Change is coming to Cleveland Heights City Council
With four newcomers and two incumbents running for four CH City Council seats, and seven more candidates vying to complete the unexpired term of the recently retired Mary Dunbar, a substantial shakeup is in the offing for Cleveland Heights’ city council. Personnel changes, however, are only the beginning. The transition to mayor/council government on Jan. 1, 2022, will subject council to structural and functional changes as well. Some of these are easily foreseen; others will become evident only with time.
The charter amendment passed by voters in 2019 establishes that, with the citizens electing a mayor, council will no longer hire and oversee the city executive. This change creates the opportunity for a true separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of city government. Along with a strong elected executive, we need an effective and independent council legislating on our behalf.
Since 1921, the finance director has performed what in Cleveland Heights has been the quite limited role of clerk of council. Because the finance director has reported to the council-appointed city manager, the clerk has been, albeit indirectly, under the purview of council for the past 100 years. But as of Jan. 1, the finance director will report directly to the mayor, who will be overseen not by council, but by the people.
It no longer makes sense for council to rely on the very part-time services of a staff member appointed by the head of another branch of the government. To be truly independent and proactive, council should have its own full-time clerk on duty at City Hall during regular business hours (when most part-time council members are earning their livelihoods elsewhere). Section III-6 of the current charter, as amended, permits council to create such a position by ordinance. With a new form of government, and a majority of council members newly elected and not wedded to old ways of doing things, we think early 2022 is the right time for this move.
We are not proposing anything unusual. Clerk of council is a full-time job in many communities with mayor/council governments, particularly those the size of Cleveland Heights and larger. For example, by provision of its city charter, Euclid’s council appoints its own clerk. Cleveland City Council has done so since 1931, when an elected mayor replaced the council-appointed city manager.
Lakewood has not only a full-time clerk, but a part-time deputy clerk. Cleveland Heights’ council would determine its clerk’s exact duties, but, as a possible benchmark, in Lakewood they include: maintaining records of council proceedings, recording ordinances and resolutions adopted by council, publishing meeting notices, and providing legislative reference and research services. Furthermore, the Lakewood clerk of council is its parliamentarian, and in that role conducts council meetings.
In actuality, the Cleveland Heights city manager’s office historically fulfilled many of the clerk’s functions, subjecting council to a certain degree of control by the administration. What council needs now is its own independent support structure.
This may be a difficult time to get the attention of either incumbent or aspiring council members, but the election is only a month away. Once the dust has settled, our council members should apply themselves to shaping a truly high-functioning legislative body. With the support of a dedicated, full-time clerk, we hope council will devote itself to enacting well-considered policies to benefit the residents whose interests they are elected to represent.
It may be advisable to incorporate the council clerk’s position into a charter amendment later, but since the position can be created by ordinance immediately, we see no reason to postpone this important step forward.
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg
Deborah Van Kleef and Carla Rautenberg are writers, editors and longtime residents of Cleveland Heights. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.