Heights Of Democracy

Change is coming to Cleveland Heights City Council

With four newcomers and two incumbents running for four CH City Council seats, and seven more candidates vying to complete the unexpired term of the recently retired Mary Dunbar, a substantial shakeup is in the offing for Cleveland Heights’ city council. Personnel changes, however, are only the beginning. The transition to mayor/council government on Jan. 1, 2022, will subject council to structural and functional changes as well. Some of these are easily foreseen; others will become evident only with time.

The charter amendment passed by voters in 2019 establishes that, with the citizens electing a mayor, council will no longer hire and oversee the city executive. This change creates the opportunity for a true separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of city government.

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Volume 14, Issue 10, Posted 11:29 AM, 10.01.2021

Horseshoe Lake: taking the long view

The future of Horseshoe Lake is very much in doubt. The Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District (NEORSD) recommends permanent removal of the failing dam that has held back the waters of two branches of Doan Brook since the North Union Shaker community constructed it, about 170 years ago.

The Shakers were not thinking of recreation or beauty when, in the 1850s, they built the dams that created the lakes later named for them. They were thinking of industry, of powering grist, lumber and woolen mills to serve and support their community. It took real estate developers, 50 years later, to preserve the area as parkland, and build upscale residential subdivisions adjacent to it.

Seventy years after that, the garden clubs of Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights banded together to save the Shaker Parklands from obliteration by county engineer Albert Porter’s freeway scheme. The “housewives” Porter derided established the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes on the site of a proposed interchange.

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Volume 14, Issue 9, Posted 10:10 AM, 09.02.2021

How to make policy that benefits a whole city

In the U.S., riches, influence and political power have been flowing upward, from workers to the wealthy, for at least four decades. The “trickle down” theory has proven to be a sham, creating unprecedented wealth and income inequality. This weakens not only the economy, but democracy itself.

Cleveland Heights, unlike most residential communities, is something of a microcosm of the country. While most suburbs are racially and economically homogeneous, our city’s population is diverse. Cleveland Heights over time, however, has become quite segregated by neighborhood. As in the U.S. as a whole, our wealthiest areas are mostly white, while our poorest are more likely home to people of color. This is not unvarying: some African Americans reside in our mansion districts, and many whites live in the more distressed parts of town. Still, it holds generally true.

In our June column, we suggested some small ways to address the glaring inequities between the Severance and Noble neighborhoods and the rest of Cleveland Heights.

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Volume 14, Issue 8, Posted 3:11 PM, 07.30.2021

The public good—a world apart from the private sector

Five years ago, Cleveland Heights embarked on an ill-conceived and seemingly endless charter review process (lasting from November 2017 to March 2019).  At the time, we were struck by how often—and how admiringly—members of the Charter Review Commission compared the role of our city manager to that of a CEO. Nevertheless, it turned out that Cleveland Heights citizens wanted a city government headed by an elected mayor, not an appointed executive.

As a result, on Sept. 14 we will have the opportunity to vote in a non-partisan primary for one of four mayoral candidates. The top two vote-getters will face off on Nov. 2.

While management ability is certainly an important qualification for anyone seeking to lead a city of 44,000, it is by no means sufficient. Executives of both non-profit and for-profit corporations are hired by, and answer to, their boards of directors.

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Volume 14, Issue 7, Posted 3:29 PM, 07.01.2021

Living in a 15-minute city

Recently we came across a hot new concept in city planning: the 15-minute city. As longtime Cleveland Heights residents we said, “Wait . . . this describes where we’ve lived for years!”

Residents of a 15-minute city can work, shop, learn and play within a 15-minute walk or bike ride from their homes, with good transit options for further destinations.

With the rapid expansion of work-from-home during the COVID-19 pandemic, this concept gained international currency. Carlos Modena, a professor at the Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, championed the idea, and sold it to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. Hidalgo made it the centerpiece of her 2020 campaign, winning re-election to a second term.

Cleveland Heights is already a complex of overlapping 15-minute cities.

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Volume 14, Issue 6, Posted 10:21 AM, 05.27.2021

(Re)writing history

Like all Cleveland Heights residents, in late March we received our copies of Focus, the city magazine. The inside cover features an attractive layout of historical photographs, and announces the 100th anniversary of Cleveland Heights’ incorporation as a city. To our surprise, the text includes:

“From our early days, diversity and creativity have been cherished traits. People of all races, religions and economic backgrounds have always been welcome.”

Why are we surprised? Well, for one thing, we recently read Resisting Segregation: Cleveland Heights Activists Shape their Community, 1964–1976, by Susan Kaeser. As Songs and Stories columnist David Budin noted in his April column, the book chronicles the arduous transformation of Cleveland Heights from a white enclave to an integrated community.

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Volume 14, Issue 5, Posted 10:31 AM, 04.30.2021

Into the woods

“Cleveland Heights will be an environmentally sustainable community that uses green infrastructure to capture and slow stormwater . . . 

“The City will be required to contain additional stormwater as part of the ongoing efforts for environmental compliance . . . to promote green infrastructure investments that keep stormwater out of the City’s sewer system and treated via natural means like trees and native plants.”

So reads the Cleveland Heights Master Plan, adopted March 20, 2017. Unquestionably, the city has made progress in sustainability. Just one example is the award-winning Complete and Green Streets Policy. But policies are not actions, and only actions count.

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Volume 14, Issue 4, Posted 8:17 PM, 03.29.2021

The lights are on. Is anyone home?

After conscientiously correcting all violations cited in her home’s point-of-sale (POS) report, a new homeowner repeatedly calls the Cleveland Heights housing department to schedule a reinspection.

A building inspector approves new driveway construction with barely a glance.

While rehabbing formerly neglected houses, contractors routinely fail to post building permits—with no consequences.

A resident sees the vacant house next door being shown to prospective renters. She wonders, “Were permits completed for plumbing, electrical and garage work? Is there an occupancy certificate on file? Bottom line, is it safe to live in?”

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Volume 14, Issue 3, Posted 10:20 AM, 02.26.2021

Groundhog Day at CH City Hall

Jason Stein opened the first 2021 meeting of Cleveland Heights City Council by introducing himself as council president. Imagine our surprise when Council Member Mike Ungar complained that he could no longer call Stein “Mayor.” You see, the city charter amendment passed in November 2019 (Issue 26) specifies that as of Jan. 1, 2021, the titles “mayor" and “vice mayor” no longer pertain to the president and vice president of council. The amendment’s drafters knew that many residents thought the voters already elected our mayor. If current council leaders choose to run for the new position of popularly elected mayor, they should not have the advantage of appearing to be incumbents.

Ungar went on to ask Law Director William Hanna to look into the matter; i.e., to find a loophole. Yet legally no changes can be made to a charter amendment passed by the voters, except by another vote of the people. Surely Ungar and Hanna know this, so why waste their time and our money?

We wonder, has anyone on council actually read the charter amendment?

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Volume 14, Issue 2, Posted 11:43 AM, 01.29.2021

Speak up for democracy

We imagine everyone will be glad to put 2020 in the rearview mirror. The ugliness of presidential politics, police brutality, and the COVID-19 pandemic have touched us locally and roiled the nation. As we write, not only is President Trump still disputing the election, it appears that Ohio electric ratepayers will be charged an extra $7 per month for the foreseeable future, thanks to our General Assembly’s failure to repeal their utterly corrupt creation, House Bill 6. These are failures, not of democracy, but of governments that serve the power of money, rather than the public interest. 

There will be plenty for citizens to address at Cleveland Heights’ eighth annual Democracy Day on Thursday, Jan. 28, at 7 p.m. For the first time, the public hearing will be virtual, livestreamed on YouTube.

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Volume 14, Issue 1, Posted 10:47 AM, 01.01.2021

Leaving the leaves

As we write, our Northeast Ohio tree canopy is releasing its autumn bounty. By the time you read this, any leaves not saved for use in home gardens will have been hauled away by area cities.

That’s too bad for local flora, the regional watershed and, ultimately, the global food supply. Decaying leaves, brush and other biomass build our soil and create essential habitat for the insects and other creatures that pollinate our garden plants. In addition to interrupting neighborly conversations, leaf blowers blast pollinators and their habitat to kingdom come.

Every year, the city of Cleveland Heights spends approximately $340,000 collecting residents’ leaves. Exactly what currently happens to all of this biomass is somewhat murky.

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Volume 13, Issue 12, Posted 9:21 AM, 12.01.2020

Wanted: an excellent mayor for Cleveland Heights

Thinking of running for mayor of Cleveland Heights? The 2021 general election is still a year off; but if that seems like a long time, consider this: petitioning starts in a little over four months. You will have from March 18 to June 16, 2021, to gather the 222 valid signatures required to get on the ballot. If there are three or more candidates, you will run in a non-partisan primary election on Sept. 14. If you survive the first round of voting, you will face a single opponent on Nov. 2.

Last month, three people who successfully ran for mayor of other cities participated in a forum sponsored by Citizens for an Elected Mayor (CEM) and CH City Council Member Melody Hart. The online audience of about 100 heard from mayors Annette Blackwell of Maple Heights, Michael Dylan Brennan of University Heights, and Georgine Welo of South Euclid about what it takes to lead an inner-ring suburb during difficult times.

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Volume 13, Issue 11, Posted 6:16 PM, 11.01.2020


Though we often point out, in a spirit of constructive criticism, how local government and institutions fall short of democratic ideals, we deeply love our city. Long, solitary walks during the pandemic have led us to reflect on many of the wonderful aspects of life here. Below are just a few of the reasons we are grateful to be living in Cleveland Heights.

Our neighbors

  • Creative, friendly, interesting, kind, generous, quirky, accomplished, thoughtful, engaged, active.
  • Diverse in household income, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion and political opinion to an extent that is rare in the region, the state, and the nation.
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Volume 13, Issue 10, Posted 5:36 PM, 09.30.2020

Privatizing local government

Cleveland Heights Chief of Police Annette Mecklenburg’s response to the concerns of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the local group Safer Heights, is laudable and welcome. She announced this summer that her department would revise and update its policies, with particular attention to use-of-force, and bias-free policing.

We are concerned, however, that City Manager Tanisha Briley has outsourced this admittedly time-consuming job to Lexipol, a California-based company serving 460 Ohio municipalities and 3,400 agencies nationally. Lexipol provides “model policies” and assistance in customizing them. Clients can also subscribe to daily two-minute training modules on the practical application of those policies.

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Volume 13, Issue 9, Posted 3:48 PM, 08.31.2020

The consulting racket

Since the 1980s, municipal budgets across the country have been decimated by state and federal funding cuts. In 2015, Cleveland Heights voters passed their first income tax increase in more than 30 years. During that campaign, at a resident’s request, City Manager Tanisha Briley documented over 100 staff positions eliminated during the previous 15 to 20 years. Now, with tax revenue diminished due to Covid-19, the city faces further cuts and layoffs.

Reduced staffing is just one reason why a municipal executive—a city manager or mayor—may bring in outside contractors. Another justification is the need for specialized skills and knowledge not required for regular operations. Or, it can simply be an ideological predilection.

When should cities hire outside consultants? When do the results justify the expenditure? When are they a waste of tax dollars? And when does outsourcing amount to privatizing essential government functions?

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Volume 13, Issue 8, Posted 9:41 AM, 07.31.2020

CH demonstrates inequitable attention to housing problems

In San Francisco or New York, a $480,000 teardown replaced by a more up-to-date home in a gentrifying area would not be unusual. That barely buys a run-down bungalow in those markets. But in Cleveland Heights, many residents were dismayed when the meticulously well-maintained 6-bedroom, 5-bath, 4,743-square-foot century home at 2224 Devonshire Drive in the Ambler Heights Historic District, which sold at that price, was demolished less than a year later. 

The city’s Architectural Board of Review has approved plans for a large contemporary house to replace it. Residents are still scratching their heads at how Cleveland Heights could have crowed about finally passing a landmark ordinance last year, then approved the demolition of a unique, historic structure.

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Volume 13, Issue 7, Posted 1:43 PM, 07.01.2020

Democracy is more than elections

“Vote them out!” We hear this all the time. It’s an exclamation we hurl in anger and frustration at every government office—and official—we feel isn’t working right, or isn’t working for us, or is raising taxes or cutting services. Or all of the above. During the recent Cleveland Heights-University Heights school levy campaign, strident cries of, “Vote them out!” were raised against school board members, despite the fact that, just a few months earlier, board members James Posch and Beverly Wright ran without opposition to retain their seats.

Without qualified candidates willing to give generously of their time and talents, who will citizens be able to “vote in”? Campaigns alone entail a significant investment of time, commitment, and probably some of the candidate’s own money. No wonder people prefer to be appointed to office!

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Volume 13, Issue 6, Posted 10:58 AM, 06.02.2020

Ready or not

We started the year with high expectations for Cleveland Heights’ newly constituted city council. Following voters’ passage of Issue 26, the “elected mayor” charter amendment, we especially looked forward to seeing plans take shape for the city’s transition to a new form of government.

Of course, we had no idea what was coming. Since mid-March, the pandemic has swept away all notions of normal operations in our community, across the country, and around the globe. But in these extraordinary times, the work of local government is more essential than ever.

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Volume 13, Issue 5, Posted 11:40 AM, 04.30.2020

More trash talk as task force makes recommendations

“Change is coming to the way we process our refuse, whether we like it or not,” we wrote in “Trash talk” (Heights Observer, December 2018). Now, the time for change has arrived. Tree lawns bedecked with plastic trash and recycling bags will soon be a thing of the past.

In September, Cleveland Heights’ recycling contract with Rumpke Waste and Recycling is up for renewal. At that point, absent some interim agreement, Rumpke will no longer take the recyclables our city’s drivers transport in those familiar blue bags. Instead, our jars, cans, plastic, cardboard and paper will have to be transported loose from our city’s transfer station on Superior Road to Rumpke’s recycling facility in Shiloh.

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Volume 13, Issue 4, Posted 4:11 PM, 04.02.2020

An unexpectedly timely look at filling CH council vacancies

This column is about how Cleveland Heights needs to revise its process for filling unexpected vacancies on CH City Council. Shortly after finishing it, we learned that such a vacancy may arise soon.  

We received a tip that Council Member Melissa Yasinow is planning to move out of the community. As of Feb. 25, her Washington Boulevard house was showcased on real-estate website Zillow with a notation that it was scheduled to go on the market Feb. 27. Meanwhile, the Chagrin Falls address that she and her husband supposedly contracted to buy on Dec. 10, with a March 3 closing date, is no longer listed by Zillow as being on the market.   

When we contacted her directly, Yasinow said she was upset about being confronted with the information, but she would not directly confirm nor deny it.

As long as she actually resides in Cleveland Heights, Yasinow can legally retain her council seat.

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Volume 13, Issue 3, Posted 2:02 PM, 02.26.2020

Time to choose: governance or grudges?

On Jan. 6, Cleveland Heights’ newly elected and sworn-in city council president/mayor Jason Stein addressed his colleagues and members of the public. “This council has a diverse group of people with a wide array of experiences, expertise and opinions to offer,” he said. “I believe that this council can accomplish a lot of good, if we choose to work together and treat each other in a civil manner.” (Our emphasis.)

Stein’s statement was not a mere bromide. Just minutes before, council members Mary Dunbar, Michael Ungar and Melissa Yasinow had voted against Kahlil Seren for council vice president/vice mayor.

Given that Seren was running unopposed, the three could have made the conciliatory gesture of voting for him. Such a vote, however, would have required them to set aside a grudge of at least two years’ duration.

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Volume 13, Issue 2, Posted 11:50 AM, 02.01.2020

Seventh annual CH Democracy Day is Jan. 30

We think many readers will agree that democracy in America has taken a beating over the past several decades. In particular, since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision 10 years ago this month, ever greater amounts of money have flooded our electoral process. The dangers posed by unregulated corporations have become increasingly evident to the average person. Still, the effects are insidious. All of us have learned to speak the language of commerce, and do it with scarcely a thought: hospital patients are now health care consumers; library patrons have become customers; even the word “citizen” has been replaced with “voter,” “taxpayer,” or “stakeholder.”

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Volume 13, Issue 1, Posted 9:26 AM, 01.03.2020

Looking back, and looking forward

As the winter solstice approaches, we consider events of the past year and our hopes for the future.

Cleveland Heights City Council kicked off 2019 by establishing the Refuse and Recycling Task Force. Composed of residents and city staff members, the group’s charge was to address the need to modernize our collection system, tackle the perennial debate over bags versus carts, and recommend future actions.

We urge everyone to read the task force’s findings, which will be released early in 2020. Meanwhile, the group’s agendas, minutes, e-mails and other documents are available at www.clevelandheights.com. As we said last year (“Heights of Democracy: Trash talk,” Heights Observer Vol. 11, Issue 12), we oppose privatizing this essential service.

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Volume 12, Issue 12, Posted 4:35 PM, 12.02.2019

Decisions . . . and transitions

Regardless of how the Issue 26 vote goes on Nov. 5, we, the people of Cleveland Heights, will be called upon to help our city make a transition to more effective and accountable city government.

As residents, citizens and, most of all, as neighbors, it will be up to us to heal the rifts of a bruising campaign. We either will or will not have a charter amendment changing our municipal government from a council/manager to a mayor/council form; but certainly there will be disappointed and worried people on whichever is the losing side.

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Volume 12, Issue 11, Posted 9:49 AM, 11.01.2019

The status quo can't cut it

As regular readers of this column know, we enthusiastically endorse a step toward a brighter future for our city: Issue 26, the Cleveland Heights city charter amendment providing for a directly elected mayor and a professional city administrator appointed with council approval.

During several years’ attendance at Committee of the Whole (CoW) meetings—council’s working sessions, held most Mondays—we have seen that our current system can allow the city manager to withhold important information from council and the public. Furthermore, employment law requires that all discussions about city employees, up to and including the city manager, occur in executive session, from which the public is barred and of which there is no public record.

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Volume 12, Issue 10, Posted 11:19 AM, 10.01.2019

A message to CH's neighbor cities

Dear Neighbors:

Don’t worry—Cleveland Heights has not lost its collective mind. As a community, we’re struggling with how to improve our government. Some of us believe we need systemic change; others are convinced such change would be a mistake.

We who favor changing to the kind of government you have are optimistic. We look forward to electing a mayor as the full-time executive of our city, who will appoint a professional city administrator to manage daily operations. That mayoral administration will be checked and balanced by a legislative body, our elected city council.

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 12:47 PM, 09.02.2019

Of mayors, city managers, and history lessons

In his opinion in the July Heights Observer, “History proves council-manager plan works well,” former Cleveland Heights council member and one-time mayor Alan Rapoport profiled Frank Cain, the city’s first mayor, who held the office for 32 years. After being directly elected himself in 1914, when Cleveland Heights was a village of 3,000, Mayor Cain led the charter commission that ultimately called for seven council members elected at large, and an appointed city manager. (In 1914 and in 1921, when the new charter was approved, only men could vote.)

Surely no one ever was more confident than Cain that his fellow council members would select him to be mayor, as they did for the following three decades. By all accounts, he did a great job. He also benefited from being in the right place at the right time, leading a wealthy suburb of the booming city of Cleveland during the Roaring ‘20s.

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Volume 12, Issue 8, Posted 11:02 AM, 08.01.2019

CH takes the high road to complete and green streets

We applaud Cleveland Heights for a recent national honor. Out of 66 plans adopted during 2018, the city’s Complete and Green Streets policy was named best in the country by the National Complete Streets Coalition, a project of Smart Growth America. (See related article on page 9 of the print issue.)

In particular, the policy garnered praise for attention to detail, binding language, and balancing the needs of all users, according to WCPN-FM.

We’re highlighting it here because its creation and adoption were driven by citizens, ably supported by CH City Council and staff.

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Volume 12, Issue 7, Posted 12:09 PM, 06.27.2019

Lawsuits threaten housing code enforcement

If you have owned a house in Cleveland Heights or University Heights, at some point you may have received from your city housing department a list of code violations, with a deadline for correcting them. It might have arrived following a systematic (routine) inspection of your home or rental unit, or a point of sale inspection (POS). Regardless, it’s only human to grumble a little before getting down to the work of bringing our properties up to code.

Most of us understand, however, that code enforcement is key to protecting our greatest assets as older communities: safe, healthy, attractive and, in many cases, historically significant housing. In addition, regular inspections of rental properties can ensure the rights and well being of renters.

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Volume 12, Issue 6, Posted 8:51 AM, 06.03.2019

Why elect a mayor?

Last month, we wrote that we support the objective of Citizens for an Elected Mayor to change Cleveland Heights’ form of government via charter amendment. Now, we want to explain why.

Our interest in the intricate workings of city government dates to 2015, when CH City Council and the city manager attempted to privatize our water service. Since then, between us we have attended well over 100 meetings of the committee of the whole—the weekly working sessions of city council—along with about 50 regular bi-weekly council meetings.

We have observed City Manager Tanisha Briley grappling with a host of problems created by her predecessor, Robert Downey, whose tenure lasted more than 25 years, until his sudden departure in 2012. Plainly speaking, he left behind a mess.

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Volume 12, Issue 5, Posted 10:42 AM, 05.02.2019

Making democracy work

A couple of years ago, a group of Cleveland Heights residents began agitating for a change in the city’s form of government. Specifically, they wanted to switch from a largely ceremonial mayor chosen by city council to a full-time chief executive elected by citizens. This change would require an amendment to the city charter and approval by the voters. News of these stirrings prompted CH City Council to appoint a Charter Review Commission (CRC) for the first time since the 1980s.

The CRC recently completed its work and presented to council a First Amended Charter. Council members will now determine which elements of the proposed amended charter to accept, modify, or reject. Unless council rejects the CRC’s work in its entirety, the adoption of the First Amended Charter will be on the November 2019 ballot for the people to vote up or down.

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Volume 12, Issue 4, Posted 10:07 AM, 04.02.2019

Before 'diversity'--the integration of Cleveland Heights [part 3 of 3]

By the early 1970s, Cleveland Heights faced realtor actions that, if unchecked, would lead to white flight and resegregation. Real estate agents steered white buyers away from the city, and showed black buyers only a few neighborhoods within it. Blockbusting, intended to induce panic and white flight, took place by phone. When the first black family moved onto a street, realtors would call the neighbors, insinuating that their property values were about to plummet.

At the same time, things were changing at CH City Hall. Activists Jack Boyle and Lucille Huston were elected to Cleveland Heights City Council in 1971. In 1972, the newly configured council chose pro-integration attorney Oliver Schroeder as mayor. Schroeder and four other suburban mayors agreed to enact ordinances banning telephone solicitation by realtors. Cleveland Heights council passed the new law within weeks.

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Volume 12, Issue 3, Posted 10:45 AM, 03.04.2019

Before 'diversity' - the integration of Cleveland Heights [part 2 of 3]

“It was scary because of the attention we got,” recalled Doris Allen. She and her husband Wendell purchased a gracious house on Lee Road in 1965. Although theirs was one of the first black families to move to Cleveland Heights, they weren’t looking to make a point, to be pioneers or activists, or to put their young family in danger. They simply wanted their five children, then between the ages of 1 and 10, to grow up in a racially, ethnically and religiously diverse community.

While Heights Citizens for Human Rights (HCHR) reached out to the Allens, others were not so welcoming. Police stopped their eldest son, still in elementary school, and questioned him for no apparent reason. When Wendell Allen went to a nearby store the proprietor asked, “Why don’t you shop in your own neighborhood?”

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Volume 12, Issue 2, Posted 9:55 AM, 02.01.2019

Before "diversity"—the integration of Cleveland Heights [part 1 of 3]

How many transformative social movements have started over a pot of coffee?

Just as the campaign to stop the freeways from decimating the near East Side suburbs was driven by women through a network of garden clubs, the movement to integrate Cleveland Heights began with a handful of women in a living room. In the early 1960s, some Cleveland Heights residents involved in the struggle for school desegregation in Cleveland began to question the virtually all-white composition of their own neighborhoods and schools, and to focus their attention closer to home.

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Volume 12, Issue 1, Posted 11:42 AM, 01.02.2019

Trash talk

If there’s one subject that gets Cleveland Heights residents riled up, it’s trash collection. The pros and cons of plastic bags vs. wheeled carts are hotly debated on social media. CH City Council members frequently find themselves confronted by constituents with strong opinions.

At an Oct. 22 meeting of council’s Safety and Municipal Services Committee, City Manager Tanisha Briley noted this is the third time during her five-year tenure that the city has considered major changes to its handling of refuse and recycling. About two dozen residents squeezed into city hall’s executive conference room to hear what staff and council members had to say, and to make their concerns known.

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Volume 11, Issue 12, Posted 4:39 PM, 11.29.2018

Lake Erie starts here

At various points around Cleveland Heights and University Heights, you can find the message “Lake Erie Starts Here” stenciled on residential streets. In each case, an arrow points to a storm-drain grate. These words remind us that any litter or toxic waste dumped in the roadway will eventually be washed into a drain, and from there into our local streams—which in turn empty into Lake Erie a few miles north of here.

Lake Erie, of course, is the source of our drinking water, as well as home to food fish and the organisms they eat, and a place where residents of and visitors to four states and the province of Ontario come to swim and sail.

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Volume 11, Issue 11, Posted 12:16 PM, 11.01.2018

Checking out democracy

Andrew Carnegie said, in 1903, “Free libraries maintained by the people are cradles of democracy, and their spread can never fail to extend and strengthen the democratic idea[.]” At a recent public meeting, Nancy Levin, Cleveland Heights-University Heights Public Library System director, echoed Carnegie when she called her organization “a facilitator of democracy.” We decided to explore how the Heights libraries function as part of the infrastructure of local democracy.

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Volume 11, Issue 10, Posted 2:49 PM, 09.27.2018

Some things take time

On the evening of July 9, Lolly the Trolley threaded its way through Cleveland Heights’ Noble neighborhood, stopping every few minutes in front of a vacant and dilapidated house. The trolley’s passengers were not tourists. They were Cleveland Heights City Council members and staff, hosted by Greater Cleveland Congregations (GCC), an ecumenical social justice organization.

GCC determined in 2016 that “ongoing decay of many Cleveland Heights houses and buildings” was one of the “most pressing issues” facing our city. Now the organization was highlighting 19 problem properties in the north end of town. GCC members wanted officials to see the peeling paint, sagging steps, missing shingles, listing garages, piles of trash, uncut grass and overgrown shrubbery—unmistakable signs of blight.

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Volume 11, Issue 9, Posted 2:30 PM, 09.03.2018

Pre-emption of local control

5G wireless technology is coming. Municipalities throughout the country have been suing state governments to try to retain some local control over the placement of small cell antennas and associated equipment. According to Crain’s Cleveland Business, the telecommunications industry wants to install 100,000 antennas a year nationally over the next five years. Wireless companies, however, have been unhappy about the labyrinthine task of securing permits from tens of thousands of local governments.

Enter ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the corporate-funded, self-described think tank is only too happy to supply model state legislation pre-empting local ordinances to regulate the permits, fees and aesthetics of wireless equipment. And the Ohio General Assembly appears only too delighted to have had ALEC’s help.

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Volume 11, Issue 8, Posted 12:43 PM, 07.31.2018

Cleveland Heights legislation should safeguard equity and opportunity

In many Cuyahoga County cities, an owner may not transfer (sell or otherwise convey) a property without a point of sale (POS) inspection. Cleveland Heights was an “early adopter” of POS inspections, back in the 1980s, because a far-sighted city council recognized them as a vital tool for maintaining the city’s greatest asset, its historic housing stock. Our city was ahead of its time, and this has served us well.

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Volume 11, Issue 7, Posted 10:33 AM, 06.29.2018

What is a local issue?

One thing we can all agree on is that we elect our local officials to see to the running of our cities. We expect them to make sure streets are paved, sewers function, parks and recreation facilities are well-maintained, and taxes are spent prudently and wisely. In other words, we expect them to tend to local concerns.

But cities, and their residents, exist in an economic and social climate largely determined by the actions of state and federal governmental bodies. To what extent should mayors and councils officially advocate or oppose policies and legislation outside of their jurisdiction? Recent discussions by the Cleveland Heights City Council got us thinking about this question.

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Volume 11, Issue 6, Posted 11:55 AM, 06.01.2018

Community Reinvestment Areas: Buyer beware?

Property tax abatements are a controversial subject, and rightfully so. When Cleveland Heights residents dutifully pay our—notoriously high—property taxes, only to learn that neighbors purchasing units in some new developments will pay a mere fraction of their high-end home’s assessed value for up to a decade, we understandably bristle. It doesn’t feel like “equal treatment under the law”—a cornerstone of our democracy. It seems more like a subsidy to already wealthy people.

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Volume 11, Issue 5, Posted 4:18 PM, 04.30.2018

Courage and persistence

In a democracy, and yes, in a democratic republic, real victories small and large are only won when we, the people, stand up for our rights. Elected officials do not hand us such victories; we must claim them ourselves, over and over again. Participation in a democracy can be difficult, messy, inconvenient, frustrating and even boring. Often, we take three steps forward and two steps back (and sometimes, unfortunately, vice versa). But without our active involvement, there can be no democracy at all.

In the past several weeks we have seen dramatic examples of democratic action in response to crises, as high school students in Parkland, Fla., and public school teachers throughout West Virginia have stood up to authority and demanded action.

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Volume 11, Issue 4, Posted 3:49 PM, 03.29.2018

A few more thoughts on Democracy Day

In our January column, we wrote about the history of Democracy Day in Cleveland Heights. Since we were writing for the Heights Observer, we kept our focus local. However, Robert Shwab’s letter to the editor in response to that column, published in the February issue, takes a national view. That letter contained some misconceptions, which several readers have asked us to address.

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Volume 11, Issue 3, Posted 1:44 PM, 03.01.2018

Let the sun shine in

When times are prosperous, neighborhoods are harmonious, and public services are delivered without interruption, we assume municipal government is working well. If roads are crumbling, storm sewers are backing up, and crime seems to be increasing, our local government must be at fault, right?

Of course, it’s never that simple. When state and federal governments cut off major streams of funding, municipalities must scramble to fill the gaps by cutting services or raising taxes and fees, or often by a combination of both. Other than looking to increasingly scarce sources of local news, and consulting the city’s website, how can residents know what their elected and appointed officials are up to?

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Volume 11, Issue 2, Posted 11:25 AM, 01.31.2018

The backstory to Democracy Day

On Thursday, Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights City Council will convene the city’s fifth annual Democracy Day, and you, dear reader, are most cordially invited.

For the uninitiated, Democracy Day gives the public an opportunity to address council about how the political influence of corporate entities, added to obscene amounts of money spent in the political process, is degrading the democratic institutions of our city, our state and our nation. Following the hearing each year, a letter stating the reason for the event and summarizing citizens’ remarks is sent by council to our U.S. senators, our U.S. congress member, and the presidents of the Ohio Senate and the Ohio House. That letter, the full text of the petition, plus written minutes and a video, can be viewed on the city’s website under Government, Archived Agendas and Minutes, Public Hearings.

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Volume 11, Issue 1, Posted 2:14 PM, 01.02.2018

Are civil rights a matter of policy or of law?

Kathy Flora, a Cleveland Heights resident and immigration activist, shared these stories at the Nov. 1 meeting of Cleveland Heights City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee:

“Beatriz did not give a wide enough berth to a patrol car that was stopping someone else. She was . . . rapidly deported, leaving behind her grieving husband and four children. She was dumped over the Mexican border . . . in a notoriously dangerous city that preys on these vulnerable United States throwaways. She was robbed twice.


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Volume 10, Issue 12, Posted 12:14 PM, 11.27.2017

Some thoughts on voting

In a democracy, “We the People” are sovereign—not “we the judges,” “we the corporations,” or even “we the elected officials.” In a monarchy, the monarch is sovereign. In a democratic republic, the primary way most of us can express ourselves as a free and sovereign people is in the voting booth. No wonder Americans have fought to expand the franchise since the early days of the republic, when only white male landowners could vote.

Of course, voting is not only a right, but a responsibility, and that entails much more than getting to the polls. As voters we are responsible for learning as much as possible about candidates and issues before marking our ballots. With a corporate media pandering for the apparently unlimited sums of money now routinely spent on political ads, that’s a real challenge.

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Volume 10, Issue 11, Posted 2:19 PM, 11.01.2017

The most important election?

Proportionally, our votes count most in municipal elections, yet that’s exactly when Americans are least likely to cast a ballot. For a project “Who Votes for Mayor?” Portland State University researchers analyzed 23 million voting records to understand participation in the most recent local elections in 50 U.S. cities. Among their key findings: 

  • When municipal elections are held in even-numbered years, and especially when they coincide with presidential contests, voter participation is much higher than in off-year elections.
  • In 10 of America’s 30 largest cities, turnout in municipal elections was less than 15 percent.
  • Voters 65 and older are 15 times more likely to cast a local ballot than those between the ages of 18 and 34.
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Volume 10, Issue 10, Posted 2:07 PM, 09.29.2017

A matter of judgment

Most Cleveland Heights residents will never find themselves in municipal court, but its activities affect the safety and quality of life of all of us. We rely on it when a neighbor fails to bring her/his house up to code, when a speeding driver endangers pedestrians and other motorists, when a woman is threatened or beaten by her domestic partner.

On Nov. 7, Cleveland Heights voters will choose a replacement for Cleveland Heights Municipal Court Judge A. Deane Buchanan, who is retiring due to age limits. Vying to succeed Buchanan are attorneys James Costello, Naydeen Hayden and DeAngelo Little.

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Volume 10, Issue 9, Posted 1:57 PM, 09.01.2017

Choosing the words we use

Every human language is constantly changing, as people grapple with explaining, describing and understanding our world. This is a good thing; languages that never change die. The words we choose to label ideas, objects and people evolve, and our usage changes the words themselves.

Of course, as we are all aware, this is not strictly an organic process. Powerful players go to great lengths (with great means at their disposal) to change the meanings of words in ways both subtle and not.

For instance, we now have the “sharing economy.” This moniker is used to describe relatively new arrangements whereby people rent out space (in their homes, in the case of Airbnb) or charge for services (providing taxi service in their personal vehicles, as with Uber and Lyft). If this co-optation of “sharing” to denote commercial relationships sticks, it will be interesting to see how we eventually describe an act of generosity that does not involve payment.

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Volume 10, Issue 8, Posted 1:57 PM, 08.01.2017

The Coventry School site: In whose interest?

An impressive group of nonprofit organizations, [many] dedicated to education and the arts, make their homes in the building that was once Coventry Elementary School, which was closed by the Cleveland Heights-University Heights City School District in 2007.

The first nonprofit to move in was Ensemble Theatre, in 2011; the most recent is Artful Cleveland, which leased space in July 2016, opened its doors in March 2017, and now provides studio space to 18 artists.

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Volume 10, Issue 7, Posted 12:11 PM, 06.29.2017

Consider city charter in historical context

Many of us first learned about America’s Progressive Era in history classes. Lasting from the 1890s to the 1920s, it was drawing to a close when Cleveland Heights voters first approved a city charter in August 1921.

According to Marian J. Morton, in her book Cleveland Heights: The Making of an Urban Suburb: “Reflecting contemporary efforts to reform local government, the charter provided for nonpartisan elections of the city council and a city manager, who would be chosen by council for his [sic] professional expertise. The seven members of Cleveland Heights Council chose the mayor from their own ranks.”

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Volume 10, Issue 6, Posted 1:28 PM, 05.31.2017

Opinion: Cleveland Heights Charter: Up for review?

Cleveland Heights could be about to undertake an interesting community conversation. CH City Council recently introduced legislation to appoint a charter review commission; the first since 1982. Among the many issues the commission may consider is the city’s form of government. We have been intrigued for some time by how our city’s government differs from those of neighboring suburbs.

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Volume 10, Issue 5, Posted 11:35 AM, 05.02.2017

Rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy

From the local to the global, the ability of people to govern ourselves has been under assault for many decades. We can expect this to intensify for multiple reasons, including:

  • Business corporations seeking huge profits by converting what once had been “public” to “private” (called privatization, though a more descriptive term would be “corporatization”), including traditional public assets such as water and sewer systems, roads, police and fire protection, airports, hospitals and schools.
  • Individuals looking to increase their power, status and/or privileges by concentrating decision-making from many ("We the People" and government) to a few (their own) hands.
  • Continual legal and constitutional definitions that further restrict and redefine “public” arenas as other “p” words: private, property, proprietary, privileged—and thus [place them] beyond the reach of public planning, shaping and evaluation.
  • A national government that uses the excuse of “terrorism” to stifle dissent, intimidate dissenters and interrupt efforts of self-determination, even at the local level.
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Volume 10, Issue 4, Posted 7:15 PM, 03.30.2017

Corporate personhood and Ohio

Corporate personhood is the legal fiction that corporate entities are “persons,” entitled to the constitutional rights originally intended solely for human beings. On Jan. 25, Cleveland Heights held its fourth annual Democracy Day public hearing, created by the 2013 ballot initiative that called for a U.S. constitutional amendment stating, “Corporations are not people and money is not speech.”

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Volume 10, Issue 3, Posted 3:05 PM, 02.28.2017

What CH city service will be privatized next?

In 2015, the city of Cleveland Heights moved to privatize its water department, but backed off in the face of community opposition. Despite that strong negative response, last summer the city privatized its building department, turning it over to SAFEbuilt, a Colorado-based company now owned by the private equity firm Riverside.

As state governments have squeezed funding to cities in recent years, the trend toward privatizing municipal services has accelerated. With the Republican sweep to control all branches of the federal government added to that party’s control of 32 state legislatures and 33 governorships, pressure to privatize can only be expected to intensify.

In our July column, “Take Back the CH Building Department,” we outlined some specific concerns about privatizing a municipal service that has been a net revenue generator for the city for many decades. There may be time to reverse this: Cleveland Heights can withdraw from its three-year contract with SAFEbuilt on July 1, 2017, giving 120 days notice.

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Volume 10, Issue 2, Posted 6:07 PM, 01.31.2017

When ladies stopped the freeways and saved their cities

As the Nature Center at Shaker Lakes wraps up its 50th-anniversary year, we wish to reflect on the struggle that birthed it—a struggle that succeeded in preserving the wetland along the border of Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights and, indeed, both cities as we know them today.

Were it not for seven years of sustained effort by residents, elected officials and members of civic organizations, Cleveland’s near east side and adjacent suburbs would have been chopped into fragments by a heavily promoted system of freeways.

Announced in 1963, the [freeway] plan was the brainchild of Cuyahoga County Engineer Albert S. Porter, who also chaired the county Democratic Party. It consisted of four multi-lane, limited-access highways, all of them passing through some portion of Cleveland Heights.

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Volume 10, Issue 1, Posted 11:51 AM, 01.03.2017

Recapping column's first six months and moving forward

We’ve enjoyed covering a variety of subjects during the first six months of this column. Readers—even a couple who haven’t agreed with us—have been generous and kind, in person and in writing. Many thanks to you all. This month, we’ll recap topics addressed to date in this column, and close with an appeal.

June: How “public” is public education? In our debut column, we highlighted testimony by two Cleveland Heights High School seniors at the third annual Democracy Day public hearing before Cleveland Heights City Council. Emma Schubert and Elijah Snow-Rackley, members of the Heights Coalition for Public Education, presented evidence of the negative impact on CH-UH public schools of high-stakes testing, vouchers and charter schools. The Heights Coalition for Public Education continues its excellent work. Learn more about the coalition’s work, and sign its position statement at http://chuh.net/coalition/.

July: Take back the CH Building Department. Citing more-stringent state licensing requirements for building inspectors, the city of Cleveland Heights outsourced its building department last summer to SAFEbuilt, a corporation founded in Colorado that is now owned by private equity firm Riverside.

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Volume 9, Issue 12, Posted 5:57 PM, 12.01.2016

Public Water — Yes!

For 101 years, the City of Cleveland Heights has purchased water from the City of Cleveland and marked it up for resale to its residents and businesses. Most University Heights residents and businesses—with the exception of 700 UH households, which are part of the Cleveland Heights water distribution system—have paid Cleveland directly, without their city serving as middleman.

As of Jan. 1, 2017, Cleveland Heights will join 67 other direct service communities in Northeast Ohio, and the city will be out of the water business. Water bills, which have climbed over the past year to cover the Cleveland Heights Water Department’s growing deficit, will actually drop slightly. Rates will fall more sharply when the deficit is retired after seven years.

Things might have gone very differently had the community not come together to send a large corporation packing and keep an essential utility in public hands. We are just two of many who gave their time to this fight.

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Volume 9, Issue 11, Posted 12:09 PM, 11.01.2016