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Cleveland--The December 18 date for the recall of the city’s first openly gay councilor stands after the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections heard protests against the petitions that brought about the election.
The board heard the protests on November 10 in a special hearing that lasted for three hours. During the meeting, an attorney for former councilor Nelson Cintron and one representing a committee that wants to keep Joe Santiago as the representative of Ward 14 both argued their positions.
It was a battle of competing affidavits, accusations of misleading statements and questions over whether notaries were present when statements were signed.
Vincent Gonzalez, Cintron’s lawyer, first argued that the board did not have the authority to hear the matter, since the recall is being brought under the city charter, which has no mechanism for challenging the petitions. He also questioned the voter status of three of Santiago’s supporters who had protested, Sandy Smith, Connie Hardy and Kate Dupuis.
The board first dispensed with the issue of jurisdiction, citing an Ohio Supreme Court case that pitted the city of Avon against Lorain County. Board chair Ken Hastings noted that the high court firmly established a county board of elections’ authority in that matter.
As for the voters’ status, the board decided that there was no issue with Smith’s. Hardy had gone back to her maiden name, so she was accepted, and Dupuis had signed her affidavit as Kate Dupuis, but was registered to vote as Susan Dupuis. She explained that she used Kate, her middle name, professionally, and her driver’s license shows her name as S. Kate Dupuis.
The protest itself was then heard like a trial, with Murray Bilfield, the attorney for the pro-Santiago side, calling witnesses and questioning them, then Gonzalez cross-examining the witnesses.
The two main issues that Bilfield brought up were differences between signatures on the petitions and the corresponding signatures on voter registrations cards, and complaints that signatures were gathered under false pretenses.
Diane Roman said she was told that she would have work done on her apartment if she signed the petition, and that the petition was to clean up the ward. She said that she was told it would help Santiago do that.
Roman said that Cintron himself told her that, and had her sign the petition.
Donald Thompson testified that his grandmother, Carmen Cortez, was very upset when she found out what the petitions really did.
Hardy told the board that she was there to witness Antonia Coleman sign her affidavit alleging misleading statements made about the petitions. Coleman, who signed a petition, is Santiago’s aunt.
Dupuis wanted to challenge the validity of a dozen signatures on the petitions, 109 of which had already been rejected during the certification process last month. The remaining 703 exceed the 598 minimum required to call an election in the ward.
Of Dupuis’12 signatures, eight had already been rejected. When the board returned after an executive session, two of the four remaining signatures were eliminated unanimously. One was ruled valid without dissent, while the fourth was upheld, although board member Eben “Charlie” McNair believed it looked too different from the voter registration card.
Throughout the hearing, Gonzalez questioned testimony, asking various witnesses if they could describe people they claimed to see signing their affidavits.
At times, Gonzalez’ cross-examinations took on a hectoring tone, leading on more than one occasion to board chair Hastings impatiently telling him to move on as Gonzalez repeatedly asked specific questions of a witness.
After Bilfield had finished presenting his case, however, Gonzalez threw his trump card, asking the board to reject the protest and certify the election. In a court, the move would have been equivalent to a motion for summary judgment.
That is when the board recessed for an executive session.
Returning, they went through the four signatures that were challenged and noted that, even with those thrown out, there were more than enough signatures on the petitions to certify the election.
“It was unfortunate that we did not have enough proof, and time was against our side, too,” Santiago said three days later.
The campaign to keep him in office had only four days to get witnesses together, and while both attorneys used bits of hearsay, the board was unwilling to let hearsay testimony in wholesale. Because of this, Bilfield was unable to introduce statements about other cases of allegedly deceptive petition-gathering, leaving it to Roman and Thompson for the main body of that argument.
“All these allegations they made that we have committed fraud, the board of elections found that there was no fraud on behalf of the recall committee,” Cintron said, noting that the BOE commended them on the 95 percent acceptance rate of signatures, an unusually high percentage. “All this councilman and his committee has done is lied and lied and they continue lying about the actions of the recall committee.”
“Where we go from here is that the recall election is going through, and we are working very diligently to inform the voters to vote against the recall,” Santiago said. “We have a sample ballot. The recall may be a little confusing for the voters, so we are telling people to vote against the recall of Joe Santiago.”
Santiago’s campaign estimates that fighting the recall will cost $50-$60,000, and they have already begun fundraising, planning an event at the West Side Market Café on Tuesday, November 20.
Santiago is accused of pushing through variances to allow the Mutt Hutt, a day-care center for dogs, to be opened against the wishes of its neighbors, and to allow the La Copa Nightclub to remain open.
He said that he goes to planning commission meetings when it involves his ward, but does not pressure commission members.
He also pointed out that it is the state of Ohio, not Cleveland’s government, that has the final say on liquor establishments.
“A lot of residents have the assumption that council has the overall say-so about liquor establishments, when it’s the state of Ohio,” he noted.
Santiago formed a committee to review liquor policies ahead of next year’s city charter review, which is done every ten years. The committee has met once, and will meet again in December, with an eye on giving recommendations in January.
He is also accused of withholding funds from the Clark-Metro Development Corporation. Santiago controls federal money that can be disbursed to community development corporations in his ward.
When Cintron was on the council, he had what was at times a combative relationship with the organization, at one point calling for it to be merged with a better-performing community development corporation like Ohio City or Tremont West.
Santiago alleges that Cintron micro-managed Clark-Metro when he was councilor, but that the city does not control the development corporations.
“What the residents of the Clark-Metro area need to realize is, the board is responsible for how the organization is running and what’s coming in and out of the organization,” he said. “The reason Clark-Metro is going through what it’s going through is that they did not meet their own goals.”
“Each organization that is funded by council sets goals, and they have to meet those goals for the year,” he continued. “That’s why it’s critical that the residents hold the board responsible, and really the residents should be looking at a full investigation into why they did not meet their goals.”
Cintron, who is now on the board of Clark-Metro, is widely expected to run for the vacant seat if Santiago is recalled. He has yet to confirm that he will run, however.
“I haven’t decided none of that stuff,” he noted. “What I can tell you is this, there is a group of people that advise me, people from churches, EMS, firefighters, police, who do not want to reveal their names, who are part of the committee for the recall, who want to make sure the next person understands the value of Ward 14 because they’re stakeholders in Ward 14, they’re residents.”
After two years, the electors decided for a recall,” he continued. “They figured, this is the best way to lead Ward 14. The city charter was done in 1931, it gave the people that power.”
“The bottom line is, Ward 14 residents wanted a recall, and we have to respect their wishes,” he concluded.
Santiago has already received the endorsements of a number of unions, and his team is finalizing the endorsement of the teachers’ union. He is supported by the entire Cleveland City Council, Mayor Frank Jackson, Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Cuyahoga County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora.
One of the concerns expressed by other Cleveland councilors is a belief that the recall clause in the city charter should be used only for serious wrongdoing, but this recall seems to be motivated by disagreements in policy decisions, at best.
Ward 3 Councilor Zack Reed, in a special November 1 council meeting to set the recall election date, pointed to his 2005 drinking and driving conviction--which produced no recall attempt--arguing that he had brought shame to council but that Santiago had not.
During the November 10 elections board hearing, Santiago sat silently near the back of the room. Ward 18 councilor Jay Westbrook and Ward 13’s Joseph Cimperman both attended the hearing, sitting immediately behind Santiago.
Regardless of accusations of misleading signature gathering or neglected duty, support of City Council or firefighters who do not want their names used, Cintron summed it all up: “This is democracy.”