On the road to a new government

We hope nobody thought that transforming government in a city of 44,000 would be fast or easy. By the time you read this, Cleveland Heights’ new mayor/council government will have had a seven-month test drive over a course littered with potholes. As citizen observers, we note some progress, along with problems that needed attention yesterday.

First, some wins. One thing voters sought in an elected mayor was high visibility. Mayor Kahlil Seren has been visiting schools and attending public events locally and regionally. In June, he held a ceremony to mark Pride Month by raising the Pride flag at City Hall, and spoke at the Juneteenth festival on Coventry.

In conjunction with Pride Month, Seren introduced, and city council voted to adopt, an updated parental leave policy, reflecting the diverse composition and needs of today’s families. We are glad that the mayor also picked a very low-hanging piece of fruit by giving our city the domain name and Web address it should have had all along: www.clevelandheights.gov. (The .com address still works.) Finally, congratulations to both Mayor Seren and University Heights Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan on being chosen for the 2023 Class of Leadership Cleveland.

With five of the seven council members brand new to city council, and the other two having notched only two years’ experience each, we appreciate that our council members are negotiating a very steep learning curve. We commend their efforts to remain collegial, courteous and inquisitive, particularly with a new executive branch that has so far been less than forthcoming or collaborative.

Unfortunately, a choice for the first full-time clerk of council was announced before the employment contract was signed. When council’s chosen candidate told her current employer she was leaving, that city persuaded her to stay. Something similar happened in 2011, when Cleveland Heights council announced the hiring of a new city manager from the Toledo area. After his acceptance was announced to the media, he withdrew before signing a contract. Council’s lack of institutional memory can sting.

Seven months is nowhere near enough time to reverse a decade-and-a-half or more of decline; for example, we never expected the Severance Center debacle to be resolved in a few months. But we are waiting for the mayor to show that he is beginning to follow through on some important campaign pledges.

First, we had hoped to see early signs of reform in the city’s housing department. Diana Woodbridge, a leader of the recently disbanded Greater Cleveland Congregations Cleveland Heights Housing Team, points out that Seren has not, as he promised, engaged Thriving Communities for a citywide vacant property inventory, nor is it in the recently approved budget. If anything is being done about chronic problem properties, it is a well-kept secret.

Additional concerns: Foreclosure bonds require banks to put up money for the upkeep of vacant and neglected properties, but, according to state law, must be issued within two years. The city is not meeting these deadlines. Point-of-sale inspections continue to be outsourced to SafeBuilt. The housing department remains understaffed, with ineffective leadership still in place.

Another area where action is desperately needed is the handling of phone calls from residents. While certain staff (some now retired) have consistently returned calls, this has not been the norm. During the first two years of the pandemic, the situation became even worse.

The mayor stated frequently during his campaign that he would institute a call-management system to ensure timely responses and accountability. From the number of complaints we hear, it would appear this has not yet occurred.

Because of space limitations, we can highlight only a few issues this month. If you know of others, please share them with us at heightsdemocracy@gmail.com.

Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg

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

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Volume 15, Issue 8, Posted 10:16 AM, 07.29.2022