Jessica Chavi Cohen
Sep 3 · 6 min read

It’s Time for an Elected Mayor to Lead… with a City Administrator to Manage

For over 16 months, I ran out of my house at 6:55pm twice a month, leaving my husband to manage dinner and bedtime for our four children all by himself. I was honored to be appointed to the Charter Review Commission in 2017 and took my responsibility seriously. I was even more honored to be elected vice chair of that body a number of months later when the Commission’s first vice chair resigned altogether.

I applied to the Commission because, as a 10-year resident of Cleveland Heights and a long-time student and practitioner of public policy, I was distraught by what I had characterized by a lack of vision and leadership in the city. I began my journey on the Commission open-minded. I saw the Commission as an opportunity to learn more about the structure of our city’s government and determine for myself, based on the evidence presented, whether the lack of leadership in the city was a structural or personnel issue.

I joined the Commission frustrated with the lack of attention to core infrastructure issues like water and sewer. Both of these issues had to get “cleaned up” only when it finally got so bad it became a crisis. And the bill to solve both of these issues landed in all of our wallets. Our city manager on staff when those problems were germinating and the council that supposedly oversaw that city manager failed to adequately identify the issues and pursue long-term innovative solutions. In return, we were subjected to a consent decree from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and are still paying water bills that never end. Our own former finance director stated clearly to the Commission that infrastructure was not given the attention it warranted in years past under the city manager system. Where was the city manager with the vision and leadership to ask the question — what infrastructure planning and management does our city need, not just today, but for the next 20 years?

For over 8 years I have complained to city council members about the disgusting state of garbage regulations in the city. Prohibited from having garbage cans, our streets end up strewn with garbage each collection day, attracting vermin and significantly diminishing the aesthetic appeal of our city. While this issue languished between the lack of response from the city manager and the lack of time and attention from city council members, other municipalities modernized and addressed their aging sanitation systems. Here in Cleveland Heights, it has only been in the last year that finally a citizen taskforce has been appointed to address the issue. I was grateful to the relatively new City Council member who saw the seriousness of the issue and drove action to address it. It was too late, however, to save the tens of thousands of dollars we have wasted on rehabilitating old sanitation trucks while we wallow in the decision-making (years behind!) as to what next generation of sanitation trucks the city should purchase. Where was our city manager with the vision and leadership to ask the question — where does our sanitation system and ordinances need to be to serve our city not just today, but for the next 20 years?

And perhaps most disappointingly, our city has lagged behind in economic development efforts. Severance Center, practically in my backyard, heaves its dying breath every day with only mourners in site but no one with the wherewithal to bury it and create it anew. And the Commission heard clear and convincing presentations from some of the region’s most esteemed developers and business owners that when they sought to do business with Cleveland Heights there was no one home to make the decisions needed to move development deals forward. Where was the city manager with the vision and leadership to ask the question — what is the next industry, business, area of development that we need to cultivate to serve our city not just today, but for the next 20 years?

Our city manager system is so shrouded in personnel files and the management of seven bosses, that over all these years even the most attuned resident could not really see the lack of vision and leadership. And we can’t fix or demand change for something we can’t see.

After four months of presentations, research, and listening to all the public comments at our meetings, I concluded that, indeed, our government suffers from a structural deficiency. Where other cities of our size and type have elected mayors — and in the particularly compelling case of Shaker Heights, a chief administrative officer as that mayor’s partner and city manager — Cleveland Heights has only a city manager with a very part-time elected body of seven bosses, none of which can claim lead or sole oversight of the city manager.

On March 15, 2018, I shared my vision for a new government for Cleveland Heights with the Commission and the public — a directly elected full-time mayor who governs and leads with a full-time city administrator managing the operations of the city. Precisely the type of government that will be on the ballot for a yes vote this November.

Why is this the ideal government for our city?

We are in desperate need in Cleveland Heights for vision, accountability, leadership and effectiveness that makes our city a place where people want to live, work, play, and do business. We need transparency about how decisions are made. We need someone that has the vision about where our city needs to be and a full-time presence to oversee the city administrator’s management of operations. And when things fail or don’t go right, we need an elected mayor that we can call to get answers, who feels accountable to the residents, and who knows we are watching each election. We also need an administrator with experience in and knowledge of city government that can manage the day to day operations of a city like Cleveland Heights. It is the partnership of these two roles that makes this the government structure that Cleveland Heights desperately needs.

Former Mayor Earl Leiken, who presented before the Commission, admitted that he could never have done what he did in Shaker Heights without serving full-time. Now Shaker boasts the enviable Van Aken district, a flourishing housing market, and a strong and growing commercial base. I see the accountability Mayor Michael Dylan Brennan demonstrates via his communication with his residents on social media. There is no question who is in charge in University Heights these days and who is responsible for making things better for residents.

Yet here in Cleveland Heights, we dutifully email our 7 council members all at once, ccing our city manager, and hold our breath wondering who will be the city council member to take our inquiry seriously. Inevitably there is a response — and I am grateful for the hard work and dedication of our council members who, for a mere pittance, devote hours and hours to serving our city — but it’s just not enough to allow Cleveland Heights to flourish the way we need it to today.

As someone who worked for the 107th and 108th United States Congress and made the federal legislative branch of our government the focus of my undergraduate work at Harvard University, I revere and respect the role of the legislative branch in representing the citizenry and making laws that are responsive to its constituency. However, the legislative branch is only as successful as the vision and leadership of the executive branch allows it to be. We see that ever so clearly in our federal government today. But, Cleveland Heights currently has no executive branch, just a figurehead voted into mayor by four votes of his or her fellow council members. And there is no way for the residents to have any say in who wears the title and role of Cleveland Heights Mayor…

Yet.

Until we vote YES this November for an elected mayor and city administrator.

I hope you will join me.

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