Jonathan Welle, left, talks with Evelyn Burnett at the People's Budget Cleveland campaign's election results watch party at Connect Lounge.
Jonathan Welle, left, talks with Evelyn Burnett at the People's Budget Cleveland campaign's election results watch party at Connect Lounge. Credit: Nick Castele / Signal Cleveland

In a close victory for Cleveland City Council and organized labor, voters turned down a citizen ballot initiative to give residents a more direct say over millions in city spending. 

The charter amendment would have set aside an amount equal to 2% of the general operating budget – or around $14 million currently – to be spent according to a neighborhood voting system. 

Council members and union allies argued the measure usurped elected leaders’ power and would sap the budget for city services. With mailers, billboards and radio ads, they beat back support for the populist issue.

After the results trickled in overnight, foes of the ballot issue came out on top, defeating Issue 38 by about 2% or 1,387 votes, according to unofficial results from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections.

In a statement Wednesday morning, council credited Cleveland voters for what it called their belief “in quality services, public safety, and in the values of representative democracy.” But the legislative body sounded a conciliatory note, too.

“Issue 38 revealed we need to do more work on civic engagement, participation, and awareness,” the statement reads. “We will build coalitions to make this happen. We are indebted to you – the voters – for your commitment and willingness.”

Even in defeat, supporters of the People’s Budget Cleveland campaign – which gathered the signatures to send Issue 38 to the voters – seemed pleased they had made council sweat for its win.

“This isn’t the end of the story for building resident power in our city,” People’s Budget campaign manager Molly Martin said in a prepared statement. “Instead, this is an early chapter in a much longer story to put the needs of our communities at the center of policy making rather than corporate interests.”

Mayor Justin Bibb opposed the ballot issue, but City Council and unions did the brunt of the work to defeat it.

They spent at least $140,000 against the charter amendment since September, including $75,000 in radio ads funded by unions. The Council Leadership Fund, a political action committee run by the council president, raised money from unions, the owners of the Cleveland Browns and other businesses to defeat Issue 38. 

The People’s Budget campaign pitched the amendment as a way to inject direct democracy into city spending.

After City Council turned down a proposal by Bibb to use a participatory process to spend $5 million in American Rescue Plan Act dollars, the campaign decided to go around council and put the issue on the ballot.

The campaign’s political action committee received more than $92,500 in in-kind help from allied groups, mostly from the nonprofit Ohio Organizing Collaborative. 

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.