CLEVELAND, Ohio — Candidates vying to become Cuyahoga County’s next executive have mixed views on some of the decisions they could inherit, such as the county’s intention to use $66 million in stimulus funds to create a fund from which each council member could propose community expenses.
Republican candidate Lee Weingart and Democrat Tariq Shabazz are against so-called slush funds, saying they violate the county charter, which bars council members from directing fundraising. They called on officials to drop the idea.
However, Chris Ronayne, who will face Shabazz in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, believes the charter gives the council broad power to appropriate funding as a body – as members have said. However, he says he would prefer to see it used collaboratively, rather than split into $6 million shares earmarked for each of the county’s 11 districts.
Their arguments boiled down to this:
“Not only do I oppose it, but we need to stop it now,” Shabazz told cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer, adding that he thinks discretionary spending “only allows corruption to seep in.”
“It’s a matter of public accountability,” agrees Weingart, pointing to the troubled history that led the county to form the charter in the first place. “You are sinking back into corruption again, where you have inexplicable spending directed by individual members of the county council with no oversight, no tendering process and no guarantee that the money will be spent appropriately.”
“What I see is an instability in the relationship between the executive office and the board,” Ronayne said of the lack of trust that he says drives the board to seek greater control over recommended project types. “Hopefully the council will pull those dollars together to make decisions with each other (on projects) that have a regional impact.”
The planned $66 million in “miscellaneous community grants,” as the county defines them, has become a lightning rod for criticism of the best use of the county’s $240 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. The Council’s allocation, combined with the $20 million set to go to executive Armond Budish, amounts to more than a third of the overall pot, but officials have so far been vague about where he could go.
Budish has committed 75% of its share to complement other recently ARPA-funded projects related to workforce development, education, microgrids and lakeside connectivity plans . But about $5.05 million is still hot money. He hasn’t said how he will decide where to spend those dollars in his final eight months in office.
The Council also did not give details on how the members will split their $6 million each. Members say they are discussing with the mayors of their respective districts where funding might be needed, but entities would still be required to apply for funding, as they do for other community grant programs.
New Council member Meredith Turner, however, hinted that she would like to use some of the money in her district, if she wins Tuesday’s primary race to retain her seat. In March, she told The Plain Dealer editorial board that she was looking to fund or create home repair programs, especially for local seniors who may be living on a fixed income. She used her mother as an example, saying the roots of a tree in the yard damage the sidewalk and driveway every year, but those repairs are getting too expensive to keep up with.
“I look forward to this opportunity to serve those hardest hit during the pandemic,” Turner told the Editorial Board. “I feel like I can really do something good with this money, for people.”
Eugene Kramer, one of the main architects of the charter, fears council members are heading down a slippery slope. He pointed to a written provision in the charter which he said “is intended to prohibit exactly the sort of thing that the county council, with the cooperation of the county executive, now proposes to do.”
It reads: “No public money in the county or under its control, from whatever source, shall be subject to appropriation, application or distribution at the order or direction of an individual board member.”
Kramer said he “wrote and included this provision in the proposed charter to be as broad and inclusive as possible” to prevent the kind of corruption that sentenced former Cleveland Councilman Kenneth Johnson to jail time for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal funds. under the guise of self-administered “community development block grants”. Other city council members have been accused of directing funds to neighborhood programs with little oversight.
The county says it already has greater built-in accountability because no one council member will have control over where the money is spent.
A council spokesman declined to discuss interpretations of the charter and instead pointed to previous statements by chairman Pernel Jones defending that each proposed project would always be subject to rigorous scrutiny and be subject to a majority vote of the full body. , or with the approval of the Board of Control, which handles requests under $500,000.
This is the same method the council has used to distribute money through the Community Supplementary Grants program and the casino’s community development fund, which has led to improvements such as the lakeside trail Euclid, Bradstreet’s Landing at Rocky River and Berea’s Coe Lake.
“This process has proven to be an equitable and successful model for getting funds to where they are needed most while having the greatest impact,” he said.
But naysayers say that argument lost credibility after a community project was recently approved based solely on Councilor Cheryl Stephens’ assurances that it would get a piece of the pie. Even before the fund was announced, she said she planned to use part of her share to donate more than $120,000 in assisted living to a Cedar Road repaving project in University Heights and South Euclid.
“There was no rigor,” Weingart criticized. “She got a phone call and committed $100,000 to a project. There was no competitive analysis, no rigour. It was just done, like that, and it’s bad government.
Cleveland.com contacted Stephens for a response, but in previous interviews she pointed out that she only offered ARPA funding as a “plan A” and said “nothing is wrong.” ‘is done yet’, as he would still need the approval of his colleagues.
Even if the expenses go through the usual appropriation process, Kramer thinks they can still violate the county charter if they are “directed” by individual council members. At the very least, it violates the spirit of the charter, he said, suggesting the voting process could become nothing more than a rubber stamp.
On this point, Shabazz and Weingart agree.
“How likely is a board member to oppose another board member’s plans? asked Weingart. “I think it’s highly unlikely, in which case it’s just a charade.”
Executive nominees have instead offered their own ideas for how the funds should be distributed.
Weingart proposed using a competitive bidding process where only “the most meritorious projects get funding.”
Shabazz envisions more participatory budgeting, where at least 20% of ARPA’s spending would be guided by community input. He hoped to see the rest used to eliminate food deserts, support affordable housing and make health care accessible to all.
Ronayne would like to see the money used to place workforce training and family service centers in neighborhoods and restore the county ombudsman’s office to help residents navigate and access community resources. county.
“There will be times, naturally, when ARPA funds become one layer in a stack (of funding) on a project,” he said. “But those single-purpose dollars as a single source of dollars with no dollars from other partner agencies, I think belies the opportunity to be transformative.”