An internal debate over eliminating Cleveland City Council wards spilled into the open at council’s Monday caucus meeting.
A 2008 charter amendment calls for council to shrink as Cleveland’s population falls. The 2020 U.S. Census numbers were just low enough to require Council President Blaine Griffin to cut the body from 17 members to 15. The ax must fall before the 2025 citywide elections.
Griffin on Monday said that he plans to begin the redistricting process next year with the hiring of a consultant, while two members suggested amending the charter again to hold membership at 17. New wards must be drawn by April 1, 2025.
Redistricting would pit incumbents against one another if all 17 members run for the 15 remaining seats. Speaking to his colleagues Monday, Griffin alluded to the painful process on the horizon.
“These are tough conversations that we’re going to have to have,” he said.
The 2020 census put Cleveland’s population at 372,624. If 2,376 more people had completed the census, the population would have hit 375,000 and council could remain at 17 members.
Each of the city’s 15 new wards must cover about 24,842 residents, give or take 5 percent. West Side wards are already near or above that threshold, while East Side wards have far fewer people, according to 2019 Census data compiled by the Center for Community Solutions.
For example, Ward 11, the most populous, has more than 26,000 people. Ward 4, the smallest, has fewer than 19,000.
Members may have to give up valuable territory if their wards shrink in geographic size – or gain liabilities if their wards expand to meet the population threshold.
Although race was not mentioned in Monday’s conversation, it is part of the picture. All of Cleveland’s Black council members represent lower-population, majority-African-American wards on the East Side. During the last redistricting in 2013, council was urged to rework West Side boundaries so as not to divide Hispanic voters.
Council Member Anthony Hairston, whose Ward 10 snakes across the East Side, argued forcefully for freezing council’s size at 17 members. To do that, council would need to put a charter amendment on the ballot and make the case to voters.
“It’s going to make it even more difficult to serve the residents that we already serve,” Hairston said of cutting council seats. “We have to band together and put this on the ballot.”
Joe Jones of Ward 1 voiced similar sentiments. But two-thirds of council would need to back a charter amendment for it to go to a vote of the people.
Griffin didn’t endorse Hairston’s idea. The council president said members were welcome to propose alternatives to cutting two wards – but that, based on his conversations with members, it was likely that council would be shrinking.
Ward 17 Council Member Charles Slife, who represents the Kamm’s Corners neighborhood, argued for following the council-reduction process laid out in the charter. It would look like “moving the goalposts” to ask voters to amend Cleveland’s charter again, he said.
One member of council, Ward 13’s Kris Harsh, floated the idea of enlarging council’s membership.
Eventually, Griffin ended the discussion, saying council would have a year and half to debate redistricting.