An unexpectedly timely look at filling CH council vacancies
This column is about how Cleveland Heights needs to revise its process for filling unexpected vacancies on CH City Council. Shortly after finishing it, we learned that such a vacancy may arise soon.
We received a tip that Council Member Melissa Yasinow is planning to move out of the community. As of Feb. 25, her Washington Boulevard house was showcased on real-estate website Zillow with a notation that it was scheduled to go on the market Feb. 27. Meanwhile, the Chagrin Falls address that she and her husband supposedly contracted to buy on Dec. 10, with a March 3 closing date, is no longer listed by Zillow as being on the market.
When we contacted her directly, Yasinow said she was upset about being confronted with the information, but she would not directly confirm nor deny it.
As long as she actually resides in Cleveland Heights, Yasinow can legally retain her council seat. The city charter does not specify how far ahead council members must resign, or inform council of an upcoming resignation, if they plan to leave the city; but real estate transactions are difficult to keep secret.
Meanwhile, just a month ago, University Heights was working to fill a vacancy on its council. Per the University Heights City Charter, that process was required to be completed within 30 days. Cleveland Heights council members, on the other hand, rejected a 90-day time limit for filling council vacancies proposed by that city’s Charter Review Commission (CRC), in the First Amended Charter presented to council in February 2019.
The CRC had exhaustively discussed the council-appointment process. As commission members knew, many citizens consider this practice undemocratic and subject to gaming. It gives appointed council members the advantage of incumbency if they subsequently run for election; it allows council to choose friends or political allies over better-qualified applicants; and it can be subject to other types of manipulation, such as timing resignations to coincide with certain dates on the political calendar.
The proposed consequence for failing to meet the 90-day limit was this: The vacancy would be filled by the voters at the next primary or general election scheduled at least 120 days after the missed deadline. The CRC calculated that 120 days would allow candidates time to circulate petitions and meet Board of Elections filing requirements.
CH City Council had every right to dismiss one of the few substantive changes to the 1921 Cleveland Heights City Charter proposed by the CRC. But we find their stated rationale, that 90 days are insufficient, unconvincing. Shaker Heights, Lakewood and Euclid have 60-day limits; Brunswick, Mentor and University Heights councils are given 30 days. The original Cleveland Heights charter places no time limit on filling vacancies by appointment. Our council preferred that.
We are tired of our city’s inability to efficiently complete tasks that other communities accomplish with ease—and we have plenty of company. That fatigue could be viewed as a major factor in November’s 64-percent “yes” vote to change CH's form of government from council/manager to mayor/council. (Note: The Issue 26 ballot initiative could not address council vacancies or other issues due to a state rule that limits citizen ballot initiatives to a single subject.)
What happens in other cities if council fails to fill a vacancy within the specified time frame? Somebody else chooses the new member. In the Cleveland Heights CRC’s proposal, it would have been the voters. In many other city charters, including that of University Heights, the mayor makes the appointment if council misses its deadline. But the threat of someone else choosing seems to impel councils to finish on time. Amazing.
The recent appointment process in University Heights worked as follows: After Mark Wiseman resigned on Jan. 13, council called for applications by Jan. 24, and 26 residents applied. In executive session on Jan. 29, the six sitting council members selected five finalists. On Feb. 4 they interviewed each finalist for 20 minutes. On Feb. 8, Cleveland.com reported that Saundra Berry, a longtime resident of the Cedar-Taylor neighborhood, had been chosen. Berry was sworn in on Feb. 12—29 days after Wiseman vacated the seat. Congratulations to Ms. Berry—and also to University Heights City Council on its timely completion of a relatively straightforward, if not always easy, task.
Cleveland Heights City Council’s rejection of a firm time frame for appointments is symptomatic of its resistance to change. Now we have a partially reconstituted council, with new leadership. Perhaps it will be willing to take a fresh look at some of the prerogatives and practices—in a word, the culture—handed down over the past 100 years.
As for Yasinow, if indeed she intends to move out of Cleveland Heights, she should resign immediately, and allow the six remaining council members to get on with the business of replacing her—we hope without delay.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Rautenberg served on the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission 2018–19. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.