Election 2019: Cleveland Heights Decides To Elect A Mayor In 2021

Issue 26 signs outside a Cleveland Heights polling site.
Issue 26 signs outside a Cleveland Heights polling site. [Annie Wu / ideastream]

One hundred years after Cleveland Heights ratified its original charter, residents will elect the city’s first mayor.

Voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly supported Issue 26 with 64 percent of the vote, replacing the city manager form of government with an elected chief executive.

The city’s first-ever mayoral election will take place in November 2021.

“We’re thrilled that the voters of Cleveland Heights agreed that it was time to restructure our government so that it would better serve our current needs and take us into the future in a much stronger way than we’ve been able to, to this date,” said Michael Bennett, secretary of Citizens for an Elected Mayor.

The group collected roughly 4,000 signatures to put the proposal for a so-called strong mayor on the ballot, raising about $40,000 for the effort.

Bennett does not expect anything to change in the city’s management over the next two years, until a mayor is elected.

“What will change is that we hope interested citizens will start expressing maybe some desires to run for mayor or thinking about what that mayor would look like, what the characteristics and qualities and platforms could be,” said Bennett. “But in the meantime, the city should run smoothly and continue to operate as it has as we all look to the day when there’ll be a different structure.”

Several Cleveland Heights City Council members opposed the change, arguing that the city manager form of government provides apolitical management of day-to-day operations. Cleveland Heights Citizens for Good Government (CGG) was formed to campaign against Issue 26, garnering financial support from the International City Management Association.

On Tuesday night, CGG’s Mike Gaynier called Bennett to pledge that the groups will work together during the transition.

“We both believe that we were doing what’s best for the city, for Cleveland Heights, and we all have the same destination in mind,” Gaynier said. “We were just debating the route, and I think it’s time to start the trip together from here forward.”

The city faces challenges in economic development, poverty, education and infrastructure, Bennett said, naming a few issues for the future mayor to tackle. But, he said, Citizens for an Elected Mayor never had a candidate in mind.

“This entire effort was not about people, it was about structure. It wasn’t about the current manager. It wasn’t about the current council. It wasn’t about any individual person,” Bennett said.

“We didn’t talk about candidates. We didn’t have candidates talk to us. We didn’t interview anyone. That was the furthest things from our minds of who would run for mayor other than a firm belief that in a community like Cleveland Heights, where there are so many concerned and committed citizens, that someone would rise to the top.”

Currently, Cleveland Heights has seven elected city council members. Once elected, the council members vote among themselves to determine who will hold the title of mayor, essentially another term for council president. Council hires a city manager to oversee operations.

Carole Roe, who currently holds the title of mayor and opposed Issue 26, lost her re-election bid Tuesday night. In a five-way race for three seats on city council, Roe came in last, with 16 percent of the vote.

With more 25 percent and as the top vote-getter, Melody Joy Hart will take a seat on council. Kahlil Seren retained his seat with more than 23 percent of the vote. Both candidates supported the elected mayor proposal.

Mary Dunbar, who opposed Issue 26, also will remain on council.

Craig Cobb lost his seat to Davida Russell, who will serve a two-year term. Cobb, who was appointed to council in April, opposed the elected mayor plan but voted against placing a competing measure on the November ballot that would have strengthened the city manager role.

Under Issue 26, Cleveland Heights will elect a mayor for a four-year term and create the position of city administrator, whose appointment must be approved by council. The city manager job will be eliminated.

Earlier in the year, the Cleveland Heights Charter Review Commission, tasked with considering a change to the city’s form of government, voted to retain the city manager.

With the passage of Issue 26, the last community in Cuyahoga County operating under the city manager form of government will be Bedford.

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