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.
Critically, the CRC did not recommend any change in form of government, choosing to retain the city manager as chief executive, answerable to a council serving entirely at large.
One of us, Carla Rautenberg, served on the CRC. She was one of only two members who favored a popularly elected mayor, and one of three who wanted to at least consider electing some council members by ward. (Many other cities have a “mixed council,” with four members elected by ward, and three elected at large.)
Cleveland Heights citizens have had exactly one opportunity to vote on their form of government, with the adoption of the city’s charter in 1921. No one alive today has had that chance, because neither an elected mayor nor the option of choosing council members by ward has been on the ballot since then.
As many readers are aware, Citizens for an Elected Mayor is planning a ballot issue campaign, with the goal of putting a charter amendment before Cleveland Heights voters at the earliest practicable opportunity. We support this citizens’ initiative.
However, democracy neither begins nor ends at the ballot box. CH Vice Mayor Melissa Yasinow’s recent posts on Nextdoor.com and Facebook, detailing CH City Council activities, have been warmly received by residents. When called upon to give her report during council meetings, City Manager Tanisha Briley has begun replying with substantive updates, instead of giving her former customary statement, “I have nothing to report this evening, Your Honor.” These efforts at greater accountability do not render a change in form of government unnecessary, but they are positive developments, and we do not think the timing is coincidental.
This is how democracy works. It is not bestowed from on high, but rises from the grassroots—as when intrepid garden club ladies stopped the freeways and saved their cities from destruction in the 1960s; when Heights Citizens for Human Rights, the St. Ann Social Action Housing Committee, the Committee to Improve Community Relations, and Heights Community Congress fought City Hall, and then worked with it, to build and maintain a racially integrated community; when residents advocated for foreclosure bond legislation for five years until council finally passed it.
Making democracy work—that is what Citizens for an Elected Mayor is doing now. And already it is pushing local government to be more responsive and accountable.
In our three-part series, “Before diversity,” space limits kept us from mentioning many people who were essential to making Cleveland Heights the vibrant, integrated community it is today. While we could never list everyone who contributed to that multi-decade effort, we must take this opportunity to recognize the contributions of (in no particular order) Hilton Smith, Kermit Lind, Lana Cowell, Chip Bromley, Diana Woodbridge, Gay Quereau, Ralph Brody, Leatrice Madison, Gerda Freedheim, Joan Dowling, Betty Nelson, Mary Boyle, Carl Campbell and Robert and Juanita Storey.
Carla Rautenberg and Deborah Van Kleef
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.