Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Reform ideas might not fly with council

Inside City Hall

Greg Korte

How well received will the report of the Electoral Reform Commission be when it lands at City Hall next week?

Try to imagine being a fly on the wall when Rudy Hynicka first heard Murray Seasongood's "Shot Heard 'Round the Wards" speech in 1924, which ultimately led to Cincinnati's current council-manager form of government.

Actually, ol' Rudy probably never heard it. The shot may have reached Hyde Park, but the last of the all-powerful party bosses ran the affairs of the city from New York. That was a problem with the old ward system.

Today, council members spend considerable time at 801 Plum St. And they're not likely to give voters the chance to take away more of their power and give it to the mayor.

"I do have to commend the commission on its boldness," said Law Committee Chairman David Pepper, who said he plans to give the plan a polite hearing. "If their goal was to ignore the politics or what was popular, they did what they were asked to do."

The plan by the tripartisan commission would eliminate the at-large council in favor of a district election system, and put the mayor directly in charge of the day-to-day operations of the city.

Districts would be most controversial for council members. Here's why:

• One impetus for districts - the historical under-representation of African-Americans on City Council - lost its steam when two black councilmen were elected last November.

• The four black incumbents - Laketa Cole, Sam Malone, Alicia Reece, Christopher Smitherman - would be crammed into one district, forcing them to move or run against each other.

• The commission recommended cutting council members' salaries in half.

• It could mean the end of the Charter Committee as we know it. Single-member districts tend to favor a two-party system.

Proponents hope council members will see the benefits of a stronger mayor system. After all, every council member - with the possible exception of Jim Tarbell and David Crowley - wants to be mayor someday.

But the commission already has a Plan B in case it can't get the six council votes to put the measure on the ballot. It takes 6,771 signatures to do the same thing.

COMMUNICATION BREAKDOWN: Responding to complaints from council members that they weren't notified quickly enough about the death in custody of Nathaniel Jones, Assistant to the City Manager Meg Olberding reported to City Council last week on a new system.

An automated phone dialer calls council members' homes, offices and cell phones anytime there's a major emergency. Council members then call a hot line and get a recorded message from City Manager Valerie Lemmie.

When the test call came, council members thought there was a real emergency. "It really set off an alarm for me. I was panicked," said Cole. "I didn't know what was going on."

THEY SAID IT: "He wants to be the mayor. I'd like to be Nick Lachey."

- Mayor Charlie Luken, responding to a GQ interview in which the 31-year-old singer and College Hill native said he wants Luken's job.


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