East Cleveland, mayors and the rest of the story
The opposition to an elected mayor in Cleveland Heights, in their continued fear-mongering, negative campaign, raise the specter of East Cleveland as a reason to vote against Issue 26. They cite the fact that East Cleveland was once a city run by council-manager form of government, that switched to an elected mayor-council form of government in 1986, and then . . . well, you know, East Cleveland fell apart.
However, their narrative leaves out significant context and facts; facts and context which lead to the conclusion that if any lesson is to be learned from East Cleveland it’s that remaining with the status quo and ignoring issues is far riskier than taking bold, transformative action.
To understand what occurred in East Cleveland we must look at the lack of action by its city manager during dramatic changes that occurred during the 1960s. These are detailed in “Revitalizing Distressed Older Suburbs,” a 2011 collaborative paper between the Urban Institute and Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs.
Taking a closer look at the council-manager form of government which existed during this challenging and transformative 20 year period for East Cleveland, the 1960s through the 1980s, the paper’s authors discovered that the “good government” of the council-manager structure had a downside in East Cleveland: “with power concentrated in the city manager’s office, there was not another likely public forum for a response. Independent, neighborhood-based community organizations did not exist, and the weekly paper did not publicly address the issues. . . . Management of civic affairs was left to the paternalistic city manager system.”
Throughout the 1970s, East Cleveland’s population declined, businesses were hit by national shifts, poverty increased and the city’s tax base declined. In the midst of these challenges and under the city-manager form of government, in 1984 six city officials were indicted for theft, kickbacks or fraud; the East Cleveland library director embezzled more than $50,000 from the library from 1977 to 1983; the state auditor uncovered operating deficits; and the city’s credit rating was suspended.
As a reaction, in 1986 East Cleveland residents voted to change their government to a strong mayor-council form. In fact, the very study the anti-Issue 26 PAC cites regularly, “Ethics By Design: The Impact of Form of Government on Municipal Corruption,” found that “[a] change in form of government, either to or from the council-manager form, increases neither the risk of corruption nor the likelihood of uncovering corruption that leads to conviction.” It is reasonable then to say that neither will a change in form of government decrease corruption—especially if the government has already failed.
By the time the citizens of East Cleveland took action and voted to move to an elected executive mayor, there was already a failed city government in East Cleveland. If we are to learn anything from East Cleveland, it is that we cannot let an unresponsive, slow-to-respond city manager-council system continue until it’s too late.
We can learn from East Cleveland but we must learn the right lessons. It’s not that changing to a mayor-council form of government is problematic, it’s that burying our heads in the sand and remaining with the status quo for way too long is riskier than taking action.
I urge all citizens to take action now and vote yes on Issue 26.
Jeanne Gordon is a 20-year Scarborough Road resident and a member of the Citizens for an Elected Mayor Committee.