Lack of progress imperils trust in CH government
The city of Cleveland Heights has been through a tough 15 months. With the Seren administration and CH City Council both struggling to demonstrate that they are meeting some—or any—of the serious challenges facing the city, our trust is shaken.
We speak only for ourselves but doubt we’re alone.
It would be easy to say that we got what we asked for. After all, both of us actively supported, in this column and elsewhere, changing our city’s form of government from council/manager to mayor/council. And we still believe it was the right decision.
In our advocacy, we were not entirely naive. We knew that Cleveland Heights, a populous and diverse suburb, would need an orderly transition to successfully navigate such a major change. Members of Citizens for an Elected Mayor (CEM), the group that spearheaded the Issue 26 campaign, knew it, too.
Along with CEM, the two of us trusted that city council, as constituted in January 2020, would be committed to an orderly transition. Melody Hart and Davida Russell were newly elected council members, while Kahlil Seren and Mary Dunbar had been re-elected. Jason Stein, Michael Ungar and Melissa Yasinow each had two years remaining in their terms. Since Stein, Seren, Hart and Russell had all publicly supported Issue 26, we expected to see a timely, thoughtful transition-planning process. We could not have been more wrong.
In early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic turned every government in the world on its head, the city soon began livestreaming public meetings. We watched with growing concern as council ignored the vital need to prepare for the coming change.
In March, CH residents Len Friedson, Tony Cuda and Carla Rautenberg submitted a “Timeline for CH Transition to Mayor/Council Government,” with seven target dates, culminating in the formation of a transition committee by June 2020. These goals could have been met via online meetings. Instead, nothing happened on schedule; nor was a transition committee ever created. In particular, then council president Jason Stein and vice president Kahlil Seren failed the city and the voters by not prioritizing the transition.
We issued pleas and proposals for transition planning in six increasingly frustrated columns between November 2019 and November 2021.
In the absence of formal preparations, Council Member Hart worked with CEM to present two online forums, one featuring mayors from South Euclid, University Heights and Maple Heights, and the other focusing on the East Providence, R.I., change (in 2018) from council/manager to mayor/council government.
More than a year after the advent of the new government, Council President Hart invited two former mayors, Mike Summers of Lakewood and Earl Leiken of Shaker Heights, to advise council on its role. On Feb. 3, 2023, they generously spent three hours doing so.
Better late than never? Perhaps. But such experienced people could and should have been brought in well before Cleveland Heights had both a mayor and a council learning on the job.
The debacle of the recent appointment to the council seat vacated by Josie Moore has further damaged our trust. Regardless of the outcome, the spectacle of President Hart, Vice President Craig Cobb, and Council Member Anthony Mattox Jr. sandbagging the rest of council at the Feb. 2 special meeting, handing the appointment to Mayor Seren, will not soon be forgotten.
Neither, however, shall we forget a major upside of viewing the videotaped applicant interviews, conducted by the League of Women Voters: Several very knowledgeable and well-qualified young candidates applied.
Some of them may be on the November ballot. We hope so, because we can only vote for people who actually run. And whatever happens, Cleveland Heights desperately needs a council that’s not in the mayor’s—any mayor’s—pocket.
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.