A city manager form of government works well
A pending proposal seeks to change the Cleveland Heights city manager form of government to a strong mayor form, via a charter amendment proposed for the November 2019 ballot. Before any rush to judgment, we all should consider what our present form of government is.
The city manager system adopted in 1921 was a “good government” reform to put less emphasis on political decision-making. Our municipal corporation operates like a traditional corporation. Voters are “stockholders.” They elect a city council as a “board of directors.” Council members are elected at large, not by wards. This board elects one member as its presiding officer with the title of Mayor. It hires a city manager as the “chief executive officer.” Managers are chosen based upon qualifications and experience. Cleveland Heights has prospered with this system for almost 100 years.
The city council appropriates money, sets policy, and passes laws. Then, the city manager spends the money, implements the policies, and enforces the laws. City employees report directly to the city manager, and council members may not direct their performance. For this reason, there has been little political interference with how municipal business is conducted, unlike in other cities such as Cleveland.
The system works. Significant projects have been initiated because of the professionalism of city managers. We have a new modern city hall. Two fire stations provide better service at less cost than the three we had before. We have great ambulance service with fast response times. We have glorious facilities at Cain Park. Our revised financial system has earned us a bond rating that greatly reduces borrowing costs to fund capital improvements. Excellent administrators have been hired to run the police, fire, and service departments. Only the real management talent of professional city managers could have accomplished all this.
A city manager form of government IS a system dedicated to providing services based upon objective needs.
A city manager form of government is NOT a system based upon favoritism or prejudices. It is not one in which decision-making is based on the ego of one individual or on the need of one person to curry favor with voters. Managers are accountable. They can be discharged at will at any time. The city manager meets with all council members regularly and reports to each of them. Council members can question any city employee; a city manager is not their only source of information. Checks and balances are very much in place.
As a board of directors, council members donate their individual skills and knowledge of the community. They question the city manager and members of city staff. They exercise extensive oversight of operations. Because they run at large, not in wards, all voters get frequent opportunities to judge council members. Government works in a collaborative manner with little partisan bickering.
A change in the form of government is no magic solution. Ask citizens of East Cleveland. They changed their form of government. Two indicted mayors later, they are no better off. The way to maintain good governance in Cleveland Heights is not by adopting a new form of government. It is by all of us paying a lot of attention to the election of talented members to our city council.
Eleven of 13 members of the Charter Review Commission recommend that our city retain the city manager form of government. This form has been well tested, and I believe strongly that we should keep it.
Alan Rapoport, a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, served on CH City Council 1980–1987, and was CH mayor 1982–1987.