Sutherland moving on from public office, Bay Village

Bay Village Mayor Debbie Sutherland, pictured here in February, announced her retirement, effective Oct. 1. Photo by Denny Wendell

The longest chapter in Bay Village’s mayoral history will come to an abrupt conclusion on Oct. 1 when Mayor Deborah Sutherland leaves office 15 months before the end of her term. In an Aug. 9 press release and letter to residents, Sutherland stunned all but those closest to her in announcing her retirement.

“When I first took this job in 2000, I said that if the time ever came that I was required to manage minutia rather than drive big, transformative projects, it would be time for me to go,” the mayor wrote. “That time has come.”

Next in line to fill the vacancy is City Council President Paul Koomar. “The mayor’s retirement was a surprise to me and all members of council,” Koomar said. “We have been working very hard with the administration on large capital projects. That’s where our focus has been – moving in that direction.” Koomar plans to take some time to consider the position and discuss it with his family. Should he decline to serve as mayor, city ordinance provides that council is to appoint a successor by majority vote.

In a candid and wide-ranging interview following the announcement, Sutherland revealed that the factors driving her decision were professional and personal, a mix of both exasperation and opportunity.

Followers of Bay Village politics will recall that simmering frustrations between the mayor and City Council reached a boiling point last year when council declined to approve a new contract with Cleveland Water, for which Sutherland had strongly advocated.

Sutherland acknowledged in the interview that the water conflict played into her decision to retire, but explained that it was just one example of her growing impatience with the pace of council action.

She also cited the protracted discussions on the Chapter 1158 attached residence zoning code and infrastructure improvements in the Sunset Drive and Bruce/Russell/Douglas areas.

“There were a lot of contributing factors. Cleveland Water was one of them, I think these sewer projects, I think 1158. We’re just at a standstill. ... If I can no longer get things to move forward, then maybe it’s time for somebody else to try.”

What council might argue to be a thorough, deliberate approach to major projects, the mayor sees as “analysis paralysis.”

“Does it really matter how many blades of grass are going to get trampled in a sewer project? You’ve got to step back and look at what’s really important. That’s why I’ve always said, if I start having to manage minutia ... that’s not what a mayor should be doing. The mayor provides leadership and vision.”

So Sutherland decided that the time was right to take her leadership and vision elsewhere. “I am not running for public office ever again. But I am not retiring from working.”

She plans to launch a consulting firm, Sutherland Solutions, to offer guidance to public entities.

“There’s a lot of opportunity out there right now for sharing my expertise. I’ve got a lot of contacts that I’ve worked with around the region and the state for the past 16 years who think I know a thing or two about running a city and some of the big and small issues that face us. And I think the timing is right to try to get out there and maybe help some of those other communities develop and adopt best practices.”

Westlake Mayor Dennis Clough responded to the news of Sutherland’s retirement with praise for her commitment to regional collaboration.

“Mayor Sutherland is a very good colleague who worked cooperatively to improve services not only to Bay Village residents but also to the residents of the Westshore,” Clough said. “She has always been very supportive of the Westshore Dispatch Center and was instrumental in obtaining grant monies for the studies to consider establishing a consolidated Westshore Fire District. She has done great work for the citizens of Bay Village and expressed her regional vision throughout her career.”

After 20 years of service to Bay Village, including four as councilwoman before being appointed to finish former Mayor Tom Jelepis’ term in 2000, Sutherland is stepping out of the public eye and heading out of town. She and her husband, Bob, will soon move to a house they recently built near their youngest daughter’s residence in South Carolina. The couple’s home on Jefferson Court has already been sold.

She plans to travel back to the region frequently to work and visit friends but doesn’t anticipate that the City of Bay Village will be on her list of clients – and in any case government ethics laws would prevent such a contract for a year after her exit.

Sutherland said she feels that Bay Village is in good condition to make a smooth transition to a new leader. “Things are very stable right now, very quiet. And it’s not like my entire staff is leaving. I would hope that whoever comes in is going to value that experience that’s already in these positions. And I’m only a phone call away.”

As for what she hopes the future holds for the city after her departure, Mayor Sutherland reflected on her time in office.

“This is my hometown, so I would certainly hope that the next mayor will build on the successes that we’ve been able to achieve and continue to move the city forward. There’s a lot of infrastructure that is aging and they need to make sure that those projects continue so that we can upgrade. And I hope that someone in the future will see the wisdom of signing the Cleveland Water agreement.”

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Volume 8, Issue 16, Posted 10:04 AM, 08.16.2016