Why new faces on CH Council have been good for the city

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It was a big surprise last week when Cleveland Heights City Manager Robert Downey resigned. I incorrectly assumed it had something to do with his health.

We’ve since learned that if he hadn’t quit he likely would have been fired – though the way it’s usually stated in the public sector is non-renewal of his contract.

I’ll be honest, I didn’t think our City Council had it in them.

I wish Bob Downey well; he served Cleveland Heights for more than 30 years and, as far as I’m aware, did so with integrity and concern for the community.

At the same time, I’ve been agitating for change. (Some examples: Public safety; Juvenile crime; Good government.) I’ve thought our government, both elected and appointed, has become insular and calcified – represented by too many people who have been in the same role for too long, and who haven’t worked outside of Cleveland Heights City Hall for decades, if ever.

It doesn’t mean they aren’t hard working or well-intentioned. But in the last 15 years or so, the work of governing has changed as radically as any other industry. Some outside perspective would go a long way to helping Cleveland Heights keep up.

After conversations with a number of people who are in position to know, here are the specifics that I’ve learned about why the City Manager had come under pressure:

The biggest issue was overtime costs in the Cleveland Heights Fire Department – which totaled about $700,000 last year. It’s a lot of money and the City Manager wasn’t able to explain it to the satisfaction of some council members. He also apparently failed to win confidence of the same council members that he was taking the issue any more seriously this year.

A second issue was a sense the City Manager was stonewalling on regional initiatives. In late 2010, when a group of neighboring suburbs formed the Eastside Departments Group Enforcement (EDGE) consortium, Cleveland Heights was conspicuously absent. EDGE’s first priority was to form a shared SWAT team. At the time, CH’s official response came from Martin Lentz, the city’s long-standing police chief (another deeply respected official who, in my opinion, had served for too long; he retired in late 2010): “We already have a SWAT team.”

Setting aside the obvious question – Why shouldn’t we look at sharing a SWAT team? – EDGE has since started discussing other initiatives such as joint dispatch services. Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights have done joint dispatch for years, which apparently is what Downey told council members when they asked again about joining EDGE. But with Shaker Heights being a member of EDGE, could our own joint dispatch partnership be in jeopardy?

I also can’t help wondering how a more regionally minded city manager might have affected the direction of the Oakwood development in South Euclid and Cleveland Heights. The two cities have not collaborated on much over the years. By the time Oakwood’s 144 acres of prime green space went up for sale, it was way too late to begin talking about any shared vision for some transformative use of the land. The result: The pointless relocation of Walmart by a few hundred yards – from one city to the next, and from a tired old shopping center to a banal new one.

In Cleveland Heights’ form of government, city council is in charge of setting a policy agenda, and the city manager is in charge of executing it. But Downey’s undoing was a sense that he only did what he wanted – giving lip service to policy orders he didn’t feel like fulfilling. It was becoming embarrassing and increasingly frustrating for some council members.

Meanwhile, people like me were becoming more vocal – contrasting the city’s claims of ground-breaking government with our own observations of a plodding municipal routine.

With all that said, there’s value in emphasizing that Downey’s departure was a split decision. Four council members were in favor of it; three opposed it. Of those three, only one that I’m aware of – Bonnie Caplan – has publicly acknowledged her opposition to the change. The other council members aren’t naming names. I respect their professional courtesy and am sure others will shortly report on exactly who fell on each side of this decision.

Perhaps the most instructive thing I’ve learned is that the whole effort to demand more accountability from Downey was initiated by the council’s newest members.

The search for Downey’s replacement hasn’t yet begun in earnest. It will likely take the better part of a year. Meanwhile, it’s been demonstrated to my satisfaction that change on city council has been good for the city.

Comments

  1. Fran Mentch says

    Oakwood was for sale for a year before it was purchased by FISE. During that year it was optioned by Trust For Public Land for purchase as public greenspace, but the money couldn’t be raised. All Cleveland Heights city council members, including the two new members were fully aware of this and DID NOTHING to help make this happen. So, I have to disagree that the two new members are any different from the others from this aspect. The current city council members are all fully and completely culpable for the lost opportunity that Oakwood was.
    Frank Cain’s administration’s legacy is Cain Park. The current council’s legacy is Superwalmart.

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