Thursday, April 22, 2004

Reformers meandered, but hit truth

Peter Bronson

Every change is "significant." Every proposal is "comprehensive." And nothing is ever simply "done" if it can be "facilitated." In other words, the final report of the Cincinnati Election Reform Commission is typical blue-ribbon committee jabberwocky.

If it were a movie, it would need subtitles - but who would pay to see 13 political appointees struggle with "structural reform proposals?" Nine out of 10 Cincinnati residents would rather have their hair styled with a welder's torch.

But this is important. I'm sure it is, because the report says so. Importantly.

If the 20-page summary could be distilled into one shot-glass of 100-proof Takeyer Medicine, it could fit into one sentence:

"Local government can't get much worse, so let's try something before Cincinnati needs democracy lessons from Iraq."

Commissioners admitted they had no "significant input" or poll responses, but still voted 12-1 to abolish term limits - based on insignificant input from one consultant, I guess.

But they deserve a break. Their mission, if they decide to accept it, is to sweat for hours over trivial details, knowing all along that their report will self-destruct as soon as it comes in contact with City Hall.

And they still got it right. So did the local NAACP.

Both want districts that force council members to run in primaries and represent real neighborhoods, instead of pretending to be Emperors of Cincinnati.

The reasons are simple. District campaigns cost less and give neighborhoods a voice. In the past 40 years, nearly two-thirds of the city's 52 neighborhoods have had no elected council members, while a handful dominate: North Avondale, Westwood, Clifton, Mount Lookout and Bond Hill.

Districts also remove the asbestos firewall that keeps incumbents from getting burned by their own blunders. Primary opponents would challenge them personally. They couldn't get lost in a crowd of 25 at-large candidates anymore. Four council members from Bond Hill would have to move or stage their own Survivor reality show.

"One of the issues is it causes people to act in their personal disinterest in order to act in the interests of the larger community,'' said Alexander DeJarnett, whose NAACP committee studied 20 cities and backed districts.

The politically appointed Reform Commission cited accountability as its top argument. The NAACP cited better representation of blacks. "African-Americans are rarely elected in the at-large system consistent with the total population,'' DeJarnett said.

Both groups also want to replace the city manager with a stronger, accountable mayor. And both say districts will help neighborhoods that feel alienated from City Hall.

It works like this: People don't vote. So they don't get attention. So they don't trust City Hall. So they don't vote. (Repeat as needed.)

Some politicians exploit that distrust and spread lies and demagoguery, pandering to the worst fears of racism that divide the city.

Here's a question that needs no facilitation-ators:

If Over-the-Rhine had its own council member, do you suppose it would have taken three years to start talking seriously about drug murders? Not likely.

And neither are districts, if we wait for council members to chug-a-lug political hemlock and sacrifice personal interest for the good of the city.

This "significant, comprehensive change" will have to be "facilitated" by the people.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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