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.”
Some of the “reform” efforts to which Morton alluded originated in the South, following Reconstruction in the late 19th century, as white elites sought to limit the power of former slaves and poor whites at the ballot box and in civic life. In the industrial North, the (also white) business and professional elite wanted to exert more control over city affairs while also blunting the electoral influence of immigrants and factory workers. They advocated for what they considered more “professional” methods of local governance.
In A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830–1920, Pulitzer Prize-winner Steven Hahn wrote: “None of the states or municipalities outside the Deep South enacted the full package of measures that ended the participation of black voters there along with a large portion of poor whites whose political dispositions were thought objectionable. But many, especially in the industrial belt stretching from the Northeast out through the Midwest, considered or enacted pieces of the package . . . In large urban areas, especially where immigrants were able to elect their candidates to the municipal council or the mayor’s office, reformers pressed for redistricting and at-large elections in order to weaken political machines and empower officials who could represent the ‘entire’ city instead of smaller wards within it. Some reformers went further in the direction of ‘city managers’ who would be appointed rather than elected (replacing mayors) and presumably would not be dependent on any one political party.” [Emphasis is ours.]
In a journal article, historian Samuel Hays expanded on the importance of wards to democracy and self-governance: “Ward representation on city councils was an integral part of grass-roots influence, for it enabled diverse urban communities . . . to express their views more clearly through councilmen [sic] peculiarly receptive to their causes.”
Why now, after almost 100 years, are some Cleveland Heights citizens advocating that we consider changing our charter? They envision a government with greater accountability to and better representation of all city residents.
Council members elected by ward represent a smaller geographic area, where residents have more common concerns than those in the entire city. Residents often complain that they “don’t know who to call” at City Hall. A ward councilperson would give them someone to call. In addition, the opportunity to campaign in a smaller area could make running for office possible for more potential candidates.
An elected mayor is directly accountable to the people of the city. As an appointed executive, a city manager can wield power and influence for many years without ever having to face the voters. Our current city manager’s predecessor held the job for 28 years.
Council has responded to these concerns by passing legislation to create a Charter Review Commission of 15 citizens, with at least one member to be appointed from each of the city’s five wards. The legislation includes this charge to the commission:
“In the event that the Commission considers significant changes to Cleveland Heights’ form of government, then it will also consider the following, amongst any other that they wish to consider:
- What is the problem we are trying to solve by considering a change to Cleveland Heights’ form of government?
- How will a changed form of government affect the balance we seek on issues of representation, policy leadership and administrative efficiency?
- What are the consequences of changing the governance of Cleveland Heights?”
Applications for the Charter Review Commission are due at 5 p.m. on June 23. To download and application and the legislation, go to www.clevelandheights.com and click on the home page link Charter Review Commission Application.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Carla Rautenberg is an activist and a lifelong Cleveland Heights resident. Deborah Van Kleef is a musician and writer, who has lived in Cleveland Heights for most of her life. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.