Democracy is more than elections
“Vote them out!” We hear this all the time. It’s an exclamation we hurl in anger and frustration at every government office—and official—we feel isn’t working right, or isn’t working for us, or is raising taxes or cutting services. Or all of the above. During the recent Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy campaign, strident cries of, “Vote them out!” were raised against school board members, despite the fact that, just a few months earlier, board members James Posch and Beverly Wright ran without opposition to retain their seats.
Without qualified candidates willing to give generously of their time and talents, who will citizens be able to “vote in”? Campaigns alone entail a significant investment of time, commitment, and probably some of the candidate’s own money. No wonder people prefer to be appointed to office!
Once one is appointed or elected to office, there is the actual work to be done, for a pitifully small salary in the case of CH City Council, and no salary at all in the case of the CH-UH Board of Education. These are demanding, time-consuming, and largely thankless jobs. Nevertheless, they are vitally important to local government, the cornerstone of American democracy. But democracy does not begin and end with voting, or election to office.
We reviewed the 20 applications and 19 video interviews submitted by applicants for the vacancy on Cleveland Heights City Council. Frankly, we were surprised at the lack of knowledge of city government displayed by many of the applicants. Apparently, few had attended council meetings or working sessions (known as Committee of the Whole). Only a handful had served on any of the city’s dozen or so boards and commissions.
Some of these, like the Charter Review Commission and Refuse and Recycling Task Force, are time-limited. Others, such as the Planning Commission, Citizens Advisory Committee, and Transportation Advisory Committee, are permanent or long-standing, with members serving specified terms.
If you have the time and desire to serve, you can find out more about these bodies at www.clevelandheights.com, under the “Government” tab, and see if any of them match your experience, knowledge and interests. A general application for all boards and commissions is available there as well.
Another way to contribute is to join and become active in a community organization. Reaching Heights, the Home Repair Resource Center, FutureHeights, Heights Arts, and Friends of Lower Lake are just a few options. For specifically democracy-oriented organizations, consider the League of Women Voters or Move to Amend; both have active Cleveland Heights chapters.
Finally, if you become aware of an unmet need or a wrong-headed policy, you can seek out like-minded people and take on the problem yourselves. Expect to attend a lot of meetings, and to be ignored or rebuffed at first. That’s all part of the advocacy process.
If you have some of these experiences under your belt and truly feel the desire to run—for school board, city council, or mayor—start now to learn what is required. November 2021 is closer than we think. Watch meetings (many are live-streamed and posted afterward on YouTube), ask questions, talk to friends and acquaintances. What issues do you feel are important? What problems need to be solved? What do you have to offer? Do you have enough support to form a campaign committee? To raise the necessary funds? Do you know how to get on the ballot?
Above all, remember that it takes much more than elections and appointments to make democracy work. Find your niche. Some of the most effective and rewarding efforts may be outside the electoral spotlight.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.