Sunday, February 04, 2001

Council stuck in neutral as strong mayor awaits

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Spurned by Nordstrom, the city will use the lot at Fifth and Race for parking.
(Brandi Stafford photo)
| ZOOM |
        Some Cincinnati City Council members admit they are stalling for time. Others acknowledge more will likely be accomplished after the next election.

        In November, Cincinnati voters will for the first time in more than 75 years directly elect a mayor with veto power over council legislation and the authority to name the city manager.

        “It's almost as if we are on hold, waiting for the strong mayor,” Councilwoman Minette Cooper said in an interview. “It's like a time bomb and we don't know what will happen when it goes off.”

        The level of uncertainty is one of the reasons City Manager John Shirey says he has applied for the city manager position in Fort Worth, Texas.

        In part, he said, he is looking to leave Cincinnati because he doesn't know what to expect under the new form of leadership, which will largely depend on who is elected mayor.

        Mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat with no known Republican challengers, is the odds-on favorite to win the next election. While he has no intention of waiting on new programs, he said there is a degree of frustration.

        “I look at this as changing the direction of a big ship,” he said. “It's slow, but I do believe we are slowly moving in a better direction.”

        Momentum has been lost with setbacks throughout the past year, and now, he said, council is struggling to come to grips with it.

        It passed a new budget in December — bereft of the millions in additions that have accompanied previous budgets — only to find out three weeks later that revenue estimates were short by $8 million.

        A $48 million package to land a downtown Nordstrom store was approved, only to have the retailer pull out in November.

        New commitments to neighborhoods were overshadowed by controversies involving hundreds of thousands of dollars paid out by the city for neighborhood development that never materialized.

        Attempts to address police-community relations were unraveled by several controversies, including the indictments of two police officers in the asphyxiation of a suspect in custody.

        “For every two steps forward, we have taken one back,” Mr. Luken said. “But I am optimistic.”

        So, too, is the business community, said Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce President John Williams — although there is a long way to go.

        “My feeling is that the new mayor is not going to be a panacea,” he said. “I don't think there is any reason to wait. If there is a good project, then why not do it?”

        Mr. Williams said business leaders are interested in several com mitments the council has made for 2001, including The Banks riverfront revitalization project and a buildup of downtown housing.

        “The strong mayor will be helpful in doing these projects,” Councilman Pat DeWine said, adding that several council members “are reluctant to take broad steps.”

        Among those steps, Mr. DeWine said, is a need to reduce taxes and continue to cut spending beyond what has been planned.

        “The strong mayor will be an improvement,” said Aaron Greenlea, president of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Cincinnati. “It will make the council more accountable.”

        Mr. Greenlea, who has voiced concerns at several council meetings over community-police relations, says there does appear to be a sense of hesitation among council members.

        “It could be that they are buying time on certain issues,” he said. “We do have a real problem in this community ... but we can overcome.”

        Councilwoman Alicia Reece also acknowledged issues on which the council appears to be waiting for the strong mayor, particularly those involving the city manager.

        For months council members have been critical of Mr. Shirey's performance, but none have asked for a review. Ms. Reece said that's because many think the mayor should make the call and that it won't happen until after the November election.

        But Ms. Reece said she has pushed neighborhood improvement plans and worked together with Mr. DeWine on a historic motion to change the city's tax collection system, so that small- business owners for the first time are on an equal footing with corporations.

        “We're perceived as an administration that is reactive, but we have worked on issues that are proactive,” she said. “At the same time, if we continue to do business the same way we have been, we are going to get the same old results.”


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