CLEVELAND, Ohio — Ahmed Abonamah had just landed a promotion at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in Washington D.C. when he learned Cleveland’s new mayor was seeking a chief finance officer.
Abonamah, who spent the last several years moving up the ranks of the federal regulatory body, had always longed to return to Cleveland. Joining Mayor Justin Bibb’s administration presented the right opportunity to do it.
“If Cleveland is going to return to being a vibrant city — where there’s opportunity for people to get educated, get jobs, raise families, and all the things we want – I thought, ‘I have to do it. I have to come back and commit to it myself,’” Abonamah said during a recent interview.
The Plain Dealer/cleveland.com is profiling Abonamah and others in Bibb’s cabinet so readers can get to know Cleveland’s new class of top decision-makers.
Abonamah, 39, spent most of his childhood in Akron, where his father was a college professor and his mother was a substitute teacher. But Cleveland turned into his “adopted hometown” while he was earning his law degree from Case Western Reserve University. He now temporarily lives with relatives in Westlake while he and his wife, a forensic toxicologist, search for a permanent home in Cleveland. They have an 18-month-old son.
“I really developed an affection for this city. It’s down to earth. There’s this very strong sense of pride,” Abonamah said of Clevelanders. “We know there are problems, but they’re our problems and we’re going to do our best to fix them.”
After Case and a short stint at a Boston law firm, Abonamah earned a coveted spot in the Cleveland Foundation’s fellowship program. That eventually led him to the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where he helped coordinate the implementation of the Cleveland transformation plan.
Abonamah then moved to the law firm Squire Patton Boggs, where he spent four years representing cities, counties, schools and other public entities when they borrowed money. As bond counsel, Abonamah learned the ins and outs of municipal finance.
When grad school took his future wife to Washington D.C., Abonamah followed her there. He found a job at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and delved deeper into the regulatory side of municipal finance.
Over the next six years, Abonamah ascended to the role of deputy director of the SEC’s Office of Municipal Securities, and later, to the role of acting director of the Office of Credit Ratings.
He was made the office’s permanent director in November. Just one week later, he learned about the Cleveland finance job and leapt at the opportunity.
Abonamah said he enjoyed his time at the federal level. But city government offers different benefits, and a chance to impact people’s day-to-day lives, he said.
“The goals we were trying to effect through federal [regulation] are pretty downstream. It can be hard sometimes to see the impact,” Abonamah said. “Whereas in local government, the mayor points us down a path, we go down it, and we can see the change quickly. There’s a different mindset. Trash needs picked up, potholes need filled. You can’t wait 18 months to get something done.”
Abonamah, as the city’s finance chief, oversees a staff of roughly 265. He’s in charge of the budget, payroll, payments and procurement, among other key financial departments.
He said he approaches the job with optimism and skepticism – “to be as prudent as we possibly can with the limited resources that we have” with the goal of “finding ways to get things done and not always saying ‘nope, there’s no money.’”
To do that, Abonamah said, he and the rest of Bibb’s administration must have a strong grasp of their goals and what obstacles stand in the way. “And then being really communicative and transparent about what we’re doing, so the public understands why.”
Read prior installments of cleveland.com’s profile series:
Meet Bradford Davy, Cleveland’s chief strategy officer
Meet Ryan Puente, Cleveland’s chief of government affairs
Meet Sarah Johnson, Cleveland’s communications chief
Meet Mark Griffin, Cleveland’s law director
Meet Jeff Epstein, Cleveland’s development chief
Meet Bonnie Teeuwen, Cleveland’s chief operating officer