Democracy—who ever said it was easy?
When the two of us agreed to collaborate on this column, we didn’t stop to think where it might lead us. Certainly, we hardly imagined we’d still be writing it eight years later!
A couple of things directly inspired us. The first was a series of discussions (and the ultimate success) we shared with a small group of citizens dedicated to stopping privatization of Cleveland Heights' water service. The second was having experienced the Democracy Day public hearings held by Cleveland Heights City Council in 2014, 2015 and 2016. We realized that people are interested in democracy. They like it, they generally want more of it, and, given the opportunity, they have important things to say about it. You can learn more at Cleveland Heights’ 10th Annual Democracy Day, which will be held at City Hall in Council Chambers on June 7 at 7 p.m.
Devoting an hour or two once a year to democracy isn’t a bad idea, but it’s a tiny drop in the bucket. In fact, achieving and keeping genuine democracy makes continuous demands upon many, perhaps most, citizens. No one ever promised self-governance would be easy.
On Democracy Day, community members gather to enumerate some of the reasons Cleveland Heights voters endorsed the We the People Amendment to the U.S. Constitution back in November 2013. Just re-introduced in the U.S. House, HJR-54 succinctly states that, counter to several Supreme Court decisions, corporate entities are not persons entitled to constitutional rights, and money does not equal constitutionally protected speech; as long as powerful corporations grab rights intended for individuals, and the wealthy buy speech intended to be free, democracy is illusory.
These issues impact not just federal and state governments, but municipal ones as well, with the creeping usurpation of local authority and the continual drive to create “greater efficiencies” via outsourcing, which privatizes gains while continually charging the public more, usually for worse results.
With “Heights of Democracy,” we try in our small way to support democratic action at the local level. In our very first column, we proposed addressing such questions as: How have grassroots efforts by Heights individuals and groups promoted civic involvement and democracy in our communities? What local governance practices might elicit increased and more effective citizen participation? How is our local autonomy enhanced or limited by state and federal policies and economic priorities?
Just as we must adhere to the Heights Observer's rules and style guide to produce a readable column, conducting functional city hall meetings entails following certain rules and procedures. Some are enumerated in the city’s charter and ordinances; others, such as those laid out in Robert’s Rules of Order, are universally recommended for running productive meetings.
Council has not yet mastered Robert’s Rules, and it is true that the 1922 Cleveland Heights City Charter is not sufficient or even adequate in 2023. However, as we wrote in March 2022, and repeated in August:
“[A] charter review process initiated so early in our new government’s tenure would be a grievous misuse of time and effort.” Sadly, our fears have turned out to be an understatement.
Sometimes it is necessary to work within a system to learn when and how to change it.
Mayor Seren understands our system far better than any current council member. As a result, along with the majority on council (prominently including Council President Hart), the mayor is running circles around the minority. It’s an ugly and unproductive process, pure politics and miles from effective governance.
By the time you read this, a Charter Review Commission will probably—finally—have been appointed. When, however, that commission ultimately submits its recommendations, they will not be binding. Council may accept or reject any of them, and/or add others.
We foresee a long and torturous road before anything is put before the voters. And none of it, alas, has to do with hiring and retaining staff, delivering city services, or moving Cleveland Heights forward. At this time, it’s a giant distraction we can ill afford.
See you at Cleveland Heights Democracy Day on June 7!
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.