City Officials Wary Of Respecting Voter Input On Lakewood Hospital

Voters will have their say on whether or not Lakewood Hospital should be closed.

But city officials will keep citizens, and the Board of Elections, waiting for now.

These were the only firm conclusions reached at a special meeting of City Council on Thursday, February 11, which stretched more than three hours. Council President Sam O’Leary, Ward 2, called the meeting eight days after the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections reported adequate valid signatures on a petition to repeal authorization to close Lakewood Hospital. Faced with an eventual obligation to perform the repeal themselves, or else allow the referendum, council adjourned without doing either.

O’Leary introduced the meeting as petitioners’ opportunity to argue for the repeal of ordinance 49-15, by which the city entered an agreement to close its hospital and transfer assets to the Cleveland Clinic. Petitioners, however, noted that Citizens for a Strong Lakewood turned in petitions to City Hall fully three weeks earlier, but O’Leary only called upon them to present arguments six hours before Thursday’s meeting. More than one speaker expressed skepticism that council was open to being swayed by arguments or information. Throughout the evening, speakers urged that council dispense with delays and permit the referendum which citizens have earned under law.

“Either repeal the ordinance to close the hospital or determine exactly when in 2016 the citizens of Lakewood will have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote on the future of their community hospital,” said Kevin Young, a spokesman for Save Lakewood Hospital. Brian Essi, who made introductory remarks on petitioners’ behalf, added, “This is democracy 101, and I don’t know why our elected leaders are fighting that.”

Elected leaders may in fact fight citizen input on Lakewood Hospital even after a referendum takes place, officials revealed. Responding to a question from Councilman Dan O’Malley, Ward 4, Lakewood Law Director Kevin Butler suggested that the city might simply ignore a vote to overturn the hospital closing. Cities have the power to disregard referendums which overturn ordinances like 49-15, that only authorize entering an agreement rather than contain the agreement itself, Butler said, citing a 30-year-old case from Middletown, Ohio. Asserting that this would be the city’s legal position, Butler seemed to imply that the city would not honor a referendum vote against closing the hospital.

One of the petitioners, attorney and former city councilman Ed Graham, has since said that the Middletown case offers minimal guidance for Lakewood’s controversy. Graham said that in the court’s split ruling on Middletown v Ferguson, even the majority emphasized particulars of that case rather than an absolute formula. As the Middletown case involved a road-widening project, “there are a lot of issues that wouldn’t have any application” in Lakewood, Graham said. The Lakewood petitioners base their complaint on matters including “fraud and breach of fiduciary duty that did not have anything to do with that case,” he said.

Remarks during the evening left this issue unclear. O’Leary declared near the end of council’s deliberations that, “This is an important issue on which our citizens need to have a voice,” but none of council directly addressed whether or not the city would honor that voice’s message if it rejected the hospital’s closing.

Most of City Council seemed more interested in re-fighting older battles with petitioners. O’Leary and others repeatedly pressed council’s guests to argue the merits of a repeal and their proposed alternative. In response, Young and others advocated a transparent, open bidding process as a superior alternative to the city’s negotiations with Cleveland Clinic. Dean Dilzell, a member of the Citizens for a Strong Lakewood petition committee, asked, “Is it the position of the [Lakewood Hospital Association], the administration and this city council that it is necessary to put out a bid for a garbage truck, a snow plow and the maintenance thereof but not a $150 million property?”

Some members of council then grew defensive at suggestions that council’s own process was flawed. At-large representative Cindy Marx declared herself offended repeatedly, and David Anderson, Ward 1, complained of the large number of constituents contacting him to voice their objections.

Advocates of repealing ordinance 49-15, in turn, protested that arguments were beside the point if council had no intention to repeal on its own. A number of speakers invoked the phrase “dog-and-pony show,” and repeated calls to permit the referendum’s inclusion on the March primary ballot.

Councilman Dan O’Malley, Ward 4, gestured in support of acting promptly. Acknowledging that he “had a number of concerns with the process” by which the city decided to close Lakewood Hospital, he expressed readiness to vote on repeal at once and, thereby, permit citizens their own decision.

O’Leary read out a letter from Pat McDonald, Director of the Board of Elections, indicating that a small window of opportunity did remain for a March referendum. After listing various challenges, which would follow from council’s acting on the petition so late in the election cycle, McDonald declared nonetheless that, “I do believe that we would be able to successfully conduct this election” with the addition, even now.

Council, nonetheless, took no action on the ordinance to repeal besides voting to accept a first reading. This left council’s next scheduled opportunity to vote on repeal, itself, to a meeting on Tuesday, February 16, after the board’s final deadline for the March primary. If council does not subsequently repeal ordinance 49-15, relevant law will require them to refer it to voters at some point in 2016. A special election, most likely in August, could cost the city close to $100,000, or more. If officials decline to hold a special election, citizens’ opportunity to vote on the hospital controversy will be delayed until November’s general election.

Matt Kuhns

Matt Kuhns is a freelance graphic designer, and occasional author.

Read More on Lakewood Health Care
Volume 12, Issue 4, Posted 1:37 PM, 02.16.2016