Monday, April 12, 2004

Majority for executive mayor

But not district races

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A proposal to create an executive mayor - ending Cincinnati's 79-year-old council-manager form of government - has the support of seven City Council members.

That's one more than necessary to put a charter amendment on the November ballot.

But a related proposal to change the way council members are elected - making them run in districts rather than citywide - has almost no support, according to a survey of council members.

Only Pat DeWine - who won the Republican nomination for Hamilton County commissioner and is likely serving his last year on council - said he would favor a district plan.

Councilman David Pepper, chair of the Law & Public Safety Committee, is meeting one-on-one with council members in an effort to form a consensus ballot proposal that can pass. He expects that proposal to get a public hearing this month.

Since 2001, Cincinnati has operated under a "stronger mayor" system - allowing voters to elect the mayor directly and giving him more power to set council's agenda and direct the city manager. A true strong mayor, proponents say, would be able to provide stronger leadership than a city manager is allowed to.

The Electoral Reform Commission, a tripartisan panel appointed by Mayor Charlie Luken, also proposed electing council members by districts. Doing so, it said, would clarify the council's less prominent role in policymaking and force lawmakers to spend more time on neighborhood issues.

But soon after the commission delivered its report to City Hall, it became clear that Council would exercise its right to decide which proposals voters will get to see on the ballot.

Donald A. Mooney Jr., the chairman of that commission, still believes the system would work best with a double dose of reforms.

"I'm not surprised that council members who have figured out how to work the current system would be uncomfortable changing it," he said. "That's just human nature."

Indeed, the commission's district plan was destined to be unpopular with the incumbents.

Under its district map, four council members - Laketa Cole, Sam Malone, Alicia Reece and Christopher Smitherman - would have to run against each other or move.

The commission also recommended cutting council members' pay by half - to about $29,000 a year.

But most council members said they oppose the district plan because it would balkanize the city.

John Cranley, Democrat: "Take an issue like Lunken Airport. If you had only districts, you'd have one council member who cared a lot about it, and the other eight wouldn't care - or at least wouldn't have the incentive to care."

Malone, Republican: "I think it will hurt the very thing that the city needs most, which is unity. We need to be more dedicated and disciplined in how we work in the current system."

Cole, Democrat: "There would be more fighting between council members, and I fear that some districts would be left out if their council person didn't go along with the rest of council, and the mayor."

A minority - Cranley, DeWine, Pepper and Democrat David Crowley - said they would be more inclined to support a "hybrid" district system that would have, for example, six districts and three at-large seats.

Except for Charterite Jim Tarbell - who favors a return to the pre-2001 council-manager form of government - council members said eliminating the city manager would better cure what ails the city.

Business leaders looking to make economic development deals would have a better idea of who's in charge at City Hall, Cole said. And allowing the police chief to report directly to the mayor would make the Police Department more accountable to citizens, she said.

Even if Council refuses to put a district plan on the ballot, supporters could bypass Council by collecting 6,771 valid signatures (10 percent of the voters in the last city election) on a petition.




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