Strong-mayor systems risk conflict and cronyism
Why uproot Cleveland Heights’ long-standing collaborative, professional government in favor of creating a one-person, political power center to face off with city council?
Proponents [of change] claim we need “checks and balances”—as if our seven separately elected citizen council members need to be “checked” or “balanced” by some other elected person who wields veto power and appoints (and removes) all city administrative personnel, including the very highest officials. As we see all around us, it is often a prescription for conflict, waste, and civic paralysis. A few nearby examples demonstrate the point.
Take Willoughby Hills. For nearly two years, the city’s council and mayor were at loggerheads, as the mayor attempted to remove six council members and the council sought to restrict the mayor’s powers and fire more than a dozen employees. There were many proceedings both in court and before the state Employment Relations Board, with lawyers hired by all. A settlement was finally reached in the face of yet another court hearing, but only after extended nastiness. Nothing was accomplished for the city in the interim, except substantial legal fees incurred by both contending sides, with Willoughby Hills citizens footing the bill.
Richmond Heights was victimized by a similar arm-wrestle. The newly elected mayor, described, in understatement, as having created a “combative environment,” saw nearly 20 employees quit or get fired in just the first eight months of her term. Multiple lawsuits commenced based on her actions, [as did] pitched battles with council. Concerned about the administrative tumult and associated stagnation of important city business, citizens saw the only solution to be a campaign for recall that, after much expense and acrimony (including, bizarrely, an ultimately unsuccessful counter-recall campaign against several members of council), succeeded in removing the mayor. The new executive in charge? President of council.
Then there is Middleburg Heights, where the friction came not from someone flexing newly acquired mayor powers, but from a long-serving mayor. In a local version of what we have seen playing out on the national scene, council undertook investigations involving various mayoral activities, in the process becoming locked in a struggle over access to legal documents and other information from the administration, as the city faced multiple legal actions from various departed city personnel. The debilitating confrontation ended only after nearly a year of conflict, as part of a deal in which the mayor exited (to be replaced by—who else?—president of council), council ceased its investigations, and each side promised to stop disparaging the other.
Cleveland Heights does not need, and its citizens do not deserve, a government system that injects political interests, cronyism, personal aggrandizement, and internal conflict between competing power centers. Some cities manage to make do, but only by developing, over a long period, unwritten civic traditions that minimize the impact of its adverse features. Cleveland Heights has never been forced to develop those traditions, and it is at best a major gamble whether they would ever emerge here, even over an extended period of attempted nurturing. Rather, our traditions center on collaborative government, with political leadership distributed among members of council as the people’s representatives, and professionalism in the full-time executive. We discard those traditions at great peril.
An extensive 16-month, non-partisan, citizen-led review of our charter and best governance practices resulted in a 10-2-1 (1 abstention) decision against adding a strong mayor, and an 11-2 vote to retain our current council-manager structure, when the Charter Review Commisson (CRC) emphatically answered the question: “What is in the best interest of the residents of Cleveland Heights?”
Jack Newman and Mike Gaynier are co-chairs of Cleveland Heights Citizens for Good Government, a PAC formed to inform voters about the benefits of the council-manager form of government. Both served on the CRC.