What about ethics?

A strong-mayor system of government in Cleveland Heights would concentrate power in a single politically elected ruler. The proposal on this November’s ballot to do that lacks a modern ethics provision putting boundaries on how this power can be exercised.

Currently, city council is the sole legislative authority, with substantial say over the structure and powers of the city’s administrative units. Executive authority is in the hands of a professional city manager educated for the task—an at-will city employee who is hired, monitored and, when called for, removed by council. This distribution of governing authority is completely upended by the strong-mayor initiative.

Let’s examine what happens if voters approve the proposal: The professional executive goes by the wayside. The powers of the replacement executive, the strong mayor, would be exercised behind the protection of a four-year term, with no term limits and no intra-term removal mechanism other than a [potentially] cumbersome, divisive, and generally ineffective voter-recall process. This mayor would have sole “control over all departments and divisions” of the city, as well as certain “legislative powers,” namely:

  • Almost complete discretionary power of political appointment and removal, except four positions whose hiring (but not removal) must be confirmed by council.
  • Authority to introduce ordinances and resolutions, though not a member of council.
  • Power to veto ordinances and resolutions enacted by council, including, as to appropriations, the right to pick and choose which priorities will actually be funded or not.
  • Sole power to create government departments, combine them, abolish them, and prescribe the functions and duties of each. This power would be taken away from council.
  • In conjunction with a mayor-designated administrator, definitive authority as gatekeeper for any member of council to have business interaction with any city employee (other than for “inquiry”).

The strong-mayor ballot measure would focus power in one individual, including power previously exercised by council. It would remove from council the authority to hire or contract with others for assistance in its own functions. So there would be not only a new, non-professional political leader with concentrated power, but also a weakened council with fewer resources available for acting as a “check” or “balance” on the strong mayor. Take a moment to reflect on this.

With the new concentration of power, unprecedented in this city, one would think it critical to include a healthy, modern, updated ethics provision as part of the package. And all the more so when, as here, the new, powerful strong mayor would serve as, and be paid as, a “full-time” city employee. Yet in the proposal, the strong mayor is explicitly authorized to have separate employment or other work. Incredibly this proposal has no such ethics provision. Why not?

Do proponents prefer that the new strong mayor not labor under such pesky restraints? Or perhaps they overlooked this in their zeal to upend and dramatically change our tradition of seven directly elected representatives, with equal voices, forming a council that employs a professional executive to direct and oversee city services and development based on expertise and experience, rather than political aspirations and personal agendas.

The strong-mayor proponents had squarely in front of them the substantial record developed by the Charter Review Commission on ethics provisions in city charters, together with a verbatim draft of a modern provision. Their rejection of that, or an equivalent ethics clause, or at best their woeful inattention to it, is reason enough to reject the seismic shift in power they advocate.

Jack Newman

Jack Newman, a retired lawyer, is former chair of the Charter Review Commission and co-chair of Cleveland Heights Citizens for Good Government, a political action committee formed to inform voters about the benefits of the council-manager form of government ahead of the elected-mayor charter amendment on the Nov. 5 ballot.

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 1:45 PM, 09.02.2019