East Cleveland Mayor Ushers in Petition-Signing Process to Begin Studying Merger with Cleveland

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"We are not only dealing with a situation that, if we allow it to go on and deteriorate — when I said that conditions could become unsavory in the city of East Cleveland, people think that we're talking about slower response times on ambulances and police. And we are talking about that. But if we let this go too far, we're not talking anymore about how long an ambulance will take to get to you. We're talking about whether there will be an ambulance to get to you at all."

Last night was a big night for East Cleveland Mayor Gary Norton. He's all-in on these talks of a merger with Cleveland now. Months into the discussions of a merger now, he's still got a lot to prove to a lot of people.

"This conversation is so important that I am 100-percent willing to go through all of these shenanigans and all of these protests and all of the loud voices and all of the demonstrations because these facts are powerful. These are economic forces that we don't see, and it took 40 years for this to happen. Today is the day that we must seriously consider it and just keep moving toward it. If I allow some disruptions, if I allow some disagreement, if I allow some dissent to stand in the way of allowing you to thoroughly study this and make your own decision, then that's failure on my part. So I'll take whatever criticism, I'll take whatever yelling — in order to get this information to you and get you to take an action that you want to take."

By all political accounts, that was the boldest moment of Norton's tenure — at least, of course, since last year's State of the City address where he repeatedly pronounced that there would be no merger for his city. The problem is that the economic forces that built up for 40 years — the ones he said the city doesn't "see" — have been in plain sight the whole time, tucked into public databases and state auditors' reports and the streets themselves. 

The evening's momentum built up to a powerful climax where Norton declared that a merger with the city of Cleveland was up to the people. He spoke those lines above one hour into a forum on East Cleveland's financial crisis — a forum that, in reality, was little more than a signature-gathering event for the petition to sanction a commission to study the possible merger. 

The mayor described how other options have already been exhausted: cutting the budget (pretty much impossible, given the length to which city services have run dry); raising taxes (essentially impossible, given the city's average household income and the state's cap on municipal income tax); bankruptcy (not feasible, according to Norton, since East Cleveland has a "revenue problem" and not a "debt problem"); economic development (essentially impossible, as the city hasn't had a bond rating since 1988 and as the city would need to cultivate 3,000 new employees' income taxes).

In short, Norton said that if residents are in favor of a merger, they should sign the petition. If residents are against the merger or unsure of what it all means, they should sign the petition and begin the formal studying process.

And it's not like the funds for this commission will come from East Cleveland's depleted coffers. Norton intimated last night that several regional foundations have already presented "commitments" north of $100,000 for the purposes of studying a merger. Once the 600-some signatures are in, the commission will form with East Cleveland City Council selecting three members and Cleveland City Council selecting three members. The commission will have 120 days to complete its work.

"We've got more out there to explore," Norton said. "And in this era of partnerships — where we have to explore partnerships seriously that we may not have had to explore before — we have to do this."

Up for debate among many in the crowd was what Cleveland could really offer the city of East Cleveland. As City Councilman Nathaniel Martin told Scene this week, "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."

Norton conceded that the give-and-take of resources is still one of many "unknowns" in a post-merger situation. He contrasted the budgets of East Cleveland and Cleveland, noting that, based on some back-of-the-envelope math, there's just going to much more money going around the geographic boundaries of what is today East Cleveland. But, he added, that's what the commission is for: to fully understand the financial ramifications of a merger.

In the petition language, Norton cites ORC 709.24, which explains that City Council must formally pass an ordinance to support the commission. What is unclear is whether the residents of Cleveland will have any say in this undertaking.

The evening's Q&A session went well enough, though mayoral assistant Michael Smedley began ripping the microphone out of people's hands midway through their questions as the night went on. When local activist Art McKoy asked whether Norton had a "lucrative" job set up on the other side of a merger, Smedley motioned to the police officers in the back of the room and ordered them to remove him from the building. "I give you credit, Mr. Mayor," McKoy said. "You have slick PR and you are a great con man, Mr. Mayor!"

Toward the end of the night, a man in the back of the room said out loud, to no one in particular: "Cleveland ain't gonna do NOTHING for us!"

A woman responded as she walked by: "Well, East Cleveland can't do anything either."

The man responded that there's just no way that Cleveland can save East Cleveland and take care of all the problems out there on the streets.

The woman replied: "I didn't say that they will, but something's gotta get done."


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