’Newcomers’ Hart, Russell receive most votes for Cleveland Heights City Council
CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio -- While an elected mayor won’t take office until 2022, there will be two new City Council members, along with a pair of incumbents, sworn in on Jan. 6.
Earlier this year, council selected Melody Joy Hart and Davida Russell as finalists for appointment to a vacant seat. But at that time, neither got the call.
They both wound up running for different council seats and, upon further review, residents sealed the deal on Nov. 5, making Hart and Russell the two top vote-getters out of a field of seven candidates split into two separate races.
Hart unofficially received 6,358 votes out of five candidates running for three at-large seats, each with full terms of four years.
Incumbents Kahlil Seren (second full term, 5,644 votes) and Mary Dunbar (third term, 4,670 votes) will be returning in January, having outdistanced challenger Anthony Mattox Jr. (4,209 votes) and Carol Roe (3,995 votes), who will be finishing out her first term -- the last two of those years as council’s appointed mayor.
Under the “at-large” election system, Roe was only the third council member since 1980 to come from Ward Five, the city’s northernmost voting district, which includes the Noble neighborhood.
But while Noble has historically lacked representation, the current legislative streak will continue when Roe steps down and Russell takes her place on the dais, having unofficially received 5,669 votes to win the two-year unexpired term left on Cheryl Stephens’ seat after Stephens moved over to Cuyahoga County Council last year.
Russell, a longtime Noble resident and labor leader with the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, won out over Councilman Craig Cobb -- who was appointed by council in April over Hart and Russell -- along with the other finalist, Tamika Martin, also from the Noble neighborhood.
Cobb, previously a member of the Charter Review and City Planning commissions, accepted the appointment with the understanding that he would have to run for the remainder of Stephens' term in the Nov. 5 election, where he was challenged by Russell and received 4,133 votes.
Hart, a certified public accountant and financial planner, has been regularly attending council’s weekly committee-of-the-whole meetings for more than three years.
She and her husband, Cleveland Heights Magistrate Gary Benjamin, are best known lately for their efforts in getting Haitian refugee, asylum seeker and now house guest Ansly Damus freed from the Geauga County Jail after two years.
But Hart has also been involved in housing initiatives through her work with the Greater Cleveland Congregations organization, where much of that focus has been on Noble, as well as the enactment of the city's requirement for foreclosure bonds on vacant homes.
Smooth transition sought
In a statement released after the still-unofficial election results came in, Roe noted that the “passion and engagement” of Cleveland Heights residents was reflected on both sides of the “Issue 26” campaign for an elected mayor.
"In the end, the voters spoke and decided the time was right to change our ('council-city manager') form of government to the 'mayor-council' form, directly electing a full-time mayor," Roe stated.
As was the case with the campaigns, Roe -- on behalf of council -- pledged to “work tirelessly” to continue to represent and serve the community “to ensure a smooth transition,” remaining committed to hearing and addressing residents’ concerns.
In a post-election memo sent to municipal employees, City Manager Tanisha Briley said simply that “the results are in and the voters chose change.”
This was done by amending the city charter and creating a new position of “city administrator,” who will be appointed by the new mayor after the November 2021 election to oversee day-to-day operations, said Briley, who had a new severance package added to her contract by council in July.
Although the terms can take effect once the Nov. 5 election results are certified, Briley added that those “results do not affect our jobs or the importance of continuing to do them to the best of our ability.”
“I remain fully committed to Cleveland Heights and being a good steward of its safety, finances, development and livability, and I ask that each of you join me in this commitment,” Briley added.