What we see and hear

In putting together these monthly columns, we work through our thoughts about and hopes for hyper-local democracy—specifically in Cleveland Heights. We try to express opinions only about what we can observe, avoiding speculation about the unseen and unheard—including people’s possible motivations. For that reason, since our first elected mayor took office in January 2022, we’ve written much more about CH City Council than about Mayor Kahlil Seren’s administration. Except for frequent executive sessions, council meetings are open to the public, livestreamed and archived on YouTube. Agendas and legislation are posted on the city's website.

We hoped for a mayor who would actively engage with the community, govern with transparency, and welcome the public to City Hall when it re-opened post-pandemic. Instead, most of the administration’s work takes place behind doors that, since 2022, are not only closed, but locked. The receptionist in the atrium has been replaced with a police officer. The mayor is invited to address the public regularly during city council meetings, but rarely has much to say. He is known to seldom return phone calls or reply to e-mail.

Seeking contact information for our city's chief executive or his staff via the Cleveland Heights website is a challenge. While Mayor Seren's phone number and e-mail appear under his photo on the Mayor's Office landing page, most users will first see the staff directory on the left and click on that. It lists the mayor, Special Assistant Patrick Costigan, and Mayor's Action Center Coordinator Brandon Upchurch, with no phone numbers and an e-mail address given only for the mayor. Many other sections of www.clevelandheights.gov similarly lack complete, current, well-organized information and user-friendly design.

This year, the city’s Focus magazine reappeared in residents’ mailboxes after a hiatus in 2022. The first two issues contain a lot of valuable information but lack organization and professional polish. The second issue features a two-page announcement about the long-awaited Mayor’s Action Center. How to access this new service should be prominently boxed and in bold type. Instead, you have to read to the end of the article to find it, and the new coordinator’s name is never mentioned.

When things at City Hall don’t get done, or are not done well, we can’t always tell whether it’s due to insufficient staffing or incompetence. We have preferred to assume the former, but for frustrated residents it doesn’t matter. Running the city is Mayor Seren’s responsibility. Council passed his budget, fully funding his requests for new staff; yet key positions, some vacated on his watch, remain unfilled.

Although this column does not endorse candidates for office, individually we both strongly supported Kahlil Seren in our city's first mayoral race. We felt he was the best qualified of an underwhelming quartet of candidates, and we still do. But we’re concerned about what we’ve seen—and not seen—thus far. 

The mayor appears to have spent countless hours with city council in executive session, wrangling over appointments to council and the Charter Review Commission. We know that he has severely restricted communication between council members and staff, and that staff has become less accessible to the public and the press as well. This is far from the direction in which Seren promised to take the city during his campaign.  

Certainly, spin and political maneuvering are endemic to all governments, and conflict between mayors and city councils is hardly unique to Cleveland Heights. But if residents and neighboring communities see more of these things than steady progress toward solving chronic problems (think housing, Severance, and revitalizing the Noble and Coventry business districts), there will be trouble ahead.

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 16, Issue 8, Posted 3:03 PM, 07.31.2023