Politics and the proposed change in CH government

Proponents of getting rid of the manager-council system of government in Cleveland Heights want a full-time elected mayor who will appoint a full-time professional city administrator. They believe this will result in a partnership between an administration focused on efficiency and an elected official focused on the big picture. But they ignore how poorly this system necessarily would work in practice because of politics.

The proponents want one supervising administrative official, hired by a mayor, to organize daily activities of government. At first, this sounds like not much of a change from the professionalism of the present manager-council system. But a city manager (CM) works for an entire city council. No one council member can fire a CM. The proposed new system instead would substitute a city administrator (CA) working only for one person. This CA would be a mere instrumentality of the mayor’s sole exercise of power. A CM will have the true formal education, training and experience of a public administrator. A CA, as a purely political hire, might not have any of that. What is proposed therefore would be very different from what we have now. City government would become more political and less professional.

The manager-council system was adopted as a reform measure. It was designed to remove politics from local government as much as possible. A CM purposely is a non-political hire. A CM is subject to the professional code of ethics of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA). By comparison, a CA purposely would be chosen to be politically responsive to the mayor. A CA would not be subject to the ICMA ethics code. A CM works for seven politically elected council members. But election of council members at large, and not by ward, encourages them to think more about general social problems and less about individual political demands. Their insulation by a CM from daily operations discourages their political interference with city employees. And, since firing a CM requires a majority vote, checks and balances exist that are missing when a CA can be fired by the mayor alone. Any actions of a CA would be approved by the politically elected mayor. For this reason, the proposed new system would reinstate precisely those political considerations in governing that original reformers wished to avoid. These reformers instead wanted procedural assurances that the operation of local government would be honest, clean and largely free of politics.

The present system actually prevents bad government. It encourages decisions made after an objective and professional assessment of social needs. In its place, the petitioners urge a system that makes probable executive decisions based on the whims and subjective desires of only one person. The potential for corruption and abuse of power would increase. One mayor is easier to influence improperly than the majority of a city council. A benevolent, caring and productive person might become a strong mayor. But so might an angry, abusive, and incompetent person elected only because of having a good political last name. The petitioners can name some good strong mayors in other cities.  But there also are many cities with great city managers and many others with bad strong mayors. Under our present form of government, and despite occasional controversy, Cleveland Heights has been professionally managed and scandal free. The present system has resulted in good local government that should not be taken for granted. It is not time to take our chances with a drastic change of it.

Alan Rapoport

Alan Rapoport, a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, served on CH City Council 1980–1987, and was CH mayor 1982–1987.

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Volume 12, Issue 8, Posted 1:01 PM, 08.01.2019