CLEVELAND - An exclusive NewsChannel5 investigation reveals Cleveland City Council expense accounts have more cash to spend than counterparts in similar-sized cities.
Each council member has a $1,200 per month expense account, which translates to $14,400 a year. Our investigation found the city's policies have few restrictions regarding how members use those accounts.
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. For example, Minneapolis bans its 13 members from purchasing tickets or donating to charity with money from its accounts. Members there receive $10,490 a year for expenses.
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.
"We run on kind of shoestring budget," said Tulsa Councilor Jeannie Cue. She said she and the eight other city councilors have no need for an expense account. "They're not out there to get paid back. Their pay is improvements in the city of Tulsa."
A spokesperson for Columbus City Council said none of its seven members have filed an expense report since 2008.
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.
O'Brien said council members' practice of giving arbitrary raises to their executive assistants through expense account reimbursements should be reviewed.
"If they want to use extra money to pay employees, perhaps at the expense of the taxpayers, that's not a good idea," he said.
NewsChannel5 investigators found 11 of the 19 council members use their expense accounts to give monthly raises to their executive assistants. Each council member has their own executive assistant. They are paid $39,621.50 per year.
Ward 3 Councilman Joe Cimperman pays his executive assistant $1,199.99 more each month using his expense account. The other members increase they executive assistants' salaries by varying amounts each month.
Ward 14 Councilman Brian Cummins pays his executive assistant an extra $100 per month.
"I don't see a problem in terms of how I am using it," he said. "I don't think anyone would view $100 a month as an abuse."
Cummins said the councils' executive assistants are paid less than employees with similar jobs in the city of Cleveland. He said he is fighting to increase their pay.
The city of Cleveland requires several people, often including Mayor Frank Jackson, to sign off before any employee can receive a raise. Most positions usually have a pre-set salary range, according to Maureen Harper, a spokesperson for Jackson.
O'Brien said other items council members can expense are unusual.
For example, our investigators found only Ward 11 Councilman Mike Polensek uses his expense account to help pay for his personal car. He requests reimbursement for a percentage of the payment, insurance and gas for his 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour. Expense report records show the reimbursement requests usually add up to more than $400 each month.
Records also show Ward 10 Councilman Eugene Miller regularly requests reimbursements for staff lunches. We found he spent $1,005 on lunches during a six-month period.
Our investigators also found Ward 12 Councilman Tony Brancatelli spent $550 for a table for 10 at Jackson's State of the City address last year. He spent $352 on three holiday greetings in The Neighborhood News newspaper. Brancatelli also paid $50
for holiday greeting ads on the "Primetime Polkas" and the "Czech Voice of Cleveland" radio programs.
The expense account records also show many council members do use their expense accounts for routine business expenses and to aid their communities. Our investigators found members often pay for their ward offices, their phones and use the money for community events.
"There are legitimate expenses that members of council will have," said O'Brien.