Directly elected mayor would not be more accountable

Should we abandon our long-standing system of democratically shared power in Cleveland Heights? The group favoring centralized executive authority (including power of veto and political appointment) in a single directly elected mayor believes this will make our political leadership in Cleveland Heights more democratically accountable to voters. Let’s examine this contention.

A strong mayor would face election only once every four years. In Cleveland Heights, where political affiliation overwhelmingly favors a single party, a strong mayor would likely be from, and supported by, that party. It would be very difficult for any challenger to replace an incumbent, even if the office holder turned out to be less skilled, less effective, or less ethical than voters had originally believed. The option for recall exists, but that never has happened in our city and generally is a poor method for challenging ineffectiveness or corruption, as we have seen in neighboring communities.

In comparison, our professional city manager is accountable to our directly elected council and can be replaced at any time. Replacement most recently occurred six years ago, when council terminated our previous city manager because of dissatisfaction with his performance. It required only the approval of a majority of council members to make this change. We also saw a change in council’s own leadership two years ago, when our previous council-selected mayor lost support of the majority, and a new mayor was selected. 

We therefore already have many more democratic opportunities for leadership accountability to citizens than strong-mayor cities. Our seven directly elected council members hire and oversee the city manager. That’s seven opportunities to raise issues of performance accountability anytime, versus one opportunity to challenge a directly elected mayor every four years. Half the council stands for direct election every two years, and only four council members supporting change are necessary when new executive leadership is warranted in a city manager or in the council-selected mayor. Whatever way you do the math, that is many more opportunities for direct democratic accountability to Cleveland Heights voters than a strong-mayor system provides.

Our council members have three main responsibilities: 1) Work on our civic priorities (see the Cleveland Heights Master Plan at; 2) Authorize and allocate our annual budget; 3) Guide, oversee and hold the city manager accountable for his or her performance.

The Charter Review Commission’s (CRC) proposed charter update strengthens the policy leadership role of city council and expressly clarifies the executive authority and expectations of the city manager—without the problems we see in much of Cuyahoga County with partisan-focused, unaccountable governance in many strong-mayor cities. We urge voters to support this proposed charter update.

We believe abandoning our council-manager system for a strong-mayor system makes little sense and would create more problems than proponents claim this change would solve. Following an extensive 16-month study of our city charter and best governance practices, the CRC voted 10-2-1 (with one abstention) against adding a strong mayor, and 11-2 to retain our current council-manager structure when they emphatically answered the question: “What is in the best interest of the residents of Cleveland Heights?"

Cleveland Heights needs both the leadership of a directly elected, democratic governing body and the proven-effective, day-to-day expertise of a professional city manager.

Retaining the council-manager form of government rather than switching to a strong mayor is the best strategy for ensuring success in our city both immediately and in the longer term.

Jack Newman and Mike Gaynier

Jack Newman, a retired attorney, was chair of the CRC. Mike Gaynier, a leadership consultant, was a CRC member.

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Volume 12, Issue 7, Posted 12:05 PM, 06.24.2019