The public good—a world apart from the private sector

Five years ago, Cleveland Heights embarked on an ill-conceived and seemingly endless charter review process (lasting from November 2017 to March 2019).  At the time, we were struck by how often—and how admiringly—members of the Charter Review Commission compared the role of our city manager to that of a CEO. Nevertheless, it turned out that Cleveland Heights citizens wanted a city government headed by an elected mayor, not an appointed executive.

As a result, on Sept. 14 we will have the opportunity to vote in a non-partisan primary for one of four mayoral candidates. The top two vote-getters will face off on Nov. 2.

While management ability is certainly an important qualification for anyone seeking to lead a city of 44,000, it is by no means sufficient. Executives of both non-profit and for-profit corporations are hired by, and answer to, their boards of directors. A mayor is hired by the voters and must be accountable to them—or that mayor will not remain in office long.

A corporate executive, to be judged successful, must maximize profit. A non-profit leader must serve a particular constituency, while managing resources judiciously. A mayor should greet each day asking, “How can I make things better for every single person in my city?” She or he must be intimately familiar with a concept that may be only a passing thought in the for-profit sector: the public good.

Performance metrics for a mayor are defined by a volatile mix of voters, media, city employees, business owners, real estate brokers, political enemies, supporters, and sycophants. To succeed, a mayor must convince all of these, and more, that she or he is advancing the well-being of the entire city.

Yes, Cleveland Heights needs a mayor who is adept at managing both money and people. But, we also want to know how candidates understand the concept of the public good. As we consider the candidates bidding to lead our city into this new era, we are asking these, among other, questions:

  • Will this person prioritize the health and safety of each Cleveland Heights resident above all else? (We include, at a minimum, just and equitable service with respect to police, fire, EMS, infrastructure, housing and the environment.)
  • Who is likely to (1) halt SAFEbuilt’s incursion into the housing department, (2) bring the building department back in-house as a legitimate city function, and (3) reverse the continuing decline in inspectional standards noted by residents and local contractors?
  • Which of the candidates will be able to jump-start historically anemic community-development efforts, re-imagine Severance, re-vitalize Noble, and spearhead successful infill housing initiatives—rather than hiring more consultants to produce more studies to line more shelves?
  • Which will hire great staff and appropriately delegate authority, with awareness both of those employees’ capabilities, and of her or his own limitations?
  • Finally, as mayor, how would each of these individuals perform under constant public scrutiny, with every meeting, contract, letter, e-mail and official act subject to public review, criticism and potential legal action? Private-sector executives do not work under sunshine law constraints.

Without commitment to a clear vision of the public good, and without the skills and integrity to advance it, all the executive experience in the world will be useless in this job. Listening, consensus-building, attending to the needs of those with the fewest resources, while also keeping power brokers invested in the city’s progress—all these require “muscles” seldom exercised in corporate board rooms, but vital to the success of a mayor.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at

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Volume 14, Issue 7, Posted 3:29 PM, 07.01.2021