Charter Review Commission enters second phase
On June 7, the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission (CRC) began the second, and possibly final, phase of its work. That work will focus on preparing specific recommendations for amending the city’s charter.
In its first phase of work, carried out in 13 meetings beginning in November 2017, the CRC devoted its time to hearing from local elected officials, experts and citizens on two key issues of local governance.
One issue compared the city’s current council-manager government with local governments led by a popularly elected mayor. The second compared the city’s current at-large election of council members to councils that include some members elected by ward or district.
At its June 7 meeting, CRC members acknowledged the need to determine their preferences on these two principal issues before beginning the process of drafting charter amendments.
Following intense discussion, it became evident that three of the CRC’s 15 members currently advocate replacing the existing elected council and appointed city manager with a popularly elected mayor and city council. Two members stated that they remain undecided on this issue.
Those who favor retaining the council-manager government cited a preference for the professional management provided by a city manager versus the sometimes overly political and contentious decision-making associated with governments led by an elected mayor. They also said that advocates for changing to a government led by a popularly mayor had not presented compelling evidence of the need for change and the likely benefits of that change.
Proponents of a change to a popularly elected full-time mayor have asserted that such a government would bring the kind of decisive and agile leadership needed to address the complex challenges and opportunities facing Cleveland Heights today. They also asserted that an elected mayor would be more accountable to residents than are an appointed city manager and seven part-time council members. Proponents for change often cited the example of Shaker Heights, which combines an elected mayor with a professional chief administrator.
Regarding the composition of city council, the majority of CRC members expressed support for the current council structure, although several members indicated that they had not yet come to a final conclusion. Those opposed to changing the structure of council cited concerns with the parochialism that may emerge from ward-based council members.
Those considering a change in the composition of council favored four members elected by ward or district and three members elected at large. They noted that the ability to campaign in an area smaller than the entire city could diversify the pool of candidates, attracting those without the money or time to run a citywide campaign. Supporters of ward-based council members also said that this could better connect voters to the local government and make those council members more directly accountable to voters.
The first part of the CRC’s June 7 meeting featured a discussion with Brenda May, a leader of Noble Neighbors, a community group. (The CRC chairperson said that he expects this to be the final interview in the commission’s work.)
May stated that she and her neighbors have worked successfully with CH City Council and administrators. She said the form of government is less important than the degree to which the government and citizens communicate with, and respect, one another.
The call for election of a mayor seems like “a call for a superhero,” said May, noting that what is more important is the engagement of citizens in shaping a vision of for their neighborhoods and working with the city to carry out that vision.
The current council members have been responsive to issues in the Noble neighborhood, May said, suggesting that a council with ward-based members may be less desirable if it results in limiting the number of members who take an interest in each neighborhood.
Given that a clear majority of CRC members expressed support for retaining the current council-manager form of government, the CRC now intends to examine other possible charter amendments that may improve the conduct and effectiveness of city government in Cleveland Heights.
CRC members noted that the group could revisit the more basic governance issues if the opinions of members change.
CRC member Allosious Snodgrass said the group’s tentative decision to leave the basic structure of the government intact would cause some citizens to pursue a petition drive for a ballot issue to amend the charter.
At the end of the meeting, several citizens made comments to the CRC. Garry Kanter asked the CRC to amend the charter to require greater transparency and accountability in the conduct of city government. He also advocated for “head-to-head” elections of individual council members, as opposed to the current system in which several candidates run for three or four open seats.
Michael Bennett encouraged CRC members to give careful consideration to the 32-page report on comments from the community meeting and online survey. He noted that 53 community meeting attendees favored changing to a popularly elected mayor, while 31 favored staying with the current council-manager government. He further stated that 95 respondents to the online survey favored a popularly elected mayor, while 16 favored the council-manager government.
The full community survey report is available online at www.clevelandheights.com/documentcenter/view/3644/final-report-community-meeting-final-version).
The CRC's next meeting will be held on Thursday, June 21, 7 p.m., at Cleveland Heights City Hall.
Robert Brown is a city planner with more than 40 years of experience, including nine years as Cleveland's city planning director. A resident of Cleveland Heights for 40-plus years, Brown serves on the board of FutureHeights.