Wednesday, March 03, 1999

Strong-mayor plan is recipe for progress

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's government needs fixing. And the fix could be on the way. Good. It's long overdue.

        While keeping City Hall squeaky clean for 75 years, Cincinnati's form of government has also retarded progress. We need a system that helps us compete with other cities and solves our hometown problems. We need a system that's nimble and responsive, a system to match the fast-paced times we live in.

        At the same time, our city's problems continue to grow in size and complexity. A short list might include: Shuttered downtown storefronts. Deteriorating neighborhoods. Declining middle class. Departing businesses. Reduced tax base. Crumbling schools. An inability to cooperate with governments in Hamilton County and Northern Kentucky for the common good.

        A proposal before city council could help create a resilient government that can address Cincinnati's woes. The proposal calls for a direct election of the mayor in the year 2001. More power would go to the mayor at city council's expense.

        Council is discussing whether to put the proposal on the ballot.

        I spent the early part of this week talking with people in and out of government about the proposal, and asking what's in it for us, the voters and taxpayers. I liked what I heard and agree: It's time to go back to a strong-mayor form of government.

        Like many Cincinnatians, embracing change is not my specialty. But this proposal makes sense.

        A mayor chosen by direct election would give us a system that streamlines the lines of communication in Cincinnati's government.

        The strong-mayor approach provides leadership. It puts one person in charge.

        There's no danger of a return to the corrupt bossism that led to the establishment of Cincinnati's weak-mayor form of government.

        Zane Miller is the University of Cincinnati history professor who wrote the book Boss Cox's Cincinnati — the definitive work on Cincinnati's Boss of Bosses, George Cox. Professor Miller says odds of a political power broker running our town again are zilch. People are too independent “to bow to any authority.”

        We Cincinnatians may be subdued, but we have spine.

Agent of change
        If this proposal ever gets through council and onto the ballot, I think people will vote in its favor. There's plenty in it for the average citizen.

        Concentrating power in one high office, rather than diluting it between a city manager and council, could bring in new business, improve city services and rejuvenate civic pride.

        When a business, say a Nordstrom department store, wants to come to town, or a company like Midland wants to leave, they need to deal with someone who speaks clearly and with certainty for the city. We've lacked that for years, and have the lost jobs and struggling retail development to show for it.

        When it snows and streets don't get plowed, people now call their council member of choice, the city manager, a department head, whomever. With a strong mayor, they know the office to zing. “He will have the authority to tell the city manager to clean the streets,” said Councilman Charlie Winburn, “or clear out.”

        When a neighborhood starts to fall apart, houses are abandoned, gangs move in and businesses close, a directly elected mayor with greatly enhanced powers can cut through the red tape and give the problem the city's undivided attention.

Fast forward
        I'm not naive enough to think that just by changing its form of government, Cincinnati is suddenly going to zoom to the top rung of America's most powerful cities.

        “This is not a silver bullet,” Mayor Roxanne Qualls told me. “It will let us respond quicker to crises. But it won't solve all of our problems.”

        A mayor with more powers would help Cincinnati in the next century. Instead of dealing with an antiquated system, the city will be equipped to succeed in fast-changing times.

        A strong mayor could be the missing ingredient to bring out the best in our community, in our government and in our people.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.