Friday, September 19, 1997
Don't let elites edge out public
on riverfront

The Cincinnati Enquirer

We finally got to see blueprints this week for Cincinnati's future on the riverfront. The hard part was looking at them through the back of a bureaucrat's head.

The unveiling of these proposals came at Tuesday's all-hands-on-deck city council committee meeting, billed as a public hearing on riverfront development west of the Suspension Bridge.

The aforementioned bureaucratic noggin sat on the shoulders of a cabal of city officials who hogged the first TWO HOURS of the meeting talking to each other. The first member of the public didn't get to the microphone until 5:30 p.m., two hours and 30 minutes after the hearing convened.

The public - the people who'll end up paying for whatever goes on the riverfront - was invited to attend. A standing-room-only crowd jammed council's chambers. People had to give their name to a clerk, get a number and wait to speak.

And then wait some more.

The bureaucrats filed reports and read statements. They pitched their vision of the riverfront with the certain urgency of replacement window salesmen itching to close a deal.

It was all very chummy. Too chummy. They spoke to each other, their backs to the public.

Is that how you talk to the people who pay your salary?

Once the public got a turn, comment lasted only an hour.

Many of the 34 people who had signed up to speak had left. They probably had kids to pick up, dinners to make, spouses to meet. They live here.

Form a committee

Keep that in mind, City Hall people. Those people live here, pay taxes, vote.

The meeting followed proper protocol. Reports must be submitted before public comment. But making people wait two hours, well into the dinner hour, doesn't seem real smart or hospitable if public comment is really welcome.

So I say let's create an ad hoc citizens advisory committee and make the public a regular part of riverfront development discussion from here on out.

Let's make it easier to hear what we all have to say on a decision that we will all have to live with for the rest of our lives.

Smart cities do this.

"Any city in America whose downtown has gotten its act together in the last part of this century has involved public participation on a regular basis," says David Gosling. He's a professor of urban design at the University of Cincinnati and author of the forthcoming book, The Evolution of American Urban Design.

"No city needs an elitist team of planners and politicians telling its people what's good for them,' he says, adding: "It's against America's democratic principles."

Tuesday's meeting was all too indicative of how the business of developing Cincinnati's riverfront now works.

It doesn't matter if it's city council or the Hamilton County Commission. If we're lucky, we mostly get to peek over the rulers' shoulders at these meetings.

You think a member of the public would have forgotten to figure land costs into the Bengals' new stadium? That's just one little line item Hamilton County honchos apparently forgot, resulting in a doubling of the projected cost of the thing.

We - the public - need a seat at the table. We need a committee, too. (Don't shoot me for suggesting more meetings. We need at least one to call our own.)

As long as Cincinnati and Hamilton County are rebuilding our city's foundation, a city-county citizen's advisory committee is needed.

Get a grip

The committee's mission would be to keep a firm grip on reality. It could track where the money's going, who's building what and what offers are on the table.

But most importantly it would offer real people's impressions of ideas and projects that will affect generations to come.

Six citizens - all registered voters - should be on the committee, three from the county, three from the city.

They could be selected by computer. It could be done locally. The University of Cincinnati has some of the best survey researchers in the country.

A member's stint on the committee would be like jury duty. You serve until the case is closed. That would be incentive enough to keep things moving along.

I know everybody's busy. But a lot of people weren't too busy to stand for hours in City Hall waiting to speak.

Didn't we buy those microphones?

Let's take one back.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.