C. Ellen Connally Looks Back on Four Years as Cuyahoga County Council President

Cuyahoga County Council President C. Ellen Connally speaks at her last major council meeting. (Nick Castele/ideastream)
Cuyahoga County Council President C. Ellen Connally speaks at her last major council meeting. (Nick Castele/ideastream)
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CASTELE: To start off here, I wanted to go back to the very beginning of county council and ask about – you’re a Democrat, and yet when you were making committee assignments, you decided to appoint some Republicans as the chairs of committees…Did you ever get pushback from others in your party about making that decision?

CONNALLY: Well, there’s only 11 of us, and I wanted to make it fair to everyone. And we had people with individual strength…I thought that, in the great scheme of things, it was important to have everyone involved and everyone to understand that we were all working together.

CASTELE: Now, I believe that when this all started four years ago, one thing you were hoping for county council to be was a check, in some ways, on the county executive’s power. And I wondered, looking back now, how you think you did.

CONNALLY: I think we did a really good job in that I think that the people who wrote the charter thought that council was just going to be some people who would show up once and a while and review some minutes and just vote. But council has become much more important than that…I think that if I have any one criticism of the administration is the lack of communication. That they did a very poor job in communicating to us. And we would read the newspaper about announcements, or read online that there was some big change going on, and that was how we found out about it.

(Rich Luchette, a spokesman for Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, responded in an emailed statement, saying in part, "Ellen is entitled to her own opinion, but she’s not entitled to her own facts – the fact is that Council enacted every single major initiative the administration put forth over the past four years.")

CASTELE: Perhaps one of the biggest dollar-figure projects that the county has worked on is this hotel project that’s going up right now…How will we know if this project is going to be worth it in the long run?

CONNALLY: Well, I think we’re going to have to find out in the long run. We have a convention center, and we didn’t have a hotel with it. And if you’ve been to a convention, and you’ve got to go out – particularly in a place like Cleveland – it’s not appealing to have to go outside to go from your hotel to the convention center. So it was important to have a hotel connected…We’ve got to get people to come to Cleveland to fill these hotel rooms. And we’ve got to have conventions, so we’ve got to make sure that we’re booking conventions way in advance.

CASTELE: Now at the same time, there are some parts of Cuyahoga County that are maybe among the poorest in the country. And also a lot of serious health problems – infant mortality in some neighborhoods are among the highest in the country. How do you think – do you think that county government has made a dent in these issues in the past four years?

CONNALLY: I tend to think that there has been too much of an emphasis on the downtown. I’m very – I continue to be concerned about the Public Square project. It’s wonderful, but if you go to Public Square at six o’clock on a Friday, there’s lots of poor people who are taking the bus and using that as a transportation hub. So I don’t want those people to be endangered...But the economic development downtown also creates jobs, service jobs for people, so that’s good…But on the other hand, we do have problems with infant mortality and healthcare, and that’s why MetroHealth is so important. One of the primary functions of the county is to provide healthcare for indigent, and we do that through MetroHealth.

CASTELE: One more thing I wanted to ask you about doesn’t have to do with your time as council president. But there are many people in this region who are cautiously eyeing Cleveland’s investigation of the shooting of Tamir Rice by a Cleveland police officer. And I know that several years ago, you were a special prosecutor looking into some of these similar cases of shootings by police, and in many cases you found that police acted within the law. I wondered if there was anything you learned from that experience that you could leave us with today that you think would be helpful.

CONNALLY: The law has been that if the police officer feels that they’re in danger, that they can rule the shooting justified…I think that the grand jury has to look at this particular case very, very carefully…You had some decisions made by the police officers that I don’t want to judge at this point, but I don’t understand…I don’t understand why you would not have pulled back to a perimeter…I don’t understand why they didn’t pull back and get out the bullhorn and say, “Put your gun down.”…They could have been a long distance away, called for backup. That’s what I don’t understand about this particular case.

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