Q-and-A: Mayor Justin Bibb looks back on first 100 days in office

Discusses future of Burke, police staffing and All-Star permit blowback
Justin Bibb.jpg
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-18 17:28:07-04

CLEVELAND — Cleveland's 58th mayor Justin Bibb has reached his first 100 days in office. His administration kicked off with a cold welcome from Mother Nature as a major snowstorm hit the city. Residents couldn’t navigate unplowed streets and called for the mayor to do something. A mayor who barely had the chance to warm his office chair was met with his first big challenge to fix the city's snow removal system, to which he responded, give me some time – I just got here.

What he did with that time would be tested quickly because another storm hit soon after, and this time residents' complaints were met with more action, including the utilization of technology that tracks snowplows to inform people of streets that had been cleared, which was updated hourly, showing progress tracked in real-time.

Time is something Bibb wants voters to be mindful of, saying, "Change takes time. Structural change takes even more time." On the Voices for Change podcast, recorded in our station’s podcast studio on April 6, 2022, Bibb joined News 5 anchor Danita Harris to share what his first 100 days have been like so far — the highs, the lows, the challenges and the unexpected.

Listen here or read the interview below.

Danita Harris: So glad to have you as my first in-person guest.

Mayor Justin Bibb: It's a blessing.

Harris: So, first 100 days. How do you feel?

Bibb: Well, it certainly feels like more than 100 days in office. When you think about all that we've experienced so far in our administration, you know, for me, my time in office really started on New Year's Eve when I got the call from our director of public safety Kerry Howard, that officer Shane Bartek had been killed during a carjacking. And that moment I felt the weight of the office, and I felt the desire to not only lead with empathy, but to always be centered in my number one responsibility of protecting residents, but also making sure that I deliver on the commitments I made throughout the campaign. And as you said in your opening comments, change is not going to come easy. It takes time. And the biggest thing that we've learned so far is if you make a mistake, talk about the mistake. Talk about what you learned but also talk about what you're going to do to get better every single day. And that's my hope to the residents of Cleveland.

Harris: You were present at the roll call with Officer Bartek's fellow officers that morning, bright and early. What made you do that?

Bibb: As a son of a police officer, I understand to a certain level the pain and the anxiety that goes into being the family of a first responder, and I couldn't help but think of what it would have felt like if my father didn't make it home one night serving in the line of duty. So when we made the decision to call Officer Bartek's death a line of duty death, I thought it was important for me to go to the Fifth District, to talk to his brothers and sisters and tell them our decision and why I want to fight for our first responders day in, day out, as they serve and protect our city.

Harris: So what has surprised you so far, being mayor of Cleveland?

Bibb: The amount of issues big or small that come across my desk every single day, it certainly is hard to fathom when you're a candidate versus when you're being in the office. But I think the biggest thing that surprises me and continues to excite me is just the level of optimism that residents have in the city right now. I think as we claw our way out of this pandemic and move to an endemic status coming out of COVID 19, Cleveland has a unique opportunity to really reemerge as not only just a leading Midwest city, but a leading city in the country, and I'm excited to put in the work to make that a reality.

Harris: This voter turnout when you were elected into office, it wasn't a big turnout, and some would say that that's because some people have lost faith in government and really hearing what voters are saying. But you have made it a priority to not only hear but to act on what you're hearing. How do you think that's going so far?

Bibb: I think it's going well, but we have a lot of work to do. You know, when I was spending all of last year knocking on doors, talking to voters, the biggest thing that they told me was this is the first time that a candidate actually knocked on my door and asked for my vote. And as I take my 100th day in office, the listening has to continue. It doesn't stop during election season. It has to continue in terms of how we govern to maintain that proximity to the residents that were trying to serve.

Harris: What has been your biggest challenge so far?

Bibb: Managing expectations.

Harris: Details, please.

Bibb: You talked about the snowstorm, and I had several meetings in the transition examining our snow removal policy, visiting Operation Snow Bird. But the biggest thing we discovered during that first snowstorm during MLK Day was we were down 20 drivers and 20 trucks. And you don't know when a policy isn't working until you see it in real-time. It's so important that when we come up with public policies, that the policies that we create and the rhetoric and the messaging that we have really meets the improvement of the lived experiences of our residents. And that's my greatest test.

Mayor Bibb on snow removal and biggest challenges in first 100 days

Harris: Let's talk about some good things that are happening with the city. One thing was the NBA All-Star Game coming to this city put Cleveland in the national spotlight. Also, highlighting your hoop skills. Will get into that a little later, mayor. But first a little pushback you received. Eighty-seven businesses applied to have extended hours to sell liquor, and you only approved seven. You heard some flak about that.

Bibb: I did. We get a lot of pushback, but I don't regret the decision. We had a safe All-Star Weekend, not one real major incident. And I couldn't impact putting officers from our neighborhoods to Downtown and putting them at risk, us being down 200 cops during that weekend, and so I had to make a call. And being mayor is not a job about being popular. It's about making the right decisions to protect the safety and the well-being of our residents. And that's what I was elected to do, and I'm confident I made the right decision.

Harris: How did you feel about minority business owners, African-American business owners, having problems with you, not allowing them to do that? That didn't sit well with you?

Bibb: Well, it didn't. I think one early lesson I learned in making that decision was being a bit more proactive and having those conversations with those stakeholders before I made it public. So they [stakeholders] understood where I was coming from, because sometimes when you're working to keep a business afloat or working to stay in your job, you don't have the luxury to understand all of the context of how I make my decision. So it's up to me as mayor to overly communicate my rationale of how I came to a certain decision and why it's the best decision for the residents of Cleveland.

Harris: Great segue – overly communicating transparency with media, giving the media access to what you're doing and why you're doing — how does your administration differ from previous administrations as far as the media is concerned?

Bibb: I think me being here is a testament to my commitment to transparency and making sure that I'm an accessible mayor, making sure that my cabinet is accessible. We had to open up the doors of City Hall, and that's the biggest way for us to rebuild that trust in our local democracy, and I'm committed to doing that as the mayor of the city.

Harris: Let's talk now about Issue 24. I want to know how things are going with you and the police and this community-based commission you have set up and invested money into. It won. People say they want this.

Bibb: Large mandate.

Harris: Large mandate. So how do you feel this is going to be received now that it's being activated?

Bibb: I think the residents of Cleveland are optimistic about our prospects to truly have responsible, accountable policing in the City of Cleveland. As you know, City Council in March approved my budget that fully funds our police commission. We're in the process right now of attracting applicants to serve on our police commission. Judge (Solomon) Oliver, within days of my law director Mark Griffin and I, testifying in front of the Department of Justice, approved our recommendations to the consent decree around Issue 24, which is now called Charter Section 115, because it is the law of the City of Cleveland. It's codified in our charter, and everything that we do in policing must be community-based. Just several weeks ago, I spent my evening doing a ride-along in the Fourth District, and I see many of our officers leading with empathy, leading with grace, really focused on protecting and serving our residents, and they just need better tools to do their job. And I'm optimistic that Issue 24 will go a long way to meeting that moment and meeting that clarion call from our residents.

Harris: It's interesting because there's a shortage right now with our police department and trying to attract people. What do you think the problem is? I know there's mandatory overtime to fill those holes, but that's going to wear out the officers that we have, and we need to bring some new ones in. What do you think is the block there?

Bibb: I think as we are going through this budget process and really reimagining what policing should look like in a post-George Floyd era, it's important to have, I think, a fact-based conversation about the level of deployment we have in our police department and what the right staffing model looks like. When you look at the data, we actually, right now in Cleveland, have more police per resident than many of our large peer cities across the state and across the country. The issue is, and this is something I'm working on with my leadership in the police department, are we deploying our officers in a more appropriate way to fight violent crime? Every week, I'm examining crime data, particularly our gun-related homicides that exist in the city and a large share, roughly 90% of all of our gun-related homicides in the city, are occurring in just several neighborhoods. And we must do a better job of deploying better data, better technology and better solutions to really address these hotspots and crime. But, largely, we can't continue to have a public safety-only lens to solve this problem. And that's why our commitment to always put people in neighborhoods first will go a long way, I think, long-term, to cut down violent crime in our city.

Harris: Let's move now to City Council. We had some heated City Council meetings so far, and I hear you laughing. I'm laughing. How is your relationship with the City Council?

Bibb: I think we have a very good, productive working relationship. You know, they are a co-equal branch of government, and it's important that they get up to speed and identify their legislative agenda and priorities. I'm happy to say that our budget passed with only three no votes. I think that council president Blaine Griffin is the right leader for the body of council during this time, and we work every single day to move our city forward.

Harris: With your budget, something you made very clear and some people had issues with – you wanting to increase the salaries of people and how you said, ‘Look, if we want to attract good people, if we want to retain them, then we're going to have to pay them. Absolutely.’ And that's something happening and happening in industries all over.

Bibb: We have major issues right now in our labor market, and because I've spent so much of my time prior to becoming mayor working in business, working in the nonprofit sector, I've seen what works from a management perspective, and I see what doesn't work from management perspective. And I believe investing in your talent is one of the biggest things you can do to really enact a cultural change you need for turning around a city government that had the same management for over 16 years. So I was able to attract leaders who worked at the highest aspects of banking and finance and in government and higher education to serve in my administration. Because we deserve, and the residents deserve, to have world-class talent serving them, and I have to make sure I pay them appropriately to get that kind of talent working inside City Hall.

Harris: And to maintain the talent here. Would you say this is like old school versus your new school now? How would you define what's happening here?

Bibb: When you are a mayor you’ve got to use new and old school approaches. You know, there are not many new technology tools you need to fix a pothole, but there is a lot of technology we need to invest in and adopt to modernize City Hall to do a better job delivering for our residents.

Harris: Let's move over now to Burke Lakefront Airport. Some leaders are talking about possibly going to close. What's the status right now?

Bibb: We are studying every option that exists to ensure we can have a world-class lakefront that not only rivals cities like Chicago and Baltimore, but beats them, and I think having a dynamic, vibrant lakefront will be a key lever to attract population long-term in our city.

Harris: There is a magazine and I was reading it today, and they're quoting you. I want to make sure I get it right. It's called The American Prospect. Great article. Very in-depth. They're saying in this article that if you ask people about Bibb's governing philosophy, you'll get 12 different answers. Do you think people are trying to pinhole you into one thing?

Bibb: Yes. And I think that's the problem with American politics right now. Either you are an establishment Democrat or a progressive Democrat or you're a moderate Republican or a right-wing Republican. One of my favorite quotes comes from the former mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto. He says that in American politics, there are three political parties: Democrats, Republicans and mayors. So when I'm at the church or the barbershop or the grocery store, no one cares what party I am. They want the snow removed. They want their leaves picked up. They want their trash recycled. They want their streets safe and their schools to be of good quality. That's the only thing that matters, and I have to get stuff done at the end of the day.

Harris: Yes, you do, because you have a lot of lots to do. Did you ever think that being mayor of one of the poorest big cities in America would be something in your future?

Bibb: As a kid growing up in the Southeast side, seeing my parents' commitment to public service, I always felt a calling on my heart to give back. I didn't know it would be mayor or Congress, but I believe it's important that my generation steps up and takes the mantle, and it's critical that coming out of COVID-19, coming out of the massive protests we saw after George Floyd's murder around racial equality, that we do a massive reset in America because we can't go back to normal. There is no going back to normal, and I take that mantle of the challenge that we have as an opportunity to really make Cleveland one city in the country where the American Dream is still alive and possible, and that's the task I have ahead of us.

Harris: Speaking of the pandemic, mayor, we need to do better with our vaccination rate.

Bibb: Absolutely.

Harris: What is happening there and how can we improve it?

Bibb: We have been working very hard since we took the oath of office on January 3 to rally the community around boosting our vaccination rates. We started our COVID-19 task force in my second week of office, and in just three months we've boosted vaccination rates by nearly 49%. It was 45% when we started. We're working with organizations like the Guardians of Cleveland out of the Cleveland Foundation, the NBA and the Cleveland Cavaliers, and all of our hospitals to make sure we can restore that trust and talk about the importance of getting vaccinated because vaccinations are the best thing we can do to protect our city, particularly communities of color, from the onslaught of COVID-19.

Harris: Another area where you've been very vocal is about businesses, small businesses, minority-owned businesses, specifically women. I want to hear your passion for that and seeing those businesses get an opportunity to be a success.

Bibb: I know from firsthand experience, from my mom's example, in my grandmother's example, that women are the backbone of our neighborhoods and our families.

Harris: Mayor, I'm going to ask you to say that one more time. Can you say it for the people in the back – that women what?

Bibb: They're the backbone of our neighborhoods and our families, and I believe that a city that works for women is a city that can work for everybody, and as we were ranked several years ago as the worst city in this country for Black women, it is incumbent upon me as a mayor of this city to dismantle any structural barrier system that undermines the ability of our women to succeed and live up to their potential. And so we're working very hard to ensure that City Hall invests in women-owned businesses, that we invest in public health, address infant mortality crises plaguing many of our Black women in our city, but also make Cleveland an attractive city for Black women to come and create a business and start a family and live out their dreams. The best cities in the country have figured it out. We need to lead the way and learn a lot from them.

Harris: Have you been communicating with other mayors and learning from them?

Bibb: We have kind of a special club of us now. I've gotten to know the mayors. Speaking of great women mayors, the mayor of Boston, Michelle Wu, and the mayor of St. Louis, Tishaura Jones, the mayor of Louisville, Greg Fischer, Mayor Eric Adams out of New York, and others have been really good comrades and really figuring out how to do the job because we share a lot of the same issues on a daily basis.

Harris: I recently did a podcast on millennial women in the workplace, and one of the criticisms of millennials in general — we know you're a millennial mayor — is that millennials, they're anxious and they want what they want when they want it. I'm not taking 10 years to get there. I want to get there. Do you think your age is working for you? Does it work against you in some areas? And what is your philosophy in that millennial mindset? Because the feedback I got was, no, we just want to get to the solution. It's not that we don't want to pay dues, we just think quicker and you've been kind of conditioned to be that way.

Bibb: Our generation has seen so much, you know, from 9/11 to the wars in the Middle East, in Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Great Recession in 2008, to the pandemic, to the murder of George Floyd, to now we're seeing this tragic tragedy in Europe between Russia and Ukraine, and our generation feels as if we can't afford to be mired by the failed ways of the past and the status quo. Many of my cohort truly are guided by a sense of urgency. We can create a business like that and make millions of dollars or create a new startup that can help solve a major disease. We have all the tools, all the technology. We just need the political will, and cities like Cleveland across the country, to get stuff done.

Harris: Any great city, I believe, especially in minority communities, we know that the Black church was the foundation that we went to, not just for faith, but also for social services. Where do you see Cleveland in that area? When you ran, you had great support from a lot of pastors in this city. What is missing in that? Because some people feel there's a disconnect between church and community?

Bibb: When I was growing up, you had no choice but to go to church. You were singing in the church choir in a weekend vacation, Bible school in the summer. You were always in the church. And I think that we've lost the importance of that connectivity to not just our faith-based institutions, but just community in general. And I'm hopeful that after this pandemic, we can kind of get back to those norms of being more connected to our neighbors, being more neighborly. One thing we're trying to do inside City Hall is really revamp our Office of Community Relations to focus on community affairs and public engagement, where our faith-based community, our LGBTQ community, our veteran affairs community can truly be leveraged as an extension of City Hall to maintain that proximity and connectivity to our residents.

Harris: What would you say to parents who are concerned about safety and violence? Young people — I'm talking about it every day — gun violence here in Cleveland. What would you say that your administration is doing to help parents?

Bibb: For the first time ever, we have a cabinet-level official in city hall. My chief of youth and family success, Sonya Pryor-Jones, and her whole job is to look at every asset we have in city government to make sure it's really focused on improving the conditions of families and children across the city — making sure that regardless if you're in Mount Pleasant or in West Park, there's a good quality park, a good quality grocery store, a good quality job you can walk to. If we improve those conditions, crime is no longer a problem. That needs to be our focus. But we'll do everything we can in government. But it also starts at home. We have to make sure that people have the tools they need to be good parents and give them the empowerment they need to achieve their potential as well, too.

Harris: What would you say is something you learned at home that is helping you be an effective mayor?

Bibb: Since the responsibility, to whom much is given, much is required. But for the grace of God, I would not be sitting before you today as the second youngest mayor, the youngest Black mayor in Cleveland's history, and there were everyday heroes and sheroes who looked out for me along the way when my mom was working two shifts and my grandmother was out and not at home, and it's important that we get back to that. It takes a village. It truly takes a village, and I think if more folks across the city and across this country had that perspective, we would be a lot better off.

Harris: What would you say has been one of the most unfair criticisms of you and your administration so far?

Bibb: I think every criticism has been fair, to be honest. This job is a big job, and I don't shy away or make any excuses for the work that we've done or the decisions that we made. Voters have a right to call me out. What's not fair, I think, is just this mentality of Cleveland being an outdated city and us modernizing the office of the mayor seems kind of a stretch to some. I'm trying to move Cleveland into the 21st Century, and that might be hard for folks to understand, but I think in the future, folks will look back and say this was the moment where we truly turned the tide.

Harris: I think you ran on change, but I feel that Cleveland definitely resists change because Cleveland loves Cleveland, just the way Cleveland is.

Bibb: And you've got to have a higher sense of expectations.

Harris: That's a tough thing to go against because it's almost like in the fiber of the city and you're trying to shift that.

Bibb: We've got to want better and demand better, and that's why I ran, and that's why I'm committed to leading the city the best way I can every single day.

Harris: All right. You handled all of my administration questions, and now I have to do this because I know people are wondering. All right, let's go to the other thing. Let's talk about what the mayor is doing when the mayor isn't in office. I watched the game and you know, your hoop skills. When did you start falling in love with basketball?

Bibb: Basketball was my first love before politics. My dream was to be the number two guard at Duke. Kind of mad that Duke didn't win the Final Four national championship this year. Shout out to Coach K, but you know, when I realized I wasn't going to be the next LeBron James, I had to find something else to do. But you can find me on Saturday mornings playing ball at CSU on most weekends.

Harris: Wow. And I know family is very important to you and your relationship with your mom is key. I've interviewed your mother, and she's been very honest, and your mother is very straightforward.

Bibb: Yes, she is.

Harris: I would say she definitely serves it straight. No chaser.

Bibb: She tells it like…

Harris: She tells it like it is. But one thing that she is definitely serious about is the vision. She's big on a vision. What is your vision for this city?

Bibb: My vision for the city is to one day raise a family in Cleveland where my future son or daughter says they want to go off to college, but it's the city they want to come back to. Where if you travel to L.A. or D.C. or London or Copenhagen or Johannesburg, when you say you're from Cleveland, people's eyes light up. That's what's at stake. And that's what I'm trying to achieve.

Harris: That's the CLE you want it to be.

Bibb: A land on the rise.

You can listen to more Voices for Change podcast interviews here.

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