By Kevin Kelley
By an 18-0 vote, Cleveland City Council passed legislation Monday night authorizing the city’s Division of Water to charge Westlake customers fees associated with a possible departure of the suburb from its system.
Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough has said his city would fight the imposition of fees on its residents and businesses.
“We’re continuing to take all legal means and approaches available to us,” Clough told West Life Tuesday morning.
Clough and Westlake City Council members planned a special executive session meeting Tuesday night to decide on the suburb’s next step in the continuing dispute with Cleveland officials. On Tuesday, Clough said the city would release a statement Wednesday on the issue. Late Wednesday afternoon, Clough’s executive assistant, Jaclyn Todd, said the statement would likely be issued by the end of the week.
Clough has said Westlake’s water service agreement with Cleveland expires in 2015. The suburb has been exploring other service options, including a possible switch to Avon Lake Municipal Utilities and purchasing water in bulk from Cleveland and setting up its own water department to administer the distribution. Cleveland officials have said the suburb would be responsible for up to $58.8 million in costs if it leaves the system.
Last week, Clough launched an effort to get the voters of his city involved in the discussion over which water supplier the city should use. He sought to place a resolution before Westlake City Council that would lay the groundwork for placing a charter amendment before voters next year. Under the proposed amendment, the charter would allow council to grant an exclusive franchise for the supply of water from Cleveland’s Division of Water or another supplier. Currently, the charter prohibits any exclusive franchises.
However, Westlake City Council unanimously voted to withdraw the resolution from the agenda of its Nov. 7 meeting. An additional resolution sought by Clough was not added to the agenda by council. Under that resolution, council would formally support Clough’s efforts to get the Suburban Water Regional Council of Governments to back Westlake in its dispute with Cleveland’s Division of Water.
In a caucus meeting prior to Thursday’s regular council meeting, several council members questioned the wisdom of a charter amendment allowing an exclusive water franchise.
Noting that Cleveland is insistent on being the sole supplier of water to its customers, Clough said the charter amendment might be necessary if the suburb is forced to choose a single water source. The mayor has said he would like for Westlake to be able to purchase water from both Avon Lake Municipal Utilities and Cleveland’s Division of Water at bulk rates.
Under the current water service agreement with Cleveland, the exclusivity ban is addressed with an accompanying memorandum of understanding stating that Cleveland is the de facto sole supplier of water but not the exclusive one.
The caucus meeting was followed by a executive session meeting of about 50 minutes that delayed the start of the regular council meeting.
Westlake City Council President Mike Killeen later said council wanted to be more circumspect with regard to any charter amendment.
“Council thought it was a little premature to consider that yet,” Killeen told West Life.
Ward 1 Councilman Ed Hack, who made the motion to move the resolution from council’s agenda, said the consensus among council members was that such a longstanding provision of the charter should not be amended without considerable thought.
Council’s disagreement with the mayor did not represent a break in rank on the issue, but rather a desire by council for the suburb to move more carefully on the issue, Hack said. Council has not lost its appetite for a possible battle with Cleveland or the desire to set up its own water department, Hack told West Life. However, council does want to look more closely at the financial aspects of future water supply arrangements, he added. The concern that the fear of additional water fees contributed to the failure of the Westlake City Schools operation levy also is weighing on some members’ minds, Hack said.
Until Thursday, the mayor and Westlake City Council members appeared to be of one mind in the suburb’s efforts to explore alternative water supply options. Clough and Killeen said that has not changed.
“We may have different views on things, but the objective is the same,” the council president said.
“I think we’re all on the same page,” Clough said, adding that there may be differing thoughts on approaches. “We are going to have a united front.”
The mayor said Westlake leaders have an obligation to obtain the best water supply deal possible given that the current agreement is set to expire.
Clough and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson met Friday on the water issue. There were no breakthroughs though, given the fact that Cleveland City Council moved forward Monday with charging Westlake customers additional fees.
Clough told West Life the meeting was cordial and professional.
“I thought it was a meeting where issues were clarified,” Clough said.