Cleveland council members call special meeting out of frustration over stimulus spending process


CLEVELAND, Ohio – In a rare move, bypassing their president’s leadership, several members of Cleveland City Council have called a special meeting to discuss how the city should spend the first half of its $ 511 million plan. American rescue.

The meeting is scheduled for October 4 at 10 a.m., following a series of events that left some board members feeling left out of the process – which at times seemed inexplicably rushed – to spend the stimulus money. from the city.

At Monday’s council meeting, Ward 17 City Councilor Charles Slife said the special meeting had been called “to consider the council’s priorities and the way forward for this body with regard to funding for ARPA “. Slife mentioned that legislation introduced on Monday allocates stimulus funds in line with the priorities of outgoing Mayor Frank Jackson, which were announced last week by his chief of staff and acting CFO at a press conference for which members council and the public were given less than an hour’s notice.

“On a personal level, we all know we are dealing with a large amount of money and members have a lot of questions about how to strategically use those dollars,” Slife said.

This press conference, according to Ward 8 Councilor Mike Polensek in an interview with and The Plain Dealer, was the breaking point for council members frustrated with the stimulus spending process under the president’s tutelage. from council Kevin Kelley. Subsequently, junior council members, including Kerry McCormack of Ward 3 – who is seeking to succeed Kelley as council chairman – began calling to collect signatures for a special meeting. Polensek was quick to sign, as he had expressed his dissatisfaction with the process in meetings and in emails to Kelley, who is running for mayor.

“Here we are, in October, and other cities have allocated and spent funds on priority issues,” Polensek said of the stimulus funds, which arrived in city coffers in June.

But it’s not just the icy speed with which stimulus money is spent that frustrates board members – it’s the transparency of the process. Kelley called two special meetings to discuss stimulus spending, during which board members increasingly called for more conversations and planning.

So far, the council has passed two statutes for stimulus spending: $ 5 million for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and $ 20 million for an ambiguous broadband plan.

Polensek, whose neighborhood includes the food bank, had been a major supporter of donating some of the stimulus dollars to their fundraising campaign, but only learned of the press conference announcing the legislation hours before Kelley does not hold it on the steps of town hall. . And the broadband initiative, Polensek said, “came out of the clear blue sky,” with a lack of internal discussions about who will own or operate the network, whether it will be a city utility, what outside organizations could be involved and when it will be completed.

Three days after the food bank and broadband initiatives passed, Jackson’s chief of staff Sharon Dumas held the press conference detailing how the outgoing mayor would like to spend the first half of the stimulus money . The plan provided $ 19.7 million for preserving the existing housing stock, which could include home repair grants for remediation of lead hazards, but reducing lead was not a major part of the plan. Jackson. This confused and frustrated council members, who see lead mitigation as a top priority for the city and supported the Lead Safe Cleveland Coalition’s request for $ 17.5 million in stimulus funds.

“The fear of [councilmembers] who called me is that this law [supporting Jackson’s plan] was going to be submitted, and then all of a sudden there was going to be a committee hearing, and the next thing you know, it was going to be passed by the finance committee, ”Polensek said. “It’s not going to cut him. Members of this organ have the right to really understand the process and understand the mechanics. “

Special meetings are usually called by the chair of the board, but board rules allow at least five members to call one. Polensek said he knew of at least nine board members who signed up to support the Oct. 4 meeting, and sources told and The Plain Dealer that number is closer to 13 of the 17 board members. advice.

It’s very rare that at least five board members call a special meeting, said Polensek, who has served on the board for over 40 years. “It hasn’t happened for a very, very, very long time,” he said.

“But I think that only reinforces the fact that the board leadership, for whatever reason, isn’t hearing the membership, isn’t hearing the concerns,” he said. “We’ve been asked to submit lists, we’ve been asked to make suggestions, and then there’s no follow-up. You don’t hear anything. It is the frustration of the body.

Although Polensek said the council members’ qualms ran with both Kelley and the administration, Kelley appeared to become visibly frustrated on Monday evening, as council members discussed their support for the special meeting.

“I want to thank everyone who was at the previous two meetings where we discussed this, but of course we can have a third,” Kelley said with a shrug. “And just to make things easier, you can just ask me next time.”

Ward 6 Blaine Griffin, who has supported Kelley and is also considering the seat of the council chairman, told colleagues on Monday that he is looking forward to the special meeting and is hoping the council will come up with a unified plan based on what the Council members heard from residents and organizations. in the community. He stressed that the administration’s proposal is not set in stone and still needs to be reconciled with the council’s priorities.

Brian Kazy of Ward 16 said he was looking forward to the special meeting and hoped to get more information on the mayor’s spending plan because “there doesn’t seem to be much.”

Joe Jones’ Ward 1 said he signed in favor of the special meeting because city council needed its own spending plan, separate from the mayor’s.

“If the council, as a legislative branch of government, does not have its own plan, then we are not doing the due diligence that our citizens have sent us here for, and that is to represent their interests …”, Jones said. “When I’m here today and look at the process of how it was done, it hasn’t been transparent.”

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