Groundhog Day at CH City Hall
Jason Stein opened the first 2021 meeting of Cleveland Heights City Council by introducing himself as council president. Imagine our surprise when Council Member Mike Ungar complained that he could no longer call Stein “Mayor.” You see, the city charter amendment passed in November 2019 (Issue 26) specifies that as of Jan. 1, 2021, the titles “mayor" and “vice mayor” no longer pertain to the president and vice president of council. The amendment’s drafters knew that many residents thought the voters already elected our mayor. If current council leaders choose to run for the new position of popularly elected mayor, they should not have the advantage of appearing to be incumbents.
Ungar went on to ask Law Director William Hanna to look into the matter; i.e., to find a loophole. Yet legally no changes can be made to a charter amendment passed by the voters, except by another vote of the people. Surely Ungar and Hanna know this, so why waste their time and our money?
We wonder, has anyone on council actually read the charter amendment?
In November 2019, we pointed out that if Issue 26 passed, council would need to actively engage in the transition to a new form of government. Six months later, in May 2020, we exhorted our elected representatives to take action. We were dismayed that council had put then-city manager Tanisha Briley in charge of planning for the change she had previously fought. We expected council to take the lead, noting:
“We want to remind council and inform residents that the charter amendment contains six provisions that take effect on Jan. 1, 2021. . . . By law, Cleveland Heights will make these changes, ready or not.”
The other five provisions cover the timing of elections, the mayor’s qualifications and salary, and other matters that must be settled so that the first mayoral election can take place on Nov. 2, 2021. In October 2020, council did pass legislation establishing the mayor’s salary. (Additional charter changes take effect in January 2022.)
To check out the amendment for yourself, find it on the city’s website, under “Quick Links.”
In addition to preparing for a mayoral election, the city has less than a year to review its codified ordinances and make them consistent with the newly modified charter. We were not pleased to learn that Hanna has outsourced this work to former Cleveland Heights law director James Juliano, Briley’s and council’s right-hand man in fighting Issue 26.
On a brighter note: City Manager Susanna Niermann O’Neil reports that staff is preparing a “transition book” describing the workings of each department and division of the city, to be completed in February. Since Briley originally promised to deliver this document last February, we are looking forward to it. So too, we imagine, are prospective candidates for mayor.
Over the last 14 months, we and others have urged council to create a timeline of transition steps, as well as to research the experiences of other cities that have made this change and to consider how those experiences apply to Cleveland Heights.
Absent council action, some transition-related activities are happening ad hoc. Council Member Melody Hart and Citizens for an Elected Mayor (CEM) co-sponsored an excellent forum featuring three local mayors. For those who missed it, the recording is linked at www.citizensforanelectedmayor.com.
Hart also presented a second forum on Jan. 20, featuring the mayor of East Providence, R.I., which recently transitioned from a city manager to an elected mayor. Additionally, FutureHeights and CEM will sponsor “Electing Our First Mayor: Moving Cleveland Heights Forward” on Wednesday, Feb. 3, on Zoom.
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.