Stadium Finance

Cleveland Tries To Kill Anti-Stadium Funding Petition, Chaos Ensues

Turns out when you try to con a city out of $70 million, some people get mad

Stadium Finance
Getty Images
May 23, 2017 at 1:58 PM ET

When we last left the saga of Dan Gilbert and his quest to build a massive retail complex at Quicken Loans Arena, he’d managed to wrangle enough city council members to approve directing $70 million from the public coffers into his pockets as part of a proposed $140 million renovation, including… glass walls for the Q. (By the time the bonds are repaid in 2034, the project will end up costing between $205 million and $288 million.)

Still, despite the 12-5 vote in favor, there remains a chance that the ordinance could be brought before a public referendum. Given that locals with an anti-stadium funding bent have managed to put a halt to a few stadium scams, a concerted effort could conceivably bring the entire project to a screeching halt.

Greater Cleveland Congregations, a non-denominational community-based advocacy group with over 100,000 members, has been working in concert with trade and service unions to do just that, demanding that if millions in charity are going to be gifted to a billionaire, then the city and Cuyahoga County should increase spending on things the community actually needs: mental health services, job training, drug intervention, and other social programs, as part of a matching community equity fund.

To that end, they’ve garnered 20,603 signatures over the last 30 days – well more than the needed 6,000 – calling for a public referendum. While there remain questions whether Ohio law necessarily dictates a public vote over funding of this kind, on Monday, the GCC arrived at Cleveland City Hall to formally file a petition with Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley. But instead of accepting the petition, Kelley dug in his heels, declaring it unconstitutional. Via Crain’s:

“A referendum seeking repeal of Ordinance No. 305-17 would unconstitutionally impair an already executed and binding contract. Therefore, I do not accept the petition papers for such referendum,” said a letter signed by deputy clerk of council Allan Dreyer when the petitions were presented to the clerk’s office.

From Kelley’s point of view, the funding ordinance is not a stand-alone increase of city admission taxes, but rather an amendment to an ongoing agreement regarding the Gateway sports complex, thus taking a vote off the table. (We’ll get who came up with this legal interpretation in a minute.)

When Pastors Jawanza Colvin and Richard Gibson, two GCC leaders and noted civil rights advocates in Northeast Ohio, demanded that they be arrested if Kelley continued to stonewall, Kelley fled and huddled with lawyers representing the city council.

Kelley then returned, armed with the means to shunt the petition into a bureaucratic memory hole, keeping a referendum from being triggered:

An hour later, a second letter signed by Dreyer, but presented to the groups’ leaders by council president Kevin Kelley, stated the city was “taking custody” of the petitions but added, “do not consider the petition to be filed with the Clerk.”

The protests continued well into the scheduled city council meeting, with councilmembers in opposition to the stadium funding ordinance peppering Kelley with questions as to who was providing him with the legal advice underpinning his decision not to accept the petition. Kelley refused to disclose that information, citing his right to attorney-client privilege, even if that meant keeping other councilmembers from hearing what their own lawyers had to say. What’s more, there’s no paper trail.

“I don’t have a written opinion,” Kelley said, according to Cleveland Scene. When Councilman Jeff Johnson pressed Kelley, asking, “So someone just told you?” Kelly replied, “Yeah.”

For Pastor Colvin, this is par for the course, given the lack of transparency that has marked the entire funding and voting process.

“The mayor and city council president have led the effort to hand over tens of millions of dollars to the Cleveland Cavaliers and now want to take the right to vote out of the hands of its citizens,” Pastor Colvin told Vocativ via email. “We have always called for a better deal for the people of this city. They are trying to give them a raw deal instead. It is unconstitutional and unconscionable.”

You can watch over 100 protesters the city council meeting chanting, “Shame on you!” at City Council President Kelley here.