The status quo can't cut it
As regular readers of this column know, we enthusiastically endorse a step toward a brighter future for our city: Issue 26, the Cleveland Heights city charter amendment providing for a directly elected mayor and a professional city administrator appointed with council approval.
During several years’ attendance at Committee of the Whole (CoW) meetings—council’s working sessions, held most Mondays—we have seen that our current system can allow the city manager to withhold important information from council and the public. Furthermore, employment law requires that all discussions about city employees, up to and including the city manager, occur in executive session, from which the public is barred and of which there is no public record. (Discussions of real estate transactions and pending/potential lawsuits happen in executive session as well.)
Until July 2018, there were no official records of CoW meetings whatsoever. Citizens had to attend in person or remain in the dark. Finally, after many complaints and a lawsuit, council members and City Manager Tanisha Briley made a minor concession. They installed audio equipment in the executive conference room (where they choose to meet), so that audio recordings could be posted on the city’s website. Still, unless you can recognize the participants’ voices, the recorded meetings are hard to follow.
Regular council meetings, held the first and third Mondays of the month, take place in council chambers, where they can be videotaped and posted on the city’s Youtube channel. In addition, as required by Ohio law, minutes are kept. Council could conduct CoW sessions with similar transparency, but it declines to do so.
Under the leadership of Mayor/Council President Carol Roe, council committee functions are folded into CoW meetings. No council member is responsible for shepherding a given piece of proposed legislation through development to the floor—again making the process less transparent than it could be.
The current council and City Manager Briley, who came on board in late 2013, have failed to dig Cleveland Heights out of the ditch created by the 2008 financial crisis, and exacerbated by failures of previous councils and former city manager Robert Downey.
Comparable neighboring suburbs, all with directly elected mayors, have done better. By what metrics? Improved housing values, increased median household incomes, and more robust commercial development. Look around: In the once-vital Coventry Village commercial district, there are currently 14 vacancies visible from the street. Our historic housing stock, ravaged by mortgage fraud, is now beset by tax foreclosures, a challenge that foreclosure bond legislation, belatedly passed in 2018, cannot address. We lost 174 homes to demolition from 2011 through 2015. (Housing Director Allan Butler has not returned repeated calls asking for updated numbers.) A few vacant lots have been sold for $100 to adjoining property owners. The rest must be mowed and maintained by the city, which has trouble keeping up even with this.
With city-manager government, much that occurs remains forever behind the scenes. Council protects the city manager; the city manager protects council (sometimes by hiding vital information). In a mayor-led government, the executive has a less cozy relationship with the legislative branch (the first check and balance); the mayor has veto power, which can be overridden by council (a second check and balance), and must answer to voters every four years (a third check and balance).
The beauty of Issue 26 is that it offers Cleveland Heights an executive team, a full-time, elected mayor working day-to-day at city hall with a professional city administrator—the “Shaker model.” We’re convinced that political leadership paired with effective management will be better, and do better, for our city. Please vote “Yes!”
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.