Democracy does not begin or end with Election Day
In our June 2020 column, we wrote that citizen participation in a democracy requires effort beyond merely voting. Now, we approach this theme from a different angle: local government’s responsibility to facilitate resident access and involvement. We consider a few practices—some recent, others longstanding—at our own Cleveland Heights City Hall.
For years, council members and the public complained about city manager Tanisha Briley’s habitual insistence that council pass legislation “declaring an emergency,” even when it did not address an urgent matter. Under Mayor Seren, this practice has continued, although the full text of the proposed legislation now includes the reason for emergency status.
In addition to projecting urgency where none may exist, laws passed as emergencies cannot be overturned by citizen initiative. Passing certain ordinances as emergencies specifically to protect them from future revocation may be justifiable—those concerned with contracts, for instance. If an agreement executed in good faith can later be broken by popular vote, few individuals or corporations would choose to sign contracts with municipalities.
When used frequently or indiscriminately, the “emergency” designation can be profoundly undemocratic. In 1912, our state constitution gave Ohioans the rights of initiative and referendum as a corrective to the machine politics of the Gilded Age. One hundred ten years later, we do not want our local government to contravene the intent of our state constitution. We urge the mayor and city council to reverse this trend.
As we pointed out in June 2020, boards and commissions provide important opportunities for citizens to participate in local government and contribute to their communities. Sometime during Briley’s tenure, board members’ and commissioners’ names and contact information disappeared from the city website. To date they have not been restored. Membership on a city board or commission is a public role. Although not elected, these appointees are charged with representing residents and our interests. Not only should we know their identities and be able to contact them, they need our input.
Early in his term, Mayor Seren abruptly eliminated staff assignments to boards and commissions. This may have been necessary to prevent unreasonable workloads for city employees, especially given perennial understaffing. But if that is the case, it behooves the administration to come up with an alternative. Citizen oversight and advice are essential to local democracy; appointees are volunteers and need professional support to function properly and effectively.
A recent incident exemplifies further constraints on both appointed bodies and city staff. When the city's Commission on Aging planned a “listening forum” for seniors, they were stymied by staff’s refusal to schedule it without the mayor’s approval. This is not the first hint we have heard of a repressive atmosphere at City Hall. We hope the administration realizes that secrecy and fear are antithetical to the transparent, accountable city government CH residents voted for and deserve.
A final note: Will wonders never cease? For the first time ever, we agreed with and endorse the content of Alan Rapoport’s opinion, "CH council members have the right to inquire," published in last month’s Heights Observer. He wrote, “The CH City Charter grants council members a right of inquiry. They cannot order city employees to take action, but they can approach any city employee privately to ask questions.” Rapoport did an excellent job of explaining council’s rights and the administration’s responsibilities under the current charter. If you missed his take on this issue, we hope you will give it a read.
Postscript: If you have not yet voted, please remember these three words: Ohio Supreme Court.
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.