Cleveland Heights could be about to undertake an interesting community conversation. CH City Council recently introduced legislation to appoint a charter review commission; the first since 1982. Among the many issues the commission may consider is the city’s form of government. We have been intrigued for some time by how our city’s government differs from those of neighboring suburbs.
Heights Of Democracy
From the local to the global, the ability of people to govern ourselves has been under assault for many decades. We can expect this to intensify for multiple reasons, including:
- Business corporations seeking huge profits by converting what once had been “public” to “private” (called privatization, though a more descriptive term would be “corporatization”), including traditional public assets such as water and sewer systems, roads, police and fire protection, airports, hospitals and schools.
- Individuals looking to increase their power, status and/or privileges by concentrating decision-making from many ("We the People" and government) to a few (their own) hands.
- Continual legal and constitutional definitions that further restrict and redefine “public” arenas as other “p” words: private, property, proprietary, privileged—and thus [place them] beyond the reach of public planning, shaping and evaluation.
- A national government that uses the excuse of “terrorism” to stifle dissent, intimidate dissenters and interrupt efforts of self-determination, even at the local level.
Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that corporate entities are “persons,” entitled to the constitutional rights originally intended solely for human beings. On Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights held its fourth annual Democracy Day public hearing, created by the 2013 ballot initiative that called for a U.S. constitutional amendment stating, “Corporations are not people and money is not speech.”
In 2015, the city of Cleveland Heights moved to privatize its water department, but backed off in the face of community opposition. Despite that strong negative response, last summer the city privatized its building department, turning it over to SAFEbuilt, a Colorado-based company now owned by the private equity firm Riverside.
As state governments have squeezed funding to cities in recent years, the trend toward privatizing municipal services has accelerated. With the Republican sweep to control all branches of the federal government added to that party’s control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, pressure to privatize can only be expected to intensify.
In our July column, “Take Back the CH Building Department,” we outlined some specific concerns about privatizing a municipal service that has been a net revenue generator for the city for many decades. There may be time to reverse this: Cleveland Heights can withdraw from its three-year contract with SAFEbuilt on July 1, 2017, giving 120 days notice.
As the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes wraps up its 50th-anniversary year, we wish to reflect on the struggle that birthed it—a struggle that succeeded in preserving the wetland along the border of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and, indeed, both cities as we know them today.
Were it not for seven years of sustained effort by residents, elected officials and members of civic organizations, Cleveland’s near east side and adjacent suburbs would have been chopped into fragments by a heavily promoted system of freeways.
Announced in 1963, the [freeway] plan was the brainchild of Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert S. Porter, who also chaired the county Democratic Party. It consisted of four multi-lane, limited-access highways, all of them passing through some portion of Cleveland Heights.
We’ve enjoyed covering a variety of subjects during the first six months of this column. Readers—even a couple who haven’t agreed with us—have been generous and kind, in person and in writing. Many thanks to you all. This month, we’ll recap topics addressed to date in this column, and close with an appeal.
June: How “public” is public education? In our debut column, we highlighted testimony by two Cleveland Heights High School seniors at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing before Cleveland Heights City Council. Emma Schubert and Elijah Snow-Rackley, members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, presented evidence of the negative impact on CH-UH public schools of high-stakes testing, vouchers and charter schools. The Heights Coalition for Public Education continues its excellent work. Learn more about the coalition’s work, and sign its position statement at http://chuh.net/coalition/.
July: Take back the CH Building Department. Citing more-stringent state licensing requirements for building inspectors, the city of Cleveland Heights outsourced its building department last summer to SAFEbuilt, a corporation founded in Colorado that is now owned by private equity firm Riverside.
For 101 years, the City of Cleveland Heights has purchased water from the City of Cleveland and marked it up for resale to its residents and businesses. Most University Heights residents and businesses—with the exception of 700 UH households, which are part of the Cleveland Heights water distribution system—have paid Cleveland directly, without their city serving as middleman.
As of Jan. 1, 2017, Cleveland Heights will join 67 other direct service communities in Northeast Ohio, and the city will be out of the water business. Water bills, which have climbed over the past year to cover the Cleveland Heights Water Department’s growing deficit, will actually drop slightly. Rates will fall more sharply when the deficit is retired after seven years.
Things might have gone very differently had the community not come together to send a large corporation packing and keep an essential utility in public hands. We are just two of many who gave their time to this fight.
On Sept. 14, State Representatives Kent Smith (District 8) and Nickie Antonio (District 13) announced their primary co-sponsorship in the Ohio House of Representatives of a resolution calling on “legislators at the state and federal level and other communities and jurisdictions to support an amendment to the United States Constitution that would abolish corporate personhood and the doctrine of money as speech.”
Also present at the Sept. 14 press announcement, held in South Euclid, were 30 Move to Amend supporters, and State Senator Michael Skindell (District 23) who introduced an identical resolution, SR 187, in the Ohio Senate in 2015. State Rep. Janine Boyd (District 9), who represents Cleveland Heights, University Heights and Shaker Heights, is one of 11 co-sponsors of the House resolution, which has not yet been assigned a number. The text of SR 187 is here: http://bit.ly/2d3ywoj.
Why this resolution, and why now?
In mid-August, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) cut bus service and hiked fares again. If you use public transit, you are spending more time and more money getting where you need to go. Those who have a choice are less likely to choose RTA when it is inconvenient, expensive, and doesn't take them right to their destination. But, if you depend on public transportation, you probably already have greater difficulty getting to work, medical care, school and grocery stores.
The cost of a single bus or rapid transit ride has risen from $2.25 to $2.50, and will go up again, to $2.75, in 2018. Transfers are no longer available. A monthly pass went from $85 to $95, and in 2018 it will cost $105.
In Cleveland Heights and University Heights, RTA has shortened four bus routes:
We’re writing this column over the Fourth of July weekend. It seems a good time to reflect on the importance of the rule of law to our democratic system. Legislatures, which we elect, make law; court systems adjudicate that law. It is a highly imperfect system in which tragic mistakes are made daily, but we have not yet found a better method by which to govern ourselves. Our legal system operates from the municipal level up to the state and then the federal level. The U.S. Supreme Court has the final word.
Or does it?
To shed light on this question, we reviewed some testimony presented to Cleveland Heights City Council at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing held last Jan. 21. Stewart Robinson and Dean Sieck addressed the threat that international trade mechanisms TISA and ISDS pose to municipalities like University Heights and Cleveland Heights.
On a warm May evening last year, about 230 Cleveland Heights residents packed a meeting room at the Community Center to oppose the city’s move to lease its water system to a private, for-profit corporation. When more than 200 people show up at a meeting on short notice, you can assume each of them represents many more who were unable to be there.
City council members listened to their constituents and went back to the drawing board. As a result, in January 2017, Cleveland Heights will join more than 70 Northeast Ohio communities that get their water directly from the Cleveland Water Department, resulting in substantial savings for residents and businesses.
Flash forward a year or so. Beginning this month, the city will contract out its building department operations to Colorado-based SAFEbuilt, a private, for-profit corporation.
Welcome to Heights of Democracy, a new column that will explore the meaning and practice of democracy locally, in Cleveland Heights and University Heights. We will tackle questions such as: How have grassroots efforts by Heights individuals and groups promoted civic involvement and democracy in our communities? How do neighbors work together to make life better for everyone? How do residents interact with our municipal governments? What local governance practices might elicit increased and more-effective citizen participation? How is our local autonomy enhanced or limited by state and federal policies and economic priorities? If you have topics to suggest that shed light on these issues, we’d love to hear from you.
For decades, Heights citizens have been passionately and effectively involved in our communities, often resisting powerful interests, from stopping the Clark and Lee freeways in the 1960s, to fighting racially based blockbusting in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. The Heights Coalition for Public Education is a grassroots group working in this tradition, as two young members illustrated early this year.