Powerful-mayor model carries risks

I lived in Cleveland Heights from 2006 to 2014. Moving here from a small town in the Pacific Northwest, I could not believe my good fortune in winding up in a community where there were more progressive, ethical leaders running for city council than open seats.

Cleveland Heights has a long history of engaged citizens and robust nonprofit organizations fighting for open housing, nondiscriminatory practices and preservation of the community’s unique character.

So there seems something off to me in the characterization of Cleveland Heights as a town in dire need of an immediate change in government structure.

Cleveland Heights has challenges like all aging inner-ring suburbs in a region hemorrhaging population, but we need to consider whether advocates for a strong-mayor system have misdiagnosed the problem and offered up the wrong solution.

I’ve lived in the city of Cleveland for four years. I invite anyone who believes a strong-mayor system will result in more accountability to come visit me in Ward 4.

Perhaps you know of my city councilman, Ken Johnson. The Plain Dealer has written about how Johnson neglects his constituents and rips off the taxpayers (and has for decades) with absolutely no accountability from the mayor.

A strong-mayor system in Cleveland did not prevent the negligent hiring of a terminated police officer who went on to kill Tamir Rice.

It did not prevent the mayor (re-elected to another term four-months later) from rehiring Judge Lance Mason, previously convicted of felonious domestic violence, as a city administrator. He went on to brutally murder his wife.

Nor did a strong-mayor system prevent East Cleveland from losing population and jobs, and declaring bankruptcy.

I know there are examples of well-run cities under both systems of governance, but these are cautionary tales very close to home.

Let’s assume, for argument, that the issues raised by proponents of change—an incompetent former city manager, an ill-considered proposal for water privatization—have merit. These problems can be addressed through existing checks and balances.

Council can terminate a city manager at any time. Election of Cleveland Heights City Council members occurs every two years, allowing voters to replace under-performing representatives.

Under the proposed strong-mayor model, the mayor is up for election every four years, offering less accountability, not more.

City council appointed a Charter Review Commission to study what form of governance was in the best interests of the people living in Cleveland Heights.

The commission spent 16 months on this process! Its members looked at the research, heard testimony, and considered options and improvements to the existing system.

By an overwhelming majority, the non-partisan members of the commission elected to keep the current system in place, with improvements including additional ethical requirements for elected officials and staff.

The advocates for a strong mayor had their say. They just didn’t get their way.

I urge Cleveland Heights voters to do their homework and consider whether a rebalancing of the checks and balances in favor of a powerful mayor is in the best interests of their city.

What I fear for Cleveland Heights is a culture of corruption, which historically comes with politicized one-party rule. Watch out, citizens of Cleveland Heights.  

Jessica Schreiber

Jessica Schreiber is a retired attorney, and former FutureHeights board member who also served on the board of Home Repair Resource Center. She is a former volunteer editor and contributor to the Heights Observer.

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Volume 12, Issue 8, Posted 11:17 AM, 08.01.2019