Wednesday, April 28, 1999

City's ready to trade up to strong mayor

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati is primed to bust out of its image as a stodgy, backwater burg.

        We're building stadiums and developing the riverfront. We're moving Fort Washington Way. Light rail is being considered as a way to link the city with the booming suburbs in surrounding counties and make downtown the Tristate's focal point.

        By emphasizing fast-moving progress over smug, slow-moving provincialism, Cincinnati is showing it has what it takes to become a regional powerhouse.

        But for that transformation to occur, Cincinnati's form of government must change. The city needs a strong mayor. And voters can strengthen Cincinnati's top job on Tuesday by approving Issue 4.

        The issue calls for a direct election of the mayor in the year 2001. More power would go to the mayor at city council's expense. And, we, the people, would get a system that streamlines the lines of communication in Cincinnati's government.

        I don't advocate this change with relish or ease. Like many Cincinnatians, change gives me the creeps.

        And, I know the city's weak-mayor system has given Cincinnati 75 years of clean government. But the system is antiquated. It was established when Calvin Coolidge was president. In today's global economy, life moves at a much faster clip, and our hometown problems have mushroomed. We need a system of government that can respond quickly to those changes and compete in a bigger world market.

        Tyrone Yates, a councilman I admire for his knowledge and dedication, told me how Cincinnati is better off with its present form of government.

        “Now we have checks and balances. With Issue 4, they're gone. And the mayor is extremely powerful.”

        Councilman Yates is against Issue 4. I'm for it.

        Issue 4 does put lots of power — the ability to set agendas, veto ordinances and appoint heads of council committees — in one office. But the lack of the power to get things done has long stalled the city's progress.

        I'll admit there are risks. If council is particularly weak, a strong mayor could push a narrow agenda. That's why it will be important to elect good council members along with a good mayor.

        No system is free of trade-offs. Not even the weak-mayor system the city has now.

        I say it's time to trade up to a strong mayor.

Reasons why
        Issue 4 leaves no doubt who's in charge of the city. It's the mayor.

        Have an idea, or a complaint? Want to open a new business, get rid of gang activity? See the mayor.

        With a weak-mayor system, dreamers and gripers, as well as movers and shakers, must make nine separate pitches to nine equally powerful members of council.

        The current system is confusing and inefficient. Time and time again, urban planners and politicians alike have told me one reason businesses go to Northern Kentucky is that they know who's in charge on the Ohio's southern shore. No one knows who's running the ship in Cincinnati.

        On those rare occasions when a majority of council members do line up for an issue, there's no guarantee that majority will last.

        Issue 4 promotes consensus building. The mayor sets council's agenda. Then committee heads — appointed by the mayor — get the agenda passed or risk being replaced.

        Fine by me. I'd rather have one person knowing what's going on and making sure it gets done than nine members of council going off in nine different directions. This fosters teamwork, not divisive debate.

        Critics warn that Issue 4 would lead to powerful interests holding the mayor's agenda hostage.

        I can't see that happening. We Cincinnatians favor candidates with a strong independent streak. Elected officials should take orders only from the voters who put them in office. If they don't, we let them know who's boss. And we do it on Election Day.

        That's one of the beauties of Issue 4. While it increases the mayor's power, it also comes with the expectation that the mayor will put that power to good use for the city and its residents. If nothing good is forthcoming, the mayor can be replaced at the ballot box.

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

Mailing on mayor mistaken for ballot