In mayoral debate, Bibb & Kelley clash over best path forward for Cleveland

Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley shake hands
The two candidates for Cleveland mayor - Justin Bibb and Kevin Kelley - debated issues including education, arts funding and public safety. [Michaelangelo's Photography]

After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor Podcast

Cleveland’s mayoral candidates faced off in a debate Tuesday night, with nonprofit executive Justin Bibb arguing City Hall has failed its residents under Council President Kevin Kelley and needs a new outsider's perspective, while Kelley touted his experience and hit at Bibb's lack of it.

The debate covered issues including racial health disparities, crime and policing, and economic development.

The two immediately clashed over Issue 24, a proposed charter amendment on the November ballot that would give the Cleveland Community Police Commission power to discipline and investigate law enforcement officers. Bibb supports the initiative, which he said will improve trust between residents and police.

“When you have more community voices around the table, you get better accountability and you build the right kind of culture to make sure our officers come to work every day with a good culture of policing,” Bibb said. “We have to try something new. Our current system is broken.”

Justin Bibb

Cleveland mayoral candidate Justin Bibb said, if elected, he would have an artist in residence in his cabinet to advise on supporting arts in the city. [Michaelangelo's Photography]

But Kelley pushed back on that and argued Issue 24 would have an adverse effect on safety. He said officers would leave the police force and response times would drop. He said the city should focus on existing measures to improve policing.

“We need to look at what we have in place, which is the consent decree,” Kelley said. “When you get onboard with amending the charter, that is serious business. That should not be taken lightly.”

Kelley repeatedly pointed to work already done by the city and emphasized the need to incorporate those efforts into a new administration, including progress on human rights protections, efforts to incorporate Spanish into city communications, and making housing lead safe.

“We have to do more than just talk about it,” Kelley said. “The choice couldn’t be clearer. You can have rhetoric or you can have results.”

But Bibb pointed to resident-led issues — lead poisoning and public comment at city council meetings — as evidence that Clevelanders are the ones who have to put in the work to implement change under the current administration.

“[Kelley] does not believe in democracy. Democracy works, and for far too long, we’ve had a city where – we barely just got public comment, for the first time in 100 years,” Bibb said. “Without resident voice and input, we’re going to continue to see more frustration on these issues. We need a mayor who believes in the will of the people.”

But the city government has made progress, Kelley said, on human rights and protections for marginalized people, lead safety, and more. Kelley called Bibb’s talking points into question multiple times and said he lacked understanding of how government works or what steps to take.

“[The claim] that I don’t believe in democracy is just — you’re running out of charges against me,” Kelley said.

Kevin Kelley

Cleveland mayoral candidate Kevin Kelley said issues at the West Side Market should not be addressed on a problem by problem basis but based on a full assessment of the facility. [Michaelangelo's Photography]

The next administration needs to be able to start the hard work of making changes and improvements from the first day, Kelley said. His experience within city council provides insight on how to make those changes and to create a relationship among city officials that works, he said.

“There’s a natural tension between the executive and the legislative branch, and I spend a lot of my time trying to clear those roadblocks and get things done,” Kelley said. “Having been a councilman, having been a council president, I will understand those differences. I will understand those needs and where that tension comes from.”

But the current state of City Hall with Kelley serving as council president, Bibb said, shows there’s a need for new perspectives like his.

“I’m uniquely qualified to hit the reset button in terms of the current relationship between the mayor’s office and city council,” Bibb said. “If elected mayor, I intend to treat city council as a co-equal branch of government, because they deserve that level of respect and transparency from me and from my administration.”

The debate was hosted by Ideastream Public Media in partnership with the City Club of Cleveland, Crain’s Cleveland Business and the Cleveland Documenters.

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