When news broke last week that East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton was initiating a signature-gathering effort ahead of a potential merger campaign, we were as surprised as anyone. The mayor, who steadfastly refuses to speak on the record with Scene, has long insisted that he will not pursue a merger with the city of Cleveland. This week, we touched based with longtime Councilman Nathaniel Martin to learn what's up with the dubious future of East Cleveland.
Eric Sandy: Were you surprised with the mayor's announcement?
Nathaniel Martin: One thing that concerns me: I saw the article in the Sunday Plain Dealer. They showed that picture of him. If you've been coming around to see what's going on, it's mismanagement. There's been some reckless spending and, as far as we're concerned, malfeasance and dereliction of duty since he's been there. What I have to say about what I'm seeing is — this talk about 'We can't do this, we can't do that' — well, you have to go back to the $20 million that the Cleveland Clinic gave us [to close Huron Hospital] and what he did with the $8 million [given in cash]. That was a deal he cut exclusively with the Clinic that council had nothing to do with. We never got a comprehensive, defining report on that.
ES: It was never explained to you?
NM: Never been explained. And if you look at that $8 million, there's no reason we should be in the financial situation we're in right now. That's why there's gonna be a recall. We'll know in the next couple days when the signatures come in [ed. note: This interview was conducted on March 30.]. If there's enough signatures, we'll have a recall election.
ES: Has there ever been a mayoral recall in East Cleveland?
NM: This is new ground for us; I don't think we've ever had a recall. But when you get to the point where you can't fill in potholes and you can't get basic services — you know, our biggest problem with Mayor Norton is that he never takes credit for anything wrong, for anything bad. It's always somebody else's fault.
ES: In the event of a recall, what next?
NM: Our personal hopes are that we get a mayor — and there are a number of people who would probably kick in who care about the people and not cutting deals with powerful people behind the scenes. That's what we're hoping for. It starts with the people and ends with the people. We've got someone who's not looking out for the people's interests but looking for out for corporate interests, that's why we're gonna have the election. People feel he's not looking out for their interests.
ES: From what you can gauge, is there any support for a merger? I mean, that would ultimately have to go through a vote, too, no?
NM: Right. The people oppose the merger. I would say 60, 70 percent of the people are opposed to the merger. That's just from me being out there all the time. I had a forum about 10 months ago with Norm Krumholz, Ed Jerse, Chris Ronayne and all of them. We discussed the pros and cons of annexation. The pros and cons boiled down to — after all that was said by these experts, it boils down to the voters of East Cleveland and the voters of Cleveland. Unless the state steps in.
ES: The other options for stability include negotiations with creditors and bankruptcy. Where do you land on those possibilities?
NM: As far as I know, the city hasn't done anything. What I've done is I've sent a letter to Gov. Kasich, asking them to help us and step in with those rainy day funds. You know how much money they have in those rainy day funds. There's over $1 billion. Our city, according to the article in Sunday's Plain Dealer, which I agree with to some extent — we can function with $17 million. They can step in and help us. Take control of the spending. Every financial director that we have serves at the discretion of the mayor. So if they don't do what the mayor does, they lose their job. You understand what I'm saying? I don't think they're as responsible as they should be. And I share their trepidation about the whole thing.
ES: You see the mayor's leadership as the first problem to overcome? Before finances?
NM: It's a mixed bag to a large extent. But we don't feel comfortable with him in there. We don't feel he's looking out for the people's interests. You are downtown, right?
NM: You drive through Cleveland, don't you?
ES: I do.
NM: Do you drive around potholes and all that kind of stuff when you drive through Cleveland?
NM: So what are they gonna do for us? That's the question. What are they gonna do for us? They got their own issues! Mike Polensek and Jeff [Johnson] and them are crying about the potholes! Can't get out of their driveways. So what are they gonna go for us and the 3.1 miles we have? They'll take our numbers, our 17,000 [population mark] and get [federal] grants and all that. But the question is: What are they gonna do for us? And I don't see much.
ES: So then what is East Cleveland going to do?
NM: University Circle wants to come in. They've been there on Euclid. They can make new office space here. We have the land, we have the location. It's only a matter of time. We have to make sure we negotiate the best thing for our citizens, and that is — we don't want a whole bunch of nonprofits in there, sucking up the land and paying no taxes on it.
ES: You're looking to grow the tax base.
NM: We want the employees of University Circle — University Hospitals, the Cleveland Clinic, all the museums — we want them to move in. I see homes being built, being renovated. The trend today is to be closer to where you're working. We have the land, we have the location.
ES: Is the mayor doing anything on that front, from your perspective?
NM: Not that I know of. I will share this with you: A lot comes through the mayor's office and his chief of staff that they do not share with council. There's a lot getting ready to develop, but they don't tell us. How do you run a government that way? The land is precious now. It's precious. Every time a developer wants to do something, they go the mayor. It's up to the mayor to share that with council. This mayor does not.