I am a concerned citizen of Cleveland and feel as though I have been deprived of my constitutional right to petition. On Monday, May 22, 2017, Cleveland Council President, Kevin Kelley, directed the City Clerk to refuse the official filing of petitions that I participated in gathering regarding an emergency ordinance to amend Section 195.03 of the Codified Ordinances of Cleveland – Ordinance No. 305-17. As I stood at the receptionist’s desk in the City Council office area of City Hall with a contingent of others supporting this initiative, the people’s City Hall, I personally felt abused and misused. While some began to respond to the circumstances immediately before us, internally I struggled with to whom to direct the anger I was feeling. Should it be directed at Councilpersons represented now by Kevin Kelley and Phyllis Cleveland or should it be directed at the folks who I participated in canvassing with and followed downtown to City Hall for failing to prep us for this type of “what if” scenario? There was seeming, a time of disarray as leaders from other coalition organizations who had formed this partnership started to voice opposition to what we were all hearing too. Those of us standing there at the City Council’s receptionist’s desk, in the people’s City Hall had by all accounts taken a proper course of action to have our voices heard through the petition. City Council President, Kevin Kelley, launched a campaign to mute the voices of those with whom I stood alongside in the City Council receptionist’s lobby and the voices of 20,000+ who had signed the petition booklets that were faithfully delivered in four (4) white boxes.
The Cleveland City Charter seems very clear about the petition process:
- 49 (City Charter, Chapter 7) Any proposed ordinance may be submitted to the Council by the petition signed by at least five thousand (5,000) qualified electors of the City. All petition papers, circulated with respect to any proposed ordinance, shall be uniform in character and shall contain the proposed ordinance in full, and have printed thereon the names and addresses of at least five electors of the City who shall be officially regarded as filing the petition and shall constitute a committee of the petitioners for the purposes hereinafter named. We presented 20,000+ signatures to representatives of the Cleveland City Council Clerk to officially receive and transport to the Cuyahoga County Board of Election to begin the work of validating.
I am one of five (5) petitioners who supported the collection of signatures to place the Q Transformation Deal on the ballot for citizens of Cleveland to exercise their voting rights to give the deal an up or down vote. I feel that City Council leadership has violated the democratic process and Ohio law (RC 731.29) afforded to me as a citizen of the City of Cleveland and the State of Ohio.
Irrespective of Councilman Kelley’s position on the ramifications for a referendum about the Q Transformation Deal, residents of Greater Cleveland should be shocked, sickened and alarmed about the Council President and Legal Counsel of Cleveland violating the City Charter and denying an uninterrupted process to certification and the work of the Cuyahoga County Board of Election. Those submitting the signatures gathered by the canvassers are clearly being denied our civil rights to participate in the petitioning process.
Councilman Kelley has placed himself between my personal right to petition much like what happened in 1963 when Governor George Wallace made himself a barrier to school integration in the South by standing in the door of the University of Alabama and denying the enrollment of African-American students. Similar to the ideology of the 1960’s, there seem to be a popular sentiment among our City leadership against flipping priorities and placing a greater emphasis on resolving issues in our neighborhoods like violence, blight, business investments, jobs and poor schools. A majority of City Council members apparently support conducting business as usual as they managed their midday public caucus on Monday, May 22 and those Council members with whom I have been in cordial speaking terms with over my years living in Cleveland opted to not even make eye-contact with me. To them, I was invisible. I guess we all that were associated with the petition were invisible. Yes, the City government mechanism launched its campaign to silence my voice which stands in solidarity with those voices crying out from the boxes of petition booklets delivered from the neighborhoods to the City Clerk of Cleveland. Voices whose repeated cry for justice and fairness can be interrupted may be even muted, but they will not be silenced.
The following official written statements on City Council letterhead were given to the petitioners. The first statement seeks to justify while the petitioners are not allowed to file the boxes of petition booklets delivered to the Clerk and the second statement attempts to emphasize that the Council President’s action allowing the petitions to be taken into custody by the City Clerk is not to be considered an official filing of the petitions:
“A referendum seeking repeal of Ordinance No. 305-17 would unconstitutionally impair an already executed and binding contract. Therefore, I do not accept the petition papers for such referendum,” letter signed by deputy clerk of council Allan Dreyer
The second letter signed by deputy clerk Allan Dreyer and presented to the petitioner by Council President Kevin Kelley states that the city was “taking custody of the petitions but do not consider the petition to be filed with the Clerk.”
President Kelley did not elaborate on exactly what contract the petitions would affect when pressed for an answer in the receptionist area or when pressed by Councilmen Johnson, Reed, and Polensek during the midday Monday, May 22 caucus. Could it be that he and the legal teams he conferred with consider Ordinance No. 305-17 an emergency resolution? The Ohio Revised Code expressly states that an emergency resolution can be passed if it relates to “public peace, health, or safety.” Is the definition of emergency left to the personal interpretation of our seventeen (17) member City Council? If so, 20,000+ Cleveland citizens have responded and do not consider this ordinance in the emergency category.
President Kevin Kelley stated that he did not have a written legal opinion from his legal team to share with his colleagues, only a private client-attorney discussion with attorneys on the City’s payroll. Therefore, the discussion was not privy to the public taxpayers nor the members of City Council with whom he serves.
The actions of the Cleveland City Council president and those Councilpersons with whom I have engaged over my time in Cleveland take me back to a time of childhood pain. Pain that makes you wonder about the value and purpose of doing good and being ignored or muted versus doing evil and being given significant acknowledgment and your name lifted onto the sound traces of the entire City of Cleveland. The Holy writings speak to us about doing good – One who seeks good finds goodwill, but evil comes to those who search for it (Proverbs 11:7). These City leader tactics require a close walk with our Creator God to reveal the purpose of pain and its reward in our personal lives.
Though I feel the pain caused by civic leaders stirring and rekindling the rage cultivated and fed by any action that mirrors my definition of racism, I will not go to a place of silence. I will not stand in a corner as a hopeless victim of the misuse of privilege and power. I will not, through the help of God and the prayers of the saints, I will not succumb to the tactics of the tilt of the currents of racist activities that challenge my right to petition and my right to be defined by my address or the color of my skin!
Racism is that constant burden that every black American knows about how it feels to have an unfavorable, and unfair identity imposed on your every waking day (Andrew Hacker, 1992). The antics of Cleveland City Council president, representing a city with a population of approximately 385,809 with more than 50% brown citizens, seek to mute my voice and people most likely living in distressed neighborhoods needing attention and who participated in the petition campaign. Will the voters of Cleveland be moved to exercise their constitutional right and vote in pending elections and take a stand for what is morally right? Seeking equity starts at the ground roots level. Justice and equity must be demanded!
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Martin Luther King, Jr.
 Mael, E., 1998. “And don’t call me a racist!”. Argonaut Press, Lexington, Mass. (pg. 63).