Seeking substance inside CH City Hall
On Jan. 3, we witnessed a Cleveland Heights City Council meeting that lasted an hour and seven minutes, but felt interminable.
Mayor Kahlil Seren made two brief announcements, but inexplicably did not mention the Dec. 23–24 life-threatening storm Elliott and attendant heavy snowfall, which had choked some residential streets in the city for days. Nor did he utter a word about when the Community Center, closed due to flooding caused by Elliott’s sub-zero temperatures, might reopen.
Public comments ranged from polite complaints about unplowed streets to abusively long harangues by speakers who rudely ignored reminders that they had exceeded their three-minute time limit.
During council’s comment period, some members monopolized the floor to deliver state-of-the-city addresses, grandstand about their own accomplishments, or malign their cohorts. (Council members Craig Cobb and Gail Larson maintained their customary self-discipline.)
After not gaveling to silence long-winded residents, nor certain pontificating members of her own council who far exceeded their time, Council President Melody Hart lost her temper, scolded her council, and abruptly adjourned the proceedings.
As Hart said, it was embarrassing. Certainly, it was an inauspicious beginning to 2023.
Seeking to understand recent lapses in city services and basic communications, we e-mailed a series of questions to City Administrator Joseph Sinnott, cc’ing the mayor. Some of Sinnott’s answers proved insufficient, requiring us to follow up. We appreciate his prompt responses to both queries; however, many replies were disappointingly evasive or inadequate, leaving us scarcely better informed than before. (Because we lack the space to summarize our lengthy e-mail exchanges with Sinnott, we invite any interested readers to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will provide the full text.)
Council’s second 2023 meeting, held Jan. 17, lasted only 55 minutes and felt rushed.
Nevertheless, Seren seemed relaxed and was almost loquacious. To our surprise, he reported, “In the last snowfall [Jan. 14] . . . we received no complaints in the mayor’s office for snow-clearing and salting.” This, after barely three inches of snow; whereas he has yet to address the administration’s woeful communications and snow removal during storm Elliott three weeks earlier.
No one on city council appeared relaxed, least of all President Hart. She rushed through an agenda that stated three times, regarding comments by council or the public, “Council President reserves the right to reduce time limit.” Her reluctance to use the gavel is no excuse for muzzling people by arbitrarily restricting their time on the spot. With careful preparation, one can make a big impact in three minutes or less. Think of Abraham Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address. Hart seems to want to bring down the hammer without wielding her gavel.
At the Jan. 17 meeting, 13 ice hockey advocates—players, coaches, parents and grandparents—showed up and waited their turn to comment. As it turned out, President Hart did not shorten speakers’ time, and none exceeded their three minutes. They were distraught at the recent closure of Cleveland Heights’ Olympic-size North Rink due to storm damage, coming on the heels of losing their customary wintertime access to the South Rink.
Many, including three generations of one family, spoke about how important those rinks are—not just to them, but to the city’s position in the wider region. (The City News e-mailed late Friday, Jan. 20, announced that the North Rink would re-open on Monday, Jan. 23.)
And they demonstrated what a crisis the administration’s failure to communicate with the public has become, a full year into the new mayor’s first term. While one speaker thanked Seren for having mentioned in his remarks the fact that North Rink repairs were still being investigated, another asked, “Mr. Mayor, do you get your e-mails, or do you even read them? . . . Who’s in charge?”
The long-awaited “mayor’s action center” coordinator, slated to be hired soon, is supposed to be able to solve this problem by answering residents’ questions, or routing them to staff who can help. We have reservations because we have yet to learn how calls will be tracked and outcomes documented, or who will be privy to that information. Furthermore, even a highly effective coordinator won’t replace direct access to the mayor.
Seren needs to institute regular events—some combination of open office hours, town halls, and/or resident forums—for constituents to engage with him directly. A mayor cannot lead at arm's length; it's a people-facing job. Seren is a smart man, and we hope he grasps this soon.
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.