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. We have seen our part-time city council members struggling to keep up with the legal and practical challenges of maintaining an economically and racially diverse inner-ring suburb in a period of state and federal funding cuts. Most of our council members hold full-time jobs, in addition to juggling the demands of running a city of 45,000 souls. Frankly, we don’t know how they do it.
Here is one consequence of Downey’s inaction, of which council was unaware for some years: The city is now under a consent decree from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for violations of the Clean Water Act. We are spending $12 million to study how our 100-year-old sewers can be brought into compliance. The cost of actually rebuilding the system is still unknown, but in addition to the final figure, we’ll be on the hook for punitive EPA fines.
Our city needs an elected mayor, accountable to voters, working full time at City Hall. We also need a professionally qualified city administrator to assist the mayor with the day-to-day running of the city. Under this form, city council would serve solely as a legislative body, without also overseeing the chief executive—a more reasonable role for part-time citizen legislators.
In an interview with the Charter Review Commission last year, Briley summed up her job since 2013: “I make the trains run on time.” That’s a vital function, but it falls far short of the leadership Cleveland Heights needs. (She has also lamented, more than once, having to answer to seven bosses, i.e., the members of city council.) What most residents may not understand is that, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, there is not a single elected official present at City Hall. Our council members may be intelligent and well-meaning, but how can they really know what’s going on?
Cleveland Heights has suffered for decades from a lack of vision, leadership, and economic development—deficiencies that long pre-date Briley’s tenure. Council has talked about Top of the Hill for—literally—five decades. Severance has been deteriorating for over 15 years. The Noble commercial strip is moribund, and Coventry has at least 14 commercial vacancies visible from the street. Eleven years after the 2008 financial crisis, the bulk of bank foreclosures are behind us for now, but a huge tax foreclosure crisis looms. Our neighborhoods still suffer from hundreds of vacant and abandoned properties.
Our problems are more than one full-time manager can handle, and management, however competent, is not enough. We need a full-time administrator reporting to a full-time elected mayor, balanced by a council of part-time legislators. That is what Shaker Heights has, as does Davenport, Iowa—where Briley was assistant city administrator before coming to Cleveland Heights.
No system—and no individual—is perfect. But we have seen ample evidence that the current system is not working. It’s time for a change.
[See a related article at www.heightsobserver.org/read/2019/04/30/campaign-for-elected-mayor-moves-ahead.]
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Rautenberg served on the Charter Review Commission. Contact them at email@example.com.