Time to choose: governance or grudges?

On Jan. 6, Cleveland Heights’ newly elected and sworn-in city council president/mayor Jason Stein addressed his colleagues and members of the public. “This council has a diverse group of people with a wide array of experiences, expertise and opinions to offer,” he said. “I believe that this council can accomplish a lot of good, if we choose to work together and treat each other in a civil manner.” (Our emphasis.)

Stein’s statement was not a mere bromide. Just minutes before, council members Mary Dunbar, Michael Ungar and Melissa Yasinow had voted against Kahlil Seren for council vice president/vice mayor.

Given that Seren was running unopposed, the three could have made the conciliatory gesture of voting for him. Such a vote, however, would have required them to set aside a grudge of at least two years’ duration.

In 2018, council elected Carol Roe president/mayor and Yasinow vice president, ousting Cheryl Stephens and Jason Stein. Roe and Yasinow had been nominated by Ungar, presumably with the support of Dunbar. With a seven-member council, as the saying goes, you have to be able to count to four. Stephens and Stein counted voted with the majority. Seren registered his objection to the change by voting against both candidates.

As we have mentioned before, between us we have attended most committee of the whole and council meetings over the past several years. We have witnessed two years of implacable, overt hostility toward Seren on the part of Ungar and Yasinow. Obstructing virtually all legislation he introduced, they have sneered, scolded and, in Yasinow’s case, shouted at him. Dunbar and Roe were more restrained, but joined with Ungar and Yasinow to constitute a majority in most instances.

Answering a Charter Review Commission questionnaire, Seren wrote candidly that he believed the majority on council had pushed to establish the commission in order to head off a citizen-led ballot initiative, which they believed would lead to Stephens being elected mayor. Enraged by Seren’s refusal to parrot the “official” line, Ungar delivered a blistering lecture, and the faction of four engineered a public reprimand.

In a middle school context, this behavior would be characterized as bullying; Seren has borne it stoically.

Ironically, the officials who engaged in these power games also enthusiastically backed the anti-elected mayor campaign, under the slogan, “Say no to political deals.”

The newly constituted council has a substantial list of responsibilities awaiting its attention. These include stabilizing and restoring the city’s declining housing stock, expediting the still-controversial Top of the Hill and other economic development projects, responding to recommendations from the Refuse and Recycling Task Force and, most importantly, planning for a smooth transition from a city manager to an elected mayor system in time for the November 2021 election season.

We do not suggest that all differences of opinion should be suppressed, or that members who find themselves in the minority on a particular issue should simply knuckle under to the majority. We would like to see frank, thoughtful, mutually respectful inquiry and discussion, by elected representatives who bring their best selves to the table.

Meanwhile, we wonder about the meaning of Dunbar, Ungar and Yasinow’s Jan. 6 “no” votes. Were they paying Seren back for his 2018 opposition to Roe and Yasinow, or registering a last-ditch protest at finding themselves in the minority? Or were they signaling that the vendetta will continue? Will we see more obstructionism, with pressure on newly elected council members Melody Joy Hart and Davida Russell to vote with the Dunbar-Ungar-Yasinow faction? Or will all of our city legislators put aside their personal ambitions and petty resentments, and focus on the critical job of governing Cleveland Heights?

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 13, Issue 2, Posted 11:50 AM, 02.01.2020