by Joe Narkin
(Plain Press, March 2014) Recently retired Councilman Jay Westbrook would like to be remembered as a public servant whose efforts have been “all about community.” For over three decades, beginning with his election to Cleveland City Council in 1979 and continuing up until his retirement at the end of 2013, his primary objective in office has been to “democratize local government, to be a friend of neighborhoods and communities, and to work in concert with the interests of the people,” said Westbrook.
Westbrook shared his thoughts about his time in office with the Plain Press during an interview on January 14, 2014.
Working as a community organizer prior to his election, Westbrook considers himself fortunate to have entered elective office during the early stages of a populist period within the City of Cleveland and throughout the nation. In Cleveland, emergent populism gained momentum in 1977 when Dennis Kucinich defeated incumbent Ralph Perk in the mayoral election.
Of course, entrenched business interests were not willing to yield power without a fight. The City of Cleveland was forced into default in the face of Mayor Kucinich’s resolute refusal to privatize Cleveland Public Power. Consequently, Kucinich was subjected to a failed recall election and, in the face of a relentless anti-Kucinich public relations campaign, he was held to a single term in office, losing the 1979 mayoral election to George Voinovich.
Despite Kucinich’s mayoral setback, a number of young council members with roots in the community activist movement, such as Earle Turner, Mike White, Lonnie Burton, Jim Rokakis, and Mike Polensek, had been elected to council prior Westbrook’s arrival. But council was politically polarized between the populist newcomers and those council members who were primarily interested in maintaining a status quo that favored the interests of big business over the interests of the larger community of citizens.
“There was a kind of trickle-down policy of government; if businesses wanted something, they got it (with the erroneous rationale that) the benefits would trickle down to the people,” said Westbrook. Throughout the 1980’s, Westbrook and his allies on Council challenged the trickle-down concept and challenged leadership, especially when it came to tax breaks for downtown business interests, according to the Councilman.
While Westbrook recognizes that some people may believe that nothing much has changed in the governance of the City and respects such dissenting viewpoints, he believes that there has been a fundamental and enduring change in the way the City of Cleveland governs, placing the best interests of its residents first.
“I feel like my career in politics has had three distinct phases to it,” said Westbrook.
The first phase, roughly coinciding with the period of 1980 to 1989, was a period in which City Council began to initiate a climate of change that required “challenge and protest against the (existing) political structure,” said Westbrook. During this period, other allies in the progressive movement such as Frank Jackson, Ray Pianka, Helen Smith, Gus Frangos, and Dan Brady were elected to City Council, according to Westbrook.
The second phase is the period of 1990 to 1999 when Westbrook served as the President of the Cleveland City Council, a period in which Westbrook sought to institutionalize democratization of government. “I tried to help instill a sense of openness, careful deliberation, and harmony with the interests and needs of the people,” said Westbrook.
And, Westbrook believes that the residents of the City of Cleveland recognized the harmonious and effective working style of Council at that time. This is evidenced by the fact that, for the first time in history, every member of Council was re-elected to office in 1993.
An interesting side note to the first two phases of Westbrook’s council tenure is the fact that he joined with other Council members in a push to open Council caucus meetings to the general public. Consequently, he was closed out of all caucus meetings until 1985. In 1989, Westbrook became the first President of Cleveland City Council to be elected in a caucus that was open to the public.
Deposed in a “coup” as Council President in 1999,” during the third phase of his Council tenure (2000 through 2013), Westbrook actively sought to “partner with Frank Jackson, Marty Sweeney, and others in the City administration to institutionalize change and to make it an established part of government.”
Westbrook notes that, during his tenure, he has been gratified to see many councilpersons move into other positions of public service at the city, county, and local levels while remaining committed to populist principles. In particular, Westbrook notes the accomplishments of three-term Mayor Frank Jackson, who has honored his campaign slogan to “serve the least among us.”
Mayor Jackson’s commitment to practicing “purposeful politics rather than a politics of personality” is what persuaded the Mayor to run for a third term as mayor in order “to exert mayoral control over the Cleveland Municipal School District and build the alliances necessary to transforming the school system into a center of excellence in urban education,” said Westbrook.
Westbrook gives credit to Mayor Jackson for spearheading the “Sustainability 2019” initiative. “The Mayor clearly recognizes that urban governments will succeed or fail based upon environmental principles of sustainability,” he said.
And, during a time of declining population and declining financial resources, it is critical for the City of Cleveland to operate within a balanced budget while maintaining critical resources for residents. “We do not have the type of growth in the tax base to keep pace with the cost of inflation,” said Westbrook. As Council Representative to Mayor Jackson’s Operation Efficiency Task Force, Westbrook recognizes that the City has largely avoided the catastrophic conditions that have arisen in many other urban communities.
Primary among the accomplishments of City Council during Westbrook’s tenure is the “development of very effective community development corporations (CDC’s); even the most stable communities are not going to be saved solely by market forces,” said Westbrook. While recognizing that attempts to “reshape and energize CDC’s have had a mixed record, Council has come to a consensus that effective and responsive CDC’s are critical to community development,” said Westbrook. “We cannot expect city government to be as responsive as CDC’s to the housing and other needs of its citizens,” he said.
One of the most important initiatives championed by Westbrook is the Cleveland Code Enforcement Partnership. “Under this partnership between CDC’s and City government, the priorities of neighborhoods are put first” and the partnership helps position neighborhoods to effectively harness the enforcement powers of the Department of Building and Housing and the Municipal Housing Court. In the midst of the foreclosure crisis, a multi-decade loss of population in the City, and faced with dereliction of duty on the part of absentee landlords, such a partnership is critical to neighborhood stabilization.
“The primary culprit is not the elderly lady with the missing porch spindle, but predators who seek only economic advantage for their selves,” said Westbrook.
Effective government requires “reflective engagement, the ability to put goals, objectives, and principles into practice, and the ability to adjust your strategies and tools as you work towards your objectives,” said Westbrook.
While he has retired from Council, Westbrook indicates that he hopes to continue to play an activist role as a private citizen, particularly in helping to stabilize the housing stock and reverse decades of outmigration from the City of Cleveland.