Wednesday, September 11, 1996
Seating plan for City Hall stands on airs

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Debate resumed this week on the $500,000 proposal to redo the official home of Cincinnati's government, City Hall's council chambers.

Like any home remodeling project, there are as many opinions as color schemes. And I've got my own quibbles with what they want to do to our small-town style of city government.

Everything is still in the talking stages. But the goal is to have the job done by the time council comes back from its 1997 summer vacation. So unlike certain professional sports stadiums I could mention, this project must be decided soon.

The proposed design - one of 13 variations put together by city architects and the local firm of Kaneta-Robinson - would do away with the chamber's current layout, which was in place when some current council members were in diapers.

Out goes the cluster of desks pulled together, like wagons in a circle, for close-range debating.

In comes a seating arrangement that resembles a Senate hearing room with politicians lined up on one side facing civilians on the other.

''We came up with a physical design for the room that would improve council's ability to communicate,'' says architect Jay Kaneta.

As things now stand, the mayor sits on a fancy wood dais. The time-worn desks and cushioned chairs of the eight other council members sit on the floor in sort of a circular configuration. Debate is conducted face to face.

The public sits nearby, separated from the council by space and air, not railings and guards.

Visible fence

The architect's plans for the new chamber layout fences in this free and open atmosphere.

The design places the politicians above - and apart from, via a railing - the people. Council members sit on two elevated platforms. They flank the mayor, whose center-stage seat is the most elevated of council's elected officials.

''Everyone has sight lines to each other,'' says Mr. Kaneta. ''When they are discussing an issue, they can look up and down the row and see every council member. They don't have to rock back and forth in their seats.

''That is the main advantage of this curved or arched design,'' he notes. ''With council facing the audience, it appears more accessible to the public.''

While touting accessibility, Mr. Kaneta is also pushing security. With this layout, council members and the mayor would have good sight lines to spot anyone making for their throats.

Not all the current council members want to abandon the small circle of city government for the hearing room look.

Having people sitting behind him has ''never bothered me or the crowd,'' says Councilman Todd Portune. He sits in the Wild Bill Hickok position with his back to the door and the public gallery.

''I've never felt threatened by the people,'' he adds. ''No matter how heated the protests may become.''

Tradition threatened

Vice Mayor Tyrone Yates thinks the chamber's renovation ''alters tradition.''

He remembers when giants - such as Charles Taft and Theodore Berry - ''sat in that circle and debated from the floor.''

For the vice mayor, the proposed set-up ''has us sitting like ducks in a row. It creates the impression that the mayor is the boss rather than a part of the whole.''

What Mr. Kaneta described to me as ''helping council conduct its business,'' I view as the business of dismantling democracy.

The new seating forces us to look up to city council. I can't see that. Not because of who's in the seats. But out of respect for our form of government.

Cincinnati is a democracy, a small-town democracy by many measures. We're all equal partners in the bargain.

We know each other. We know those we elect to govern. Council members are not some aloof politicians we have elected and sent off to Washington. These are our neighbors and we've sent them downtown to City Hall. We're going to see these people again, this Sunday in church, this weekend at the shopping mall.

When our elected officials debate about how to spend our money and run our city, we should be on the same playing field. That's one way we're going to keep things on the level.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax to 768-8340.