Friday, April 16, 2004

NAACP favors council districts

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati chapter of the NAACP has thrown its support behind the call for drastic changes to Cincinnati's form of government with a report calling for council districts and an executive mayor.

Those recommendations - which would bring about the biggest changes in City Hall since the 1925 charter - almost exactly mirror those delivered last month by a commission created by City Council.

Reform advocates say the support of an important institution in the African-American community demonstrates a growing consensus that the council-manager form of government has run its course in the city that practically invented it.

"It's a phenomenal report, and I hope City Council reads it," said Jeff Berding, the vice chairman of the city's commission. "It's well articulated, well documented; and if anyone wants to know why change is necessary, the NAACP report makes the case better than any I've seen."

That case: A strong mayor would be able to exert greater civilian control over the Police Department and negotiate economic development deals. Today's system, in effect since 2001, gives the mayor some added legislative clout but retains the city manager's control over day-to-day operations.

And a district plan would provide greater representation for minorities, women and smaller neighborhoods, said the report by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Only twice, in 1997 and 2003, have African-Americans been represented on City Council in proportion to their population. The high cost of campaigning citywide - Republican Phil Heimlich spent a record $504,176 in his 1999 re-election campaign - makes it difficult for candidates without money or name identification to get elected.

The at-large system has created a "least-common-denominator approach to governing," the NAACP report said.

"All candidates must appeal to the white voting majority in order to get into office," it said. "With the socially conservative nature of the white majority in this city, only bold leadership could have made a difference. And we have not had it."

Comparing Cincinnati to 20 similar cities, the NAACP argues that high-growth cities often have more inclusive political leadership. Without the appeal of a coastal city or the sun belt, it said, Cincinnati needs to establish itself as a "beacon of hope and opportunity" to attract new residents. "This vital conversion begins with adopting a political system that fully enfranchises every voting-age citizen," the NAACP report said.

The 94-page NAACP report hasn't been publicly released, but was provided to members of the Electoral Reform Commission this week. It comes as Councilman David Pepper, who chairs the Law and Public Safety Committee, has been trying to draft a plan that can get the six council votes necessary to put a charter amendment on the ballot.

Pepper said the NAACP report should give City Council - which has overwhelmingly resisted a district system - reason to think again.

"They definitely came to this with a different set of goals, and it's interesting that they came to almost the exact same conclusion," Pepper said. "That should make you sit up and take notice."

Still, a survey of council members last week showed only one vote - Republican Pat DeWine - to put the district plan on the ballot. Seven would let voters see a strong mayor plan on the November ballot.

Council members say districts would balkanize the city, pitting neighborhoods against each other. Horse-trading would replace big-picture thinking, and district residents could be punished for electing council members who opposed the mayor.

"I think it's fair to say that the political institution that's in place today is not entirely objective in terms of the structure," said the NAACP committee's chairman, Alexander DeJarnett. "We believe this issue is best put in the hands of the people."

The plans offered by the commission and the NAACP differ in two important respects:

• The commission recommended of nine districts, and drew a map suggesting where the district lines should be. The NAACP left the size of City Council open - from nine to 15 members - and would leave the line-drawing to a nonpartisan commission.

• The NAACP would extend City Council terms from two years to four. The commission recommended no change in terms, but would abolish term limits (now four terms).

A committee of 11 people - including University of Cincinnati political scientist Jane Anderson, lawyer Linda Briscoe, fair-housing advocate Karla Irvine, sociologist Art Slater and three boycott activists - drafted the NAACP plan. The city commission was made up of 13 people appointed by the mayor and the three political parties.

Pepper's committee of City Council will hold a public hearing on electoral reform May 4 at 6 p.m. at the Urban League, 3458 Reading Road, Avondale. By then, Pepper said, the city solicitor will have drafted ordinances with specific ballot language.


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