Heights Of Democracy

Do the right thing

Early 20th-century developers envisioned Cleveland Heights as an upper-class “garden suburb.” Given real-estate market realities, however, mansion districts soon gave way to subdivisions with smaller lot sizes, varied dwelling types and lower prices. By 1921, when Cleveland Heights received its city charter, housing stock determined that we would be an economically mixed suburb.

In 21st-century Cleveland Heights, "diversity" most often refers to the city's mix of races, religions and LGBTQ+ residents. Economic class is something of an elephant in the room, all the more so since income disparity has grown; in 2023, 16.2 percent of our residents lived in poverty. Wealthy, middle-class, moderate-income and low-income residents tend to be segregated by neighborhood.

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Volume 17, Issue 5, Posted 10:15 AM, 04.29.2024

'Please apply here . . .'

What a difference a year makes. After Cleveland Heights City Council deadlocked on appointing a replacement for Josie Moore within 45 days of her December 2022 resignation, Mayor Kahlil Seren chose Janine Boyd to fill Moore’s former seat on Feb. 10, 2023.

Less than four months after winning election in November 2023 to a four-year term, Boyd has announced that she and her family will move to Virginia post haste, leaving council to fill her seat within the required 45 days, beginning March 18; if not, the appointment will again be made by the mayor. However, with newcomer Jim Petras on board (and absent former president Melody Hart), this is a new council. We doubt the current leadership team of President Tony Cuda and Vice President Davida Russell will have trouble finding four votes to make a timely appointment.

By the time this article sees print, the deadline to apply will be imminent or have passed.

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Volume 17, Issue 4, Posted 11:17 AM, 03.28.2024

An unofficial list of CH boards and commissions

For interested Cleveland Heights residents, the following is an unofficial list of the city's standing (i.e., continually operating) citizen boards and commissions.

Appointed by city council:

Architectural Board of Review
Board of Zoning Appeals
Citizens Advisory Committee
Climate & Environmental Sustainability Committee*

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Volume 17, Issue 4, Posted 11:15 AM, 03.28.2024

Missed opportunities and untapped potential

Cleveland Heights is a city rich in resources—residential and commercial, human, natural and historical. But to be home to a vibrant, flourishing community, a city needs leaders who will nurture these resources. This can mean anything from maintaining roads and sewer pipes, to restoring park habitats, to providing conditions that encourage residents to contribute and staff to do their best work. Tending to the needs of a city requires a balance between day-to-day attention and forward-looking imagination. In all realms, it requires constant effort to stay ahead of the forces of entropy, stagnation and decay.

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Volume 17, Issue 3, Posted 2:49 PM, 02.28.2024

Building bridges

Danny Williams returns calls. That’s the first thing we learned when Cleveland Heights’ new city administrator agreed to a Zoom interview with us shortly after the start of the year. He spoke with us for nearly an hour and promptly answered e-mailed follow-up questions. Here are some highlights:

"My ultimate goal is for the public to look back on the first elected mayoral administration as the most productive in anyone's memory," Williams stated. He cited the following as examples of what such productivity might include: "a more integrated and comprehensive approach to public safety, incorporating mental health and violence interrupter interventions; demonstrable and significant improvement in delivery of basic city services; continued strong support of business districts; demonstrated support of homeowners seeking to preserve or improve our housing stock; and growth of our population."

He described himself as primary advisor to Mayor Kahlil Seren, "assist[ing] in carrying out his strategic vision."

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Volume 17, Issue 2, Posted 4:53 PM, 01.30.2024

A 2024 wish list for Cleveland Heights

We admit we were pretty cranky throughout most of 2023. Time wasted, opportunities squandered, communication gaffes, bad behavior by elected officials—it all just got to us. But the flip side of every gripe is a hope for something better. To kick off the new year, we present a few of those better things.

In 2024, we wish that:

1. Mayor Kahlil Seren delivers on his campaign promise that every resident who calls or e-mails Cleveland Heights City Hall receives a timely and helpful response.

2. The mayor and city council achieve a mutually respectful working relationship, and council members have access to department staff when necessary.

3. Council members put aside personal agendas, control their behavior, and focus on the well-being of the city and its residents, and the new council president adheres firmly to Robert's Rules of Order when conducting meetings, and requires other council members to do so as well.

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Volume 17, Issue 1, Posted 11:45 AM, 12.28.2023

Planning beats politicking

The last thing Cleveland Heights needed in our most recent city council election was “Democrats” trying to “out-Democrat” each other. But we got it anyway.

Six candidates were vying for three seats on CH City Council. Last summer, when the Cuyahoga County Democratic Party endorsed two, and the Cleveland Heights Democratic Club gave the nod to two others, a season of drama and political nastiness ensued.

Both bodies, by the way, require a 60-percent vote threshold of those present at the endorsement meeting for an individual to win. That was ironic: at the time, most of these dedicated Democrats were fighting hard to defeat the Issue 1 that was the subject of the August special election cooked up by statehouse Republicans.

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Volume 16, Issue 12, Posted 3:14 PM, 11.29.2023

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.

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Volume 16, Issue 11, Posted 11:18 AM, 10.30.2023

Community comes first

To say that Cleveland Heights Mayor Kahlil Seren has not, to date, embraced community involvement in civic matters would be an understatement. Locked office doors and a police officer at the reception desk in City Hall were early warning signs. Withdrawal of administrative staff support for resident volunteers serving on various boards and commissions was another red flag. The Cleveland Heights Green Team, Heights Tree People, Severance Action Group, and various groups in the Noble and Caledonia neighborhoods are just a few examples of community members whose civic efforts have been rejected or ignored by the mayor.

In last month's column, “Who owns Cleveland Heights?” we suggested that a community land trust (CLT) could protect certain parcels for specified community purposes in perpetuity. Property could be acquired from the county land bank, through tax foreclosure, purchase, or even donation.

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Volume 16, Issue 10, Posted 10:25 AM, 09.29.2023

Who owns Cleveland Heights?

Who owns Cleveland Heights? A glib answer would be: homeowners, commercial and residential landlords and, to some extent, the city itself. But to whom does municipally owned property really belong? We say it belongs to the people.

Much city government business involves controlling land use by modifying and enforcing zoning and building codes and courting economic development. Since the one-two punch of subprime mortgages and the foreclosure crisis starting around 2009, various Cleveland Heights administrations have grappled with the ongoing fallout.

Attempts to manage it have included contracting with two community-development corporations, FutureHeights and Start Right. Both have renovated and sold salvageable houses previously owned by the city. Start Right also is building new infill housing on city-owned lots in Caledonia. 

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Volume 16, Issue 9, Posted 11:50 AM, 09.02.2023

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.

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

Would-be homebuyers: be forewarned, not foreclosed

During a March 4 event she sponsored, "Landlord & Tenant Law 101," Cleveland Heights City Council Member Davida Russell changed the subject. She told several elderly tenants from the Alcazar, "You don't have to rent. We can help get you into your own houses." They protested, “We’ve been homeowners. We don’t want that burden anymore!” What they wanted, like so many other renters in CH and beyond, was a landlord responsive to their needs.

Russell repeated "101" in June, and will do so again in October, with the participation of CH Municipal Court Judge J.J. Costello, the Legal Aid Society, the Cleveland Housing Network, and two attorneys.

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Volume 16, Issue 7, Posted 5:10 PM, 06.29.2023

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.

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Volume 16, Issue 6, Posted 8:55 AM, 06.01.2023

Calling all activists

In her April column, "HCC legacy can guide us," Susie Kaeser paid heartfelt tribute to this recently shuttered organization. "Its purpose," she wrote, "was to mobilize the whole community to fight racism, advance equity and inclusion, and protect racial integration."

In its heyday, Heights Community Congress (HCC) did cutting-edge work in pursuit of fair housing. Staff and volunteers researched and documented illegal practices such as redlining. They pressured municipal government and confronted racial steering by real estate agents, helped create block clubs and neighborhood organizations, and developed services and working groups to meet the needs of specific constituencies. The group's skilled leadership, high level of community participation, and shrewd strategizing set the bar for future activist organizations.

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Volume 16, Issue 5, Posted 1:29 PM, 05.01.2023

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.

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Volume 16, Issue 4, Posted 10:29 AM, 04.02.2023

Some CH housing inspection headaches . . .

As volunteer columnists with busy lives, we can't often undertake extensive research, let alone far-reaching investigative journalism; thus, we forego addressing many interesting and important subjects. This month, however, our subject is Cleveland Heights housing inspections, about which seemingly everyone has opinions. We will describe some recent inspection issues, and encourage you to share your stories with us.

To be clear, we support rigorous code enforcement, which necessitates regular inspections. Sure, we gripe like anyone else when we encounter an especially picky inspector; but housing codes are a social good. When conscientiously applied they protect owners, renters and neighbors from unsafe conditions, and ensure the upkeep of our residential areas.

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Volume 16, Issue 3, Posted 10:53 AM, 02.28.2023

Seeking substance inside CH City Hall

On Jan. 3, we witnessed a Cleveland Heights City Council meeting that lasted an hour and seven minutes, but felt interminable.

Mayor Kahlil Seren made two brief announcements, but inexplicably did not mention the Dec. 23–24 life-threatening storm Elliott and attendant heavy snowfall, which had choked some residential streets in the city for days. Nor did he utter a word about when the Community Center, closed due to flooding caused by Elliott’s sub-zero temperatures, might reopen.

Public comments ranged from polite complaints about unplowed streets to abusively long harangues by speakers who rudely ignored reminders that they had exceeded their three-minute time limit.

During council’s comment period, some members monopolized the floor to deliver state-of-the-city addresses, grandstand about their own accomplishments, or malign their cohorts.

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Volume 16, Issue 2, Posted 11:48 AM, 01.31.2023

Democratically speaking . . .

After one year, Cleveland Heights City Council and the mayor are starting to get their sea legs with our new form of government—and each other.

As longtime CH government watchers, we are astounded by the hours this council expends in regular meetings, committee meetings, special meetings, and emergency meetings. Their attendance record is excellent compared with that of other councils we have observed over close to a decade. With nominal pay and negligible benefits, these supposedly part-time legislators have put in full-time hours, even rescheduling vacations to meet the mayor’s last-minute meeting requests.

Their dedication is impressive, but going forward, they must make it clear to the administration that council’s schedule is to be respected and observed. The mayor, who is very protective of his staff’s time and schedules, should be the first to understand this. 

Meanwhile, the comment portions of council meetings need immediate work.

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Volume 16, Issue 1, Posted 10:17 AM, 01.02.2023

Tending our collective backyard

A century ago, municipal parks featured velvety lawns flanked by tidy groupings of trees, shrubs and annual blooms, often imported from Europe or Asia. Today, scientists and landscape designers advocate “re-wilding"—using native plants to recreate lost habitats, as insect and bird populations decline. These small, endangered creatures are the pollinators we depend on to fertilize the plants that underpin our food system and, indeed, all of life on earth. It is time to transform our beloved city parks.

Most spring, summer and fall mornings, Cleveland Heights retirees Stu and Kathleen Greenberg can be found in Forest Hill Park behind the Recreation Center, tending a few square feet of ground at a time. They remove thickets of invasive, non-native plants (Amur honeysuckle and multiflora rose are two major culprits), uncovering native trees and shrubs—and the occasional park bench. In newly opened spaces they plant black-eyed Susan and varieties of coneflower.

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Volume 15, Issue 12, Posted 1:47 PM, 11.30.2022

Democracy does not begin or end with Election Day

In our June 2020 column, we wrote that citizen participation in a democracy requires effort beyond merely voting. Now, we approach this theme from a different angle: local government’s responsibility to facilitate resident access and involvement. We consider a few practices—some recent, others longstanding—at our own Cleveland Heights City Hall.

For years, council members and the public complained about city manager Tanisha Briley’s habitual insistence that council pass legislation “declaring an emergency,” even when it did not address an urgent matter. Under Mayor Seren, this practice has continued, although the full text of the proposed legislation now includes the reason for emergency status.

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Volume 15, Issue 11, Posted 10:17 AM, 11.01.2022

CH has a chance to lead on lead safety

Cleveland Heights’ best feature may be its great variety of century-old homes; yet these charming beauties harbor a threat to the lifelong health of our children. Lead-based paint was not banned in the United States until 1978. Houses built earlier unquestionably contain lead.

Eradicating all traces of lead-based paint from an old house is exorbitantly expensive, requiring replacement of windows, doors, walls and soil, and installation of new exterior siding. Increasingly, U.S. cities are requiring more practical measures, called “interim controls.” If applied correctly, these methods can significantly reduce lead in and around a home. They consist of keeping the original pre-1978 paint contained, or “encapsulated” by new paint, and covering bare soil with grass, ground covers or mulch. The resulting environment is not lead-free, but, if properly maintained, is much safer. (“Lead-safe” is the technical term.)

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Volume 15, Issue 10, Posted 11:02 AM, 10.01.2022

Yes, charter review matters, but not now

In our March 2022 Heights Observer column, we wrote:

“[A] charter review process initiated so early in our new government’s tenure would be a grievous misuse of time and effort. As a member of the most recent CRC [Charter Review Commission], convened from 2017 to 2019, one of us had the dubious honor of serving on a commission formed for the wrong reasons in the wrong way. We implore council: Let us not do that again.”

Our conclusion, in that same column:

“Cleveland Heights may want to consider ward representation and other important charter changes sometime in the future—but not now.

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Volume 15, Issue 9, Posted 11:46 AM, 08.31.2022

On the road to a new government

We hope nobody thought that transforming government in a city of 44,000 would be fast or easy. By the time you read this, Cleveland Heights’ new mayor/council government will have had a seven-month test drive over a course littered with potholes. As citizen observers, we note some progress, along with problems that needed attention yesterday.

First, some wins. One thing voters sought in an elected mayor was high visibility. Mayor Kahlil Seren has been visiting schools and attending public events locally and regionally. In June, he held a ceremony to mark Pride Month by raising the Pride flag at City Hall, and spoke at the Juneteenth festival on Coventry.

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Volume 15, Issue 8, Posted 10:16 AM, 07.29.2022

Is there a chance for PEACE?

At the front door of the Coventry PEACE Campus (CPC) building, outsized, fanciful light fixtures hang from the 18-foot ceiling, hinting at creative doings inside. Since 2011 the former elementary school has housed an eclectic mix of nonprofit organizations, devoted to empowering Heights residents of all ages through arts, education and community development.

CPC is not only a place, but an umbrella organization for the resident groups. In addition to presenting special events, in recent years the nonprofit has managed the premises and the leasing of space. CPC pays $10,000 for utilities and $500 in rent each month to Heights Libraries, which purchased the building from the CH-UH Board of Education in 2018 for $1.

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Volume 15, Issue 7, Posted 5:12 AM, 06.30.2022

Join us for Democracy Day

This column begins our seventh year of collaborating on Heights of Democracy. We are grateful to the Heights Observer staff, readers who respond to us in writing and face-to-face, city officials and personnel, and everyone else who puts up with us—critics and supporters alike. It is a pleasure and a privilege to have this outlet for our opinions on the workings of, and challenges to, democracy at the local level.

In our first Heights of Democracy column, “How 'public' is public education?” we wrote about some terrific testimony presented by two Cleveland Heights High School seniors, at the January 2016 Democracy Day public hearing in front of Cleveland Heights City Council. Since Elijah Snow-Rackley and Emma Schubert recounted their experiences with the privatization of public education, things have only gotten worse—in the schools and in most other American public institutions.

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Volume 15, Issue 6, Posted 2:42 PM, 05.27.2022

Oh, Susanna!

Throughout Cleveland Heights’ 101 years of existence, perhaps only Frank C. Cain has had as great an impact on our city as the woman who will retire as city manager later this month: Susanna Niermann O’Neil.

Cain, first elected mayor of the village of Cleveland Heights in 1914, spearheaded the adoption of the manager/council form of government when the city was incorporated in 1921. Until his retirement in 1946, and even afterward, Cain was known as Mr. Cleveland Heights.

Niermann O’Neil has served the city in various staff positions even longer [than Cain], though with a somewhat lower profile.

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Volume 15, Issue 5, Posted 11:20 AM, 04.29.2022

On May 3 vote 'no' on 9, 'yes' on 10

There is a great deal wrong with the way economic development gets done, not just in Northeast Ohio but throughout the United States. Governments of older cities and suburbs have little clout when seeking to redevelop blighted districts or attract new housing, commercial or industrial projects. Tax abatements are de rigueur. Private sector developers hold the cards and can easily move to the next town over if city officials stand in the way of maximum profit.

This system needs fixing, but cities like ours do not have the luxury of deferring development until some unspecified time when conditions are perfect, or even when incremental reform has occurred. Aging municipalities needing revitalization must work with what exists now.

Cedar-Lee-Meadowbrook is important—not just for Cleveland Heights.

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Volume 15, Issue 4, Posted 2:31 PM, 04.01.2022

Charter matters

Cleveland Heights’ new form of government, with Mayor Kahlil Seren at the helm and a city council of six (including three first-term members) is in its sixth week of existence as we write.

Council has just met its first major challenge by unanimously appointing Gail Larson to be its seventh member within the 45-day limit imposed by the charter amendment voters passed in November 2021. We congratulate Larson, who will fill Seren’s former seat [as an appointee through the end of this year. The seat’s full term expires Dec. 31, 2023, and will be on the ballot this November.] Kudos as well to council for meeting its obligation in a timely manner.

City ballots feature charter amendments all the time, for a wide variety of reasons. Some are prompted by outside entities, like the county board of elections; others come from city councils, specially constituted charter review commissions (CRCs), or citizen initiatives.

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Volume 15, Issue 3, Posted 1:47 PM, 02.28.2022

Things we share

Some years ago, PBS stations aired a spot with a voice intoning, “This belongs to you,” over images of the Grand Canyon and other natural wonders, followed by clips from popular programs. Even knowing it would culminate in an appeal for funds, we wanted to burst into a chorus of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Of course, the Grand Canyon doesn’t “belong” to anyone, and we certainly hope it stays that way. Contained within a national park, it is conserved and protected by the National Park Service (NPS), an agency of the federal Department of the Interior. The NPS is likewise responsible for our own Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

Parks—national, state, regional and municipal—exist for everyone, including the nature within their boundaries. They are among the things we share.

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Volume 15, Issue 2, Posted 9:53 AM, 02.01.2022

Resolutions for 2022 and beyond

Late in 2021 the Cleveland Heights Green Team mounted an enthusiastic and effective post-election campaign to keep political yard signs out of landfills.

Residents deposited almost 1,500 placards at designated collection points around the city. (Thanks to Dave’s, Zagara’s, Save-A-Lot and the Coventry Library!)

The Green Team then collected the signs, sorted them, and offered them to candidates for re-use in future campaigns—brilliant! The four who chose to retrieve their signs were Mario Clopton-Zymler, Tony Cuda, Josie Moore and Kahlil Seren. Members of the Green Team delivered the unclaimed signs to the Cuyahoga County Solid Waste District for recycling.

But here’s the rub: while the metal frames are fully recyclable, only a tiny amount of plastic collected for recycling ever actually is recycled.

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Volume 15, Issue 1, Posted 11:10 AM, 01.01.2022

Wrapping up a challenging year

Weather predictions to the contrary, Cleveland Heights enjoyed a sunny, if brisk, Election Day on Nov. 2, with rain holding off until shortly before the polls closed.

We are grateful to the candidates who ran in this historic municipal election. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and without viable candidates and dedicated elected officials, it cannot exist. The 13 candidates who competed for five city council seats, the seven who ran for three school board positions, and the two mayoral finalists made these campaigns highly competitive.

Congratulations to Cleveland Heights’ first-ever mayor-elect Kahlil Seren, new council members-elect Tony Cuda, Anthony Mattox and Josie Moore, returning council members Craig Cobb and Davida Russell, and returning school board members Dan Heintz, Malia Lewis and Jodi Sourini.

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Volume 14, Issue 12, Posted 4:03 PM, 12.01.2021

Some unfinished business

Almost exactly two years ago, Cleveland Heights voters ratified a new form of government. Citizens for an Elected Mayor (CEM) committee members, who authored the mayor/council charter amendment, deliberately chose to make the change effective two years after its acceptance. They believed this much time was required to (1) allow city council and the administration to prepare for an orderly transition, and (2) allow aspiring mayors to decide to run, and then plan and conduct their campaigns.

To say it has been a challenging two years for people and governments around the world is certainly an understatement. Little did anyone realize in November 2019 that a global pandemic would, in just four short months, overtake every aspect of our lives. Yet, even when the lockdown seemed interminable, the weeks and months flew by.

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Volume 14, Issue 11, Posted 11:12 AM, 10.29.2021

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