Cleveland Heights’ new form of government, with Mayor Kahlil Seren at the helm and a city council of six (including three first-term members) is in its sixth week of existence as we write.
Council has just met its first major challenge by unanimously appointing Gail Larson to be its seventh member within the 45-day limit imposed by the charter amendment voters passed in November 2021. We congratulate Larson, who will fill Seren’s former seat [as an appointee through the end of this year. The seat’s full term expires Dec. 31, 2023, and will be on the ballot this November.] Kudos as well to council for meeting its obligation in a timely manner.
City ballots feature charter amendments all the time, for a wide variety of reasons. Some are prompted by outside entities, like the county board of elections; others come from city councils, specially constituted charter review commissions (CRCs), or citizen initiatives.
Cleveland Heights has a mayor/council government now because of a 2019 citizen initiative. Regardless of who initiates an amendment, council must pass legislation putting a charter revision on the ballot so voters can decide.
(Note: Ohio law dictates different requirements for citizen-initiated ordinances, such as the current People for the Park proposal and the 2013 Move to Amend petitions.)
On Jan. 31, Council Member Craig Cobb chaired the new council’s first Administrative Services Committee meeting, with Vice Chair Anthony Mattox, committee member Tony Cuda, and Council President Melody Hart in attendance. To our dismay, the broad topic of charter review was on the agenda. Most of the discussion, however, focused on Cuda’s introduction of a charter amendment changing clerk of council from the part-time responsibility of the finance director to a stand-alone position reporting directly to council. (The amendment as currently worded would also permit council to hire additional staff and/or consultants as needed.)
In our October 2021 column (“Change is coming to Cleveland Heights City Council”), we strongly advocated switching to a full-time clerk. Our reading of the charter led us to believe this change could be accomplished immediately by council ordinance, and later reinforced with a charter amendment if need be. Apparently, the law department disagreed. At any rate, the Administrative Services Committee decided that Cuda’s proposed charter amendment would receive a first reading by the full council, followed by discussion and possible placement on the May ballot. We hope this or a similar amendment will go forward promptly. As we pointed out previously, many area cities with mayor/council governments have full-time clerks. This change would help to strengthen council as an effective separate and co-equal branch of our city’s government. As a bonus, the mayor and finance director apparently support the move.
On the other hand, a charter review process initiated so early in our new government’s tenure would be a grievous misuse of time and effort. As a member of the most recent CRC, convened from 2017 to 2019, one of us had the dubious honor of serving on a commission formed for the wrong reasons in the wrong way. We implore council: Let us not do that again.
Cleveland Heights may want to consider ward representation and other important charter changes sometime in the future—but not now. Our government urgently needs to fill key positions at city hall, implement automated trash and recycling pickup, revamp housing and building programs, revive the Noble corridor, reinvent Severance Town Center, and focus on equity, safety and environmental sustainability. First things first.
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Hot off the press: Friend, colleague, neighbor and democracy champion Greg Coleridge has a new book out. The Depth of Change (Selected Writings and Remarks on Social Change) is available at Mac’s Backs (216-321-2665).
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.