Cleveland City Council holds retreat to orient new members and refresh re-elected members

Cleveland City Council retreat, January 2022; Public Hall: Front Row, L-R: Stephanie D. Howse (Ward 7), Charles J. Slife (Ward 16), Richard S. Starr(Ward 5), Rebecca Maurer (Ward 12), Deborah A. Gray (Ward 4), Jenny Spencer (Ward 15), Michael D. Polensek (Ward 8), Anthony T. Hairston (Ward 10), and Brian Kazy (Ward 16). Back Row, L-R: Brian Mooney (Ward 11), Kevin Conwell (Ward 9), Blaine A. Griffin (Ward 6), Kris Karsh (Ward 13), Joseph T. Jones (Ward 1), and Kevin L. Bishop (Ward 2). Missing from photo: Kerry McCormack (Ward 3), Jasmin Santana (Ward 14).

Cleveland City Council holds retreat to orient new members and refresh re-elected members

by Bruce Checefsky

(Plain Press, February 2022)  The same week Mayor Justin Bibb took office, Cleveland City Council met for a three-day retreat to introduce new council members and familiarize returning council members on the inner workings of City Hall. The in-person meeting took place at the lower level of Public Hall. 

     “The retreat will touch on many topics, both internal council processes, and issues that deal with constituent services and the roles and programs different city departments provide,” said Council President-elect Blaine A. Griffin in a press release. “I thought it was a good idea to give the new council members the orientation they need, as well as review things with re-elected council members. Everyone can use a refresher.”

     Lee Fisher, Dean and Joseph C. Hostetler-BakerHostetler Chair in Law at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law at Cleveland State University, spoke to council members on day one. Fisher served as Lt. Governor under Ted Strickland from 2007 until 2011, and Ohio Attorney General, State Senator, and State Representative. He was president and CEO of the Centers for Families and Children. He also served as President/CEO of CEOs for Cities, a national organization aimed at economic development in urban areas. His motivational speech had anecdotes from his personal life and political career. He made several suggestions for a smooth transition to a new administration.

     “Change in America today and for the foreseeable future can be from the bottom up, not the top down. Washington is broken and dysfunctional. I would argue that if you want to change the world, you do it by starting with your city,” said Fisher. “Your job as council members is tough, arguably the single most important job in America today.”

     Fisher said the focus should not be on Washington D.C., or even on the state capitol, where he spent a large part of his political career, but on local activism, the same type of activism that led to their election to City Council. “Successful cities work with the private and nonprofits sectors to solve problems,” according to him, including the foundations and private businesses, to create a round table that works in tandem with each other towards collective impact. “Collaboration is where the needle moves,” he said, referring to collaboration. “Tear down the walls between each of you.”

     In a moment of awkward self-revelation, Fisher said Leave it to Beaver was his favorite television program as a young man. Leave it to Beaver was an American television sitcom broadcast between 1957 and 1963, set in a world where children walked to school with a metal lunch pail, and everyone was quietly living in largely white communities.  

     “I recommend that you watch the show,” Fisher said. “America does not look this way anymore.”

     Less than 20% of American families today have children compared to 40% in 1970, he said, and families are less mobile, choosing to stay where they were born. Fewer people own homes, affecting the economy negatively. Following a short video presentation on the success of neighborhoods like Ohio City, Gordon Square, Downtown, Tremont, and University Circle, Councilman Kevin Conwell, representing Ward 9, raised questions about the accuracy in depicting Cleveland. Ward 9 covers most of Glenville and part of University Circle neighborhoods.  

     “People come to Cleveland to visit University Circle, Downtown, and Gordon Square, but residents of Glenville do not benefit,” he said. “We need to get out of poverty and benefit from it.”

     Council President Blaine Griffith asked to push aside the idealism and requested that council members develop policies to support a Black middle class, which has seen considerable erosion in the past twenty years. 

     “Racism is alive and well in the City of Cleveland,” said Councilman Joe Jones representing Ward 1, which includes Lee-Harvard, Lee-Seville, Union-Miles, and part of Mt. Pleasant. “Redlining continues. African American families with the resources to get a bank loan are constantly getting turned down by lending institutions. Residents are unable to remodel their homes or expand their businesses. The Eastside has been devastated.”

     Fisher acknowledged banks have the power to make changes to their lending practices. He suggested a roundtable approach, where residents meet directly with lenders, and discuss the issues. “Banking is a tough one,” he said before closing with a reminder to council members that cross-sector leaderships leads to success. “I cannot stress it enough.” 

     On day two, Tania Menesse presented an overview of community development. Menesse is Chief Executive Officer and President of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress Inc, a private community development company that uses philanthropic, public, and nonprofit institutions funding to revitalize neighborhoods through community development corporations (CDCs). 

     “Thriving neighborhoods need an engaged populace,” she said, adding that leadership from City Council, plus a strong CDC, adds to their success, without which neighborhoods are unlikely to succeed.

     Michael Wackers, Cleveland Department of Community Development Department Director, rolled out a lengthy presentation on the history of CDCs. He agreed that funds, including Community Development Block Grant programs (CDBG), were too widespread and ineffective. 

     “Cleveland lacks budget control, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office,” he said, “falling short of projected outcomes.”

     Lack of funding hinders CDCs. Some council members said that Southeast Cleveland, Hough, Fairfax, and Glenville do not see economic improvement despite the proximity to empowerment zones. Overburdened by the CDC process, contractors are often not paid on time. Projects that could benefit the community are on hold. There is no accountability.

     “We do a pretty good job despite the challenges,” said Wackers. “A lot is happening. Unfortunately, we need to do more.” 

     “I am looking at the numbers,” said Ward 7 Councilwoman Stephanie Howse, about Wackers account of over 235,000 measurable accomplishments of goals set by Community Development Corporations last year. Howse’s Ward 7 includes Asia Town, Hough, and the St. Clair-Superior neighborhoods. “How are we demonstrating meeting our goals? I do not know about you, but the numbers do not work for me.”

     An overview on public safety and public utilities, community benefits and organized labor, discretionary funds, and the legislative process took place on the third and final day. Karrie Howard, Director of Public Safety, said the Department of Public Safety (DPS) represents 60% of the city operating budget. The Public Safety Department includes the Division of Fire, Division of Police, Division of Emergency Medical Services, and Division of Animal Care and Control.  With over with 3,500 full-time employees, which is more than half of all City employees, the Public Safety Department falls under the Executive Branch of the City of Cleveland and Howard reports directly to the mayor.

     “Our primary goal is to improve public safety and build community trust,” said Howard, referring to the mission statement of DPS. 

     Nicole A. Carlton, Commissioner, Division of Emergency Medical Service, gave an organizational overview of EMS. Carlton is responsible for approximately 333 employees and an annual budget of more than $30 million. The Division of Emergency Medical Service (EMS) is the primary provider of advanced life support prehospital medical care in the city, transporting more than 75,000 patients annually. Cleveland EMS responds to over 105,000 medical calls for service. She reported that some residents call EMS several hundred times a year seeking their help.

     “We have a community that needs us regardless of the emergency. We do a lot of social service work. People call EMS when they have nowhere else to go,” she said. “It is shameful that the media sees these people as abusers of a health care system that is broken.”

     Wayne Drummond, interim Chief of the Cleveland Division of Police, introduced his executive staff, many of which were present. Mayor Bibb plans to hire a search firm experienced in finding recruits for police departments to replace former Chief Calvin Williams who reportedly resigned in response to voter passage of Issue 24, which gives a Civilian Police Review Board authority to investigate complaints from the public against officers and to order disciplinary action.

     Drummond rattled through a thick volume of analytical information and race analysis of the current police workforce. Internal documents show that African Americans represent 23% of the police workforce in a city with a minority population of more than 70%, with four times as many Caucasian supervisors as African Americans. He said the Division of Police responded to over 393,000 calls in 2021, and since the pandemic, at least 300 officers a day are out ill.

     There was no mention of the Consent Decree, which requires the Cleveland Division of Police to make several fundamental changes to its policies, practices, and procedures to address a pattern of excessive force, and operational and structural issues. 

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