Judge Won't Order East Cleveland City Council to Begin Merger Talks with Cleveland

East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton submits petition signatures to Board of Elections Director Pat McDonald.
East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton submits petition signatures to Board of Elections Director Pat McDonald. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
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by Nick Castele

An effort to start annexation talks between Cleveland and East Cleveland has been dealt a setback in court.

A Cuyahoga County common pleas court judge this week denied a request that he compel East Cleveland’s city council to begin merger negotiations, repudiating a lawsuit from a top aide to the mayor of the financially troubled suburb. 

Last summer, East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton and his allies circulated petitions demanding that city council enter merger talks with Cleveland. Norton argued that this was a way to avert financial catastrophe in his city.

The Board of Elections said 827 of the signatures were valid—more than the necessary minimum. State law requires that petition gatherers submit valid signatures from at least one quarter of the electors who voted in the last municipal election.

But East Cleveland City Council resisted, saying there were flaws in the petitions. Michael Smedley, the mayor’s chief of staff, sued, asking Judge Michael Russo to order city council to move forward.

This week, Russo wrote that the election board’s signature certification form was insufficient because it didn’t list how many people voted in the 2013 East Cleveland election.  

Norton said he’s now weighing his options, including collecting annexation signatures again.

“It’s certainly a petition that people were willing to sign the first time around,” Norton said. “And I think that they’ll be willing to sign it the second time around. So it’s really just a matter of time. But this is a question that needs to be put before the voters at some point.”

Brent Buckley, city council’s attorney in the case, wrote in an emailed statement that his clients were gratified by the judge’s ruling.

East Cleveland City Council, he wrote, can now turn its attention to raising money to hire Conway MacKenzie, a turnaround consulting firm, to evaluate the city.

“City Council implores Mayor Norton and others in City government and in the community to join in this initiative,” Buckley wrote, adding that the study would provide residents with “a truly independent, dispassionate, and thorough assessment of East Cleveland’s prospects, so that all of them can make a fully informed decision about East Cleveland’s future.”

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