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City of East Cleveland sues council members over dueling appointees in ward seat

East Cleveland City Hall
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
East Cleveland City Hall

The city of East Cleveland is suing a local Democratic leader and all sitting City Council members, one of whom they allege was unlawfully appointed.

It’s the latest in the ongoing disagreement over who sits in the Ward 3 seat left vacant after voters recalled former City Council Member Ernest Smith. Smith was involved in a series of scandals while in office, including an arrest for selling alcohol without a liquor license at a back-to-school event that allegedly included underage exotic dancers.

In the months since Smith’s removal from office, council members voted to replace him with East Cleveland resident Lateek Shabazz and expel former City Council President Nathaniel Martin over claims of malfeasance. Martin, however, alleges improper processes in both his expulsion from council and Shabazz’s appointment.

Martin appointed his own pick to fill the Ward 3 seat, saying in a signed affidavit he was exercising his right as council president to do so after the 30-day deadline. At that point, council members had already twice appointed Shabazz.

Shabazz's appointment was certified by the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections in January, though the city’s website, controlled by the administration, lists Martin’s pick, Mark McClain, as the Ward 3 representative.

The lawsuit, submitted on behalf of Martin and McClain, asserts that Shabazz was illegally appointed to the position through improper procedures.

“They’re out of control,” Martin told Ideastream Public Media on Friday. “They haven’t followed the proper process. We’re looking forward to going into court to get this thing right.”

The suit asks that the court remove Shabazz and local Democratic leader Antwon Billings from office.

Billings told Ideastream Public Media on Thursday that he was not only unaware of the suit, but confused as to why he was included because he is not sitting in public office. He said he applied to fill Martin’s vacant seat, but has not yet been interviewed.

“I don’t understand how you get drug into something you’re not a part of,” said Billings, who previously ran against East Cleveland Mayor Brandon King and was vocal in the attempt to recall him. Last year, Billings was also charged with assaulting King, though he was found not guilty. “Why would somebody put somebody in a lawsuit that ain’t on council? I’m a citizen.”

Billings said he plans to file a lawsuit for harassment against Willa Hemmons, whom city council members voted to remove from the law director position in January. King reinstated her shortly after.

The rest of City Council refutes Martin’s allegations and maintain their actions were legal. A judge has even granted council a restraining order ordering McClain and Martin not to act as council members.

“I am concerned about this series of lawsuits that are designed to harass us than do anything realistic,” said City Council Vice President Pat Blochowiak.

In December, Council Members Blochowiak and Korean Stevenson filed a suit against Martin and Clerk of Court Tracy Udrija-Peters alleging they were acting without council’s consent in regard to filling the vacant seat. The court threw out the case. In her brief stint as council president, Stevenson fired Udrija-Peters. Juanita Gowdy now serves as council president.

The city is currently dealing with a slew of legal battles, including the recent indictment of 16 police officers for charges including felonious assault, interference with civil rights and dereliction of duty.

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.