City Council: Not how many we elect but who we elect
City Council: Not how many we elect but who we elect

As we move beyond the midterm elections, political coverage here at the local level has shifted to a discussion about political reform in Cleveland. A group led by local restaurateur, and noted homophobe, Tony George, is trying to reduce the size of council itself, from 17 to 9, and cut the salaries of those who serve in that body. This is at best a well-intentioned folly and at worst a power-play by a millionaire. Either way it serves primarily to obfuscate the far more serious issues confronting the city and its residents. This smokescreen by George might on the face of it make sense. It’s often fair, and perhaps even a cornerstone of our republic, to point the finger at those who hold and wield power. That’s part of what comes with serving in elected office in America.

However, Cleveland is confronted by a number of crises right now and reducing the size of city council hardly seems like the type of fruitful debate we should be having at present considering these factors:

  • Our police department is understaffed
  • Not surprisingly given the first point, crime is out of control
  • Loss of population and jobs
  • Lack of inspirational leadership and vision
  • Ingrained poverty
    •  Over a third of all Clevelanders live in poverty and more alarmingly nearly 1/2 of all children within city confines live in poverty. That places Cleveland dead last in the nation. LAST. It seems to be a stretch to think that this cycle of poverty is going to be changed in the least if we have fewer councilmembers.

If you need more evidence of genuinely pressing matters the city must deal with, check out a nationwide study from this summer that ranks the 50 worst cities in the country. I’ll let you find out where Cleveland ranks.

Instead of focusing on these issues, reporting on them, and proposing solutions, Channel19 took time, energy, and space to push for a reduction in the number of elected leaders we have. Instead of focusing on issues that matter, Channel 19 uses subterfuge to submerge them. Along the way, they’re able to avoid their own culpability–and the culpability of other local media organizations–by allowing someone like Councilman Ken Johnson to remain in office.

The work of a Cleveland City Councilmember is not all sunshine and rainbows. Constituent services are at the heart of what they do. And in a city with the problems listed above that can take a great deal of time. They serve as the first line of defense for many city residents and the first phone call many make during a crisis, large or small, is to their councilmember. They’re the ones who show up at fires, find a way to get a dead dog out of an elderly woman’s backyard–even if they have to do it themselves–and build ramps for disabled citizens, just to name a few responsibilities.  And it’s not as though the members have massive staffs who are deeply trained in the art of city services. Indeed, in Cleveland dealing with those services and departments isn’t an easily navigable task for the most senior member of city council. So, at the end of the day we must keep in mind that yes some of them have brought shame on the city and might lack a grand vision for Cleveland, which is a product of their many responsibilities in dealing with constituents, but it’s hard to envision how getting rid of them will pave the way for change in Cleveland. Trying something just to see how it works isn’t a solution.

Cleveland doesn’t need fewer people representing it. In many cases, it just needs better people. People who will attack causes not symptoms. People who can tell us what they want the city to look like five, ten, or thirty years from now. We certainly don’t need a Westlake millionaire, undoubtedly harboring ulterior motives, to tell us what’s best for residents. And, for George to go after their salaries is just spiteful.

We know that Councilman Ken Johnson should not be in elected office. That cannot and should not be disputed. (In fact, it would be nice if the area’s elected leaders were more vocal when it comes to Johnson). And, if he doesn’t end up in jail, Johnson’s ego will surely compel him to run again since people who defend their own missteps by citing a 30- year old handshake agreement don’t go quietly into retirement. Hopefully the residents of  Ward 4 will make the people of Cleveland proud and defeat him in three years. If not, then maybe we deserve Ken Johnson. But I have faith. Either way, one councilman’s abuse of the public trust does not by itself necessitate radical action against the other 16 members. That’s like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

What would make a true difference is if the citizens of Cleveland and the media did their due diligence and sought out intrepid, intellectually curious, elected representatives instead of embracing kneejerk actions as a panacea for the city’s problems. That would be a heckuva start. This would’ve prevented the re-election of people like Ken Johnson (a ball that cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer dropped in the first place) and put the city on the path to discoveries and solutions instead of enabling people like George from trying to capitalize on every misstep someone makes in this city.

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