Of mayors, city managers, and history lessons

In his opinion in the July Heights Observer, “History proves council-manager plan works well,” former Cleveland Heights council member and one-time mayor Alan Rapoport profiled Frank Cain, the city’s first mayor, who held the office for 32 years. After being directly elected himself in 1914, when Cleveland Heights was a village of 3,000, Mayor Cain led the charter commission that ultimately called for seven council members elected at large, and an appointed city manager. (In 1914 and in 1921, when the new charter was approved, only men could vote.)

Surely no one ever was more confident than Cain that his fellow council members would select him to be mayor, as they did for the following three decades. By all accounts, he did a great job. He also benefited from being in the right place at the right time, leading a wealthy suburb of the booming city of Cleveland during the Roaring ‘20s.

We appreciate Rapoport’s sharing this history, and we want to extend the lesson back a little farther, into the 19th century. At-large elections and appointed city managers are often characterized as an “efficient” response to corrupt partisan politics. That may be partially true, but the fact is that wealthy civic and business leaders throughout the U.S. were alarmed at the prospect of losing political control. Charles Francis Adams Jr., a great-grandson of President John Adams, put it succinctly: “Universal suffrage can only mean in plain English the government of ignorance and vice: it means a European, and especially Celtic, proletariat on the Atlantic coast; an African proletariat on the shores of the Gulf, and a Chinese proletariat on the Pacific.”* (What would he have to say about the thousands of migrants fleeing the crime and poverty of Central America today?)

As the Atlantic Monthly astutely observed in 1879, “The right of voting cannot be taken away, but the subjects of voting can be much reduced.”* And so, systematically, they were. By the early 20th century, the spread of council-manager governments (and at-large councils) throughout the American South was stunning. For example, Richmond is the only city in the state of Virginia that does not use the council-manager system. The “innovation” was also popular in the west and on the east coast, where powerful interests were not about to cede control of industrial cities to immigrants. Many Midwestern cities, however, either hung on to ward representation and elected mayors or, after experimenting with the council-manager form, as Cleveland did, returned to the direct election of mayors.

Also in July’s Heights Observer, Jack Newman and Mike Gaynier opined that a “directly elected mayor would not be more accountable” than our council-manager government. To make their case, they used the words “democratic,” “accountable,” and “leadership” repeatedly. But, as has been noted elsewhere, the council-manager structure follows the corporate form of a board of directors and chief executive officer—hardly a democratic system.

With an elected mayor, the council serves as a check on the mayor, who must gain majority approval for most important decisions and all major expenditures—just as a city manager must. Yes, the mayor can veto, but a super-majority of council can override.

And with an elected mayor, the voters are the ultimate check on power. Yes, all the voters: male, female, trans, Black, White, native-born and naturalized citizens. If elections aren’t working fairly and properly, fix the elections. Don’t throw out democracy, or worse, claim that an appointment system is somehow “more democratic” than one in which the electorate decides. It isn’t.

*Source: "A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1920," by Steven Hahn, pp. 470, 471. 

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

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Volume 12, Issue 8, Posted 11:02 AM, 08.01.2019