CH and the strong-mayor dilemma

The room where it happens; The art of the compromise; Hold your nose and close your eyes; We want our leaders to save the day; But we don't get a say in what they trade away; We dream of a brand new start; But we dream in the dark for the most part.

—”The Room Where It Happens,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda

On June 11, reported that Citizens For An Elected Mayor (CEM), which seeks to transform the governmental structure in Cleveland Heights to a strong-mayor model, met the signature quota required to place its initiative on the Nov. 5 ballot (“Citizens For Elected Mayor exceeds petition goal for possible November ballot initiative in Cleveland Heights”). This initiative will counter the city’s proposal to retain a city-manager model. If the move to a strong mayor passes, an entirely new organizational structure for city government will have to be created. It’s a resource-heavy undertaking that deserves discerned deliberation.

At every CH Charter Review Committee (CRC) meeting, a common refrain committee members heard was that the role of the city manager is “not accountable” to the community. As a CRC member, this made no sense to me. The city manager is directly responsible to an elected council for his/her job performance—measurable by any number of validated indices—and can be removed by a majority of that body (see City of Cleveland Heights Code of Ordinances, Article IV-1, Appointment). Many CRC members—myself included—deduced that if the citizenry is unhappy with the performance of the city, their existing remedy is to demand a new city manager from their elected council.

That straightforward solution has been rejected by CEM. Tony Cuda, CEM’s campaign manager, has asserted that, “the mayor would be there [in city hall] for residents all day, every day.” Given the number of meetings, events, visits, invitations and other responsibilities any executive has, the idea that the Cleveland Heights strong mayor would be sitting “all day, every day” in an office ready to handle the minutiae of residents’ concerns is unrealistic and silly. Skillful administrators—mayors OR city managers—resource and delegate. Cuda’s mantra that a mayor “would be there for residents” begs two questions: Which residents? And, more importantly, which mayor?

One reason CRC members shied away from the introduction of a strong-mayor model for Cleveland Heights was to avoid the kind of long-term, systematic, immovable corruption experienced by other cities whose executive[s] wielded a kleptocratic authority after being popularly elected. Brook Park, Beachwood and Middleburg Heights have all experienced municipal disruption after their mayors landed under clouds of suspicion for poor transparency, allegations of harassment and aggressive management, or, in the case of Highland Heights, accusations of embezzlement. CRC members wanted to protect the city from an ersatz executive whose goals were political and not community based.

Although it claims to be candidate-neutral, I posit that CEM has already vetted possible mayoral candidates. Some CEM members are insiders with deep connections to elected officials who, behind closed doors, expressed their own desires for Cleveland Heights to move to strong mayor. Bob Brown, president of the board of directors of FutureHeights, confirmed at the Feb. 1, 2018 CRC meeting that then-council member Cheryl Stephens invited interested parties to her home to discuss such an initiative.

Monty Python taught us that “strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.” Neither is falling in line behind cults of personality and bolstering political quid pro quos. One political leader alone will not save the city. Only in community can we make change that matters for everyone.

Sarah West

Sarah West holds a Ph.D. in urban education policy from Cleveland State University, and is a former member of the Cleveland Heights Citizens Advisory Committee and the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission.

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Volume 12, Issue 8, Posted 11:27 AM, 08.01.2019