CLEVELAND — Some voters in Cleveland's Ward 4 are wondering why former Cleveland City Council member Ken Johnson is still in the Sept. 14 primary ballot despite his July 30 felony convictions on 15 federal counts, including theft from a federal program and tax violations.
Rachel Scalish, special counsel to Cleveland City Council, said current state law allows those convicted of a felony to be on a ballot, but Scalish said Johnson couldn't take office according to the city charter if he won in the September primary and the Nov. 2 general election.
Scalish said if Johnson somehow won the general election it would create a Ward 4 vacancy that Cleveland City Council would fill with a temporary appointment, thus triggering a special election for the seat in 2022.
“The primary for the special election would be 100 days after the vacancy, and the the special general election would be held two months or eight weeks after that primary election," Scalish said. “There’s frustration with the way, I think, that this all happened. There is nothing that we as council members or elected officials can do, it’s really up to the state.”
Ward 4 resident and voter Kari Collier said she believes state law should be changed, that the possible scenario involving Johnson could take votes away from the nine other candidates who could lawfully take office. Collier said she's concerned there is a possibility that all votes cast for the other candidates this September and November could be rendered moot if city council is forced to make a temporary appointment for the Ward 4 council seat in January.
“It will pull votes away from other candidates and that will mean the really good ones will suffer," Collier said. “A felon shouldn’t be allowed to be in the ballot. That’s ridiculous, if you’re a felon you shouldn’t be allowed to do either one, certainly not hold office, that’s absolutely ridiculous.”
Baldwin Wallace University professor and News 5 political analyst Tom Sutton said he believes the current state law should be changed because it could have a negative impact on voter turnout and faith in the election process.
“It certainly gives a bad reputation to the whole concept of running for office and who gets elected," Sutton said. “It doesn’t help much with voter turnout, which in Cleveland is already very, very low. During the August special election for the 11th District Congressional seat, Cleveland had just a 13% voter turnout."
Sutton said he believes there needs to be a new approach regarding who can be on the ballot.
“There needs to be some alignment of state and local law when it comes to these issues, and there needs to be a little bit more aggressive approach as to who can be on a ballot. To me it’s about the voters, the residents and those issues of integrity and getting people to see that’s it’s worth participating in the process,” Sutton said.
News 5 reached out to Johnson for comment on this story, but we're still waiting for a response. The attorneys for Johnson, who had been a Cleveland council member for 40 years, have asked for a new trial in the case.
Johnson is set for an Oct. 8 sentencing, and if that happens, according to Secretary of State guidelines, the board of elections could determine Johnson's votes in the general election would not be counted. But if Johnson's sentencing is delayed, he could remain a viable candidate on the ballot, and if he won, it would trigger a city council appointment.
Despite all the possible scenarios, Ward 4 Shaker Square businessman and owner of Edwins Restaurant Leadership Institute Brandon Chrostowski said he has confidence Ward 4 voters will make informed choices.
“Justice got us into this mess and justice will get us out of this mess," Chrostowski said. “Every vote counts and it’s so important, the name of the game right here is you’ve got to be an informed voter.”
“You’ve got to be an informed voter, you’ve got to get out an vote, you’ve got to be an active participant in the system. It makes my stomach turn to know that a hard earned vote went somewhere maybe it shouldn’t. But at the same time we have to be active in our voting process, we have to be engaged and know what’s going on,” Chrostowski continued. “The residents of Ward 4 are smarter than that, they’re active, they’re engaged and I believe they’ll make the right decision come Sept. 14.”