As expected, members of the coalition opposing the deal to give Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert $70 million in public money so he can build a big glass wall filed petitions yesterday containing more than 20,000 signatures seeking to have the agreement overturned. As not so much expected, the Cleveland city council clerk’s office told them to take a hike, arguing that accepting the petitions would “unconstitutionally impair an already executed and binding contract”:
“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.
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.”
This did not go over well with coalition leaders Rev. Jawanza Colvin of Olivet Institutional Baptist Church and Rev. Richard Gibson of Elizabeth Baptist Church, who held out their arms demanding to be handcuffed and arrested, saying they had no intention of leaving unless the petitions were accepted. Eventually the council “took custody” of the petitions without accepting them as “filed,” and everybody went back to their own corners to figure out their next steps.
Exactly what the hell the Cleveland council is thinking isn’t clear, since the arena renovation deal would involve county bonds, which are explicitly subject to repeal by public referendum under Ohio law. (Actually the bonds haven’t even been sold yet, as the county has been waiting on the referendum drive before moving ahead with that.) There’s some question as to whether a public vote overturning the bonds could also overturn the agreement between the council and Gilbert over how to use the proceeds of the bonds — in which case presumably the council would need to come up with $70 million some other way — but there doesn’t seem to be any precedent for refusing to accept referendum petitions on the grounds of “go away, kid, don’t bother me.” This was all going to end up in court sooner or later, and it sounds like the smart money is on “sooner” now.