City managers are not immune to corruption
The August Heights Observer contained a series of opinions written by former members of the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission and members of the Cleveland Heights Citizens for Good Government PAC. They had headlines containing words like “risk,” “conflict,” “cronyism” and “politics.” The authors went heavy on the scare tactics, regaling readers with examples of directly elected mayors acting badly. They claim the only way to prevent scary outcomes and bad behavior is to rely on city managers and “professionalism.”
The problem with such a contention is that professionalism does not guarantee the absence of corruption, or cronyism, or conflict, or even politics. We all have read about corrupt professionals—doctors who scam Medicaid, business persons who skirt regulations, attorneys who embezzle client funds—professions of all sorts are at risk of having corrupt professionals in their ranks.
In fact, corruption and cronyism can occur among city managers. A city manager in California, Robert Rizzo, received a 12-year prison sentence for a $6 million corruption scheme that nearly bankrupted the city (www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/bell-calif-city-manager-12-years-prison-9-million-corruption-scheme-article-1.1758564). A Michigan city manager, Brian Kischnick, was sentenced to 30 months in prison this past January for bribery and pay-to-play scheming with city contractors (www.freep.com/story/news/local/michigan/oakland/2019/01/21/troy-city-manager-bribery-case/2632999002/). The city manager of Opa-Locka, Fla., two city officials, and the mayor’s son were indicted on multiple corruption charges. Opa-Locka’s new city manager also came under a cloud of suspicion for corruption and was fired after nine months (www.miaminewtimes.com/news/opa-lockas-new-city-manager-accused-of-corruption-by-whistleblower-9704840). In Texas, Crystal City’s city manager was sentenced to 35 years in prison for fraud, theft and bribery—a scheme that also implicated the mayor and most members of council (texasmonitor.org/city-manager-in-crystal-city-sentenced-to-35-years-in-prison/).
Going tit for tat on risks of corruption, cronyism, conflict and politics between a council-manager or mayor-council form of government, however, does nothing to help Cleveland Heights voters decide which form of government is right to move our beloved city forward.
Political systems have forever fallen prey to abuse of power. James Madison’s answer to this was to incorporate checks and balances into the Constitution in the form of three distinct branches of government—something the council-manager form of government lacks.
Interestingly, while council-manager proponents assert that professionalism provides checks and balances that reduce corruption and produce better results, a University of Illinois professor determined in a 2015 study (https://indigo.uic.edu/bitstream/handle/10027/20131/Carr%2C%20PAR%20Text%20and%20Tables%2C%20Final%20Version.pdf?sequence=2&isAllowed=y) that the empirical evidence is inconclusive. He did find, however, that council-manager cities experience lower voter turnout. And voters are key in demanding transparency and sunshine.
I believe that a directly elected mayor, with an appointed city administrator, provides for both professionalism and checks and balances. I believe that in a county where 55 of 57 municipalities have directly elected executive mayors, Cleveland Heights is at a disadvantage. I believe a directly elected mayor will do a better job engaging citizens and setting forth a vision by which to be judged.
I can advocate for what I believe and attempt to sway voters to my point of view without turning to “corruption, conflict, cronyism . . . oh, my” scare tactics. I can and do trust the residents of Cleveland Heights to determine the manner in which they wish to be governed—and I trust they can determine that without being frightened.
Jeanne Gordon is a member of Citizens for an Elected Mayor