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What's next in Cleveland's dispute over who will head the community police commission?

Chief Ethics Officer Delante Spencer Thomas and Interim Executive Director Jason Goodrick wait for attendees to arrive at the New Community Police Commissioners orientation Jan. 25.
Kelly Krabill
Ideastream Public Media
Chief Ethics Officer Delante Spencer Thomas, right, and Interim Executive Director Jason Goodrick, left, wait for attendees to arrive at an orientation on Jan. 25, 2023.

The Community Police Commission, the civilian organization tasked with overseeing police discipline in Cleveland, has never had a permanent executive director.

That means the two-year-old commission has never done what it was created to do: evaluate the officer discipline process in Cleveland, a city whose police department is operating under the watchful eye of the federal government after a 2014 report by the U.S. Justice Department found widespread violations of the rights of Clevelanders.

Now ambiguous language in the ballot measure that created the CPC in 2021 is at the center of a dispute between the commission and the mayor’s office over who gets the final say over whether to install the interim executive director permanently to manage the commission’s day-to-day operations.

Both sides have called in attorneys — both paid for by taxpayers — who have come to dueling legal opinions. As the commission accelerates its work, it's at an impasse with the mayor about who should be running its affairs.

How did we get here?

The dispute between Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb and the Community Police Commission started in June when the commission voted 7 to 5 to make the interim executive director Jason Goodrick permanent and dissolve a hiring committee created five months before to search for a new executive director.

Commissioners who supported Goodrick wanted to get to work rather than spend time vetting candidates. Others argued for continuity — Goodrick and his staff had been with the commission for years beforevoters passed Issue 24 and expanded the commission's authority.

But Bibb, who saw Goodrick as a flawed candidate, rejected that nomination.

“Issue 24 provided a clean slate for the CPC, and I am now concerned that the issues that plagued its previous iteration continue to do so today,” Bibb wrote to the commissioners. “Under Mr. Goodrick’s tenure as Interim Executive Director, there has been significant internal conflict, a loss of confidence, and insufficient progress. This is not the fresh start voters envisioned.”

In the letter, Bibb recommended reopening the hiring committee and forwarding multiple finalists for him to choose from.

Instead, the CPC got a lawyer to determine whether the mayor had the authority to reject their nomination.

Who is supposed to choose the executive director of the CPC?

Section 115-5 of the charter, which was created by Issue 24 in 2021, gives the CPC authority to nominate its executive director and the mayor the power to appoint.

The commission can also hire an attorney, at the law department’s expense, when it finds itself at odds with the mayor.

Under the charter, the executive director hires and supervises commission staff, oversees the office's budget and acts as secretary during commission meetings.

In late January, the CPC received its opinion. Outside counsel Mark Wallach wrote that Bibb “probably” overstepped his authority when he rejected Goodrick.

“Two portions of Section 115-5 use different language to describe the process of nomination and appointment of the Executive Director of the [Cleveland Community Police Commission,]” Wallach wrote.

In the first portion, the charter says the executive director is “nominated by the Commission and appointed by the Mayor.” The second says, “The Commission will nominate its Executive Director to be appointed by the Mayor.”

Wallach points to the phrase “to be appointed” in the second reference to picking an executive director to raise doubts about whether the mayor has discretion.

“That language appears to be mandatory, rather than optional,” Wallach said.

Wallach goes on to cite the provision for removing the CPC’s executive director: “The Mayor may only recommend the Executive Director’s removal for just cause, subject to confirmation by a vote of 2/3 majority of the commission.”

The commission, on the other hand, can remove the executive director unilaterally, with or without cause.

“It would appear anomalous to give the Mayor complete discretion to reject a Commission nominee as Executive Director, and then to deprive him of the right to remove such appointee except for ‘just cause,’ and with the concurrence of 2/3 of the Commission,” wrote Wallach. “It is our opinion that the Mayor is probably required to appoint the Executive Director nominated by the Commission, although the ambiguous language of Section 115-5 does not leave the matter free of doubt.”

Earlier in the year, an opinion out of the city's law department came to the opposite conclusion, leaving the CPC and the mayor's office with two, competing opinions from attorneys.

An opinion circulated in August by the city’s law department, after the CPC vote to hire outside counsel and written by McDonald Hopkins attorney Teresa Metcalf Beasley, argued that the mayor had the right to reject the nomination.

“There is no mandate that the Mayor accept the nomination of the Community Police Commission because there is no word suggesting he ‘must’ or ‘shall’ do so,” Beasley wrote. “As with other nominations he considers, the Mayor may within his discretion reject a nominee advanced by the Community Police Commission for its executive director position.”

What’s at stake?

Besides whether to make the interim executive director, permanent, there is also the larger issue of the commission's independence to consider, said Commissioner Teri Wang, who served on the committee to select the outside attorney and negotiate a contract.

"This goes beyond Mr. Goodrick," said Wang. "We now know how to act when there's a perceived conflict of interest with the mayor, at our discretion."

The commission should have a public discussion with Wallach about his opinion and seek to negotiate with the mayor before moving ahead, Wang said.

"I’m not naïve to the consequences of rescinding the nomination. [Goodrick] is still interim until the end of April," Wang said. "I am concerned, if we cannot reach a consensus before then, we may end up without an executive director."

The commission is planning to hold a special meeting but hasn’t scheduled one yet, before its regular meeting near the end of the month, according to Adams, but it's unclear whether Wallach's letter will be on the agenda at that meeting.

The executive director appointment is just one of the areas where the commission has grappled to assert its authority and independence.

In December, a commission attempt to assert authority over police policies was met with opposition from the administration.Eventually, a compromise was reached, and the police department is forwarding policies to the commission for review. The city has also failed to fill requests for public records on officer discipline for months, federal court documents show.

What’s next for the CPC?

It is unclear what will happen next. The commission has not met since Wallach’s letter was sent. The mayor’s office, in a statement this week, stood by its decision on Goodrick's nomination.

"It is evident that the CPC’s counsel erred on the side of caution and declined to articulate a firm position stating, 'the ambiguous language of Section 115-5 does not leave the matter free of doubt' and ultimately concludes that 'the best resolution would be for the Commission to nominate an Executive Director who the Mayor is comfortable appointing,'" said city spokesperson Tyler Sinclair.

"The CPC never engaged in a formal, transparent process for selecting the current interim executive director," Sinclair added. "The nominee was selected via a secret process without even submitting a public job application."

Goodrick, who was hired by the previous administration to manage the consent decree-created Community Police Commission, is now serving as Interim Executive Director. The position expires in April. The commission has not restarted a hiring committee since Bibb’s rejection of Goodrick’s nomination.

“I think we can work collaboratively with the mayor,” said commission co-chair John Adams. “If we do what he asks and go through the process, open up the hiring committee and involve the community and nominate the best person, I have to believe he would accept that. I just think we have to go through that process, the best process.”

Adams voted against making Goodrick the permanent executive director June andargued in favor of an open search for an executive director at the time. He added that he was speaking as an individual and not on behalf of the commission but said a more clear-cut ‘yes’ or ‘no’ from Wallach would have made it easier for the commission to go against the mayor.

“I think the first option is we just rescind that motion that was passed on June 14th and restart the hiring committee,” Adams said. “Or, if there are commissioners who want to keep fighting this, then that’s an option we’d have to consider.”

It's unclear whether there are enough votes to reopen the hiring committee and rescind Goodrick's nomination. The hiring committee was closed in June with a majority vote.

To at least one commissioner, Kyle Earley, the message in Wallach’s letter was crystal clear.

“We voted to make Jason Goodrick the executive director and hire staff to make sure we have a functioning commission,” Earley said. “That needs to be respected. And that needs to be upheld. And there should be no hiring committee to find a new executive director.”

Earley voted in favor of Goodrick's nomination. Another vote in favor at the time, Commissioner Teri Wang, said she's not sure she'd vote the same way now.

"I would probably vote to rescind the nomination," Wang said. "What I’ve seen and what I’ve experienced, as the chair of the rules and accountability committees, is he has not been able to move the work forward."

Wang pointed specifically to attempts to get records on officer discipline from the city in a timely fashion and the budgeted assistant director position that has been open since the commission's creation.

"I know that he is also between a rock and a hard place. As the interim executive director, it is very hard for him to exert his independence," Wang said.

Matthew Richmond is a reporter/producer focused on criminal justice issues at Ideastream Public Media.