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Cleveland City Council Reduction, Pay Cut Heads To March Ballot

Cleveland voters will decide in the March primary on a citizen initiative to slash city council’s membership and pay — a measure backed by a Westlake restaurateur over the opposition of council leadership.

The campaign, which calls itself Clevelanders First, pitches the initiative as an effort to bring city council’s size and salary in line with that of other cities. Tony George, the owner of Harry Buffalo and other Cleveland-area eateries, funded the petition drive, according to the group’s financial disclosure.

“We want to streamline government,” John Kandah, a spokesman for the campaign, told ideastream.

The proposed charter amendments would cut the number of council members from 17 to nine and reduce their pay from $83,370 to $58,000. 

Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley said the measure would give residents less access to local government, not more. He pledged an “aggressive campaign” in response.

“City council is the way that most people interact with their government, it’s where they go to get answers,” Kelley said. “If you cut the pay dramatically, and almost double the amount of constituents and geography that a council member has to take, that access is going to be tremendously diminished.”

Council Clerk Patricia Britt flagged several potential violations in Clevelanders First’s financial disclosures, in a Monday letter to the city prosecutor.

Clevelanders First does not appear to exist on paper, Britt wrote. A name reservation filed with the Ohio Secretary of State for “Clevelanders 1st” expired in November. Britt also notified the city prosecutor that the disclosures do not enumerate how much George paid for the petition drive, only that he contributed “money.”

A 2017 city ordinance requires initiative campaigns to submit itemized disclosures detailing “all moneys or things of value” paid for circulating petitions. Kelley called Clevelanders First’s disclosures “very deficient.”

“To me, the law is pretty clear on what’s required,” Kelley said. “It’s significant that the financial disclosures described a group called Clevelanders First, but according to the secretary of state’s website, there is no such group. So where’s the money coming from? We have no way of knowing.”

George told ideastream council was “grasping at straws,” saying he believed the committee did not need to list how much money he had given. Kandah said he had not seen Britt’s letter, and council had not raised issues with him about the campaign’s financial disclosures.

“Tony George has more invested in the city of Cleveland than the average Clevelander does,” Kandah said. “He’s a high stakeholder in the city of Cleveland, and has a lot to lose or gain, and has given the city a lot.”

Kelley said the debate over council’s size would be different if it had originated with Cleveland residents.

“This didn’t come from the Citizens’ League,” Kelley said. “This came from one person who doesn’t live in the city of Cleveland, who paid people to collect the petitions.”

In 2006, George and businessman Ed Crawford pushed to cut council’s membership from 21 to 11. Martin Sweeney, then the president of city council, agreed to a compromise proposal to cut seats as Cleveland’s population declined. George said he now regrets making that deal with Sweeney.

“This is the Cleveland that I love,” George said. “And I’m not going to watch it go down the tubes in the later years of my life.”

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