The news confounded expectations, though not in the usual way — ward 15 council member Matt Zone was leaving Cleveland City Council for the Western Reserve Land Conservancy. Political insiders assumed if he ever left council, it would be for the one prize that had eluded his politically connected family: the mayor’s office. So, it was a shock that he was leaving politics altogether. This month, he starts his new job heading up WRLC’s Thriving Communities Institute, which works to promote land banks and greenspace. We caught up with the 19-year city council veteran to talk about the big decision, his legacy and the future.
Q: Why are you leaving?
A: Some council members stay way too long. I was going to either run for mayor, or I was going to move on somewhere in the private sector. I had my mind set that I was running for mayor. I had assembled a pretty amazing campaign team. And then, periodically, I was having people reach out to me to leave politics altogether. I started talking to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy over a year ago. They were doing some succession planning, and it just aligns perfectly with my policy work.
Q: Cleveland politics are a generational thing for the Zones. Do you have any bittersweet feelings about leaving politics?
A: My father [Michael] served first in 1960. He passed away in June 1974, [from] a fatal heart attack. So he was on Council for 14 years. Within two weeks of my father passing, my mother [Mary] was sworn in as his successor. She served from June of ’74 until December of 1981. And there was a stint in the ’90s when my cousin Joseph was a council member for four years. So if you look back on the last 60 years of Cleveland’s history, 45 of those years there was a Zone serving on City Council. Our family’s contribution to the city always weighed heavy on me.
Q: Is there anything you’re going to miss?
A: Being able to help people in real time. When Gina DeJesus went missing, she lived in my district, and I became very close with her father and mother. I remember organizing a canvas of the near West Side, we went door to door. During that period when she was held captive by Ariel Castro, I became really close with that family. I can’t tell you how many vigils I went to. The day that I heard those women were free, I was able to use the power of my office with that family to create the Cleveland Courage Fund. It’s over $1.5 million for those young women. I will miss that opportunity to really affect change.
Q: You knew this next question was coming: Is there anything you’re not going to miss?
A: When I ran for this position, I felt just about anything was fair game. But I’m not going to miss the pettiness of the work. Some types of people can be downright meanspirited. I have always been a very active person on social media, and there are some people who just don’t understand the nuance of the work, and are just mean. I’m not going to miss a daily barrage of being tagged on Facebook about how a traffic light has been out for two weeks and my council member’s not doing anything to repair it. I’m just analogizing here. But I will not miss that.
Q: What will you do at WRLC?
A: Our organization has been central in helping create 61 land banks. And it’s been laser focused on securing demolition dollars, to the tune of $440 million. But my emphasis is going to focus around greening. I’m going to focus a lot around how to optimize urban land use, not only land banking and demolition, but redevelopment, urban reforestation and greenways. We have this unique relationship with trees, where we’re codependent, and so I’m going to work with local governments on how we can build up tree canopies.
Q: You got dinged recently for leading the safety committee while your son is a police officer. Did that factor at all into you making this choice at this point?
A: Not at all. No one would characterize it as “dinged.” The Plain Dealer is a shadow of what it used to be. It just speaks to the competency, that they didn’t know my son was a police officer. I mean, everyone, quite honestly, knew that. I became chair of the safety committee in January 2014. My son didn’t enter the academy until December of 2014. As soon as he told me that fall, ‘Dad, I’m going to take the entrance exam for the police academy,’ it dawned on me, wait, I’m a council member and I chair the safety committee, is there a conflict of interest? My first call was to the Ohio Ethics Commission, and they told me that it was not a conflict of interest, as long as I publicly disclose it and don’t vote on matters that benefit him personally. I never ran from the fact that my son is a police officer. I’m proud of my son. He’s an amazing young man. Here’s a kid who’s got a college degree from Kent State, served his country in the National Guard, and now he’s serving his city, and his cultural competency is off the charts, in terms of understanding diverse populations of people. But that didn’t have any bearing on my ultimate decision.
Q: The Thriving Communities Institute has been pretty important to the recovery of the local housing market since the last financial crash. Under director Jim Rokakis, they’ve pushed a strategy of land banking and demolition here in Cleveland, and helped to spread land banks all across the state. Is that the kind of thing you’re going to continue to do?
A: I will be continuing to support that work. Our organization, and Jim, has been central in helping create 61 land banks. That’s 61 out of Ohio’s 88 counties. And it’s been laser focused on securing demolition dollars, to the tune of $440 million. So part of the work moving forward will be supporting Jim, because he’s going to stay on board in a small consultancy role in some of that work. My job is going to help support that work.
Q: You’re going to work with [Thriving Communities Institute Senior Policy Advisor] Frank Ford, and he has written a couple of alarming reports. He wrote one about lending practices, and another asking, basically, “Could the East Side housing market get left behind?” Without even mentioning the impact of the COVID-19 downturn, you have areas a stone’s throw away from parts of the East Side, where housing values have only come back by 30% since the financial crisis. Is that an area in which you’re going to expand?
A: In Northeast Ohio, our 12-county footprint, though WRLC works in 18, there are something like 170 taxing entities. There’s a lot of duplication of services. So how can we work smarter and work together? How can we grow smart and grow together? I want to use my platform, as the director of the Thriving Communities Institute, to elevate these issues. Because we’re the city of Cleveland, we’re centrally located, and we’re going to see over time some of these East Side communities are going to repopulate. It’s going to take some time. And just as we’re trying to right-size our city, inner ring suburbs are dealing with the same kinds of challenges we’re dealing with. So that’s something I’m looking forward to thrusting my work into, is seeing how we can bring back the market on the East Side.
Q: Okay. But regional collaboration and things along those lines don’t really get at the central problem that Ford was pointing to, which is that there’s a vast disparity in lending. Black borrowers do not have access to credit the same way that white borrowers do, regardless of income. Is that an area in which you could see Thriving Communities proposing some additional policy?
A: I don’t want to get ahead of myself here and put our organization in a spot. But yeah, I get advocating for more equitable lending practices and policies. We are considered a national expert with our research capabilities. So yeah, when there’s an opportunity to shine the light and find out why people aren’t lending in certain neighborhoods, when you have contiguous zip codes where you have robust lending, that is something where we’ll be issuing reports and trying to change conditions.
Q: That’s not to say there’s not already been progress made in that respect. The county is doing some things there. But, for the most part, the land bank model, which Thriving Communities obviously has a large role in propagating, was built around this premise that we’re in an emergency. And for the most part, it’s been pretty successful at doing that. But the question is: what comes after that model? And will Thriving Communities have a part in defining whatever that thing is?
A: I mean, there have been federal and state policies that encourage corporations to leave center cities and urban centers to go settle in fields. Who’s responsible for paving the way for this urban exodus? We have to create new roads and sewers and school systems when they move around, and Cleveland gets depopulated. So we can’t allow Ohio to continue this naive “anywhere in Ohio” economic development policy. Right now, we need to work smarter and develop a smarter strategy. So I will be spending considerable time working with our state legislature and governor on how we create an economic recovery.
Q: This is the last question I have. Is this your retirement job?
A: I don’t know. Who knows what the future holds? I’m still young and healthy enough where I love work. I want to work every day. And this is a wonderful opportunity to continue my policy work. I’ve never been one to say, “By this date, I want to be retired to my place on Myrtle Beach.” I’m not that guy. I love work. I love public policy. And so for now, as my mother told me, “You do the task at hand to the best of your ability, and good things will come from that.”