Monday, March 08, 1999

Deals put mayor plan on ballot

Factions all had to give a little

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Politics, the saying goes, is like sausage: You might like it, but you don't want to watch it being made.

        It is a messy business, especially when a number of disparate, competing interests have to sit down at the same table and work out a compromise.

        The result is usually something no one is quite happy with, but everyone can live with.

        The Build Cincinnati plan for direct election of the mayor, which Cincinnati City Council has placed on the May 4 ballot, is a good example of the difficult process of political compromise.

        “Everyone at the table gave up something in order to get something,” said Chip Gerhardt, one of the organizers of Build Cincinnati, a group of bipartisan political activists that has been working on charter reform for more than a year.

        The ballot issue Cincinnati voters will decide is far different from the original Build Cincinnati proposal, one that would have made the mayor the chief executive officer of the city and created a city council elected from districts.

        The pared-down plan six council members voted Thursday to put on the ballot would create a direct election process for a mayor who would not be a member of council, but who could veto council legislation, appoint council committee chairs and hire and fire the city manager, with the consent of council.

        Build Cincinnati set aside the district election plan; it found too little community

        support for the idea after a year of public and private meetings with political and civic leaders and voters.

        A month ago, it appeared Build Cincinnati had no chance to get a plan on the May 4 ballot. The plan was not complete, and there was little time to prepare petitions and get voters' signatures. The chances seemed slim that the required number of council members — six — would vote to put the issue on the ballot.

        Then, at the Feb. 10 council meeting, Republican Councilman Charlie Winburn inadvertently sparked three weeks of negotiations that produced the ballot issue.

        Mr. Winburn admits he was surprised Feb. 10 when the charter amendment he proposed — giving the choice of the mayor back to council — seemed to have six votes on council.

        Mr. Winburn talked with Build Cincinnati leaders, sending them the message that unless they quickly got a plan together that six council members could agree on, the Winburn plan might actually make the ballot.

        “I think I got the process out of a standstill and breathed some life into it,” said Mr. Winburn, who withdrew his plan and signed onto to the Build Cincinnati proposal.

        Build Cincinnati leaders knew the three Republican council members — Mr. Winburn, Phil Heimlich and Jeanette Cissell — would probably support the plan because their party leadership was solidly behind it.

        Mayor Roxanne Qualls was counted as a supporter, and Build Cincinnati leaders knew they had to pick up two more. Their efforts focused on Democrat Todd Portune and Charterite Jim Tarbell; they also had hopes of gaining the support of Democrats Paul Booth and Minette Cooper.

        Mr. Gerhardt said the key to winning a council majority would be gaining the support of the Charter Committee — the independent political party that created the present form of government in the 1920s — and reform-minded political activists such as David Crafts of Cincinnatians for Charter Reform, a group that had its own ideas about electoral reform.

        Build Cincinnati, Mr. Ger hardt said, wanted to avoid the mistakes made in 1995, when the Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC) tried unsuccessfully to pass a “strong mayor” ballot issue.

        The CBC effort failed, most political activists agree, because voters thought it was something only the business community and the Republican Party wanted.

        “We had to build a broad-based coalition,” Mr. Gerhardt said.

        John Williams, president of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce and a supporter of electoral reform, was determined to make that happen.

        In February, Mr. Williams organized a series of meetings at chamber offices with Build Cincinnati, political party leaders and activists to try to hammer out a basic agreement.

        The chairs of the Democratic, Republican and Charter parties were there. So too were leaders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Baptist Ministers Conference, the League of Women Voters and the AFL-CIO; former council members Bobbie Sterne (Charterite) Pete Strauss (Democrat) and former Ohio Gov. John Gilligan.

        “Every one of them agreed that the current system stinks,” Mr. Williams said. “The argument was over how to fix it.”

        The meetings resulted in a two-page memo outlining the basics of an agreement — one that would call for a directly elected mayor who would have enhanced powers, including veto power and the power to appoint council committee chairs.

        The Charter Committee signed off on the plan. Charter President Margie Rauh described it as a “huge step” for an organization that has always resisted changes to the council-manager form of government.

        Ms. Rauh said Charterites were able to accept the changes after being assured by William Hansell, director of the International City Management Association, that the city could still have a professional city manager under the Build Cincinnati plan.

        “There are still things we don't like about this, particularly some of the powers of the mayor, but, in the end, we realized it was time for change,” Ms. Rauh said. “Time marches on.”

        Charter's sign-off brought Mr. Tarbell on board, although he wavered briefly last week after reading the actual ordinance. A week ago, Mr. Portune decided while he could not totally support the plan, voters should be able to decide.

        In the end, no group got everything it wanted. Democrats wanted a partisan primary for mayor; they gave that up to get the Charterites on board. Republicans wanted a much stronger role for the mayor, but realized that would not fly.

        Many black political leaders wanted the district election system, and the black political leadership in Cincinnati is split over whether to support the plan.

        Johnathan Hollifield, the attorney who represented the NAACP in the talks, said he “carried the district issue as long as I could, but it wouldn't fly.”

        The final package, Mr. Gilligan said, was a “classic example of compromise. Everybody had to give something up to get something. It's the way politics works.”


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