The Vote on Issue 26 in Cleveland Heights Brings a Contentious Battle to a Close

Here's how we got here

click to enlarge The Vote on Issue 26 in Cleveland Heights Brings a Contentious Battle to a Close
Photo by Hannah Lebovits

Among the many and varied political signs along Fairmount Boulevard in Cleveland Heights is one that stands out, mainly for its homemade nature.

"Need Change," it reads in large, wooden letters, next to two traditional signs supporting local Issue 26.

"It's really a personal artistic statement about political perspectives," says Paul Volpe, the property owner and artisan behind the sign. "Whether it's about guns or Donald Trump, it's a personal statement about the need for change."

On November 5, residents of the city will get a chance to decide if they too believe there is a need for change.

Issue 26, if passed, would have Cleveland Heights change from a council-manager form of government to a strong mayor form. In the council-manager form of government, the elected council members appoint a city manager to serve as the city's chief administrator. In the strong mayor form of government, the city's chief executive is directly elected by the residents. In some cities, such as Shaker Heights, the city's elected leader (mayor) then also hires a chief administrative officer (CAO) to function as a city manager. This form is known as the hybrid strong mayor-CAO form.

The council-manager form dates back to the late 19th century when so-called "Reformers" advocated for the adoption of a form of government that they believed would limit the political control of top elected officials. The Reformers argued that elected representatives would respond to special interests and political coalitions, rather than the needs of their communities. Instead, the Reformers advocated that bureaucrats could be trusted to act in an apolitical fashion, placing the needs of the community above their own desires. Today, the council-manager form of government is fairly prevalent across the United States, and is the dominant form of government in large, central cities in the United States. The International City/County Management Association (ICMA) provides direct support for this form of government, including monetary support for local campaigns to retain the form of government.

The city manager form of government attempts to reduce "good governance" to technical-rational expertise. Cities are run by hired city management experts who have some combination of skills, knowledge and experience that matches the city's needs. There are still elected officials, presumably to set policy priorities and oversee budgetary decisions, but the actual governing of the city — the individual decisions made about what gets done, when and by whom — are made by a technical expert. The manager is also presumed to somehow be separate from political activities. As a bureaucrat, a manager is expected to follow rules, protocols and ethical guidelines. As their job tenure isn't directly determined by voters and political actors, these administrators are assumed to be entirely separate from the political machination of urban governance.

It's no longer the 19th century though. Our current era is defined by globalized capitalism and hyperconnectivity, along with intense political polarization and renewed attention to issues related to race, class and gender. In other words, cities do not exist in silos. Disparate trajectories and outcomes are not random. And everything from agriculture to zoning is political. And actions taken by residents and governmental entities are often a response to underlying social concerns. Issue 26 is no exception.

Tensions related to the decrease in population, economic and housing security and lack thereof coupled with an increase in poverty, vacancies, and under-utilized commercial areas has lead voters to ask: Who gets to decide what's best for Cleveland Heights?

The fight over the form of government began when residents grew concerned about the dilapidated state of Severance Towne Center, a commercial development off of Mayfield and Taylor roads. In October 2015, the planning and development committee of FutureHeights — then a fledgling community-based organization, now the city's official community development corporation — decided to host a community meeting to discuss the status of Severance. The property had seen significant disinvestment over the last few years and residents were concerned about the economic impact this downturn would have on the city.

The committee was made up of local volunteers, several of whom were planning and housing professionals. As the event details were being finalized, the committee contacted the city administration to see if the city would be willing to partner with the organization to host the event. According to Robert Brown, the committee member who organized the meetings, city manager Tanisha Briley, two years into her tenure, declined the invitation saying that she did not want to raise citizen expectations about the property.

Brown also told Scene that the city would not agree to fund the endeavor, so the committee asked whether anyone from the city's community development, city planning or economic development departments would agree to present at the event. Again, the city manager declined. She did however, allow them to host the event at the local community center, a building under the auspices of the city government.

Over one hundred citizens attended the event, which featured several speakers as well as a robust community dialogue. The turnout was great, but members of the host committee wished there had been city representation.

The lack of an official administrative presence sparked a new conversation among several residents. What, they wondered, could have compelled the city manager to attend the event or send her staff? Several suggested that, similar to the city council members, perhaps if she was seeking reelection, she would have joined in.

After the event, Brown's wife, Susan Berger, sent some emails to friends asking what they thought of the suggestion. This prompted a local conversation about the suburban city's governmental structure and whether it empowers the manager to act without concern for citizen approval. The topic elicited a large amount of community dialogue. So large that even councilmembers weighed in. Yet nothing came of it, at the time.

The city voted to re-elect two members of council in November 2015. Mary Dunbar was reelected, Kahlil Seren was elected after being appointed in February 2015 and a new member, Carol Roe, was elected to fill the vacancy that would be left by Dennis Wilcox. A few days after the election, Jeff Coryell, halfway through his four-year term, announced that he would be leaving council to move to Michigan, where his wife had been employed since 2013. As the announcement came after the election, the residents would not have the option to be able to elect a new councilmember. Instead, a new member would be appointed. This was the second such instance in twelve months, following the February 2015 appointment of Kahlil Seren after Janine Boyd was elected to the Ohio House of Representatives.

In January 2016, Cheryl Stephens was chosen by her council peers to take on the role of Mayor, with Jason Stein as vice mayor. Several months later, planning commission member Michael Ungar was appointed to fill the vacancy left by Coryell. With the addition of Ungar, the city council included one retired white woman, four white lawyers, and two Black career public servants. While not representative of the city's demographics or social make-up, the council seemed well positioned to initiate the much needed changes in the city.

But Severance remained in shambles and residents were still curious about the idea of an elected leader. That fall Stephens, Boyd and a group of concerned citizens gathered together to discuss the idea of a structural change. The initial group was made up of 13 citizens, and accurately represented the diverse racial, religious and cultural groups in the city. The meetings continued for a few months but the attendees shifted over time and had to contend with the presence of political representatives in their group.

While Cleveland Heights is a close-knit community, one attendee told Scene that the residents recognized that their group could lose legitimacy if the politicians involved continued to plan and host the meetings. A citizen member reached out to Stephens after the first meeting and told her that it would be appropriate for them to continue without her. After the third meeting, in January 2017, the same attendee reached out to Boyd to suggest that the group should continue as a solely resident-led initiative. Both Stephens and Boyd stepped back. By the time the group met for the final time, in March 2017, there were only four members left.

For the entirety of its existence, from September 2016 to March 2017, the group was transparent about its goal: a citizen-lead initiative to create a ballot measure to change the form of government. However, shortly after the group began meeting, several city council people became aware of the potential political implications. Emails between councilmembers Carol Roe, Michael Ungar and Melissa Yasinow indicate that the three were concerned about the citizen-led meetings, due to the presence of Stephens and Boyd. In response, Carol Roe, also the chair of the administrative service committee, took steps towards drafting legislation for a charter review commission. The city had not undergone a comprehensive charter review since 1982, despite the charter provision that requires the city to consider review every ten years. However, even in an off-year, like 2017, the city council has the power to draft legislation to enact a charter review, should a majority of council members deem this practice appropriate.

The legislation was approved by the city council in March 2017. The city legislature now had ownership of the citizen-led initiative. Unlike a ballot drive, a charter review could be controlled by the city government. Commission members would be appointed. Recommendations would be voted on by council. The power to determine what is best for the city would remain in the hands of the politically elected body. Indeed, additional emails from Ungar, Roe and Yaisnow indicate that the three directly encouraged specific citizens to apply for the charter review commission. It is unclear whether the other councilmembers engaged in this practice, as well.

The creation of the charter review commission was touted by some as a proactive response to the resident's concerns; however, the resident group did not feel this way, according to some members. In fact, at their last meeting, following the approval of the legislation, several members voted to continue to work independently of the city. At that time (March 2017), the citizen group testified before council, requesting that they seat the commission within the next 60 days to ensure that the recommendations could be considered as soon as possible.

The politicians did not heed this advice. In May 2017, the city began to accept applications for the charter review commission (CRC) members. Fifty-seven people applied, including four members of the citizens' charter review group. The city council released the names of the CRC members in October 2017, following a thorough vetting process that occurred in a closed-door executive session. All 15 members were agreed upon by council, with each of the council members choosing one member and the other eight voted upon by the entire council. Of the four members that applied from the citizens' group, one was chosen to join. The CRC members reflected the diversity of the city's wards in regards to their addresses, however they did not accurately represent the city's demographics. The suburban city is a majority-minority community with an average citizen age of 37; of the fifteen CRC members, four were African American and four were under the age of 40.

A week after the November 2017 municipal elections, the first meeting of the charter review commission took place in the city's recreation center. Approximately 50 people attended the meeting in which the facilitator, Dr. Lawrence Keller, professor emeritus at Cleveland State University, shared a presentation on the various forms of government the commission would be considering over the next several months. All seven members of council were in attendance and the facilitator fielded questions from the commission and the audience. Several members of the citizens' group were concerned about the timing of the process as they hoped the CRC would complete its work in time for the November 2018 ballot. The suggestions of the CRC would have to be approved by the city council in order to appear on the ballot and, as the process of approval would require several months, it was agreed that the CRC would have to complete their project as soon as May 2018.

Murmurings that the creation of the charter review commission was an attempt to take back power from the President of the Council were all but confirmed in early 2018 when the chair of the administrative service committee, Carol Roe, was chosen by a majority of her peers to be the president of the council.

The decision to choose such a new member of council (she had only served two years of her first term) was unprecedented and received one nay vote from Councilmember Seren who publicly expressed concerns that the choice would take council, and the city, in the wrong direction. He pointed directly to Roe's apparent attempts to mitigate a citizen initiative and private emails that were sent between her and several other council members of the administrative service committee. However, his nay vote was inconsequential. The council also chose to elect Melissa Yasinow as Vice Mayor. Again, the vote was 6-1 with the same dissenting council member.

That same week, in early January 2018, the CRC met for the third time, following a long recess for the December holiday season. The biggest topic of conversation during this meeting was how they would approach the review. After much deliberation, they chose to begin the discussion with the broad issue of manager-council vs strong mayor. During this time, the topic of data and data collection came up, as well. The CRC agreed by consensus that they should collect as much data as possible in the form of surveys, interviews and numerical data. The group acknowledged that they did not know exactly what information would be most important and decided they would like to have a significant number of data points to work with. The commission decided that testimony from councilmembers, local business people, elected officials in other cities and a few select community members would play a primary role in their data gathering efforts.

The other renewed topic of conversation was the CRC's timeline. Were they going to remain dedicated to the May goal? Faced with the sheer amount of work they would likely have to accomplish, the general consensus was that they should not tie themselves to the May date, as they wanted to do their due diligence in the process. However, citizens and a few CRC members were adamant that they should aim for the goal. Several council members, including the newly chosen President of Council were present and encouraged the CRC to take their time and not feel beholden to the May date.

The CRC's work remained on track until a new story- the origin of the group- emerged when Vice Mayor Yasinow was invited to speak to the group. In a dramatic reshaping of the events, Vice Mayor Yasinow framed the charter review endeavor as a response to shady political dealings. Yasinow told the CRC that the current effort to review the charter started with an endeavor that she believed was orchestrated by Stephens and Boyd in an effort to consolidate power. Several commission members were clearly uncomfortable. But the discomfort would continue.

A few months later, in May 2018, the CRC invited councilmember Seren to present his views on the city administration and the charter review effort. Seren argued that a part-time council was more risk averse and unlikely to bring forward a bold vision, something required when the chief officer in the city is an appointed, technical expert. But Seren also told the Commission members that he thought their efforts might be for naught. He claimed that with four members of the council openly supporting the current structure, even if the CRC suggested a change, he believed that the majority of the council would not approve it. One member of the commission was visibly upset by this news. Others felt frustrated and even concerned. The four councilmembers immediately responded. In a written statement, Roe, Yasinow, Ungar and Dunbar vowed to support the recommendations of the CRC, calling Seren's claims, "reckless, irresponsible and false."

It seems fair to say the CRC's faith was shaken. But what about the residents? In all of 2018, only one public meeting was held to discuss the charter review effort. In an April 19th presentation, the commission members presented their work, particularly around the issue of the form of government. The attendees were then prompted to engage in discussion. The majority of attendees responded in favor of a switch to the strong mayor form of government and noted several important issues they believed the commission and charter should directly address.

However, despite the support from the public, the charter review commission voted against a switch to the strong mayor form of government. Citing the need to retain technical expertise and limit risk and variability in the business of governing, ten members of the commission agreed to retain the current form of government.

Less than a week later, on June 27th 2018, the vice chair of the commission resigned. Allosious Snodgrass was one of only two members who voted for the strong mayor form- the other being Carla Rautenberg, the sole member of the original citizen group who was chosen for the CRC. In his letter to the commission, Snodgrass spoke about the importance of participatory democracy and the commission's prioritization of expertise over engagement:

"Prior to serving on the commission I did not understand the importance of democracy, completely. Through my time serving, I now understand how important it is that 'We the people' choose both our legislature (Council) and Executive (Mayor). It is only democratically right... I believe the biggest focus should be on changing our form of government to a Strong-Mayor/Council form. Yet, through a majority vote, we have failed to do this. On the bright side, I hope the residents of Cleveland Heights who expressed dissatisfaction with our government for a number of reasons will join forces and take their concerns to the ballot. This is the only practical way Cleveland Heights will see a change in form of government."

In February 2019, the charter review commission met for the final time and submitted its recommendations to the city council shortly thereafter. Within a few weeks, CRC member Craig Cobb was chosen by the city council to fill the vacancy left when Cheryl Stephens was elected to the county council.

After the charter review commission completed its duties, a larger citizen group — one that included some of the original members — met once again to discuss the idea of a ballot initiative. The Citizens for an Elected Mayor group was formed and the residents immediately began to collect signatures for the effort. Several months later, an alternative committee emerged, intending to urge residents to vote against the elected mayor form of government.

This group, called Cleveland Heights Citizens for Good Government, was funded by city council members Yasinow, Ungar, Roe and Dunbar along with several independent citizens. The intention of this group was to advocate for maintaining the council-manager form of government, however their PR efforts have framed their perspective as an attempt to limit political deals in the process of running government. Yet, the political committee has been heavily funded by elected politicians, and the face of the organization, Mike Gaynier, ran for a city council seat in 2011. ICMA, a special interest group, has dedicated over $10,000 to the pro-city manager effort as well.

The central question of Issue 26 is whether the city should have an elected official that will be democratically chosen by the voting population and also accountable for administrative processes. A vote in the affirmative would begin the process to change the charter to a strong mayor form. A vote against, would keep the status quo.

Several important local actors have endorsed Issue 26, including The Cleveland Stonewall Democrats, while not directly endorsing one side of the issue, have spoken critically of the pro-city manager group after the organizers invited Jimmie Hicks Jr., a pastor in the Caledonia neighborhood of the city, to speak at a recent meeting. Mr. Hicks, a former member of Cleveland Heights city council, has a history of openly opposing equality for LGBTQIA+ members of the community.

But what about Severance Town Center, the commercial property that triggered this discussion? Four years later, it remains in disarray. In fact, the status of the project was up for debate at the most recent Cleveland Heights city council meeting, which included a series of remarks from Paul Volpe himself. Indeed, Volpe is not only the designer of fine wooden art but an architect and urban planner with over 35 years of experience. In his comments to council, Volpe urged council to reconsider the city manager's suggestion to accept a proposal from a firm outside of the area to redevelop the project — a firm with little experience in the kind of development that Severance requires, he said.

Once again, the concerns over who governs the space and how the city can move forward devolved into a conversation about the city's form of government, with residents weighing in on either side of the issue and councilmembers Ungar and Seren arguing passionately over the topic.

Cleveland Heights might only be one community and Issue 26 is only one piece of legislation. But like communities across the Rust Belt region, it's looking to its governance system to revitalize the community. Whether a change at the top will lead to genuine progress is unclear. But what makes Cleveland Heights unique, and separates it from its peers, is the degree to which its residents will fight for their city. That passion, which has bubbled up in this contentious battle, will continue.

"In the end, we will all come together," Mayor Roe said at that council meeting after sides battled over some last-minute posturing. "And if anyone has any ideas about the reconciliation process, please send them to me."

Cleveland Heights residents organize, advocate and create networks. A community with tension is still a community of people who feel something. Democracy dies when apathy settles in. Cleveland Heights is a community full of people who want to be heard.