Sunday, February 06, 2000

Better late than never

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I was 15 minutes late for a Cincinnati City Council meeting on Wednesday and missed nearly a third of it. That's different. Last year I could arrive four hours late and miss nothing.

        How things have changed.

        New Mayor Charlie Luken runs a meeting like a man with a tee-time. Like a man with something important to do. Like a man who has a life.

        On Wednesday I actually heard a council member say, “Count me as a "No' on items 54 and 55.” Amazing. Two years ago, 54 and 55 would be the number of minutes it would take to consider the possibility of voting yes or no. Possibly.

        As I sat there with my jaw dropping into my lap, council members approved a party for the re-opening of the Fountain Square fountain — in less than five minutes. If they had been half as organized three years ago, the fountain wouldn't have nearly died of rust cancer.

        But as the city motto says, “Better Late than Never.” (Actually, it's Latin, so that's just a guess based on years of watching city council inaction.)

        Council members still parade pet causes like circus dogs on bicycles. But the way Mayor Luken kept the plate spinners and dancing poodles moving along would have impressed Ed Sullivan.

        “We've had meetings as short as 45 minutes,” one City Hall regular said in awe. “The record is 30 minutes.”

        In BLT — “Before Luken Time” — council meetings were not less than six hours and not longer than it takes to paint the Mackinac Bridge.

        They just seemed longer.

        That's why it was such a miracle when the city agreed on Monday to spend $6 million for decks over Fort Washington Way. The news was so shocking it eclipsed another stunner: Bengals owner Mike Brown donated $250,000. Yes, that Mike Brown. Any other day, such news would make bigger headlines than “Clinton Tells the Truth” or “Downtown Strafed by Flying Pigs.”

        Cincinnati gets in more jams than Smucker's, but this one was especially sticky: Unless someone came up with $10 million by high noon on Monday, there would be no decks, no park, just the same old highway gulch between downtown and the riverfront.

        “On this one, the manager argues that everybody knew it was out there and decided to take a pass,” Mr. Luken explained. In other words, the old council saw two trains about to collide — and went to lunch.

        Two thirds of the county commissioners would not give City Hall a soggy tea bag if they owned China. No help there.

        Then Mr. Luken got a call while he was on vacation out West. It was Carl Lindner, one of the last homegrown business leaders who still has deep pockets, arms long enough to reach them and a place in his heart for Cincinnati.

        “He wanted to throw out a number,” Mr. Luken said. “Then the others got together and they put up the whole $2 million donation.”

        Mr. Luken called Stuart Dornette, the Bengals' attorney who negotiated the county out of its plaid drawers. “Originally, they were not that excited” about contributing, Mr. Luken said.

        So the mayor made up his mind to ask council members for $8 million, with $2 million from Mr. Lindner, Western-Southern Life Insurance Co. President John Barrett, Milacron Inc. CEO Dan Meyer and Fifth Third Bank President George Schaefer.

        Then Monday morning, County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus and Mr. Brown made U-turns so fast you can still see the skid marks. Maybe they got calls like the one to Mr. Luken.

        Mr. Brown coughed up $250,000 — a good down payment on a new reputation to replace “Mike the Miserly.” And Mr. Bedinghaus chipped in $2 million, winning the first pot of political poker. His fall re-election opponent, Democratic Councilman Todd Portune, ran all over town crusading to save the decks. But Bengal Bob crossed the finish line first, reducing the city's share to $6 million.

        I can't find any sinister plots in the business donations. Neither can Mr. Luken. “Their ulterior motive is the same as my own,” he said. “They want a healthy city.”

        When I arrived in Cincinnati, I was surprised at how politicians would sit, stay and roll over for the business community. “You don't understand,” readers explained. “Cincinnati works better that way.”

        After watching the city chase its tail for seven years, I have to admit:

        They're right.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.