Last November Cleveland Heights voted to change its form of government to elect its own Mayor and next November it will. Isn’t that easy? With me so far? Any questions? What if I told you that beginning January 1, Mayor Jason Stein of Cleveland Heights will no longer be Mayor? Let me guess. Now you are full of questions. Let me start over.
Currently, Cleveland Heights has what is known as a Council-Manager form of government. That means that the people elect a council that hires a manager to run all the departments from Police to Refuse Collection and Recreation. It also means that the City Manager answers to Council and not the people. There are some advantages to this form of government, but it’s most successful in younger cities where infrastructure is newer and less problematic. The older and bigger the city, the less it works as well. This is because the Manager has to report to a majority of the council. No one person, then is really in charge and without consensus, nothing can move forward.
Also, since the Manager’s job is tied to the pleasure of Council, when something needs to be done, if the Council has no appetite, job security encourages the manager to hide unpleasantries until they grow too big. An example you might recall was the big jump in the Cleveland Heights water bill. It had been leaking for a long time, but the leaks grew too big to repair easily over time as they went ignored while the City Manager ignored it, failing to bring it to Council’s attention. By the time Council became aware of it, the only remaining options were bad, worse and even worse than that. It was a system failure as well as a personal one. That City Manager was there a full 25 years before Council ended his term. Only a quorum of Council can fire a City Manager. He was never answerable to the people.
In November of 2019, we voted to change to a form of government that effectively has two branches instead of the one. That change will be effective when Cleveland Heights swears in its first Mayor in January of 2022 following his or her election in November of this year. Following the amendment, Council retains the legislative and budgetary powers, but the Mayor will be the Chief Executive. This form of government is commonly called the Strong Mayor form.
Not wanting to give up the idea of having a professional run the departments, the new amendment calls for the Mayor to appoint a City Administrator who will answer to him while maintaining the professional standards that a City Manager would have brought. In cities like Shaker Heights, the City Administrator will remain in that position, assuming he’s good, through many mayoral administrations, but since he will serve at the pleasure of the mayor, a new mayor could certainly make a change any time.
Called the best of both worlds, Cleveland Heights voted for the leadership a Mayor can bring to problem solving and development while maintaining professional standards at the highest level of management. Further, this mayor is directly elected by the people and so the executive function of the city now answers directly to the people. Therefore, it would be more accurately called a Hybrid Strong Mayor.
So is Jason Stein Mayor now or isn’t he? Well that’s a sleight of tongue. In a Council Manager form of government, the council of seven would elevate one member to be their chosen leader, technically Council President. Since the 1980s and in response to the fact that all our neighbors had mayors, it was decided to also use the title Mayor to refer to the council president even though under the City Charter, he lacked the powers that most mayors have as those belonged solely to the City Manager. This Council President/Mayor ran the meetings. The City Manager ran the city and its departments. So when Jason Stein was sworn in as Mayor in January of 2020, he was really President of Council and allowed, under the newly passed amendment, to use the title of Mayor only until January of 2021 when that title is stripped from the city altogether for the year. Stein will remain Council President until the end of the term in January 2022. The only change until then is the loss of the title of Mayor.
There were two reasons the crafters of the amendment (Issue 26) made that in name-only change. One was to prevent anyone from being able to run for the first mayor of Cleveland Heights by “seeking re-election”. No one is an incumbent to the newly created position of Mayor, and the goal was to keep the playing field level so no individual could claim that leg up. The second goes to answer the question “Is it just that easy?” By removing the mirage of power implied by the title of Mayor from someone who didn’t have it anyway, council will be forced to begin thinking of themselves in their new role and in regard to the new relationship they will have with the city functioning. It’s the first step in the transition to this new form of government, but there’s more to be done.
Citizens for an Elected Mayor didn’t scurry away after the 2019 victory. They formed a Transition Subcommittee to assist the city in working to see that transition happen as smoothly as possible. They provided council with suggestions of a timetable for when setting the salary for Mayor should occur to give those considering a run time to prepare; which they did. In addition, there are many laws on the books at the statutory level that refer to governmental proceedings under the old form. They will need to be updated to apply to the new form. This is a process that will take time and has already begun. Additionally, the Transition Subcommittee suggested a “guide book” that is currently being drafted including time tables, costs, who answers to whom in each department; a veritable “How the City Runs” to give to the Mayor-Elect. It was also suggested that our city would benefit from learning from other cities of similar size that have made the transition. What went right? What can we do better? What glitches to expect and plan for. Further, there is the education piece. That goes both ways. The citizens need to know what to expect in a Mayor and the Mayoral candidates need to know what the citizens expect and are looking for.
To that end, CEM, and a team that included Councilwoman Melody Hart and some individuals also active with Future Heights held an online forum with mayors from South Euclid, University Heights and Warrensville Heights to talk about their experiences, what works and what doesn’t, and their relationship to their Councils as well as reflections on their first day in office. It’s an excellent lesson in government from lively and informative speakers. Viewing it would make a great extra credit project for any civics class. It can be viewed at citizensforanelectedmayor.com.
Councilwoman Hart is also planning another online forum on Wednesday, January 20th, at 7:00pm to deal with transitional issues as experienced by East Providence, a city of similar size that has recently made the same transition. While open to the public, its target audience is City Council, prospective candidates and those active in city politics. Anyone interested in governmental processes will find it an informative presentation that will include upcoming glitches that the city can prepare for and those cultural adjustments we can count on. East Providence Mayor Dasliva and Dylan Conley, Esq., who walked them through their transition, will both be on the panel.
Future Heights and CEM will be co-sponsoring a final event intended to inform candidates about issues important to the citizens. “Electing Our First Mayor: Moving Cleveland Heights Forward” will take place via Zoom, from 7 to 8:30 p.m., on Wednesday, Feb. 3. Visit https://conta.cc/2LSDmv3 to participate in an online survey open to all in Cleveland Heights to target which issues have the most interest.
As reported in Heights Observer, “Community input is an essential part of shaping what our first elected mayor’s priorities should be,” said Tony Cuda, Campaign Manager of CEM. “We believe this will not only help candidates create their platforms, it will help citizens evaluate candidates and identify the qualities, experiences, and qualifications that a mayor would need to address the issues.”
More from the Heights Observer:
In addition, the groups are asking members of the public to play an active role in the event by submitting a 15- to 30-second video clip expressing an important challenge for Cleveland Heights’ first elected mayor (see instructions below). Videos should be submitted no later than 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 26.
For more information and to RSVP for the forum, visit https://tinyurl.com/y76adqn3.
Here are a few details and requests for your video:
- Record your video by holding your phone horizontally (landscape orientation).
- Make sure that your room is well lit with ample light in front of you, and try to eliminate all background noise.
- Can’t decide what to wear? Solids always work best on camera.
- Be brief; a maximum of 30 seconds is ideal.
- Once recorded, upload your video by going to www.wetransfer.com. Drag the video file into the website window, enter your e-mail address, and enter email@example.com for the recipient e-mail address. If you prefer, you may use Dropbox or Google Drive, also using firstname.lastname@example.org as the recipient address; and
- Submit your video by Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 9 p.m.
Questions? Contact us at email@example.com or 216-320-1423.
The first forum received high ratings. Reviewing it and participating in the upcoming ones is highly recommended.