You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide – Cleveland Magazine

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide – Cleveland Magazine article written by Mike Roberts that ran in their September 2007 issue.

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You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

Shaker Heights’ mayor’s angry letter about the magazine’s “Rating the Suburbs” issue speaks to larger concerns: suburban mayors’ fears of decline and their attempts to bring the region together.

Michael D. Roberts, Illustration by Chris Sharron

Shaker Heights Mayor Judy Rawson sent The Plain Dealer a curious letter about Cleveland Magazine this summer. It showed how concerned suburban mayors have become about their towns’ futures.

The letter dealt with the magazine’s June cover story, the annual ranking of suburbs, a popular feature that Cleveland Magazine has published since the early 1990s. Numerous other city magazines across the country publish similar pieces. A reader favorite and an advertising attraction, the annual package compares the sundry virtues of each suburb and ranks them using criteria such as schools, safety and increases in median home sale values.
Mayor Rawson’s letter said the magazine created a competition among Cleveland’s suburbs. She objected to pitting one community against another, because of the growing realization by suburban officials such as herself that a regional approach to the area’s problems is necessary.
Her letter is important, not for its criticism of the magazine, but because it is a cry for help ­— a haunting testimonial by a public official who deals every day with the widening erosion of our urban core and the changing nature of the place where we live. It comes at a time when many Northeast Ohioans are anxious about the future.
While officials such as County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson refuse to address the region’s decline, Rawson’s criticism should strike a nerve with voters, since they’re the ones who have the right to complain: Government here, at all levels, is not working to give taxpayers a better future.
Many other suburban mayors share Rawson’s concern, including Pepper Pike’s Bruce Akers. In my lifetime, I’ve never heard a mayor of Pepper Pike express much interest in the city of Cleveland, let alone speak of the need to join with it to help face the future — until now.
This is not one of those tired East Side-West Side tales that has caused a mythical but palpable divide in the town. Mayor Martin Zanotti of Parma Heights and Mayor Deborah Sutherland of Bay Village, among others, have publicly expressed alarm over the order of things.
Cleveland’s suburbs have long been the jewels in the region. Law firms and corporations use their leafy neighborhoods, sprawling vistas, affordable mansions and superb school systems to recruit talent from more alluring places.
But in recent years, the first tier of suburbs adjoining the city of Cleveland has experienced blight, lost population and struggled with growing safety issues. The impact has been serious enough that they’ve formed the First Suburbs Consortium, the first such organization in the nation. The organization began with three suburbs in 1996 and will likely grow beyond its present membership of 17. The idea was to confront the blight and flight by changing public policies that govern redevelopment. For instance, the organization has championed special redevelopment loans at 3 percent under market lending rates and established a joint marketing program for the member cities’ development projects.
Ironically, Cleveland and its suburbs, which made their money from oil and the automobile a hundred years ago, paid a price for that prosperity. The highway system destroyed the traditional role of the city and introduced urban sprawl. Now the suburbs are feeling the brunt of the social change the automobile caused.
Suburbs such as Euclid, Parma and Maple Heights grew and flourished in the post-World War II economy. Many city dwellers then looked upon life in suburbs as an idyllic dream, a goal that symbolized an important social achievement, one of pride and modest prosperity.
Now, those same towns face a serious threat. One First Suburbs delegate told me that every time a new interstate interchange opens in the region, the organization’s members shudder. It means more flight to places such as Avon and Medina. In a single generation, we are witnessing an abandonment of the old suburbs and a relocation to new communities near freeway exits. Like much of our culture, communities are becoming disposable.
This summer, the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency was studying a proposal to create a new interchange on I-90 in Avon. If NOACA approves it, growth around it could double the suburb’s payroll tax receipts over the next 25 years — at the expense of places such as Lakewood, Rocky River and Westlake.
Traveling to the emerging communities, with their large homes, vast yards and good school systems, one cannot help but notice the contrast with life in the city and older suburbs. Since there are virtually no poor or disadvantaged living in the new communities, there is no need for expensive social services. People who can afford to move there have money, so the tax base is not only stable, but superlative.
If freeways hurt the inner ring, the cost of redevelopment in the older communities magnifies the problem. It is far more expensive to rebuild than to construct an entirely new town.
Those in the First Suburbs Consortium argue that governmental policies favor the development of new communities by giving them more favorable access to loans and other incentives. The consortium advocates equitable policies for all communities and stresses regionalism.
Ask 10 Greater Clevelanders what regionalism means, and you get 10 different answers. But it is evident that urban sprawl, wasteful and redundant government, failed economic development, crime and other problems that plague our region all point to the need for a change in a government structured for life a century ago. For example, it was only through a joint effort by the suburban group that the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court finally computerized its record system to quickly access arrest warrants. Mayor Rawson’s letter is a warning that government as we know it is not working. It signaled the end of the idyllic suburban dream. It is a wake-up call, warning that decline and decay are not just urban diseases.

Early and Mid 20th Century History of Regional Government in Cuyahoga County from The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Regional Government from the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

Covers early and mid 20th century efforts towards Regional or Metropolitan Government in Cuyahoga County

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REGIONAL GOVERNMENT – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

REGIONAL GOVERNMENT. The regional government movement was an effort by civic reformers to solve by means of a broader-based government metropolitan problems arising from the dispersion of urban populations from central cities to adjacent suburbs. When suburban growth accelerated after WORLD WAR II, reform coalitions proposed various governing options, with mixed results. In the 1950s approximately 45 proposals calling for a substantial degree of government integration were put on the ballot. However, supporters failed to make a compelling case for change in areas where diverse political interests had to be accommodated, and less than one in four won acceptance. The most successful efforts to create regional government occurred in smaller, more homogeneous urban areas such as Davidson County (Nashville), Tennessee (1962), and Marion County (Indianapolis), Indiana (1969).

Cleveland was Cuyahoga County’s most populous city by the mid-19th century, and as it continued to grow adjacent communities petitioned for annexation in order to obtain its superior municipal services. As Cleveland’s territorial growth slowed after the turn of the century, a movement was launched by the CITIZENS LEAGUE OF GREATER CLEVELAND to install countywide metropolitan government “while 85% of the area’s population still live in Cleveland and before the problems of urban growth engulf us,” as the League put it in 1917. These reformers believed that the conflicting interests present in the city’s diverse population encouraged political separatism and helped create a corrupt and inefficient government controlled by political bosses. They argued that consolidating numerous jurisdictions into a scientifically managed regional government would improve municipal services, lower taxes, and reconcile the differences within urban society under the aegis of a politically influential middle class. In essence, their proposals were designed to remedy the abuses of democratic government by separating the political process from the administrative function.

Local reformers were unable to achieve their goals by enlarging the city through annexation. The lure of better city services was not an incentive to those prosperous SUBURBS which could afford to provide comparable benefits to their residents and which preferred to distance themselves from the city’s burgeoning immigrant population, machine politics, and the pollution generated by its industries. Cleveland’s good-government groups focused on restructuring CUYAHOGA COUNTY GOVERNMENT either by city-county consolidation or by a federative arrangement whereby county government assumed authority over metropolitan problems, while the city retained its local responsibilities.

Originally, county government in Ohio had been organized as an administrative arm of the state, with three county commissioners exercising only those powers granted to them by the state legislature. To obtain the, metropolitan government these progressive reformers envisioned, a state constitutional amendment was needed to increase the authority of these administrative units to a municipal level. The Citizens League submitted such an amendment to the Ohio legislature in 1917, allowing city-county consolidation in counties of more than 100,000 population. It was turned down, but was resubmitted at each biennial session until it became clear that opposition from the rural-dominated legislature required a new approach. Regional advocates then proposed a limited grant of power under a county home-rule charter allowing it to administer municipal functions with metropolitan service areas, establish a county legislature to enact ordinances, and reorganize its administrative structure. Despite backing from civic, commercial and farm organizations, Ohio’s General Assembly still refused to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot, but its backers secured enough signatures on initiative petitions to submit it directly to the voters, who approved it in 1933.

The amendment required four separate majorities to adopt a home rule charter which involved transfer of municipal functions to the county: in the county as a whole, in the largest municipality in the county, in the total county area outside the largest municipality, and in each of a majority of the total number of municipalities and townships in the county. The fourth majority allowed small communities to veto a reform desired by the urban majority. Ostensibly designed to ensure a broad consensus of voters if the central city was to lose any of its municipal functions, this added barrier satisfied Ohio’s rural interests, a majority of whom were unwilling to open the door for a megagovernment on the shores of Lake Erie.

Metropolitan home rule proved to be a durable issue in Cuyahoga County; between 1935 and 1980 voters had 6 opportunities to approve some form of county reorganization. When an elected commission wrote the first Cuyahoga County Home Rule Charter in 1935, the central problem was how much and what kind of authority the county government should have. Fervent reformers within the commission, led by MAYO FESLER†, head of the Citizens League, wanted a strong regional authority and sharply restricted municipal powers. Consequently, they presented a borough plan that was close to city-county consolidation. The proposal crystallized opposition from political realists on the commission who advocated a simple county reorganization which needed approval from Cleveland and a majority of the county’s voters. Any transfer of municipal functions required agreement by the four majorities specified in the constitutional amendment. The moderates prevailed, and a carefully worded county home rule charter was submitted to the voters in 1935, calling for a county reorganization with a 9-man council elected at large which could pass ordinances. The council also appointed a county director, a chief executive officer with the authority to, manage the county’s administrative functions and select the department heads, eliminating the need for most of the elected county officials. HAROLD H. BURTON†, chairman of the Charter Commission, and popular Republican candidate for mayor, promoted his candidacy and passage of the home rule charter as a cost-cutting measure. Both Burton and the charter received a substantial majority in Cleveland, and the charter was also approved by a 52.9% majority countywide, supported by the eastern suburbs adjacent to Cleveland and outlying enclaves of wealth such as HUNTING VALLEY and GATES MILLS. Opposition came from voters in the semi-developed communities east of the city, together with all the southern and western municipalities in the county. The countywide majority was sufficient for a simple reorganization, but before the charter could be implemented its validity was contested in the case of Howland v. Krause, which reached the Ohio Supreme Court in 1936. The court ruled that the organization of a 9-man council represented a transfer of authority, and all four majorities were required–effectively nullifying the charter, since 47 of the 59 municipalities outside Cleveland had turned it down.

A county home rule charter continued to be an elusive goal. After World War II the accelerated dispersion of Cleveland’s population to the suburbs encouraged reformers to try again. When the voters overwhelmingly approved the formation of a Home Rule Charter commission in 1949 and again in 1958, it was viewed as another projected improvement in municipal life: an improvement comparable to the construction of a downtown airport; the expansion of Cleveland’s public transportation system; and the creation of integrated freeways. Metropolitan reformers agreed. They were concerned about the growing fragmentation of government service units and decision-making powers in the suburbs and the unequal revenue sources available to them. This made the need for regional government even more urgent. In addition, Cleveland was hard pressed to expand its water and sewage disposal systems to meet suburban demands for service, making those municipal functions prime candidates for regionalization.

Democratic mayors THOMAS BURKE† and Anthony Celebrezze counseled a gradual approach to the reform efforts. The elected charter commissions, however, pursued their own political agenda, unwilling to compromise their views on regional government to suit the city’s ethnic-based government. The commissioners, a coalition of good government groups and politicians from both parties, wrote strong metropolitan charters calling for 
a wholesale reorganization of Cuyahoga County which would expand its political control. Two key provisions in each charter demonstrated the sweeping changes in authority that would occur. An elected legislature would be chosen either at-large (1950) or in combination with district representatives (1959),, isolating ward politics from the governing process and ensuring that the growing suburbs would acquire more influence over regional concerns. The reorganized county would have exclusive authority over all the listed municipal functions with regional service areas and the right to determine compensation due Cleveland for the transfer without its consent (1950), or in conjunction with the Common Pleas Court (1959). If approved, these charters could significantly change the political balance of political power within Cuyahoga County.

Charter advocates, led by the Citizens League and the LEAGUE OF WOMEN VOTERS (LWV) OF CLEVELAND, argued that a streamlined county government with efficient management could act on a score of regional improvements which would benefit the entire area. However, they were unable to articulate the genuine sense of crisis needed for such a change. The majority of voters who had elected the charter commissions approved county home rule in theory; but, faced with specific charters, they found the arguments for county reorganization unconvincing. Cleveland officials successfully appealed to city voters, forecasting that the charters would raise their taxes and “rip up” the city’s assets. Many suburbs also were skeptical, viewing comprehensive metropolitan government as a threat to their municipal independence. As a result, the 1950 and 1959 charters failed to receive a majority. Three more attempts were made by the same good-government groups. An alternate form of county government establishing only a legislature and an elected county administrator was turned down by voters in 1969, 1970, and again in 1980 with opposition from a growing number of AFRICAN AMERICANS, unwilling to dilute their newly acquired political authority by participating in a broader based government. In 1980 only 43.7% approved the change, and there were no further attempts to reorganize Cuyahoga County government. It was clear that a majority of voters cared little about overlapping authorities within the county, they were not persuaded that adding a countywide legislature would produce more efficient management or save money, and most importantly, they wanted to retain their access to and control of local government.

While the future of county home rule was being debated during the postwar period, other means were found to solve regional problems. Cuyahoga County quietly expanded its ability to provide significant services in the fields of public health and welfare by agreeing to take over Cleveland’s City Hospital, Hudson School for Boys, and BLOSSOM HILL SCHOOL FOR GIRLS in 1957. Independent single function districts were established in the 1960s and 1970s to manage municipal services such as water pollution control, tax collection, and mass transit–services that existing local governments were unable or unwilling to undertake. These districts had substantial administrative and fiscal autonomy and were usually governed by policymaking, boards or commissions, many of them appointed by elected government officials. Most were funded by federal, state, and county grants or from taxes, and several had multicounty authority. These inconspicuous governments solved many of the area’s problems, but their increasing use also added to the complexity of local governance. Critics maintained that districts, using assets created with public funds, were run by virtually independent professional managers, making decisions outside public scrutiny with no accountability to the electorate. Nevertheless, in Cuyahoga County the limited authority granted to them was an acceptable alternative to comprehensive metropolitan reform–one that did not threaten existing political relationships.

The comprehensive charters written in 1950 and 1959 represented the apogee of the regional government movement in Cleveland. However, the elitist reformers who wrote them eschewed substantive negotiations with the city’s cosmopolitan administrations and failed to appease the political sensibilities of county voters who preferred a “grassroots” pattern of dispersed political power. Carrying on the progressive spirit of the failed CITY MANAGER PLAN, they attempted to impose regional solutions that would significantly change political relationships in the area–a single-minded approach that constituted a formidable obstacle to any realistic metropolitan integration.

Mary B. Stavish

Case Western Reserve University

Last Modified: 21 Nov 2009 01:53:20 PM

Western Reserve Plan – Current Plan for Cuyahoga County Government

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Plan Highlights:

The Western Reserve Plan will focus on these 12 key areas:

  1. Metropolitan Government:
    Implementing a practical strategy for creating a functioning, county-wide metropolitan government.
  2. Entrepreneurship and Job Growth:
    Establishing Greater Cleveland as a center of entrepreneurship and job growth.
  3. Downtown Cleveland:
    Designing a place-based development strategy which recognizes the centrality of downtown Cleveland to the region as a whole.
  4. Human Service Needs:
    Aligning and coordinating both public and private resources around our most pressing human service needs.
  5. Education:
    Identifying education, from early childhood forward, as the central factor in individual and community success.
  6. Health and Wellness:
    Embracing a health and wellness culture which mirrors the excellence of our major medical institutions.
  7. Economic Inclusion:
    Incorporating economic inclusion as a guiding principle in our economic development strategy.
  8. International City/Younger Generations:
    Branding our metropolitan area as an international city which harnesses the energy of our younger generations.
  9. Foreclosure Crisis:
    Adopting a collaborative approach to the foreclosure crisis- from prevention to restoration.
  10. Veterans:
    Honoring the service of our veterans by giving them priority in hiring, training and education.
  11. Public Safety:
    Protecting our county by leading a county-wide public safety initiative.
  12. Good Government:
    Creating a culture within county government which implements nationally recognized good government practices and innovations.