One February morning, councilman Mike Polensek was eating breakfast at Gus’s Diner 185 on East 185th Street.
It had been just less than two weeks since Cleveland City Council voted to build a more than $2 million dirt bike park. The proposal, favored by Mayor Frank Jackson’s administration, passed by a narrower than expected 9-7 margin.
And while the longtime Collinwood representative voted against it, Polensek was about to get an earful. An older woman, sitting with two companions, called him over.
“She says, ‘Mike, we’ve got chuckholes all over the neighborhood, and you can’t get a frickin’ snowplow down the street,’ ” says Polensek, doing a nasal impression. “ ‘And yet he can come up with money for a dirt track! Something is wrong here!’ ”
Polensek has heard that line again and again at nearly every neighborhood meeting he’s held since the vote, he says. “That’s what started the bubbling,” says Polensek. “That set people off.”
The dirt bike park is an example of the prevailing truth at City Hall. On Cleveland’s municipal seesaw, Jackson weighs the most.
Whether it’s closing Public Square to bus traffic or building a dirt bike park, council generally bows to the mayor’s wishes. During his years on city council and three terms as mayor, Jackson has built a strong coalition of loyalists in both branches of city government. Even when it comes to controversial projects, the mayor has accumulated enough heft to get his way in council and elsewhere.
It hasn’t always been like this. As our founding fathers conceived it, Cleveland’s city government is supposed to balance the power of mayor and council.
Look at the City Hall rotunda, built in 1916, says Polensek, a former council president himself. On the south side of the rotunda is the mayor’s office. On the north, the council offices. Both are on the second floor.
“It was designed to separate the legislative and the administrative branch. We’re co-equal,” says Polensek. “It wasn’t to give authority and complete control to one side or the other. It’s a balancing act.”
The reality is messier. Since the transition from a city manager structure in 1931, the pendulum of power has swung back and forth between the two branches. Now it’s on a mayoral upswing.
It’s not just the dirt bike track. Three council members confirm to Cleveland Magazine that they were not notified of the details of several recent actions — the closing of Public Square and the deal to renovate Quicken Loans Arena — before the administration went public. Despite the potential financial ramifications of both actions, members had to get their information elsewhere.
In particular, the Public Square incident was a notable mayoral overstep, as pointed out by Clevelanders for Public Transit. The 2003 City Council ordinance that created the downtown transit zone, which includes Public Square, clearly states that it can be amended only with authorization from City Council and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority board. The unilateral closure of Superior Avenue, perhaps indefinitely, is an obvious amendment.
“You need legislative authority [to close Public Square],” says Polensek, with more than a hint of incredulity. “We gave you legislative authority to do the project. You amend it, and you don’t come back to the city council for authority?”
The mayor-driven approach has upsides. For one, it lets the administration ram through roadblocks to actually get things done. For example, Jackson’s Cleveland Plan for Transforming Schools was only possible due to strong mayoral leadership. Mayor Mike White paved the way for Jackson by making seats on the board of education into mayoral appointments. That gave Jackson the cover to try a set of reforms, such as sponsoring charters, which would never have made it past an elected board.
Councilman Jeff Johnson, running against Jackson for mayor, says the mayor-council structure created an even balance at times in the past. During the era of two Georges, Mayor George Voinovich and council president George Forbes, there was a productive tension. The two lions balanced the needs and excesses of their branches without devolving into catfights, conflict and gridlock.
But the council today is far more pliant to the mayor’s wishes than it was during the 1980s. Johnson contends this has less to do with any structural problems, but comes instead from mismatches between elected leadership — council president Kevin Kelley and former president Martin Sweeney — and the mayor.
“What’s happening today is more the exception than the rule,” says Johnson. “It feels like it’s an embedded thing, because it’s been 12 frickin’ years.”
Regardless, checks and balances shouldn’t vacillate depending on who is in office. A better structure is a more concrete fix.
One way could be to make the council president an at-large seat, elected by the whole city, rather than the current system of a council vote. By answering to a citywide constituency, the council president would have firmer footing to present a countervailing vision. An at-large council president was one of several proposals councilman Brian Cummins made to the Charter Review Commission in 2008. Another proposal would have made three or more seats at-large.
“If you have three or four, whoever had the most votes for an at-large seat would be the council president,” says Cummins. “You’d completely take away the council’s ability to have what’s happened, which is a popularity contest, or who is the least toxic of council, that [person] should be council president.”
As Jackson acknowledged at an event Jan. 25, Cleveland is also experiencing a dearth of viable rising leaders. At-large seats could open the door for them.
Bill Callahan, who served on the Charter Review Commission, was critical of Cummins’ proposal at the time. He still is, saying that citywide interests are already well heard.
“I’m not sure what problem that would solve. It just means you have a little mayor, is all,” says Callahan. “Who’s that person going to care about, unless they’re running for mayor?”
Callahan had a better, smaller idea — neighborhood councils for each city service area. The councils would evaluate services where the mayoral rubber hits the pockmarked road. Whether parks, police, chuckholes or snowplows, the councils would be empowered by law to call city administrators to the table and hold them accountable. At those monthly meetings, the average Clevelander would get to choose for themselves if mayoral power is working for them.
They might already be. Even in the vote for the dirt bike track, the status quo of mayor-takes-all rule was implicitly questioned. Councilmen TJ Dow, Brian Kazy and Martin Keane voted against the park, joining the opposition block of Cummins, Johnson, Polensek and Zack Reed. (Councilman Terrell Pruitt was absent due to military service.)
“This whole thing that Frank has about it is what it is,” Polensek says, “in neighborhoods like mine, it ain’t cutting it.”
As the city contemplates selecting a mayor and 17 city council members later this year, voters should ask: Is our government’s balance cutting it for them?