Councilman Matt Zone to Resign, Will Become VP at Western Reserve Land Conservancy


Councilman Matt Zone in the late 2000s - WALTER NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Councilman Matt Zone in the late 2000s

Cleveland City Councilman Matt Zone will resign this fall from the elected seat he's held for 19 years to become the Senior Vice President at the Western Reserve Land Conservancy.

Zone, who many speculated would run for Mayor in 2021, sent a letter to his constituents Saturday announcing his plans. He said he would continue to serve for the next six weeks as the Ward 15 representative and planned to officially resign during council's in-person meeting the week of November 16.

He also confirmed rumors that he plans to appoint Jenny Spencer, the Managing Director of the Detroit Shoreway Community Development Organization, to fill his seat until next year's election.

Zone will fill a position being vacated by former City Councilman and Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis. He will assume the dual title of Senior VP of Western Reserve Land Conservancy and Director of Thriving Communities, the name for WRLC's urban programs which Rokakis has overseen.

Rokakis arrived at WRLC in 2011 and told Scene that he did so with the explicit intention of working there 10 years. With that schedule in mind, succession planning at the Chagrin-Falls-based nonprofit began in earnest 18 months ago.

Rich Cochran, the CEO of WRLC, told Scene that Zone was quickly identified as the ideal candidate for the position.

"If you look at the strategic trajectory of our urban programs, it’s all about connecting people with nature. It's revitalizing neighborhoods through reforestation, new trails and greenways, and new parks and preserves," Cochran said. "That's Matt's passion. This was a perfect fit from both a values and programmatic standpoint. I couldn't be more excited to bring him on, and I'm really proud that I've gotten to work with Jim these past 10 years. He did important work as county treasurer, but I feel that he hit the grand slam with us, in terms of impact."

Rokakis is best known for his work with county land banks — officially, "county reutilization corporations" — which he worked to institute in Cuyahoga County after the foreclosure crisis in 2008. Ohio now has 60 county land banks across the state, thanks to WRLC's work.

"Jim has laid down a remarkable foundation," Zone told Scene. "[WRLC] understands that success of suburbs and exurbs depends on urban centers, and I’m uniquely qualified to speak on how to lead renaissances in urban communities. I really want to build up the work they’re doing around parks, preserves, urban reforestation, trails and greenways. One other skill set I'll bring to the table is that I grew up in the inner city and really will make sure we're bringing an equity lens to our work. We need more equity in mobility in Cleveland."

Zone said that many of his policy prerogatives on council over the past two decades have been environmentally focused, and he said he's eager to continue shaping regional environmental policy, from a slightly different perspective.

Zone had told Scene and others in recent years that he would not seek re-election as a councilman in 2021. The popular assumption was that he would join a crowded field of mayoral hopefuls. He admitted that he seriously considered running for Mayor, and thought he'd make a strong candidate.

"I’ve always approached my work with vigor and dedication on council and thought I could continue that as mayor, particularly with my exposure through the National league of cities," he said.

But ultimately, the opportunity to work at a "well-respected regional organization and with an inspirational leader like Rich Cochran" was too good to pass up. He said he made the decision in consultation with his family.

"I couldn’t be selfish," he said. "My family has been involved in the political arena for a long time, and there was something very appealing about getting out of this arena, and continuing the amazing work that [Rokakis] has done." 

Zone has served in recent years as the chair of council's safety committee. After the May 30th demonstrations, he came under fire from for his failure to hold investigative hearings on the violent police response, a failure attributed in part to a conflict of interest. Zone's son is a Cleveland police officer.

The councilman will now join an organization that Cleveland City Council has regularly funded for consulting work in the past. In 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019, council has authorized $150,000 annual contracts with WRLC and the Thriving Communities Institute for work pertaining to the Vacant and Abandoned Property Action Council (VAPAC). That research, which Rokakis said "people underestimate," has produced local and statewide survey data about the condition of properties. 

Zone predicted there would be "significant turnover" on city council in 2021, but stressed that change was "healthy and good."

"Like all legislative bodies, Cleveland City Council changes over time. And it should," he said. "I’ve often said to my colleagues that council is bigger than any individual member. We need to put our own selfish, myopic views aside for the good of the city and the body. My dream for the next council is that they’re up to the challenge." 

See related PDF zone_resident_ltr.pdf

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