The muddled path toward a merger between the cities of Cleveland and East Cleveland isn't getting any clearer. Last week, a Cuyahoga County judge ruled against Michael Smedley, the East Cleveland mayoral aide who sued East Cleveland City Council over its refusal to begin the annexation process with the city of Cleveland. Emboldened by the ruling, council is digging in its heels deeper and heading back to the drawing board. The question remains, though: Is a merger the economically beleaguered city's only salvation?
Smedley last year filed a lawsuit in which he sought to compel members of council to approve an ordinance that would declare intent to "enter into negotiations for annexation." (Note that the current makeup of East Cleveland City Council is somewhat different than the named defendants in Smedley's suit.) Only council has the authority to formally begin the merger or annexation process when prompted by citizen petitions. Talk of the merger has been around for years but heated up recently as East Cleveland lingered in perpetual fiscal emergency status with the state of Ohio. It has cut staff and suffered through other money-related embarrassments, like its website going offline and reports that the city couldn't pay its bill for employee cell phones. It all led to the aforementioned petition. That's where the trouble, as it tends to do in East Cleveland, continued.
The argument in Smedley's lawsuit cited those certified signatures from East Cleveland voters — 827 of them in all — as a basis for forcing council's hand in the matter. Those signatures — and the certification process itself — didn't pass the smell test, according to council members who were serving last summer. Judge Michael Russo didn't think so, either.
The judge ruled against Smedley's complaint last week, writing: "It appears beyond doubt that [Smedley] cannot prove any set of facts entitling [him] to the [court order]. Specifically, the certification from the board of elections required by R.C. 709.24 is insufficient as a matter of law since it fails to include the total number of electors who voted in the last regular municipal election in East Cleveland in 2013." Signatures on a given petition must come from electors who voted in the most recent municipal election. Many did in this case, but the judge insisted that certification language should confirm how many people voted in the last municipal election — and thus how many signatures are specifically needed for this petition.
There's a bit more to it than that, though. Russo's ruling touches on a small band of legal grounding in this case, placing the concern squarely at the feet of the board of elections and declining to opine on the petition circulators' eyebrow-raising actions.
Tracy Udrija-Peters, the former clerk of East Cleveland City Council, tells Scene that she was shocked when she first started examining the petitions last summer. "There are problems with these petitions. There are some major flaws with these," Udrija-Peters recalls telling council president Barbara Thomas. "It was a mess."
For instance, the petitions featured what appeared to be the typical and mandatory legal disclaimer: "WHOEVER COMMITS ELECTION FALSIFICATION IS GUILTY OF A OF THE FIFTH DEGREE" (sic). Note the absence of the word "felony."
On top of that, the circulator statements were inconsistent. Circulators, which in this case included Mayor Gary Norton, Smedley, and a slew of allegedly paid workers, must oversee every signature and attest to its originality and accuracy. This is somewhat similar to the problems that caused the board of elections to toss mayoral recall petitions in Cleveland submitted in 2015.
Even with a cursory glance across the East Cleveland petitions, it's quite clear based on handwriting alone that the same person is filling in many addresses and dates next to various electors' signatures. Circulators' names are also written in different handwriting styles and forms (e.g., some printed names include the person's middle initial, others don't).
Under Ohio Revised Code chapter 3501.38(C), "Each signer shall place on the petition after the signer's name the date of signing and the location of the signer's voting residence, including the street and number if in a municipal corporation or the rural route number, post office address, or township if outside a municipal corporation." The ORC violation and the election falsification noted on each page of the petition package are blatant, Udrija-Peters and others still working at City Hall have pointed out.
Udrija-Peters and Thomas met immediately with officials at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, who maintained that the certification was copacetic. That's where the judge's ruling comes in: Russo zeroed in on the board's process, which he said is not sufficient to compel East Cleveland City Council to act.
The petition process was driven by a five-member annexation committee, which included Mayor Gary Norton and his right-hand man, Michael Smedley. Udrija-Peters says that law director Willa Hemmons helped actually draft the petitions — an overreach of duties that wasn't disclosed publicly until late last year. By then, enough concern was roiling among the leaders of East Cleveland that the investigation into the petitions had fallen out of their hands.
In August 2015, East Cleveland City Council approved an ordinance that directed the law director "to immediately submit a written request to the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor's Office to open a formal investigation into the creation, circulation, and submission of the Petition for Annexation for possible violations of law." The investigation is pending; the Cuyahoga County Sheriff's Office currently possesses all copies of the original annexation petitions.
Scene is picking up rumors, though, that another petition is being circulated within East Cleveland.
As mentioned before, the discussion of an East Cleveland-Cleveland merger — or an annexation — has gone on for years. But just two weeks ago, state auditor David Yost fired up the chatter yet again by proposing a $10-million state appropriation to pay for East Cleveland improvements — but only if the merger takes place.
For the umpteenth time, the city has returned to the drawing board. In the wake of Russo's ruling last week, council released a statement that forecast the path ahead: "City Council once again is turning its full attention to its initiative: To raise funds from third party donors with which to pay Conway MacKenzie, a nationally recognized turnaround consulting firm. Conway MacKenzie has indicated that it is willing to review East Cleveland's situation and to prepare a full report explaining whether a path forward exists for East Cleveland to satisfactorily address its financial, service, and infrastructure shortcomings and once again to become a viable and productive community, or whether annexation is East Cleveland's only option."
Until then, there's always the other option: political infighting and ballot chicanery.