Days after showdowns with Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration and activists, City Council President Blaine Griffin issued a rallying cry for council’s independence and work in a speech at the City Club of Cleveland.
Griffin opened with a strongly worded – if nonspecific – defense of council against what he called a “subtle effort” to weaken government under the guise of good intentions.
“We represent the people of Cleveland,” Griffin said. “Anything else you hear is disingenuous, hyperbole and misleading. There’s a subtle effort by some groups in our nation, state and, yes, our city, to undermine and dismantle institutional systems and leadership structures disguised as democracy building, engagement, disruption, accountability, claims to represent the people.”
Along with those claims came allegations that council members were incompetent or corrupt, Griffin said.
“Ladies and gentlemen, that is not true,” he said. “We work our butts off for the city and the people of this city, and I’m here to tell our story today.”
Two days earlier, on Monday, council had put a hold on Bibb’s “participatory budgeting” proposal. The mayor’s legislation would have spent $510,000 to organize a steering committee to guide how the city distributes a share of its federal stimulus dollars. Most council members opposed the idea, seeing it as circumventing their role as representatives and arbiters of city spending.
Griffin told Signal Cleveland afterward that he was not trying to single out any person or group in his opening remarks.
“People like to take shots at council every day, and what I did was draw a line and said, ‘Hey, we are the people,’” he said.
In his speech, the council president personally acknowledged his fellow members, many of whom sat in the back of the room. He did not mention Bibb by name. The mayor and prominent members of his administration did not attend Wednesday’s event.
But former Mayor Frank Jackson did, along with a few other former aides. The retired mayor sat at a table reserved by Griffin’s campaign committee.
Griffin worked for Jackson before being appointed to council. He suggested that the Opportunity Corridor – the new road that connects Interstate 490 to University Circle – should bear Jackson’s name.
The speech was well received by the audience, which included business and nonprofit leaders. Tickets had sold out days before, and Griffin received a standing ovation afterward. The council president spoke for about 35 minutes Wednesday, taking questions afterward from the City Club audience.
Griffin called Cleveland a “Dickensian” city: one of the best times and the worst, of large disparities in quality of life between haves and have-nots. He highlighted council’s role in passing 2019 legislation targeting lead paint, and he said Cleveland faced a public health crisis in the form of gun violence and drug overdoses.
The council president rattled off a list of projects funded with American Rescue Plan Act dollars, including a new council proposal to forgive medical debt. Council and Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration have spent months drawing up and vetting spending proposals for the money.
Cleveland should not commit its one-time federal stimulus dollars for staff or projects that will need more money when the funding runs out, Griffin said.
“We are tired of experiments,” he said, “so pilot projects are not a priority when we have so many pressing needs in our city.”
Griffin gave a nod to major projects on the horizon: a new proposal to develop the lakefront, a $2 billion overhaul of Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and looming stadium negotiations with the Browns.
“Council will work with all of these stakeholders on these big, bold and visionary ideas,” Griffin said, invoking – intentionally or not – two favorite adjectives of Bibb’s. “However, the people of the city of Cleveland need to see themselves in these big projects.”
The council president previewed a coming proposal to revamp Cleveland’s community benefits policies for city contractors. Council has convened focus groups on the policies and is expected to introduce legislation and a potential charter amendment soon.
During the question-and-answer session after the speech, Griffin was asked about his opposition to the participatory budgeting process that had received a hearing Monday. He said he did not believe the process could be done equitably, because people of means would be most likely to attend budget conversations.
Griffin also said the conversation would continue over giving council a larger share of Cleveland’s casino tax revenue. Several council members are pushing for a bigger cut of the money for their discretionary accounts – a move the Bibb administration strongly opposes. Council and Finance Director Ahmed Abonamah engaged in a heated debate Monday over the proposal.
Asked about the idea Wednesday, the council president did pick a side. He said he wanted to avoid blowing a hole in the general fund. But he also said that council’s discretionary funds give members flexibility to solve on-the-ground problems in the wards.
“I know that people have a problem sometimes with council members, because they say, ‘You’re not mini-mayors,’” he said. “But what people need to realize is that every day council people get approached by people for quality-of-life issues, and we know what’s best in our communities.”