Cleveland City Council members react to NewsChannel5's expense account investigation

CLEVELAND - Some Cleveland City Council members refused to answer questions about their expense account policy prior to their meeting Monday night.

An e xclusive NewsChannel investigation found Cleveland City Council members have larger and more lenient expense accounts than many similar-sized cities. Each member can be reimbursed for up to $1,200 per month, which translates to $14,400 a year. There are few restrictions on reimbursements.

When investigator Sarah Buduson asked Cleveland City Council President Martin Sweeney if he was willing to review the policy, he said, " I'm going to start the council meeting. We gotta go. C'mon. Be respectful to us. Welcome to the city. Just be respectful of our council chambers."

Ward 12 Councilman Anthony Brancatelli also turned down the opportunity to respond to our questions.

Ward 17 Councilwoman Dona Brady and Ward 4 Councilman Ken Johnson did respond to our questions about their expense account policy.

 "It can be reviewed. Anything can and always should be reviewed," Brady said.

Johnson said all city policies are reviewed on a regular basis and it's likely the expense account policy will come up for review in June.

NewsChannel5 investigators analyzed nine months of expenses reports from the 19 council members' 2012 reports. We found members requested reimbursements for a wide array of items, including a pack of bubble gum, toilet paper, paid ads, lunches, magazine subscriptions, books, donations to churches and charities, tickets to fundraisers, raises for their assistants and, in one case, a car. 

We also found council members in similar-sized cities would be prohibited from purchasing many of those items.

We compared Cleveland to Minneapolis and eight other cities, based on location and population size. The cities include Arlington, Texas; Cincinnati; Columbus, Ohio; Miami; Oakland; Omaha, Pittsburgh; Tulsa and Wichita.

We found six of the city councils do not have expense accounts. They are Columbus, Omaha, Miami, Tulsa, Oakland, Wichita and Arlington.

Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh's city councils do have expense accounts. Cincinnati's nine council members receive $3,340 every six months. Pittsburgh's nine members receive $8,000 a year. All three cities have stricter policies than Cleveland regarding how expenses are used. For example, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh do not allow members to use their expense accounts to find a car.

"Some things that do lack in the accountability section would be wise to reconsider," said Kevin O'Brien, the executive director of Great Lakes Environmental Finance Center at Cleveland State University, about Cleveland's expense account policy. O'Brien helped craft the charter of the new Cuyahoga County government. Voters approved the creation of a new government in the wake of a massive corruption scandal that ended with the county's top leaders being sent to prison.

O'Brien said council members should consider how the public would view their purchases.

"If you explained it to the public, would they understand and would they think it's a reasonable?" he said.

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