Opinion: Cleveland Heights Charter: Up for review?
Cleveland Heights could be about to undertake an interesting community conversation. CH City Council recently introduced legislation to appoint a charter review commission; the first since 1982. Among the many issues the commission may consider is the city’s form of government. We have been intrigued for some time by how our city’s government differs from those of neighboring suburbs.
Unlike University Heights and 54 other municipalities in Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Heights has the city manager form of government. Rather than directly electing our mayor, voters elect seven city council members who, in turn, elect from among themselves a mayor and a vice-mayor—currently Cheryl Stephens and Jason Stein, respectively. According to our city charter (which, like a constitution, sets the rules for governing), the council also selects and hires a city manager who is, effectively, the town CEO. In manager-run cities, a mayor serves as the “public face” of the municipality and may also function, officially or unofficially, as city council president. Such mayors are sometimes paid a little more than other council members, but their vote does not count more. All seven of CH council members serve parttime.
In contrast, University Heights citizens directly elected Mayor Susan Infeld to be the executive of their city. They also elect the seven members of city council, the body which functions as the legislature of local government. In both suburbs, all council members are elected citywide and serve at-large.
Understanding that council is the legislative branch heightens the contrast between the two forms of municipal government. In fact, the city manager structure may be the only form of government in which the legislature has sole authority to hire and fire the chief executive. In Cuyahoga County, only Bedford and Cleveland Heights have city manager governments. In the county’s other  cities, voters directly elect the executive (the mayor). In municipal government parlance, this is called the “strong mayor” form; we think “popularly elected” or just “elected mayor” may state [it] more clearly.
Our city manager structure is not the only way that Cleveland Heights’ government differs from others in the county. As in both CH and UH, all council members are elected at-large, as is the case in Shaker Heights. But neighboring South Euclid has both an elected mayor and a “mixed council” consisting of four members elected by ward, plus three serving at-large. Note that South Euclid, University Heights and Shaker Heights, all with elected mayors, are significantly smaller than Cleveland Heights. To consider a city of comparable population that combines an elected mayor with a seven-member “mixed” council, we have to cross the river to Lakewood.
Those who argue for the city manager form consider it more “professional” and less “political” than direct election of the city’s executive in a mayoral race. Councils look to hire managers with solid experience in municipal administration. Those who advocate having an elected mayor cite the advantages of having a full-time elected official who is directly accountable to the voters.
According to data provided by Cleveland Heights City Manager Tanisha Briley, 30 percent of cities and villages chartered in Ohio have city manager governments, a statistic that certainly is not reflected in Cuyahoga County. After a charter review process, Euclid is considering changing to the city manager form. In Ohio, voters must approve all changes to city charters.
The pros and cons of electing city council members by ward can be just as complicated as the chief executive issue. In both Cleveland and Parma, for example, all council members represent wards and none serve at-large. Some advantages of electing council members by ward include more-direct representation, greater focus on neighborhood issues, and relative “ease of entry” into the political process for aspiring council members—it is easier to get elected from a ward than citywide. A downside would be a tendency toward factionalism and perhaps failure to act for the benefit of the city as a whole. Many suburbs have found that the “mixed council” model, with four ward seats and three at-large, provides geographical representation without sacrificing the interests of the whole.
These issues of local governance are complex—and we find them compelling! We have barely skimmed the surface here. In future columns, we will cover some of the history of the various forms and follow the Cleveland Heights charter review process with great interest.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights and has lived here as an adult for over 30 years. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.