Sunday, August 20, 2000

Council struggles to get along

By Earnest Winston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        HAMILTON — Teamwork, communicating — even civility — don't always come easily among city council members here.

        But some members are determined to make things work — though it could cost the taxpayers thousands of dollars.

        City council is considering hiring a consultant — at a cost estimated at $1,500 to $3,000 a day — to show them ways to get along, and work better together. Four consulting firms are in the running for the contract.

        Vice Mayor Tom Nye said he thought council was going to make a selection a month ago. He wants to move forward with hiring someone.

        “I feel that city council has a number of challenges facing us as far as group interaction is concerned. And we're just not serving the citizens that elected us as well as we could be or we should be,” Mr. Nye said.

        Mr. Nye is the same person who acknowledges losing his temper, and subsequently his grip, when he let his gavel fly toward Councilman George McNally during a council meeting last year. Mr. Nye said Mayor Adolf Olivas suggested hiring a consultant last spring.

        Mr. McNally, who said hiring a “shrink” would be “a total waste of money,” vowed not to participate.

        “There are other ways to patch up differences” of not speaking to each other and openly criticizing council members, he said.

        “This is an unusual group ... I thought we were taught that in the first grade — how to behave and shake hands. Hell, we don't need a $3,000-a day firm to teach us how to do that.”

        Mr. McNally said votes on ordinances are delayed because of council not always getting along, and that he has even missed meetings because dates were not shared with him.

        Councilwoman Sharon Hughes said council could use more civility.

        “We don't do things socially,” Ms. Hughes said. “It's very fractionalized. The communication is just not there between the entire group.”

        Ms. Hughes said delays by council to agree on a change of the language in the city charter are one example of something that could have been prevented if council members worked better together.

        Ms. Hughes, who is serving her second term on council, said the previous city council used to hang out after meetings. That doesn't happen anymore, she said, because of four-hour council meetings.

        “It's not running or working the way that it could. It could be better,” she said.

        Ms. Hughes said she has even become more “combative this term, just to protect my integrity to some extent.”

        She's not sure hiring a consultant is the best way to improve relations, but said, “We need to do something to work better as a council.”

        Councilwoman Kathy Becker said she thinks a consultant could help council work better as a team.

        “All of us have very strong personalities, which is a plus,” Ms. Becker said.

        Susan Kave, executive director of the Ohio Municipal League,said it's not uncommon for municipal bodies to have lively discussions and for tempers to flare. In fact, there's a trend among cities and villages bringing in third parties to mediate and iron out differences.

        “Some cities have done this, so Hamilton won't be the first to do this,” said Ms. Kave, whose organization represents 812 cities and villages. “It is not an uncommon thing to occur these days. Cities and villages hire consultants for all sorts of things, and if this makes the government work more effectively it's probably money well-spent.”

        Susan Davis, Middletown's assistant city manager, agreed that it's not unusual for government bodies to have disputes, fail to communicate or get personal with each other during discussions.

        “They weren't elected to be the vice friend or the chairman of the friendship council,” Ms. Davis said. She said Middletown City Commission has hired consultants to work with commissioners during retreats.

        In Cincinnati, where city council has a reputation for bickering, a facilitator was hired in 1996 to assist members through a planning process, said Councilman Todd Portune. He said the facilitator was effective.


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