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Door To Door: Bibb gets ready to remove his predecessor’s RTA appointment

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb aims to remove his predecessor's top aide, Valarie McCall, from the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority board. A bus drives up West 25th Street in Ohio City during the snowfall in early February. [Nick Castele / Ideastream Public Media]
A bus drives up West 25th Street in Ohio City during the snowfall in early February.

Analysis

The bus hasn’t yet left the station on Mayor Justin Bibb’s picks for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority board.

This week, Bibb named two appointments to the body: Jeff Sleasman, a startup founder and Downtown resident, and Lauren Welch, the assistant director of communications at Say Yes Cleveland. Both were supporters of the mayor’s campaign.

Technically, these aren’t appointments. They’re nominations. Cleveland City Council must approve the mayor’s picks.

Council’s role in the process wasn’t noted in the city’s news release, nor in the initial versions of journalists’ stories. But after publication, council made sure to remind reporters that the legislative branch has a say here.

Approving the mayor’s board picks is usually just a formality. But there’s something that could make this ride bumpier.

Bibb intends to remove board member Valarie McCall before her term is over, according to Chief Government Affairs Officer Ryan Puente.

McCall was a top aide to former Mayor Frank Jackson. She was also one of the Jackson administration’s liaisons to the Bibb team during the transition.

She has been on the RTA board since 2006 and served alongside Bibb during his tenure on that board from 2018 to 2021. McCall also served a term as chair of the American Public Transportation Association.

McCall is also a constituent of Council President Blaine Griffin, who represents Ward 6. Griffin said he considers McCall a friend. 

“She is a very competent and capable person,” Griffin told Ideastream Public Media, saying her departure from the board would be “a huge loss.” 

City Council is still researching the law around the mayor’s appointment powers, Griffin said. The Bibb administration maintains that it has the power to relieve a board member of his or her duties.

An RTA spokesman, when asked about the situation, said the agency wasn’t ready to comment. McCall, reached yesterday by phone, said she would call Ideastream Public Media back but has not yet done so. 

The state law governing regional transit authorities says that board members can be fired. But the power isn’t a blank check. The law reads: “The appointing authority may at any time remove a trustee for misfeasance, nonfeasance, or malfeasance in office.”

It’s not clear whether Bibb plans to invoke any of the three “feasances” against McCall.

The administration has not brought up a 2020 state auditor’s report telling McCall to return $57,200 in pay she’d received from RTA over the years. Her appointment letter from Jackson in 2006 said she would not receive board members’ typical stipend. At the time of the auditor’s finding, McCall’s attorney laid the blame at the feet of RTA leaders who had approved those payments.

Politically, Bibb’s move looks like an attempt to uproot the remnants of his predecessor’s 16-year administration. No doubt the mayor’s supporters see bringing new blood to the RTA board as just the kind of change for which Cleveland couldn’t wait.  

But if Bibb wanted to avoid a backfiring legislative or court fight, he might have waited. Or he might have found a way to usher McCall off the board quietly while allowing her to save face. 

That’s because there’s a political risk here, too. If Bibb digs himself into a conflict with City Council so early, the results could be paralyzing for the rest of his agenda.

The mayor, as a relative newcomer to Cleveland politics, doesn’t have a long history with many council members. Griffin has leverage over his colleagues; he’s redrawing their districts this term as required by city law.

On Feb. 22, Bibb will present his budget proposal to council. He’s asking them to fund his cabinet reorganization and a team of issue-focused strategists.

Before then, it might be to his advantage to avoid doling out too many headaches to the other side of City Hall.

nick.castele@ideastream.org | 216-916-6288