Sunday, April 25, 1999

Apathy, confusion define mayor issue


Voters not sure what proposed Issue 4 will do

BY ANNE MICHAUD
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Diana Densford, a gas station clerk in Price Hill, hates that her taxes are paying for ballfields, and she worries her grandchildren will attend run-down schools.

        She sees a lot in Cincinnati that needs change, and she's willing to bet that new powers for the mayor will help.

        Susan Simon, a Mt. Lookout resident retired from work as a pharmacy technologist at the University of Cincinnati, is more ambivalent. She says it'd be good to have someone firmly in charge. Yet she worries about putting too much power in one person's hands.

        “On the other hand, if you're going to have a strong-mayor system, there should be a limit on the terms so you can get them out of there if you need to,” she said.

        In interviews around the city last week, definite opinions on Issue 4 were hard to come by.

        The issue, on the May 4 city ballot, would make it possible for Cincinnatians to elect the mayor directly in 2001. Voters now cast up to nine votes for council members, and whoever gets the most votes becomes mayor. It is the only system of its kind in the country.

        Issue 4 also would add power to the mayor's office: a four-year term instead of two, veto power over council, early budget review and appointment of a

        vice mayor and committee chairs. The mayor could serve no more than eight years in a row.

        A professional city manager, the cornerstone of Cincinnati's council-manager government for more than 70 years, would remain.

        Many people say they are not paying attention to a proposal for the biggest change in Cincinnati government since the 1920s. Others say they are undecided and will study the issue before voting. Some admit to being confused by the long list of proposed changes.

        Coming Together for Cincinnati, the pro-Issue 4 campaign, hopes to sway such people this week as it puts its advertising drive into high gear.

        The opposition, Citizens Against Issue 4, with less funding, is planning a quieter campaign.

        One woman said the issue is so complex she will rely on endorsements rather than sort it out for herself.

        Leaders of the Democratic, Republican and Charter parties are lined up behind Issue 4, along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Opposed are other activists in the three parties, the Cincinnati Building Trades Council and the Baptist Ministers Conference.

        While there may be some apathy and confusion among city residents, some who work in the city but can't vote are very interested.

        Todd Lynn, part owner of Roxy's on Main, a downtown club, trusts the diversity of Cincinnati City Council to keep individual political and financial interests in check. He suspects the “stronger-mayor” proposal, Issue 4, is a power grab by someone who thinks he or she can win the job.

        Mr. Lynn, who lives in Wyoming, is wary of an issue that Republican Councilman Phil Heimlich endorses.

        “Somebody decided they wanted to be the mayor and they said, "I want to be a strong mayor,'” said Mr. Lynn, who stopped for an interview in Pleasant Ridge. When asked who “somebody” might be, he named Mr. Heimlich.

        “This mayor stuff is ridiculous,” said Mr. Lynn, who believes city government should focus on more important things such as mass transit.

        “We don't need a strong mayor; we need a strong subway system,” Mr. Lynn said.

        Across town in Northside, Colleen Ernst said Democratic Mayor Roxanne Qualls' endorsement of Issue 4 means a great deal to her. Ms. Ernst, who is nearing retirement from the Crazy Ladies Book Store, said she has recently decided to vote for Issue 4.

        “I was talking with a friend last night, and he assured me that there are checks and balances (in the new system). That was my concern,” Ms. Ernst said. “I just don't think a whole lot of power should be in one person's hands.”

        A stronger mayor — as Issue 4 proponents call the office to differentiate it from a “strong mayor” who governs without a city manager — could reduce divisiveness at City Hall, Ms. Ernst hopes. She said the squabbling creates apathy among voters.

        “There's too much conflict,” she said. “People are tired of all the divisiveness, and they just say, "Forget it.'”

        Aaron Herzig, director of Coming Together for Cincinnati, admits peo ple are not as tuned-in as they might be: “This is not going to be a November election.”

        But the campaign is working to get the word out.

        It has posted 1,000 yard signs, Mr. Herzig said. The signs display a silhouette of the Tyler Davidson Fountain with the slogan, “Elect Our Mayor.” Another 1,000 signs are scheduled to be posted before the election.

        The campaign, which reported a balance of $50,887 last week, began running a radio spot early this month and has taken out ads in local newspapers. It has reserved $80,000 worth of television time in the next week and a half.

        Supporters have visited most of the community councils in Cincinnati and are staffing debates and other forums.

        “We've been working very hard,” Mr. Herzig said. “We find when we do get to talk to voters, they become very enthusiastic.”

        By contrast, Citizens Against Issue 4, led by Democratic Councilman Tyrone Yates, reported raising just $5,235. The campaign has said it will use radio and direct mail to get its message out.

        But there are realities any campaign has to face. “Even in a November election, voters have a lot of other things to do with their lives,” Mr. Herzig said.

        In a search for interested voters last week, The Enquirer found that to be true.

        One woman said she works two jobs and hasn't had time to tune into local news.

        Another man said his vote won't make a difference, so why bother?

        A third woman said she has been so involved in other things, “I didn't even know (first-class) stamps had gone up until last week.”

        Others are weighing their decisions.

        “I'm leaning toward saying yes,” said Don Dixon of Hyde Park. “Basically, I think someone has to have a little bit of authority and strength behind them.

        “I like Cincinnati, but there is always room for changes.”

        Wanda Volk, who retired from the payroll department of Children's Hospital Medical Center, said she would like to see a good public-transit system and less litter. But she's not sure whether a stronger mayor's office would make that possible.

        “If she's directly elected — or he — she might be more accountable if things don't get done,” said Ms. Volk, a Northside resident.

        Harris Norman, retired from Cincinnati Water Works, has made up his mind. He has seen enough bickering on council, he said, and wants a mayor with the power to stop the talk and take action.

        As strongly as he feels about new powers for the mayor, Mr. Norman is more passionate about showing up to vote.

        “That's one thing I always do is vote,” he said, stopping for a moment on a Northside sidewalk. “They should put people in jail for not voting. Maybe it would wake them up.”

        The election is expected to have low turnout, between 20 percent and 25 percent of the city's 215,430 registered voters.

       



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