Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne speaks at a news conference in downtown Cleveland in the summer of 2023.
Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne speaks at a news conference in downtown Cleveland in the summer of 2023. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

A member of Cuyahoga County Council is watchdogging the county executive’s trips out of state and out of the country. 

Chris Ronayne has traveled to Ireland, New York City, Boston, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. in his first year as Cuyahoga County executive. The latest destination on the itinerary is the United Nations COP28 climate conference in Dubai. 

District 11 Council Member Sunny Simon, a fellow Democrat who chairs the sustainability committee, called a hearing Wednesday to ask what the county executive hopes to bring back from the junket to the Persian Gulf. 

Ronayne did not attend the hearing, but Deputy Sustainability Director Valerie Katz did. Both of them plan to join a delegation from Cleveland’s business and nonprofit sectors at the global assembly on climate change. 

Airfare, lodging and meals for the two county officials would cost $9,040. The conference runs from Nov. 30 to Dec. 12, but the county trip would last from Dec. 1 to Dec. 7.

The two county officials planned to attend sessions on reducing emissions, designing green urban spaces, protecting fresh water and educating young people on the climate, according to the travel summary shared with council.

It’s not yet certain whether taxpayers would shoulder the cost. John Mitterholzer, the program director for climate and environmental justice at the Gund Foundation, said his organization and the Cleveland Foundation were willing to cover Ronayne and Katz’s expenses. 

“We think it’s important for this region to be represented in these global conversations,” Mitterholzer said. “We think we have a lot to show the world, and we think that we can also continue to learn from others around the globe.” 

The county is awaiting a legal opinion on whether the foundations can pick up the tab, officials said. Otherwise, the money would come from the county’s General Fund. 

“I’m 100% behind climate change mitigation, there’s nothing more important to me,” Simon said. “But I also have a fiduciary duty to the taxpayers to explain why county taxpayers’ money is going toward something, as international travel, we have not had before.” 

Ronayne, like his fellow newly minted elected official Mayor Justin Bibb of Cleveland, ran as a big-ideas candidate with an environmental streak. The county executive has proposed $2 million for an initiative focused on Lake Erie called the Freshwater Institute.

For both leaders, putting Northeast Ohio on the map has also meant traveling that map, even as they juggle big issues at home, from violent crime and the county jail to ongoing sports facility expenses

Simon asked the Ronayne administration to draw up a list of where the county executive has traveled, how much the trip cost and what it accomplished. She mentioned Ronayne’s two trips this year to Ireland; one was a county trip that taxpayers picked up, the other was a personal trip that the county executive covered himself. 

Before he took office, Ronayne flew to Egypt with a local delegation for COP27, last year’s U.N. climate gathering. The foundations paid his way. 

Simon asked what concrete good that trip did for the county. 

Katz replied that Ronayne and other local partners built a relationship with the Climate Registry, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that helps governments and businesses cut carbon emissions. The group now plans to hold its 2024 conference in Cleveland

Government Reporter (he/him)
Nick joins us from the world of public radio. He has more than a decade experience covering politics and government in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In 2021, he produced and hosted "After Jackson: Cleveland's Next Mayor," an Ideastream Public Media podcast on the Cleveland mayoral race. He has also covered breaking news, opioid lawsuits and elections nationally for NPR.