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Matt Zone To Leave Cleveland City Council For Urban Land-Use Program

Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone in 2019 at the opening of the new city kennel in Ward 15. Zone plans to step down from elected office this November. [Nick Castele / ideastream]
Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone, seen here at the opening of the new city kennel in his ward in 2019, will step down from elected office this November.

Matt Zone is relinquishing the Cleveland City Council seat he has held since 2002 to become director of local nonprofit Thriving Communities.

The West Side Democratic councilman will recommend Jenny Spencer, the managing director of Detroit-Shoreway community development corporation, to serve out the remaining 13 months of his term representing Ward 15.

“The time is right,” Zone told ideastream in an interview. “I was at a point where I was publicly sharing with my constituents over time that this was the last term that I was serving on city council, and I was seriously contemplating running for mayor or doing something different.”

Zone, 57, will sit out the 2021 Cleveland mayoral race, but won’t forswear another run for elected office in the future, he said. He is notifying his constituents in a mailing this week that he’ll officially leave office Nov. 18.

Thriving Communities, a branch of the Western Reserve Land Conservancy launched in 2011, researches Northeast Ohio’s housing stock, works on urban environmental issues and advocates for managing vacant property through land banks.

Director Jim Rokakis, himself a former Cleveland councilman and Cuyahoga County treasurer, plans to retire from Thriving Communities at the end of the year. He’ll stay on in a reduced role for some time after that, Land Conservancy CEO Rich Cochran said.

Cochran said he and Rokakis considered a national search for a replacement before deciding to look locally instead. Cochran began talking with Zone about the job roughly a year and a half ago, he said.

“As we talked more and more, we thought, what we really need is we need someone we can trust,” Cochran said. “We need someone we know, we need someone who is Cleveland and is Cuyahoga County, we need someone who’s got an incredible network of deep and trusting relationships, and also some policy and political experience.”

Zone hopes to use his new platform to advocate for environmental and transportation issues, citing his work launching the Vision Zero campaign to reduce traffic deaths.

“I want to create opportunities for safer mobility for people,” Zone said. “The stretches of roadway that have the highest concentration of crashes and fatalities are in communities of color.”

Cleveland City Council has hired Thriving Communities as a consultant several times since 2013. Council most recently approved a $150,000 contract for advice on demolition funding, vacant properties, reforestation and other issues. Zone recused himself from that December 2019 vote, according to the city’s official record of the meeting.

Zone, whose parents also represented the neighborhood on city council, won his seat in the November 2001 election. He is the chairman of the council’s safety committee and the father of a Cleveland police officer.

If appointed to council, Spencer would be one of only three women to serve on the 17-member body. She is leaving the Detroit-Shoreway development group as the organization seeks a permanent executive director following the departure of Jeff Ramsey.

In his resignation, Zone is following a path well trod by other retiring council members who opt to leave before the coming election, recommending a successor to serve out the rest of the term. Council will likely appoint Zone’s replacement in November, when he leaves office.  

Asked why he would leave now and not at the end of his term next year, Zone called the Thriving Communities role a “dream job,” and said the timing isn’t for the purpose of ushering in a successor.

“I can’t think of any individual who could serve out the remaining 13 months other than Jenny Spencer, so that’s why I’m recommending her,” he said. “And if somebody is so interested [in the council seat], they will have that right in the election in the following year.”

Nick Castele was a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media. He worked as a reporter for Ideastream from 2012-2022.