What is a local issue?
One thing we can all agree on is that we elect our local officials to see to the running of our cities. We expect them to make sure streets are paved, sewers function, parks and recreation facilities are well-maintained, and taxes are spent prudently and wisely. In other words, we expect them to tend to local concerns.
But cities, and their residents, exist in an economic and social climate largely determined by the actions of state and federal governmental bodies. To what extent should mayors and councils officially advocate or oppose policies and legislation outside of their jurisdiction? Recent discussions by the Cleveland Heights City Council got us thinking about this question.
Cleveland Heights City Council, like others, is often asked to take a stand on a state or national issue by passing a resolution. At the Committee of the Whole meeting on April 23, Council President Carol Roe initiated a discussion about requests for council to introduce resolutions on several such issues, including net neutrality and gun safety.
Leading off the discussion on net neutrality, Council Member Jason Stein argued that spending time on this issue would not be a productive use of council’s time. To justify his position, he invoked what we will call the “Mary Dunbar Rule.”
Council Member Dunbar (who was absent on April 23) has expressed strong feelings about what is and is not the purview of a city council. She has periodically declined to support certain resolutions, stating, "I feel I was elected to work on local issues, which are things like sewers, roads, parks and recreation.” In a recent phone call, she further explained her position to us, saying, “I believe I shouldn't take a stand on national matters because I'm not well informed on those issues and don't have time to be, because there's so much to do at the local level. I feel Cleveland Heights citizens should take their concerns about state and national issues to those we have elected at those levels, who can do something about them."
In the case of net neutrality, Council Member Cheryl Stephens countered Stein by pointing out that its loss would harm Cleveland Heights’ many lower income residents. Council, she implied, has a duty to represent the interests of its constituents when a change in national policy will profoundly affect their lives.
Council Member Kahlil Seren added that maintaining net neutrality could be an important justification for Cleveland Heights to pursue the option of municipal broadband in the future.
In the end, with no consensus in favor of action, that subject was dropped.
The discussion on gun safety ended differently. The CH-UH Board of Education had requested passage of this resolution. (The net neutrality resolution request had come from residents.) This could have been a factor.
Council Member Michael Ungar stated fervently that the United States is experiencing a crisis with respect to gun violence, which directly affects Cleveland Heights residents. Although Ungar said he generally would like to hew to the Mary Dunbar Rule, he felt matters were serious enough to warrant council advocacy on gun safety.
Whether moved by Ungar’s persuasive powers or by their own feelings about the prevalence and danger of guns, council members agreed to move ahead. The result was “RESOLUTION NO. 41-2018 (SMS). A Resolution urging state and federal governments to enact common sense gun laws and mental health legislation to help reduce gun violence,” introduced at the May 7 council meeting. It passed unanimously on first reading, with Dunbar breaking her own “rule” to join her colleagues in voting for it.
We agree with Dunbar that citizens have a responsibility to contact their state and federal representatives on issues of importance to them; we can also appreciate the fact that our council members have plenty to keep them busy. But the results of many state and federal policies play out at the local level, affecting the residents those council members are supposed to represent and serve.
It is through resolutions like those discussed above that municipal governments—the governmental bodies closest to the grassroots—can represent their constituents in the great domestic policy debates of our time.
Ultimately no single rule or principle will suffice in every circumstance. We expect—and hope—that council will continue to review requests for resolutions case by case.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is a writer, activist and lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.