Improving City Council Representation and Advocacy

GOAL:

Explore how we can better ensure that every resident in Cleveland Heights feels fully represented and advocated for by our City Council.

City Council is our first and closest line of representation for our citizens. People reach out to their councilmembers when they have problems they need solved, when they have questions, when they are concerned about our city’s actions or proposed actions, when they want the city to take (or not take) action on an issue, and so on. Our councilmembers are called on to be advocates, representatives, problem-solvers, and ad hoc communications managers for the city.

But many residents express frustration with our City Council. People call or email councilmembers and don’t get responses. They have a problem, and they don’t know who they should reach out to. When every councilmember is every resident’s representative, the sense of constituency becomes muddled and diluted, and our closest line of representation sometimes can feel a million miles away.

And although all councilmembers are at-large—representing EVERYONE in Cleveland Heights—they are also part-time employees. Most of them have full-time jobs that prevent them from being able to respond in a timely manner. And sometimes the sheer volume of emails flooding in from the entire city begin to pile up. Perhaps despite councilmembers’ best intentions, they just can’t reply to everyone.

Moreover, with an all-at-large council, candidates seeking office must campaign the whole city. This requires money and/or access to people who have money, as well as lots of time to cover the larger area; successful candidates have means and lots of spare time. The result is a disproportionate number of councilmembers—past and present—who live in the more affluent parts of Cleveland Heights . . . while other areas of the city are largely ignored and neglected. It also means that certain groups of people, such as renters (who make up 45% of our households, yet all councilmembers are homeowners) and lower-income residents, who need advocacy usually have no one on council who directly represents them.

All of this leads us to the question: Is an all-at-large, part-time City Council still working for what our city, our community, and our citizens need?

I will propose a resolution to form a citizen task force to explore this question, along with others, including:

  • Is a council made up of seven members still the appropriate size for the population and needs of our city?
  • Should we retain an all-at-large council? If so, should the positions be made full time and compensated accordingly?
  • Should we have ward council positions? If so, should all council positions be wards, or should we have a hybrid council structure with both ward and at-large council members? If the latter, how many ward positions should we have, and how many at-large positions?
  • If we retain an all-at-large council, how can we ensure an even disbursement of representation across the city and representation of groups whose concerns are historically overlooked?

I’ve spoken with many residents who want a stronger, more positive relationship with our City Council. I recently sent out a survey asking, “What would be the best City Council structure
for Cleveland Heights?” And although the sample size is far from large enough to confidently represent residents’ preferences, here’s a snapshot of the results:

Based on SURVEY: What is the best council structure for Cleveland Heights?

It is time to examine whether a council structure put in place a century ago is still serving our needs in a way that reflects our current values and priorities. But with so much at stake, we must proceed carefully—with community input, dialogue, testimony, and thoughtful compromise.

When our task force reaches a conclusion, if they recommend a charter amendment to reform the structure of our City Council, I will work to get the necessary five votes to put it on the ballot so our voters—you—can make the final decision.