Where I disagree with Cheryl Stephens
Cheryl Stephens supports a “strong mayor” charter amendment on the November ballot. I am a good friend and big fan of Cheryl. She has been—and continues to be—an exceptional public servant. We each have served Cleveland Heights as mayors. We agree about much, but I disagree with some points she has made:
“Cleveland Heights can’t be afraid of voters.” I agree. But strong mayors too frequently are elected because of name recognition and political affiliation rather than their ability to govern effectively. City managers, on the other hand, are selected in a non-partisan manner based on merit, professional qualifications and experience. Voters elect to city council those who hire, retain or fire city managers. Nothing about such a system reflects a fear of voters. Instead this system reflects confidence that a democracy can elect representatives who reasonably will delegate actual performance of civic functions to others.
Cleveland Heights has “a structural weakness when it comes to accountability and responsiveness.” I disagree. City managers are insulated against direct accountability to residents by design. That is a plus. It means local government decisions are made based on merit, not on politics. If city council members are not sufficiently accountable or responsive, they can be replaced at election time. Such replacements have occurred many times in the past, resulting in significant changes at the direction of the electorate.
“Council members . . . cast votes. Strong mayors . . . have responsibilities and take action.” I disagree. City managers only act alone within limits of their discretion set by city council. City council proposes actions and managers put its proposals into effect. Manager actions are carefully considered, approved, ratified, or rejected by city council, and are monitored continuously by elected representatives we trust. In a strong-mayor system there is the effective rule of one person who can act alone with very limited checks and balances. Our present system therefore does more to subordinate the chief executive officer to controls by the legislative body on a regular basis than the proposed new system.
“Cleveland Heights needs robust and accountable leadership, a clear agenda for the future, and an engaged citizenry supporting it.” I could not agree more. But we already have such “leadership.” It comes from city council and its professional staff. This is evidenced by pending plans for Top of the Hill, Noble Road, the Cedar Lee and Cedar Fairmount commercial districts, Severance Center, and many other locations. A written master plan, adopted by city council just two years ago that hundreds of engaged citizens helped create, is a “clear agenda” for the future. And by the way, proponents of the current system certainly are an “engaged citizenry” in support of it. They just happen to support a system with a long track record of success that differs significantly from what proponents of change now want.
Alan Rapoport, a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights, served on CH City Council 1980–1987, and was CH mayor 1982–1987.