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Saturday, February 28, 2004

A case for neighborhood-based districts


Your voice: Johnathan M. Holifield

The Cincinnati Election Reform Commission has proposed replacing the current at-large council election system with a neighborhood-based district system. As a co-founder the successful reform group Build Cincinnati, I heartily support this recommendation.

Full political participation is not just voting. It also includes the right to establish, build and maintain direct relationships of access and accountability with elected officials. Moving from the current election method to a neighborhood-based districts system offers Cincinnatians a unique opportunity to enhance such relationships with council.

One of the greatest challenges facing citizens is identifying and electing the best political leadership from among ourselves and from all areas of the city. Interest-based politics are more determined by where one lives in Cincinnati than by any other single factor.

Many Cincinnatians live in poor and/or segregated neighborhoods (districts), and most of these communities exercise little power in the current at-large council election system. Neighborhood-based districts allow similarly situated Cincinnatians of comparable social stature, economic means and political interests to bring together their collective power on Election Day to determine their own political leadership and hold that leadership accountable with the ultimate electoral sanction, a direct vote.

Critics of neighborhood-based districts often argue that "districts will Balkanize the city." Well, that's pure poppycock. For example, from 1967 to 1997, 135 council seats were available. Of those, 81 (60 percent) were filled by residents of just four (8 percent) of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods: Mount Lookout, North Avondale, Westwood and Clifton.

Also, during that same 30-year period, 32 (61 percent) of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods did not experience the pride of having at least one of their residents elected, resulting in unhealthy electoral segregation.

, The costs of running for council are exorbitant, but the courts have struck down government-imposed campaign spending limits as unconstitutional. Serving as a form of de facto campaign finance reform, neighborhood-based council districts address this problem in a practical manner. By reducing the number of residents that candidates must reach in a campaign - to around 37,000 for nine districts - the threshold needed to effectively compete for council seats is significantly lowered.

Quite simply, quality candidates who resonate with voters can obtain election to council through hard work and strong grass-roots campaigning. Money will no longer be the determining factor.

In 1999 the electorate determined that the office of mayor needed strengthening. However, as executive power in that office increases, legislative power should be equally shared throughout Cincinnati's neighborhoods. Consolidation of executive power and dispersion of legislative power is wholly consistent with our republican form of balanced government.

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Johnathan M. Holifield, a resident of College Hill, is vice president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. This column represents his views, not necessarily those of the chamber.

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