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Cleveland Mayoral Candidates Clash Over Transparency In Idea Center Debate

From left to right: State Sen. Sandra Williams, City Council President Kevin Kelley, attorney Ross DiBello, nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, former City Councilman Zack Reed, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Councilman Basheer Jones. [Ideastream Public Media]
From left to right: State Sen. Sandra Williams, City Council President Kevin Kelley, attorney Ross DiBello, Justin Bibb, former City Councilman Zack Reed, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Councilman Basheer Jones.

Candidates seeking to replace Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson in this year’s election gathered Tuesday for a mayoral debate that ranged in topic from housing and healthcare to government transparency and racial equity.

The debate included all seven mayoral candidates: nonprofit executive Justin Bibb, attorney Ross DiBello, Ward 7 City Councilman Basheer Jones, City Council President Kevin Kelley, former U.S. Congressman Dennis Kucinich, former Ward 2 City Councilman Zack Reed and Ohio State Sen. Sandra Williams. Ideastream Public Media and the City Club of Cleveland partnered to host the mayoral debate, which featured video questions from Cleveland residents.

Government transparency was front and center for much of the debate, as candidates emphasized their desire for an open government that provides residents with ways to file complaints or make proposals for the city and have better access to data on how money is being spent.

Council President Kelley faced criticism multiple times from opponents over the lack of opportunity for public comment during council meetings.

“The residents’ voices have to be heard. The council president is somebody that I admire and respect,” fellow councilman Jones said, “but he has been the biggest obstacle in regards to public comment and hearing from the residents.”

Jones cited the recent announcement of a lease extension deal with the Cleveland baseball team, and said there was no time for resident input on the proposal before it was announced.

Kelley pushed back on the criticism. He has put forward rule changes to allow public comment at council meetings, he said, and the baseball deal has yet to come before council for approval.

“I appreciate that you admire me, you’re just kind of wrong on your facts,” Kelley said. “I didn’t vote on it. Did you vote on it? You didn’t vote on it. Nothing’s happened yet.”

Kucinich also brought up the issue of transparency, particularly with regard to the Progressive Field lease deal and public comment. He also criticized council leadership for not knowing about years of  embezzlement and tax fraud by former Councilman Ken Johnson.

“There’s something wrong with transparency there,” Kucinich said. “No transparency. People don’t have a voice. When I’m mayor, people have a voice. I made sure of that.”

Kelley responded that he doesn’t review expense reports, but as soon as he heard about Johnson’s violations, he called in an independent audit. And he took shots at Kucinich for his own lack of transparency and the lack of public comment during his time as mayor in the 1970s.

“I seem to recall that you were a councilperson at a certain point, and you were mayor, and I don’t remember that being part of what you did in either of those positions,” Kelley said. “I actually did it. I got it done.”

Government transparency was repeatedly a source of contention, with criticisms on public comment and availability of data on city spending. [Michaelangelo’s Photography]

Kucinich spent much of the debate highlighting his past work in Congress and as mayor, including his refusal to sell Muny Light in 1978. He pushed for economic development and reinvestment from banks, including as a way to address inequity.

“In the Black community during the subprime meltdown, thousands of people lost their homes on the East Side. All of the wealth that was there was gone with it when they lost their homes,” Kucinich said. “The banks got away with that. As mayor, I intend to bring a reckoning and make sure the money gets back into the community that was taken out.”

Williams also touted her record in an effort to win over voters. She spoke of her experiences as both a former probation officer and jail corrections officer and as a state legislator, highlighting efforts to launch programs that address housing availability, as well as spurring development. As mayor, she said, she will invite residents to have a say in community development projects in their neighborhoods. 

“I believe the residents have been in the community for a very long time, and nothing should happen without them,” Williams said. “We are pricing people out of the market, and we have to stop that. Residents have been loyal to Cleveland, and we have to make sure they are protected.”

Kelley and Williams both spoke about efforts to address infant mortality in Cleveland. Kelley pointed to the work of First Year Cleveland, and Williams spoke about funding she brought to local hospitals and to programs like Birthing Beautiful Babies to improve infant survival rates, particularly among Black families.

The candidates covered a range of topics and questions submitted by Cleveland residents, including housing, racial equity and public safety. [Michaelangelo’s Photography]

Jones pushed a message of unity during the debate, calling for Cleveland’s East and West sides to come together as one unit in an effort to address inequity. He emphasized the need for programs that improve housing and eliminate poverty as ways to lower crime.

“I know people that have been doing the same thing for a long time in the wrong way. The fact is, the city of Cleveland needs to go in a different direction,” Jones said. “We have to stop playing into the fears of people. We are not a East side and a West side. We are one Cleveland, and I think that’s what has to show.”

City services need to be brought to every corner of the city, Jones said, and diversity inside and outside of City Hall will bring residents together.

Former Councilman Reed emphasized a one-on-one approach to speaking with residents, offering to open up the mayor’s office every Saturday to hear from Clevelanders if he is elected. He criticized the current administration for being inaccessible, and said he’d made it a priority to engage with residents in his ward and to provide transparency during his time on city council.

Current city officials don't recognize the urgency to address issues facing residents, Reed said, something he plans to change if elected.

“That’s the problem we’re having across the city. There’s no sense of urgency regarding infant mortality, that’s why it continues,” Reed said. “There’s no sense of urgency when it comes to these food deserts, that’s why it continues. There’s no sense of urgency regarding violence in Cleveland, that’s why it continues.”

Some candidates emphasized past political careers, while others positioned themselves as outsiders aiming to bring change and new perspective. [Michaelangelo’s Photography]

Bibb brought up support for  participatory budgeting to give Clevelanders a voice in the city's financial decisions. He argued the ideal candidate doesn’t need to have a lengthy political career to have made a difference in the community.

“I’ve been fighting for diversity. I’ve been fighting for equity. I’ve been fighting to make sure Cleveland can be a great city. I’ve done this in my career as an executive, as an activist, and as a civic leader in this community,” Bibb said. “This is the kind of status quo thinking and perspective and leadership that the residents of Cleveland are sick and tired of seeing. We can’t afford more of the same.”

DiBello positioned himself as an outsider to career politicians throughout the debate, focusing on a platform that aims to limit donations to political campaigns and increase residential involvement in city decisions.

“If we as Clevelanders want less poverty and crime, but a better environment, city services, public schools, public transit, then we need to be in charge. The mayor and the 17 councilmen need to listen to us,” DiBello said in his closing statement. “The budget is a moral document. We have so many systemic problems because the system is broken. We need a new energy.”

The next debate hosted by Ideastream Public Media and the City Club of Cleveland will take place Aug. 17 at 7:30 p.m.