My name is Justin Bibb and I will be your server

Mayor Justin Bibb worked a brief lunchtime shift at Fat Cats restaurant in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood this week.

Signal Cleveland’s Nick Castele was there to capture the stunt and follow the underlying policy push. 

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb takes orders at Fat Cats in the Tremont neighborhood to highlight a slate of grants for restaurants to pay workers $15 an hour.
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb takes orders at Fat Cats in the Tremont neighborhood to highlight a slate of grants for restaurants to pay workers $15 an hour. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

Pursued by cameras, Bibb took orders from a few tables in what was meant to be a real-life simulation of the front-of-the-house restaurant experience. The mayor punched the clock to highlight $50,000 in grants the George Gund Foundation is offering to restaurants that commit to paying tipped workers $15 an hour.

The grants are part of a program offered by the nonprofit One Fair Wage and High Road Restaurants, which shines a spotlight on tipped food service workers who make less than minimum wage.

After he sent the order tickets to the kitchen, Bibb said the city would match the foundation’s grant.

“I haven’t told my staff this, so I might get into trouble,” he said, “but I’m going to commit another $50,000.”

He’ll also likely need to tell City Council, which holds the pursestrings for contracts of $50,000 or more.

Ohio’s minimum wage went up this year to $10.10 an hour, with non-tipped workers pulling down a minimum of $5.05 hourly.

On hand at Fat Cats were organizers who have been gathering signatures for a 2024 ballot initiative to raise Ohio’s minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers, including tipped employees, by 2029.

Is Mayor Justin Bibb endorsing the ballot issue? That’s a question for another day.

“One election at a time,” Bibb said, adding that he would always stand behind workers.

Return of the Ghost Train

The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority on Friday reopened its Waterfront Line, the light rail line that runs from Tower City, through the Flats, to the lakefront and back. It was closed two years ago while a key bridge on the route was fixed.

RTA officials promoted the line’s comeback as “a key economic and entertainment access point, allowing RTA to connect the commercial and residential community during this 2023 Cleveland Browns regular football season and the Flats East Bank Entertainment District.”

If only passenger traffic flowed like RTA’s optimism. 

The reality is that the Waterfront Line, which opened in 1996 at a cost of $70 million as part of the city’s Bicentennial Celebration, has attracted so few riders outside special events that it has earned the nickname Ghost Train for shuttling invisible riders. In 2010, daytime ridership was so low RTA wasn’t even keeping track of ridership figures. In the years since, the transit system has often reduced service during weekdays. 

RTA boosted service in May 2013 to coincide with the opening of the Flats East Bank project, which was anchored by the Ernst & Young Tower. Developers pushed RTA to invest resources in the Waterfront Line based on their vision that office workers and bar goers – and public transportation-loving millennials – would take advantage of the service.

“We made a commitment to reopen when Flats Bank opened,” RTA’s then-General Manager Joe Calabrese said at the time. “Smart, young people want to take public transit.”

That didn’t happen. But no doubt Browns fans will be packing trains for nine home games. 

Tooting 311’s horn

Cleveland is in the market for a public relations firm to sing the praises of the city’s 311 help line. 

The Bibb administration has been retooling the City Hall call center that is meant to be residents’ go-to place for complaints about tree limbs, potholes, missing garbage cans, vacant homes, dead animals – you name it. 

During his campaign, Bibb promised to fix the call line so that residents can track their complaints like they can track an Amazon package. The mayor and City Council have set aside $4 million in federal stimulus money for the overhaul. (Marketing costs will come from that money, which has already been budgeted.)

Now the city wants an “energetic, engaging, and informative” marketing campaign to get people using 311, according to its request for prices from PR firms. 

That campaign could include billboards, op-eds, broadcast ads and even guerrilla marketing, the request says. The hoopla is expected to get going in the spring and summer of next year

PB Cle in a jam

An effort at reconciliation between City Council and the People’s Budget campaign hit a brick wall this week. This account of how it all went down is based on conversations with a few people familiar with the talks:

Ward 12 Council Member Rebecca Maurer told Council President Blaine Griffin at the Labor Day parade that the campaign was open to a deal. 

Over the next few days, Maurer acted as the intermediary between the two parties. 

The idea was to swap out the $14 million People’s Budget ballot issue with a $5 million ballot issue.  The money would have come from federal block grant and city capital dollars, rather than the general operating budget. 

But there was a big hangup on procedure – that is, how the deal would be written into law. There wasn’t support on council for asking voters to change Cleveland’s charter, the equivalent of amending the city constitution. 

And the campaign wasn’t going to give up the idea of a charter amendment after gathering thousands of signatures to put the issue on the ballot. 

That impasse killed the deal. Now both sides will dig in for what could be a contentious fall campaign.

New club opening

On Friday, Sept. 15, the City Club of Cleveland will show off its new space at Playhouse Square (1317 Euclid Ave.) during a forum featuring Mayor Bibb and Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval.

The City Club likes the symmetry the event provides to its backstory. At the City Club’s first forum in 1912, Cleveland Mayor Newton D. Baker, Cincinnati Mayor Thomas Hunt, and Toledo Mayor Brand Whitlock spoke about the challenges of governing big cities. While Toledo won’t be represented this time, Friday’s forum will be talking about the same topic.

Take note

At a recent Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals meeting, hot dog vendor John Sisamis won the right to set up his cart near the West Side Market despite opposition from City Hall, which argued he was too close to the market. You can learn more about his case and other matters here.

Managing Editor, News (he/him)
Mark is a veteran journalist with experience in alternative media, print, digital and television news. For 19 years, he was a groundbreaking reporter and metro columnist with The Plain Dealer and Most recently, Mark spent three years as an investigative, enterprise and breaking news reporter at WKYC-TV, where his "Leading the Land" series on Cleveland's 2021 mayoral primary race earned a regional Emmy.

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.