Cleveland Heights Considering 3 Candidates For First-Ever Elected Mayor
Three people are running to become Cleveland Heights’ first elected mayor under a new form of government placing city services under mayoral control.
For the candidates – Melody Joy Hart, Kahlil Seren and Barbara Danforth – this race isn’t just about the platforms and the promises. It’s about defining what this new government will mean for Cleveland Heights.
The city now is led by a city manager appointed by the elected city council. In 2019, Cleveland Heights voters approved a charter amendment creating the first elected mayor since the city’s founding in 1921.
The first mayor should have a history of civic involvement, know the city’s current operations and understand finances, said Cleveland Heights City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Melody Joy Hart. But there’s also a cultural shift to navigate, especially with how the city communicates with residents.
“People weren't getting answers. They would call the city. They wouldn't get responses, it goes into a black hole, and they wanted responsiveness,” Hart said. “That's why they decided on a mayor.”
Hart, who has served on the council for almost two years, has a background in finance and management. She has also worked on housing issues with Greater Cleveland Congregations, a faith-based activist group.
The city needs to create a housing department and bring back its community relations department, Hart said.
“[This election] is important because it's going to set the structure, the ground rules, the policies, the procedures and the guardrails for future mayors,” Hart said. “Because I love the city, I should use my skills and do this.”
Working together with other departments and creating ways to address those needs will be crucial for the new mayor, Hart said.
“I do my homework, I do my research, I involve people because I can't know everything,” Hart said. “That's an important aspect, is you need to think where your strengths are and where you need to seek some help.”
Cleveland Heights City Council Vice President Kahlil Seren said his history of civic engagement has prepared him for the mayor’s office.
Seren has served on city council for nearly six years and works for Cuyahoga County Council. He helped the county transition to a new form of government in 2011, after voters scrapped the three-commissioner system in favor of an 11-member county council and county executive.
“Over the last 11 years that I've lived in Cleveland Heights, eight of those years have been spent in service to Cleveland Heights,” Seren said. “I don't think that the other candidates can claim such a dedication, such a demonstrated dedication to this city.”
The new mayor will need to reassess the city’s staffing and division of labor, talking with directors, administrators and other employees, Seren said. Only then can the next administration start improving the city’s housing stock, he said.
“But we can't do it with the setup that we have now,” Seren said. “So the precursor for all of the policy work that we need to do is creating a structure that can support that policy work.”
The city also needs to come up with a better way to track resident complaints, Seren said. That includes having a mayor who spends time out in the community, he said.
“We can't just rely on the same, you know, couple dozen community members that self-select to provide input to the city government,” Seren said. “We have to meet people who are not taking that proactive step to come talk with us, because they're important too.”
Former YWCA of Greater Cleveland CEO Barbara Danforth is a longtime resident. She has worked as assistant attorney general for the state of Iowa, chief prosecutor for the city of Cleveland and legal counsel for the Cuyahoga County Department of Child and Family Services.
“It's going to be incumbent upon the new mayor to work collaboratively with council to support their initiatives,” Danforth said. “But at the end of the day, the mayor is the one that's going to be running the city. And so that's going to be a very different mindset for the council as well as well as a staff.”
Danforth said she’ll set aside time each week to take calls from residents personally. She also wants to get a wider range of people involved in existing committees and conversations, rather than just the people who know councilmembers or are active in the city’s politics.
“There are on a multitude of touchpoints that residents can have into the way our government operates, but the residents need to know about that,” Danforth said. “They need to be open and transparent selection for our committees, that it's not just friends bringing on friends.”
Danforth’s administration would create commissions and task forces to collect public input and develop strategic plans, she said, particularly in the areas of environment, arts and culture and housing. Residents need to have ways to reach out and engage, and the government needs to listen, she said.
“We're going to bring people together to help them work together and get to know each other, because then I think we begin to break down these enclaves that we have developed of like-minded friends,” Danforth said.
The two candidates who receive the most votes in the Sept. 14 primary will advance to the November election.