Mayors and citizens share views with Charter Review Commission
During a nearly three-hour meeting of the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission on Feb. 15, 12 citizens spoke of their interest in changes to the way Cleveland Heights elects its leaders.
Among those who spoke were John Zagara, owner of Zagara’s Marketplace; Bill Mitchell, former owner of Mitchell’s Fine Chocolates; Kermit Lind, an attorney and professor; Bruce Hennes, a communications consultant; and Paul Volpe, an architect.
Lind told the commission that the challenges facing inner-ring suburbs like Cleveland Heights have changed dramatically in the past 40 years. “Local governments now need to be more nimble, creative, collaborative and wary of external factors that cause instability and deterioration of the physical environment,” Lind said. He also stated that Cleveland Heights' government is not as effective as it once was.
Mitchell said he believes that “the council-manager form of government is inherently undemocratic” because citizens do not elect the city’s mayor and that “there is a dichotomy between authority and responsibility.”
Jim Miller, a former city employee, spoke in favor of considering a change in city council to include members elected by ward or district, as opposed to the current structure in which all members are elected citywide. He suggested that many potential candidates lack the time or money to run for council on a citywide basis in a city as large as Cleveland Heights.
Currently, the only elected Cleveland Heights government officials are seven city council members. They are elected at-large and select one of their number as the city’s part-time mayor. The council also appoints a full-time city manager, who is responsible for the city’s day-to-day operations.
Although the council-manager form of government is common across the country, only two of the 57 cities and villages in Cuyahoga County are governed without a popularly elected mayor. These two cities are Cleveland Heights and Bedford.
Shaker Heights Mayor Earl Leiken and former Cleveland Heights Mayor Dennis Wilcox spoke at the Feb. 15 meeting at the commission’s invitation.
Wilcox agreed with the four current Cleveland Heights council members who spoke to the commission at two prior meetings, sharing their opinion that the council-manager form of government works well for the city and should not be changed to a mayor-council form of government. He also joined the council members in opposing ward-based council elections.
Leiken noted that he is now completing 10 years as mayor of Shaker Heights and will be leaving that position at the end of March to become the chief of staff to Cuyahoga County Administrator Armond Budish.
In answer to questions from commission members, Leiken explained that Shaker Heights is governed by a full-time mayor, who appoints a chief administrative officer, and by seven part-time city council members who are all elected at-large.
In explaining his role as mayor, Leiken said, “I have responsibility for setting a strategic direction for the city and for making major decisions.” Leiken stated that the he works closely with the chief administrative officer, who is responsible for day-to-day operations of the city.
Leiken said that buy-in from city council is important, as council approval is required for all expenditures exceeding $25,000, as well as for all proposed legislation.
A number of citizens told the commission that its meetings were not well publicized, and that the opportunities for citizen participation were insufficient. Among the suggestions to the commission on this subject were that there be an online citizen survey, a mid-process community meeting, and a roundtable discussion with local business owners and developers.
The next meeting of the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission will take place on Thursday, March 1, at 7 p.m., at Cleveland Heights City Hall. Comments can also be e-mailed to the commission through its facilitator, Larry Keller, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Brown is a city planner with 40 years of experience, including nine years as Cleveland's city planning director. A resident of Cleveland Heights for more than 40 years, Brown is a member of the FutureHeights Board of Directors.