When is an 'emergency' actually an emergency?

In August, when Cleveland Heights Mayor Kahlil Seren proposed Ordinance 123-2023 creating a city arts commission, some resident artists and leaders of arts organizations reacted with alarm.

On first reading, the ordinance was referred to the Administrative Services Committee, which subsequently held a public hearing in October. There, the mayor described his vision of the commission, stressed that its role would be strictly advisory, and hinted at the possibility of city arts funding sometime in the future. By the end of the hearing, members of the public in attendance seemed mollified.

One of the reasons cited for concern about the ordinance was this phrase, attached at the end: "It is necessary that this Ordinance become immediately effective as an emergency measure for the preservation of the public peace, health and safety of the inhabitants of the City of Cleveland Heights."

For those who don't closely follow government proceedings—and even many of us who do—such terminology when uniformly applied is nonsensical and can actually be upsetting. How could the words "immediately effective" and "emergency" not imply that the proposed law would be enacted too quickly to allow for community input?

Legislating is supposed to be a thoughtful, deliberative process, not a speedy race to the finish. The Ohio Revised Code Section 705.15 states, "No ordinance, unless it is declared an emergency measure, shall be passed until it has been read on three separate days.” In Cleveland Heights, where council meets twice a month, that would take at least six weeks.

An emergency measure, on the other hand, goes into effect immediately and—in some cases—cannot be repealed by the voters.

ORC 705.15 states that the three-readings requirement can be lifted only by a three-quarters vote of the legislative body to suspend the rules. Many Ohio cities, perhaps most, speed up the legislative process by overusing a combination of suspending the rules and passing ordinances as “emergencies.” For example, a study by the excellent Cleveland Documenters group found, “Between January 2020 and May 2021, Cleveland City Council voted to suspend its own rules and shorten the legislative process 99.5 percent of the time.”

In 1912, voters added the ability for citizens to initiate or repeal legislation to the Ohio Constitution as a democratic reform. It is legitimate for certain kinds of ordinances to be passed as emergencies, but used injudiciously, emergency legislation is deeply anti-democratic. In stating that many situations are emergencies when they clearly are not, it is also simply dishonest.

Ironically, when he was a council member, Seren argued for infrequent use of emergency declarations. Now that he is mayor, however, his law department appends emergency language to virtually every piece of legislation that comes before council.

At the committee hearing concerning the arts commission legislation, the mayor eventually offered to remove the emergency language, if that would reassure concerned community members. That was the right thing to do, but despite almost all legislation having originated with the mayor since he took office, he hardly bears sole responsibility for the situation. A weak and compliant council has routinely suspended the rules and provided the five votes to pass almost every ordinance on an emergency basis. We fear this practice may survive the upcoming city council election, but hope it will not.

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 11, Posted 11:18 AM, 10.30.2023