The Cleveland Cavaliers’ arena was renovated 12 years ago, but team owner Dan Gilbert has spent almost a year fighting a pitched battle to divert millions of dollars in public money towards extensive arena renovations. The proposed slate of renovations would cost $140 million, with half the tab being picked up by taxpayers in Cuyahoga County. However, the county’s plan would be to sell bonds to investors—they’d have to, since the county is $1 billion in the hole already—then pay them off over the next 17 years, bringing the total cost up to an estimated $282 million, before any overages, delays, or interest payments are factored in.
In April, the Cleveland City Council voted 12-5 in favor of the proposal, thanks to some wheeling and dealing from Gilbert. That margin meant it passed as an emergency measure, meaning it kicked in immediately. However, even emergency measures are subject to referendums and voters immediately gathered signatures to put a referendum on the ballot, which Gilbert and friends immediately attacked and tried to blame citizens for Cleveland maybe not getting the chance to someday host an NBA all-star game. It got so convoluted that the city even sued itself. Once the clerk of the city council tried to reject the proposed referendum on the grounds that it would “unconstitutionally abridge an existing contract,” the case went to Ohio’s Supreme Court.
Last Thursday, the Supreme Court voted 4-3 to reject the city council’s effort to scuttle the referendum. Four justices determined that the funding effort was not in fact an emergency measure and that the very legitimate efforts to put the matter to a public vote were legitimate. They made it clear that their decision had nothing to do with the arena deal as a proposal, but rather was concerned with honoring the rights of citizens.
But the issue before us is not whether the arena deal should go forward. The issue here is simpler: whether the clerk must determine the sufficiency of the petition and, if the petition is sufficient, allow the people to vote on the referendum. One may reasonably be in favor of both the arena renovation and providing citizens the opportunity to vote on the renovation.
Some council members want to push a Sept. 18 council meeting up 12 days in order to put the issue on the November ballot, which would prevent Cleveland from spending around $750,000 on a special election. Since Mayor Frank Jackson and every city council member are up for re-election in November, those sympathetic to the deal will likely try and push it off the ballot since it might mobilize more voters who would theoretically vote against them as well as the stadium deal.
If Dan Gilbert truly wants to help Cleveland, save its citizens some money, and maybe get them an All-Star Game, he can pony up the $70 million and be done with it. He can afford it.
Correction (Aug. 15, 12:44 p.m. EDT): An earlier version of this blog stated that the measure passed the city council 11-6. It passed 12-5.