Claims that the CRC was biased are unfounded
I am often asked why the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission (CRC) voted overwhelmingly against changing to a strong mayor. The answer is simple: We determined it was not in the best interest of Cleveland Heights residents.
Claims that the commission was biased are unfounded. The council was split 4-3 in favor of keeping the council-manager system. Each of the seven council members appointed one CRC member who, one can assume, supported their point-of-view. I was appointed by Council Member (now Mayor) Carol Roe. Though we both opposed a strong mayor, we disagreed on other issues, including my initial preference for ward representation. The remaining eight appointees were agreed upon by the entire council, and were assumed to be neutral. We were a very diverse body of individuals, ideas and opinions, just like our city council.
After seven months of research, we took two votes. We voted against changing to a strong mayor by a margin of 10-2, with one abstention. We then voted 11-2 in favor of keeping our current council-manager form of government (the previous abstention voted with the majority on this vote). After our exhaustive examination of all the pros and cons for making a change, only two commission members voted for a mayor. One pro-mayor commission member resigned shortly after this meeting.
Another meritless claim is that the commission ignored citizen support for a strong mayor. It’s true that the majority of public comments made to us at the close of our twice-monthly meetings favored this position. A little over 30 speakers addressed us at these meetings, several on multiple occasions. At a public forum, which attracted 80 residents, the majority of comments also favored a strong mayor. These residents were heard, but their assertions were not as impactful as the evidence, and we were tasked with making recommendations in the best interest of all of the residents of Cleveland Heights.
The reasons members voted against the strong mayor were as varied as their diverse backgrounds. For me, it was the long history of problematic, unaccountable strong-mayor cities in Cuyahoga County that fuel inefficiency and increase costs to taxpayers. Other members cited our long history and successful experience with a shared-power council, and professional, accountable city manager expertise. Most found no evidence a mayor-council government would correct perceived problems, and that this kind of change could destabilize our city, slowing or stopping progress on our master plan objectives.
The other reasons for our recommendation are in our final report, including that a mayor-council system would “generate conflict and gridlock, as opposed to the more collaborative process . . . that should be expected from a council-manager system.” The mayor system empowers a single individual and “campaigning skills do not necessarily translate into leadership ability necessary to guide and control a complex city.” Some mayors “might regard it only as a political stepping stone.”
Since our report was submitted, two professors at the University of North Carolina have published a research paper, looking at more than 2,700 U.S. cities. They found our current form of government is 57 percent less likely to result in corruption convictions than the proposed mayor-council form.
I talked to one of the authors, Kimberly Nelson, a leading expert on local government. She said research shows cities that change their form of government almost never realize the benefits they hoped to achieve, and she gave me a quote from Plato: “In politics we presume that everyone who knows how to get votes knows how to administer a city or a state. When we are ill . . . we do not ask for the handsomest physician, or the most eloquent one.”
Mike Gaynier is a leadership consultant, and co-chair of Cleveland Heights Citizens for Good Government, a PAC formed to inform voters about the benefits of the council-manager form of government. He served on the CRC.