(April 2023, Plain Press) Mayor Justin Bibb and WOVU 95.9 FM radio station hosted a Community Media Roundtable on February 15th. The roundtable served as an opportunity for community news outlets to dialogue with Mayor Bibb on topics of concern in the neighborhoods they serve.
Managing Editor Chuck Hoven represented the Plain Press at the Community Media Roundtable.
Chuck Hoven: Hi Mayor Bibb. The Plain Press is a community newspaper started in 1971. We serve largely the West Side neighborhoods of Cleveland.
My question has to do with reform of some of the boards and commissions. I know you haven’t had a chance to appoint a lot of new people yet.
There are some concerns when neighbors in a neighborhood are faced with a big development. There are inevitably issues involving conflicts. And these Boards (Board of Zoning Appeals, Landmarks Commission, and Planning Commission) decide some of those issues.
I think there is a need for some ethical standards. We have situations where let’s say a development corporation buys a parcel of land and instead of saying “Let’s meet with the neighbors and decide what we do with this parcel,” they go to some developer and make a deal to sell it to them. Then, as part of that, there is also a deal for a development fee that would go to the development corporation. The fee may be $100,000 or 10% of the project cost – whichever is the greater amount. So, the development corporation has an incentive – the bigger the project, the more revenue they get.
And that development corporation then goes to one of these boards and the board says, “Well the development corporation supports the project, the councilperson supports the project, so we support the project.” The councilperson may have gotten a campaign donation from the developer, maybe $1,000 a year for the past four years. But they don’t disclose that. So, I think there needs to be some ethical considerations when that comes up.
Then, the committee itself and the City of Cleveland staff seem to be favoring the developers. They will let the developer talk, the architect talk, the development corporation talk, the councilperson talk with no limits. But when a neighborhood person wants to talk – it’s two minutes. You get two minutes, and only two of you can talk – you have to represent the whole neighborhood.
So, with some of these things, people just look at it and say “Well, we’re not getting a fair shake.”
And, when you look at the Landmarks Commission, there are supposed to be seven mayoral appointments. Only six of those positions are filled. Only one of the six mayoral appointees comes from the lists that are required by the City Ordinance. The Cleveland Chapter of the American Institute of Architects, the Early Settlers Association and the Western Reserve Historical Society are supposed to give lists of nominees to the Mayor from which the Mayor can choose appointees. Only one person on the Landmarks Commission has been appointed from those lists, which is Michele Anderson.
So, in those Historic Districts, these people are supposed to protect some of the history and culture of the city and instead it seems like whatever the developer wants to do is approved.
When some little neighborhood person mistakenly puts vinyl windows on a house in a historic district – they make the homeowner take them off. When some developer puts in a new building with all vinyl windows in a historic district “Oh good — it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.”
So, I just wanted you to speak maybe to some reform of some of these committees and looking to requiring proper qualifications for your future appointments.
Mayor Justin Bibb:
Thank you, Chuck. You bring up an issue that we’ve seen in Cleveland for a long time, particularly on the West Side where there’s been a lot of development and the key challenge is how do you manage density and growth while maintaining the historical contents and attributes of those neighborhoods.
And I would argue, Chuck, it has to be a balancing act. We can’t go in the direction of one or the other. Because in some cases you have issues where developers have too much authority and too much influence, but in other cases you have a lot of NIMBYism (Not In My Back Yard ism) too. And that can inhibit change.
So, I think it requires a couple of things. First, and foremost, the right kind of engagement between residents and members of City Council because, as Mayor, I never want to usurp their local authority and power. And I want to make sure I respect that body of government and respect what is happening at the Ward level.
Second, you bring up an opportunity for us in terms of ethical disclosures on our boards and commissions. Now, as an elected official, both myself and members of City Council are required to disclose any kind of conflict of interest to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
Perhaps that is something we should encourage for our boards and commissions in the City of Cleveland, and that’s something I can take a look at with my law director, Mark Griffin. I think it is a fantastic idea.
The other thing I want to point out to you is something that is on the to do list of my director of City Planning, Joyce Huang – reforming our meeting process so it is more inclusive, more equitable, more transparent – so we get the right voices around the table. Because what I don’t want to see is the same five people that always say “no” showing up at every meeting saying “no”.
We have a lot of that to be very honest with you. So, how do we reform our meeting process for these critical development projects to address this? And then, I would say to a larger macro issue we are trying to solve for – our zoning code in Cleveland is over 100 years old. We are still using the Euclidian Zoning Code in the City of Cleveland. So, we are trying to, through legislation and hopefully with the support of City Council, reform our zoning code so we can go to a form-based code versus the Euclidian Zoning Code to allow more flexibility to address some of these issues that we see structurally in how development occurs.
So, I would say those are a couple of the things we can do in the near term to address some of those concerns. But the biggest takeaway, Chuck, I would say from me is “It’s a balancing act.”
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