of Cleveland’s 247,742 eligible voters cast their ballots in the Cleveland primary. Bibb received 27 percent of the total votes cast with his strongest support coming from Downtown and on the Near West Side (Ward 3 and Ward 15), while also getting votes from Shaker Square and West Park. Kelley received 19 percent of the votes winning his home base of Ward 13 and Ward 17 along with a moderate showing in Collinwood, St Clair-Superior, Glenville, Euclid Park and Nottingham Village (Ward 8 and Ward 10).
Bibb, originally from the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood, placed second behind Zack Reed in much of southeast Cleveland including the neighborhoods of Mt. Pleasant, Lee-Harvard, Lee-Seville, Union-Miles, and Mill Creek Falls.
Dennis Kucinich, who was elected as the country’s youngest mayor in 1977, placed third behind Bibb and Kelley with 17 percent of the total votes. The remaining votes were split between Zack Reed, Basheer Jones, and Sandra Williams. Political outsider and attorney from West Park Ross DiBello eked out 1.6 percent of the votes.
In a phone interview, Bibb said if elected mayor he intends to build an administrative cabinet that shares his values and vision for the city including modernizing City Hall so it’s totally transparent.
“Changing management is not easy. The biggest thing I need to do as mayor is to create systems internally where front line city employees and middle level managers, and commissioners along with cabinet level directors, have a continuous feedback loop between my office and what’s happening in our departments.”
Bibb said as mayor, he understands that he cannot solve problems in isolation. The next mayor must work in collaboration with local businesses and foundations, CEO’s and grassroots activists to identify the needs of front-line workers. While many of the hardest decisions as mayor won’t come as consensus decisions, he believes that data driven, fact-oriented information, and input from his cabinet team and other trusted advisors from the community will inform his decision-making process.
“I will make decisions in the best interest to serve the citizens of Cleveland,” he stressed.
Recognizing a need for accountability, he plans to reconstitute the Mayor’s office of Data and Performance Management (Quality Control and Performance Management) and implement a data-tracking and management tool called CitiStat to manage all city programs and services. This program enables the mayor’s office to monitor overtime and sick leave in real-time, providing ammunition to crack down on chronic absenteeism. He has to trust city employees to do their best, Bibb said. But when it comes to earning his trust, he takes his mother’s advice.
“As my mother would say, well done is better than well said. I have to look at someone’s past body of work as the best indicator of who I can trust.”
He plans to rely heavily on his leadership team to create an engaging environment that will lead to innovation. Negotiating on behalf of the city is a collective process, he said. Recognizing that there are many different paths to a goal, using up-to-date information and data, and showing up in good faith to solve the problem is paramount to a successful outcome.
“The best leaders have the emotional intelligence to delegate and give people the autonomy to do their jobs. When you create an environment where people can think big and bold, to take smart risks, that’s the best culture for innovation to foster and thrive.”
Bibb credits his working-class upbringing in southeast Cleveland and firsthand experience watching his mother handle eviction notices and struggle to pay rent as learned life lessons that will serve him well as mayor. There’s more than one solution to poverty, he knows.
“Poverty comes from lack of education, safety, and true wealth creation opportunities in our city. Having a mayor who can think about these problems in a multi-faceted way will go a long way towards moving the needle in terms of addressing poverty in our city.”
For Bibb, a modern and responsive city hall is the most important policy reform to pursue as mayor. He wants police to show up on time when called and respect the constitutional rights of residents. High quality public education and good positioning for job creation are fundamental rights. A positive public presence of the mayor beyond the election cycle will raise Cleveland’s confidence, according to him, and encourage residents to participate in the governing process.
“Having a mayor who can get on a plane and pitch Cleveland to the country and world will go a long way. We need a mayor that can work with the governor and state legislature, county executive and federal delegation in Washington D.C. This will give people confidence that Cleveland is ready to get back to work. Cleveland is ready to climb out of this pandemic and build the most inclusive comeback in the city’s history.”
With voter turnout near a record low, Bibb believes City Hall is to blame. Denying a minimum wage policy and refusing public comment at city council meetings until recently undermines the confidence of city residents. Without a voice, city residents won’t vote. A mayor should provide straightforward leadership during a pandemic, with support for and direct access to the vaccine. A better model in policing during the post George Floyd era is needed.
“Social justice is a core value of mine. I saw it in my mom’s persistence and fight to give me a high-quality shot at life by making personal sacrifices. I saw it in my grandmother’s social activism organizing at the height of the crack epidemic in southeast Cleveland for better policing and more accountable public safety,” Bibb said. “Throughout the arc of my life and career, regardless of working in business or in the nonprofit world, or just being a civic activist, social justice has been the unifying theme of my career and journey. That’s why I’m running for mayor.”
Bibb would like to use the Cleveland Public Library system as a front door to City Hall to make city services more readily available to the general public. Additional funding for public transit and eradicating food deserts in low-income areas of the city would have a positive day-to-day impact on residents. He wants to see more public parks and a lake front development that’s competitive with other cities across the country.
Among the many people he met along the campaign trail was Marilyn Burns, a long-time resident of the Woodhill/Buckeye neighborhood where she is a community advocate, a volunteer for the Healthy Eating, Active Living (HEAL) initiative, and a Ward 6 Precinct Committee Member. Burns gave Bibb some advice.
“Marilyn told me to show up. Politicians only show up when it’s election season. We never hear from you after that. Until we change that paradigm, we’re going to see a lack of engagement in the city,” he said. “I want to turn the page on that as mayor.”
When asked, “What would you do if you lose the election?” Bibb replied, “I’m planning on winning, so I’m not worried about that.”
Editor’s Note: The Plain Press contacted the Kevin Kelley campaign to interview the candidate for this article, but he was not available in time for this publication. We hope to include an article with an interview of Kevin Kelley in the next issue of the Plain Press.