Kevin Kelley Will Be Cleveland City Council President Once Again

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SAM ALLARD / SCENE
  • Sam Allard / Scene
Monday morning, Ward 13 Councilman Kevin Kelley was informally re-elected by his colleagues to serve as Cleveland City Council President, a role he has held since 2013.

Kelley will be formally elected in January, but Monday's meeting — a caucus of council Democrats, (i.e. the entire body) — certified that Kelley will be their man. The vote for Kelley was unanimous.

But the unanimity arrived via the Unit Rule, an antiquated council tradition from a time when Republicans held elected office in Cleveland. By the rule, all Democrats must vote with the majority or else face banishment from the caucus.

The Unit Rule makes no sense in a 100-percent Democratic council, and it is especially inappropriate in the current context: the selection of internal leadership. There is no conceivable backlash from Republicans if someone other than Kelley were to have been nominated, for example. It's not like the Democrats had to vote as a "Unit" to prevent a coup by their political adversaries. The election is merely to decide who among them should be the person in charge. And maybe Kelley's the best guy for the job, but it's a fact that he's rubbed a number of his colleagues the wrong way over the past two years, and he shouldn't have been able to waltz into another term without competition. The function of the Unit Rule in this instance is merely to maintain the status quo, to keep Kelley in power, with zero allowable public dissent.

By way of illustration, imagine if every voter in Cleveland were forced to vote for the same mayoral candidate on pain of banishment from the city. It'd be absurd. The election itself would be a joke, a sham. And yet the reality on council is fundamentally the same. The Unit Rule is a relic of a lost time and is now an authoritarian instrument that mocks representative democracy.

Which is why it's a wonder more councilpeople don't stand up against it. Nick Castele, of WCPN, noted that veteran councilman Mike Polensek and newcomers Joe Jones and Anthony Hairston voted not to invoke the unit rule Monday morning. But once it had been invoked, they had no choice but to vote with their colleagues. Cleveland.com's Robert Higgs reported that only Ward 9 Councilman Kevin Conwell was absent from the morning's proceedings. (Scene was not present.)

Mark Naymik, at Cleveland.com, wrote about the announced vote last week. He reported that Kelley had come under fire — from Polensek, again, with whom he'd sparred repeatedly during the Q Deal proceedings — for forbidding the newly elected Joneses, (Joe in Ward 1 and Basheer in Ward 7), from participating in the vote. Both Joneses won by very slim margins in their ward races last week and vote totals have yet to be finalized.

But in that case, Polensek argued, the vote for city council president should be delayed.

"As the senior member of council and former Council President, I have never witnessed or experienced two ward representatives being denied their opportunity to be present in a caucus and to vote for the Council President," Polensek wrote in a letter to Kelley and his council colleagues. "Whoever the representatives for Ward 1 and Ward 7 will be should not be denied that right, whether it is the incumbent member or their challenger."

In follow-up correspondence with Cleveland.com, Kelley said that he had the necessary votes to retain his seat and wanted to get to work making committee appointments. 

A note from a city council spokesperson noted that Patricia Britt — the infamous Britt! — was also re-elected to serve as Council Clerk. The note said that ballots cast by the Joneses Monday morning were "provisional," due to the situations in their ward races.

But given the authoritarian nature of the Unit Rule, it's not like they would have had a meaningful opportunity to vote anyway.


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