Fostering a resilient city doesn't demand change in form of government
Citizens for an Elected Mayor’s (CEM) advocacy for changing the form of Cleveland Heights government from council/city manager to strong mayor relies on three propositions:
1) Our city is in severe decline.
2) The approach of our current city government to our problems is ineffectual.
3) We cannot solve those problems unless we change the structure of city government.
I think there is ample evidence to refute each of those propositions. Here’s just a sample:
• In 2018 violent crime decreased by 28 percent, and burglaries and breaking and entering by 50 percent from the previous year.
• Median home-sale prices increased by 37 percent from 2014 to 2019.
• In 2017 and 2018, 95 new businesses opened in our city, nearly one each week.
• Even at CEM meetings, participants praised our police, fire, public works departments, parks, and senior center.
Certainly we have serious problems, as do many inner-ring suburbs. But these are not data that portray a city in severe decline.
Neither are these positive trends an accident. They are the product of effective and efficient management coupled with a seven-member city council, responsible for determining the city’s direction and priorities. Each member is held accountable for those decisions by the voters every two years.
A single-minded focus on a strong mayor overlooks the significance of our city’s constrained resources. At the same time the 2007–09 recession created or exacerbated many of our current problems, the city budget took a significant hit when the state of Ohio abolished the estate tax and decimated the Local Government Fund. Our capacity to act was undermined by the same crisis that created the need to act.
But we are recovering that lost ground. City programs supporting businesses include a Commercial Loan Program, Small Business Administration Grant Program, Economic Development Fund, Microenterprise Loan Fund, Storefront Rehabilitation Program, and others. In 2018 the Community Reinvestment Area designation made available tax abatements for residential new construction or remodeling. Recent approval of the Caledonia Opportunity Zone is yet another program to attract private investment in our city. Since 2016 the Safe Routes to Schools initiative has brought almost $1 million into our city and improved bicycle and pedestrian safety.
A single-minded focus on a strong mayor overlooks the significance of our community’s culture. We are a community of strongly held views, usually conveyed quite emphatically. Many of our neighbors express frustration that city government does not make decisions and implement programs more quickly. Just as many of us urge the city to postpone decisions, gather more information, conduct another study, have more public meetings. Compromise does not come easily to us. The difficulty of balancing these competing expectations will not evaporate by changing our form of government.
CEM is proposing a hero-scapegoat model of leadership: one person, a full-time mayor, to articulate and implement our city’s vision. And one person to blame when anything goes wrong.
But resilient cities are not built from the top down. They are the result of individuals, neighborhood groups, businesses, organizations, and government all accepting responsibility for developing the community we want to live in. Consolidating power in one person does not foster a culture of shared responsibility.
Our city’s problems were not caused by our government structure. Nor will changing that structure solve those problems. We cannot afford to waste time and energy on ineffective measures that don’t address the root causes of our problems and risk disrupting recent progress. Maintaining the current form of government in Cleveland Heights is not an invitation to complacency and inaction. It is an opportunity to engage more actors in the vital work of improving our community.
Jill Tatem is a longtime Cleveland Heights resident.