CLEVELAND, Ohio – The group backing ballot issues to cut the size of Cleveland City Council from 17 to 8 seats, and slash annual pay for members, said Friday it intends to withdraw its petitions and cancel the ballot effort.
The group, Clevelanders First, came to the decision after meeting with East Side pastors who were concerned the issue would lead to an East Side-West Side split, said Bill Ritter, one of the leaders of the group. “Our goal is to make a better Cleveland. It’s always been our goal,” Ritter said. “We didn’t want to have an East Side-West Side division. We didn’t intend to be divisive.” In the meantime, Clevelanders First and the Cleveland Clergy Coalition have agreed to back a study to consider the best approach to reforms in Cleveland government, Ritter said.
It is unclear, though, who will conduct that study and who would pay for it. The measure will still appear on the March 17 ballot. Ballots already have been printed, and mailings to overseas and military voters have begun, according to the Cuyahoga County elections board.
But if the group withdraws the petitions filed with City Council’s clerk, clearing the way for City Council to cancel its action putting the issues before voters, the votes cast on the issue would not be counted. Clevelanders First, with financial support from Westlake businessman Tony George, collected the needed signatures to put two charter amendments on the ballot. One would force Cleveland to reduce the size of City Council from 17 wards to 9 wards. The second would reduce council pay from more than $83,000 to $58,000.
Opponents, including City Council President Kevin Kelley and Mayor Frank Jackson, have said the changes would strip Clevelanders of their voice in government, expanding wards from about 25,000 people to about 43,000 and making it more difficult for members of council to represent their constituents. The measure’s biggest impact would have been to Cleveland’s East Side. Presently there are 9 wards on the East, 6 on the West and 2 that straddle the Cuyahoga River.
Calculations by cleveland.com found that a new nine-ward map could likely have no more than five wards on the East Side. George insists that his motivations behind supporting the group were motivated by making Cleveland’s government more efficient and responsive. “Cleveland is not going to prosper when they’ve got 17 fiefdoms,” George said in a recent interview with cleveland.com.
Ritter expected Clevelanders First would file paperwork to withdraw its petitions sometime soon, perhaps early next week. The paperwork must be filed with City Council Clerk Pat Britt. Once the study is done, Ritter said, it would be presented to City Council with the expectation that action would be taken. Otherwise, the group might again seek to put the issues before voters. “We can always come back and go to the ballot box,” Ritter said.