Thursday, October 31, 2013

Miesha Headen sees potential of a model Richmond Heights

 [Disclosure: I’ve known Miesha Headen for about 20 years. We have worked together on a couple of professional and civic endeavors but we’ve never socialized. I have known her husband Raymond even longer, pretty much on the same basis. I consider them friends.]

NOTE: we had hoped to offer a short video of Headen similar to the opportunity provided David Ali, but were thwarted by technical issues.

• • •

Miesha Headen is both a policy wonk and a serious politician. She is an auditor, trained to follow and account for the money. She likes to analyze an issue or problem, formulate a plan to deal with it, implement the solution, and then reassess. This is a process she follows so invariably that it's become part of her character. Who she is is what she does. What she does is who she is. WYSIWYG[1]

So my first questions to her when we sat down over coffee recently were put simultaneously: when did she decide to run for mayor of Richmond Heights, and why. The first question gave her more pause, because she could not pinpoint a defining moment. In struggling to answer the "when", out tumbled all the "whys".

The Headens moved to Richmond Heights in 2002. They both had grown up locally in stable households, gone away to school [Columbia for her; Williams College, Penn Law, and London School of Economics for him] before returning home to northeast Ohio and planting new roots.
Like many professional couples, they were impressed by the city’s solid housing stock, and an apparent safe, open and tranquil character that augured well for starting and raising a family that now includes two boys, ages 9 and 6.

Over time, as she was acquiring a master’s degree in finance from Ursuline College [with a concentration in socially responsible leadership], Headen’s auditing eye began to detect some red flags in her sleepy suburban community. These included a succession of failed school levies [the number would grow to seven before one finally passed]; a good old-boy network of long-term residents [albeit one with a few women members, perhaps grand-mothered in]; questionable public finance decisions, and changing city demographics to which elected officials and others of influence seemed ignorant or indifferent, if not hostile. And all of this seemed strangely blanketed in the community that comforted itself as being “The City with the Forward Look”.

Off the sidelines and into the fray

Headen decided in 2009 to become part of the solution. In straightforward fashion, she ran for an at large seat on city council. She won [for how, see here] and pretty quickly began to make waves that afflicted the comfort of the city’s entrenched and shadowy governing circle. She started a blog, aptly named Absolutely At-Large, began digging into the city’s finances and uncovering its loose and extravagant financial practices.

Her auditing skills paid off: she discovered that the city had not completed a bank reconciliation of the city’s books in at least ten years. This led to the state’s auditors coming in to examine the city’s books, and to the startling discovery that the city’s finance director had made a double-booking error in excess of a quarter-million dollars. [She later resigned under pressure.]

At Headen’s insistence, the city now acknowledges on its website the nearly forty land parcels the city has acquired under the Ursu administration. She is especially upset with what she sees as Ursu’s pet project, the purchase and maintenance of Greenwood Farms.

Headen’s energy seems to have inspired a number of other Richmond Heights residents to become more engaged in the civic process. A school board that housed a viper’s nest of socially and financially irresponsible members has been largely swept clean and replaced with a more thoughtful and less hysterical majority. And city council itself is flexing, in both in membership and style, towards a new openness. At a League of Women Voters candidate forum earlier this month, all four council candidates, including the incumbent Donald O’Toole, affirmatively responded to the idea of “streaming video of all public meetings so residents could be better informed”.

Tension surfaces as allegations fly

Headen's insistence on financial responsibility and accountability, and transparency, while producing results, have understandably not endeared her to all of her colleagues in city government or her rivals in this year’s mayoral contest. It is probably fair to say that she is the least favorite opponent of each of the other three candidates. The mayor, whom she regularly challenges on policy matters, has accused Headen of “smearing other candidates.”

Another candidate, Dave Ali, grows almost apoplectic when discussing Headen, calling her “racist” and saying, in reference to a June powwow of some black elected officials, that she formed a group to “intimidate” him into dropping out of the mayor’s race.

Headen and others say that the meeting Ali cites was an exploratory meeting designed to get to know Ali and assess his viability as a potential challenger to the six-term incumbent.[2] When it became apparent in their view in the first ten minutes of the meeting that the scope of the job was not a fit for Ali’s skill set [i.e., he was in their view, grossly unqualified to be mayor], they encouraged him to run for city council. He refused and filed his mayoral petitions as soon as the law allowed.

Speaking of law, what really frosted Ali were Headen’s allegations that he and Ursu are in cahoots over a potentially lucrative deal involving public land and public grants. [You can read about this here, here, and here.] Headen may have the last word on this however, as she posted this response from the Ohio Ethics Commission on Monday. As of yesterday, the State Auditor’s Special Audit Task Force had forwarded Headen’s complaint about the land deal to both the State Auditor’s Northeast audit region and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for further consideration.

Headen looks ahead 

Personal questions and conflict of interest allegations tend to overshadow the question of what Headen would do as mayor, and the questions posed at the beginning of our conversation. She says that she’s running to continue to “change the culture” of city government, to make it more accountable, transparent, efficient and open. She wants to modernize the city’s commercial districts, which she says are “crumbling”, and beef up enforcement of the city’s occupancy codes to deal with absentee landlords of both commercial and residential properties. She staunchly supports the reinstitution of various city services, including such recreational facilities as the city swimming pool and ball fields, which she notes are important to attracting home buying families.

Headen said there is an “urgency for new leadership” to accomplish these goals and others. It was only in mid-summer, after the meeting with Ali and her assessment of the other candidates, that she decided, in consultation with many constituents, that she was best equipped to address that urgency.

Headen sees herself as qualified by profession, study, and strength of character to help “lead Richmond Heights into the 21st century”. She promises to recruit an “expert team” that includes many current Richmond Heights residents and reflects more closely the diversity that already exists.

She notes that in a city that is 57% female and that has become home to thousands of new residents since 2000, all fifteen of Ursu’s appointments to the vital governing boards — Planning, Civil Service, and Zoning and Appeals — are males who have lived in Richmond Heights for decades.

Headen sees bright possibilities for her city. Ursu, she says, “no longer sees a better world. … I want to make Richmond Heights a model community. I would love to be the community that shows how to get it right!”

[1] What You See Is What You Get [“Wizzy-Wig”]

[2] This meeting included four members of the Board of Education and councilman Russell Johnson, in addition to Headen. Councilwoman Eloise Henry, who had already declared that she was running against Ursu, was not invited and did not attend. Although four school board members were in attendance, no sunshine laws were violated because school business was not discussed, according to those board members with whom we have spoken.


Anonymous said...

Your disclosure says it all. Thanks.

Richard said...

Not as much as your anonymity.