Sunday, May 02, 1999

Issue 4 requires more than 30-second attention span

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        There are some very earnest young people out there running the campaign for Issue 4, the Cincinnati charter amendment that would create direct election of a “stronger mayor.”

        And they have had a very difficult task to perform in a very short period of time — to explain a complex issue to an electorate that may not be paying close attention.

        So these earnest young people have done what most smart politicians do when faced with the task of making the case for a complex issue.

        They don't.

        There's a lot going on in the pages of Issue 4. It would create, for the first time since Cincinnati has had a council-manager form of government, a direct election of the mayor, one where candidates would have to go out and run for the office, instead of just scrambling to land on top of the heap in the council race, as they have done since 1987.

        But, if you were to listen to nothing but the message coming out of the headquarters of Coming Together for Cincinnati, the pro-Issue 4 campaign committee, you might think that's all it would do.

        You would be wrong. Issue 4 does a great deal more. It gives that popularly elected mayor quite a whip to use on city council, whose members are also popularly elected. The mayor would not be a member of council, but would appoint committee chairs (and un-appoint them, too, if one of the rascals gave the mayor a cross-eyed look); would have veto power; and would initiate the hiring and firing of the city manager.

        That's a load.

        You can make a pretty good case that this is a good deal better than the present situation, where nobody is in charge.

        But the campaign message has been even simpler than that. Ask an Issue 4 campaigner what Issue 4 is about and you get a one-line mantra:

        It is about democracy.

        OK, what else?


        Anything else?


        That is the theme in the one-and-only pro-Issue 4 commercial Coming Together for Cincinnati is running — very simple, very clean, no frills, and, especially, no details.

        You can't blame them. There is no way to explain this in 30 seconds.

        But they do tend to develop a serious case of the goo when anyone in the opposition suggests that the issue is more

        complicated than that, or that it might bring about unintended, unpleasant consequences.

        Thursday afternoon, in a debate on WNKU's Speaking Frankly show, Mayor Roxanne Qualls was all bent out of shape when the leader of the opposition, Councilman Tyrone Yates, suggested that enormous amounts of money would be spent by Cincinnati's business interests to elect a mayor and that, under Issue 4, the money boys could “buy one mayor, get nine council members free.”

        The night before, on a WVXU radio debate, proponent Johnathan Hollifield went up in smoke when an Issue 4 opponent, Democratic council candidate Forrest Buckley, suggested supporters would much rather have their issue on the ballot in May, with a small turnout, than in November, with a much larger one.

        Truth is, lots of silly, simplistic arguments have been made on both sides.

        Short campaign seasons have some advan tages — less time for mischief, less time for inordinate amounts of money to be wasted on 30-second TV spots.

        But when, as in the case of Issue 4, city council votes to put a complex issue on the ballot and the voters have to go to the polls eight weeks later to make an intelligent decision about it, the campaign runs at breakneck speed and the details get left by the wayside.

        People on both sides of this argument agree on at least one thing — that the debate over Issue 4 is just the kind of debate a city like Cincinnati should be having. A debate over what kind of government we want to have: one where the council reigns — or one where there is a single political figure who can dominate and, we hope, lead.

        A great discussion to have. Too bad we didn't have time to talk about it.

        Howard Wilkinson's column runs Sundays. Call him at 768-8388 or e-mail at

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