Some unfinished business
Almost exactly two years ago, Cleveland Heights voters ratified a new form of government. Citizens for an Elected Mayor (CEM) committee members, who authored the mayor/council charter amendment, deliberately chose to make the change effective two years after its acceptance. They believed this much time was required to (1) allow city council and the administration to prepare for an orderly transition, and (2) allow aspiring mayors to decide to run, and then plan and conduct their campaigns.
To say it has been a challenging two years for people and governments around the world is certainly an understatement. Little did anyone realize in November 2019 that a global pandemic would, in just four short months, overtake every aspect of our lives. Yet, even when the lockdown seemed interminable, the weeks and months flew by.
To the best of our knowledge, Cleveland Heights’ city manager and staff have met the same challenges faced by their global counterparts: they have kept municipal operations, if not humming, at least functioning reasonably well. And of course, like city officials everywhere, they have had to do so with staff levels reduced due to illness. For this they deserve everyone’s gratitude, and they have ours.
Yet, as we approach the swearing in of our first elected mayor and five council members, at least at the time of this writing, our municipal government has unfinished business. Three major items:
- Immediately following the November 2019 election, council directed former city manager Tanisha Briley to prepare a report identifying “the steps necessary for the transition to our new form of government in 2022.” This project, if ever completed, never saw the light of day. When Briley departed in mid-2020, the report somehow had morphed into a “transition book” outlining departmental operations. Despite repeated promises by Briley’s successor, Susanna Niermann O’Neil, as of this writing, the “book” has yet to appear.
- A comprehensive review of our codified ordinances is necessary, to make them consistent with the elected mayor charter amendment. As we reported in our February 2021 column, Law Director William Hanna, whose department has a staff of seven, chose to outsource this work. Despite repeated requests from CEM members, Hanna has not, to date, produced that review.
- Council members dilly-dallied for months before legislating the mayor’s salary. On Oct. 5, 2020, they finally succumbed to the pleading of CEM members and others, who had maintained, logically, that no prospective candidate could decide to run for mayor without knowing what the job would pay. (Per Ordinance 101-2020, council’s decision: $115,000 plus standard city benefits.) Since then, however, council has ignored its responsibility to establish a salary range for the charter-mandated city administrator. Time is running out. Mayoral candidates should already have been vetting qualified professionals for that position, which they could not possibly do without salary information.
Clearly, council has not prioritized these issues. Council Member Melody Hart did ask about the “transition book” and the ordinance review during the Oct. 11 committee of the whole meeting. Niermann O’Neil replied that council would have the book that week, and Hanna promised a memo about the ordinance review would be in the Oct. 20 council packet. As this column goes to print, neither of those commitments has been kept.
For the past several years, council has taken a month-long recess in December. Is it possible that they, the city manager and the law department can accomplish these essential transition tasks prior to that hiatus? Possibly, but their track record does not inspire optimism. Perhaps council might consider shortening its holiday break to make sure the work gets done.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at email@example.com.