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Issue Date: June 2013


Rating the Suburbs 2013: Mayors


Interviews by Erick Trickey, Jennifer Keirn and Lynne Thompson

SUSAN DRUCKER

Mayor, Solon
Susan Drucker Susan Drucker moved to Solon during its early '90s building boom, attracted by its reputation for religious and ethnic diversity. Now, she's mayor of a city renowned for its excellent school system, which helped Solon earn a spot on Bloomberg Businessweek's 2013 list of America's Best Places to Raise Kids. Drucker includes Solon's ethnic celebrations among her itinerary of community events, fitting for a town that was 10 percent African-American and 5 percent each Chinese- and Indian-American in the 2010 U.S. Census. She's self-effacing and stubborn in turn, a former introvert who prides herself on "brutal honesty," a consensus-seeker who's also taken a stand in the suburb's fight to recover money lost to a $2 million road-paving scam. She talks about Solon's renewal at its crossroads, the relationship between public service and personal growth and how city hall dealt with those pesky deer.

 


« I grew up in an all-Catholic neighborhood; [my husband] grew up in an all-Jewish neighborhood. We knew we'd eventually start a family. We wanted to move somewhere where it was diverse because of our different religions.

« When we first moved out here, Cochran Road and SOM Center Road were two lanes, one in each direction. The shopping centers were all from the '70s. It had a smaller feel.

« All of a sudden, Solon became this place everyone was moving to.

« I was extremely introverted. But I thought, I can't be the shy person. I had to run for election. My husband couldn't believe I was knocking on doors, introducing myself to strangers.

« I felt we needed to have a more conservative approach to how we were handling things. Because Solon was strong financially, I don't think the administration back then tightened the belt.

« Times change too. The building department used to be pumping out work left and right. Solon's built out now.

« When you're first becoming mayor, you think, OK, here's what I think we need for the city. And that's great to run with a campaign agenda. But when you get into office, you quickly learn: This isn't about what I want or what I think the city needs. It's about meeting with other people and gathering from them, "What do you think the city needs?"

« Solon was not a very attractive-looking city. With our redevelopment of the last three years, it is now becoming attractive.

« Persistence pays off. I just started calling a bunch of developers, talking with them. "Would you be interested in doing something in Solon? I'm willing to come to the table with an incentive program."

« People have been ecstatic. It's an exciting time. Even in the old shopping center, business has increased. You want to shop locally. You want to be in your town and support your own.

« There's always someone who knows more than you about something. So you've got to find that person and you seek their guidance or expertise.

« I grew up very poor, and that's why I don't judge people. I knew what it was like to work three jobs to pay for school. Even though I'm mayor, I understand what it's like to have struggles.

« I do Tea with the Mayor. I go to the senior center. Seniors can ask any questions about the city. A lot of times, afterward, they come up to me and say, "I have this issue, can you help me with it?"

« It's important people see who I am so people know they can come up to me. I'm the mayor. I'm there for them.

« The Babes of 1916 is a men's senior softball league. It's their 30th year. Every year when they have their opening game, I throw the first pitch. Or when there's a Babes memorial service for former players, I always go give a speech.

« In 2010, this young man, Justin Bachman, came to see me. He went to a cross country meet. He had Tourette's syndrome. He was having a tic — he yells out things. The referee said, "You've got to keep quiet, so we can start the race." He yelled again, and they kicked him out of the meet. Justin and his parents came to my office. He was 13 years old at time. He said, "I want to have a thing called Tolerance Fairs to encourage people to be more tolerant of others, whether they have an illness or disability."

« We had the first one at the community center in Solon: 40 to 50 vendors, 1,000 people at the center. This year we had another fair at the I-X Center, and 3,000 people came.

« It's never been about him or just Tourette's syndrome. It's, I don't want other people to go through what I went through.

« We have a growing Asian population. One of the reasons, with our school system always being ranked so high, it's extremely important in Chinese culture. Every Sunday, the Cleveland Contemporary Chinese Culture Association has a school. Four hundred people attend on a weekly basis. If their children are born here, they still want them to understand the culture, the language and the traditions.

« The Solon school system is just incredible, year after year.

« Nobody enjoys culling deer. It's not a pleasant thing. But when we see our deer-vehicle accidents are reducing, when we donated 12,000 pounds of meat to food banks this year, that's how I look at a program like this. Those are the benefits.
 


CHASE RITENAUER

Mayor, Lorain
Chase Ritenauer Chase Ritenauer has grabbed a lot of attention for his age. In 2012, the then-27-year-old became Lorain's 50th mayor, beating the incumbent in the Democratic primary. But today, his age isn't what's catching people's attention. He's charging ahead with an aggressive agenda for revitalizing the once-thriving steel town. Some steel jobs are coming back. The waterfront is being restored. Black River Landing has become a hub of outdoor activities. Abandoned homes are being razed. The first school levy since 1992 passed. Slashed parks and recreation services are back. Ritenauer, a hometown boy who passed out campaign flyers for his politically active family members back in elementary school, talks about how he's working to restore the community he once knew.

 

« It was a Saturday night in January 2010. I was grocery shopping, in the produce section. I was going back and forth — I'm going to run, I'm not going to run.

« Then the epiphany hit. There are certain parts of life when you just have to jump. You have to do what in your gut feels right. To watch Lorain regress was not something I felt morally comfortable with.

« People might say, "Oh, Lorain's never going to change. It's the same old, same old." What is a greater change than electing a 27-year-old mayor in a city that's very ethnic and older? People knew how old I was. I knocked on most of their doors.

« In my heart of hearts, I knew that the people were ready for a change.

« There's no hiding the fact that the recession hit Lorain hard.

« I felt proud when the voters passed the new income tax and the school levy last year. We hadn't passed a levy in 20 years.

« No one likes paying for new taxes. But what is the cost to the city if we don't invest in ourselves? We're not going to get anyone to invest in us if we don't invest in ourselves.

« I read Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point. If there was a tipping point in Lorain, that was the beginning of it. We would be having a different conversation today if those issues hadn't passed.

« Now, people are seeing things happen. They're seeing orange barrels coming out. They're seeing blighted houses in their neighborhood get knocked down. They're seeing us take on the battles that haven't been fought.

« In public, people come up and tell me, "Thank you." I think they say it because they haven't seen people in leadership who take on the tough battles.

« Lorain people are salt-of-the-earth people. They're hardworking people. They care about the city. They're always willing to help.

« I say often, "This is the hardest job I will ever have." We haven't wasted any time in my year and five months in office. We've faced some weighty battles. But the city's better for it.

« I've learned to govern without any concern for what's going to happen [to me] in two years, three years, four years.

« I'm going to govern the heck out of the four I have.

« When the city was built, every neighborhood got a park. When I was growing up, on summer days we played baseball every day in Gargasz Park.

« When I took office, the parks department had been eliminated. Now the parks department is coming back. Driving through my old neighborhood, the kids were out in the parks, they were playing basketball, enjoying the playground equipment.

« We have the longest part of lakefront property undeveloped. I think that's a good thing. It's a matter of, what are you going to do with it?

« There's no better place than Lorain, Ohio, to see a sunset.


BRAD SELLERS

Mayor, Warrensville Heights
Brad Sellers The first thing you notice about Warrensville Heights Mayor Brad Sellers is that he is tall. The 7-foot former NBA power forward struggles to settle himself into one of the chairs furnishing city hall's council chambers, a space he's using as a conference room while work is being done on his office. He crosses and uncrosses his legs, leans forward and rests his forearms on his thighs, making the seat look like it was made for a preschooler. But the 50-year-old Sellers is very comfortable in his second year as mayor of the inner-ring suburb where he grew up, a place that's experienced both new development and continuing decline during the last decade. He talks about the Warrensville Heights he knew as a child, his time as its economic development director and the biggest challenges he faces.

 

« Warrensville was very different when I was growing up. Warrensville was 75 percent white, 25 percent black, somewhere in that vicinity. It was just starting to integrate itself. But people, to the core, who you got to know, were good people. Good values. People here had an appreciation for participating in the American dream. So what you had to do out here was really try to do your part, to make sure you kept up with the standards.

« One of the first things I learned [playing for the Chicago Bulls] was how to develop a thick skin. When I was at Ohio State and Wisconsin, everything you did was cheered. There was no bad move. They loved the university; therefore, they loved you. But when they pay you, it's a different dynamic. Everything you do is not loved.

« I was maybe four or five months in retirement. The mayor [of Warrensville Heights] at the time is now the congresswoman, Marcia Fudge. She asked me to a meeting. I thought we were going to talk about some community project. We ended up talking about what essentially was the job of economic development director.

« It was also a conversation about the payment of my debt to this community and society. She was like, "A lot of people opened doors for you. Now it's time for you to put back in what you took out."

« There were people who told me they would never build a thing in Warrensville. These were politicians from other places, developers. They said, "Well, Warrensville isn't a real player in the development world. They don't understand how to construct a deal."

« My biggest accomplishment as economic development director was getting Harvard Park up and going. Remember, when we started, there was nothing there.

« The biggest challenge here, by far, is the stabilization of this community.

« It stabilizes and goes upward if you can resurrect the core of why people came here. And the core of why people came here was because we stayed cutting-edge academically. That is your biggest economic-development engine.

« The school district is on academic watch — it's been there for 12 years. • There has to be a conversation about what we're doing and how we're doing it.

« When Randall Park Mall is sitting there in the condition that it is in, it has a drowning effect on everything around it. It looks like everything is decaying, so that means the town must be decaying. It's in North Randall, but Warrensville surrounds it.

« The value in Randall Park Mall is in the dirt. It's not in the buildings. You've got to tear it down to get where I'm trying to go now. It doesn't take a whole lot of smarts to understand that. So instead of us just looking at it, I'm trying to [convince] other members of other communities that this is what needs to occur. If it were in Warrensville, it would have occurred. It would have occurred years ago.

« At the end of the day, if you don't believe in yourself, nobody is going to believe in you. You're the only one in the room.


PAMELA BOBST

Mayor, Rocky River
Pamela Bobst Pamela Bobst is one of those people who can establish an instant rapport with total strangers. She's tall and blonde, with a buoyant and raspy voice — strained, she says, from many hours spent talking with residents. She never had aspirations for public office as a young woman. She started out as a dental hygienist who spent much of her early career in public health. That turned into civic involvement community programs, then city council and finally mayor in 2006. One of her priorities has been to create a brand for Rocky River's downtown (a new logo for "Downtown River" is rolling out now) that is uniting the shops and restaurants surrounding Detroit and Lake roads. In a city that has historic appeal, highly ranked schools, and the lake, river and Metroparks, Bobst shares the lessons she's learned after four terms in office.

 

« The best man in our wedding lived here, and I remember visiting their house. The neighbors came out and everyone was talking to each other. There was a feel that this is where you put down roots and can build a family.

« I was taken by the Cheers effect. Everyone knew their names.

« Rocky River has 50-some block parties every year. Why does a mayor talk about block parties? There's value in a block party and the community-building that goes on. Government can't create that.

« Yes, government has to function well, but that's not the community. That's the city. When I give the State of the City address, what I really want to talk about is the state of the community. That's what's important.

« Local government is a service industry.

« It's not about wealth. It's about social infrastructure and civic engagement, and how you create that in the fabric of a community. I didn't create it. It existed here.

« I believe in honoring our history. This is a community of traditions. Every day we are writing our history, and history will judge us.

« When I talk to schoolkids, I tell them about the power of one individual to make a difference in their community. I have tons of examples. Our cardboard recycling program came from one mom who had an idea. We fixed a guardrail in Rocky River Park because of one third-grader who wrote me a letter.

« When I started to get involved in the community, that's when it clicked. You see every day your ability to touch a life and make a difference.

« I wasn't on student council. I held no elected office. When I moved to Ohio, I worked on some campaigns because a friend asked me to, but I really wasn't ever involved in politics.

« When you are mayor, you look at a city with different eyes. I go around looking at curbs and pavement and striping and sidewalks. Do we need to do better? What do we need to address?

« One of the things that sets us apart is we have a historic downtown that has been maintained and is thriving.

« We can know it's safe, but if people don't feel that a downtown is safe, they won't come. If the lighting isn't right, the sidewalks aren't right, the signage, the vitality • people won't come.

« We recognize the importance of diverse housing stock. People can come here and they can live their entire life here. That breeds stability.

«In September of 2008, when the bottom fell out of the economy, we knew what was down the road for us. I told the directors then, "We need to start cutting now, and we need to preserve jobs." We didn't want employees to feel at risk.

« The challenge was to make cuts, but be so strategic in those cuts that residents don't see it. If it impacts a resident, then we haven't done our job well.


PHILIP KING

Mayor, Chardon
Philip King Philip King insists that the job of Chardon mayor is mostly ceremonial in nature, one that comes with the city council-appointed position of council president he's held for the last four years. The 60-year-old Chardon native conducts most city business in his law office, a bright white space above his wife Marci's salon with a view of the city square and its postcard-worthy gazebo. For as long as King can remember, Chardon's claim to fame has been its abundant snowfall. That all changed Feb. 27, 2012, when a student walked into the Chardon High School cafeteria and began shooting, killing three students and injuring three others. King recalls the Chardon he grew up in, his years of public service and the tragedy that brought his hometown together.

 

« Growing up here was like Mayberry R.F.D. Everybody knew everybody. You could sit out in the evening, and there would be very little traffic after 9, 10 o'clock. All the business activities were up here on the square — the grocery stores, the bakeries, the pharmacy.

« It taught me how to be a good person, how to respect and trust others, how relationships are developed over a lifetime in a community where you know your neighbors, your friends' parents. Many times, you know their grandparents.

« Your next-door neighbors expected you to behave the way your parents did. If you did something wrong, there was no hesitation to either punish you or call your parents. Everyone took part in making sure that kids were safe and behaved appropriately. I can remember times I got punished at my friend's house. There was no hesitation of being sent home.

« My dad was the county recorder. He was on the fire department here. The fire department had a chalkboard inside the first bay. And wherever the fire was, they put the address there, written down in chalk, before the first truck would pull out. So I would ride my bike up the street, find out where the fire was, and I'd follow the trucks.

« I followed in my dad's footsteps — I spent 14 years on the Chardon volunteer fire department.

« I went back to law school when I was 48. It was something I wanted to do when I was younger but didn't have the discipline or the grades to do so. But it was also to have a second career after I retired.

« Being mayor was on my bucket list. It's something special in the town you grow up in. You get to contribute, make a difference. You can give back.

« We're building a new service garage that will serve this community for the next 50, 60 years. We had a salt bin that stored enough salt only for a weekend's worth of snowplowing. And we're the snow capital of this part of the country!

« The winter of '95-'96, it snowed just before Thanksgiving, and I think we got 6 feet of snow over a three-week period. It was enjoyable just to go outside and stand in waist-deep snow. I hadn't experienced that since I was a kid.

« There's a group that wishes that Chardon would never change, never grow, never get bigger. But Chardon is in a position where it needs to be developed. And it needs to be developed in a very thoughtful, very careful and very well-planned manner so that people will want to move here, people will want to live here.

« I will always remember where I was the morning of the Chardon shootings. My wife and I were having coffee out in our four-seasons room. My wife, to this day, believes she heard the gunshots. We came to work, and we stood on Main Street. There were sirens, firetrucks, rescue, police coming from all directions into the city.

« I was horrified. I have eaten in that cafeteria. I've sat at the same tables. Just to think that somebody brought a gun in and shot and killed, shot and injured people, was very hard to deal with.

« I learned the value of having good people in the right places, from your police chief to your firemen to your city manager.

« This community has to find a way to move on. There are going to be some who don't want to move on. We had that controversy when we wanted to take down the ribbons.

« We have an identity from how we persevered through it. And that makes us who we are. We became a much closer community.


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