Sunday, March 11, 2001

City embarks on bold experiment


'Strong mayor' a vehicle for leadership - or for abuse of power

By Howard Wilkinson and Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        City government experts see potential for progress or peril in the historic change Cincinnati will make in choosing a mayor this year.

        They see a situation in which a directly elected mayor with greatly enhanced powers can have the clout to either carry out a vision for the city or monopolize city government.

[photo] Mayor Charlie Luken at the March 7 Cincinnati City Council meeting.
(Tony Jones photo)
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        “It's too early to tell which way it might go,” said Jim Svara, a North Carolina State University professor who is one of the nation's leading academic experts on municipal government.

        He said much of the outcome depends on who is elected. There is only one candidate so far, incumbent Mayor Charlie Luken, a Democrat whose vote-getting prowess is unmatched. At this early stage of the campaign, Republicans can't find a candidate to challenge him.

        Proponents of the new electoral system, approved by Cincinnati voters in May 1999, did not envision an easy time for any one candidate. They saw it producing a mayor and City Council more focused and accountable to voters.

        But critics say that what Cincinnati has done is to abandon a council-manager form of government that has, for the most part, served well and replaced it with a system that gives a directly-elected mayor more power than any other big city that has a city manager.

        “You've got a situation where you could have a mayor who could whip-saw the city manager, the City Council and anybody who opposed him,” said Terrell Blodgett, professor emeritus of public affairs at the University of Texas' Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Government.

        Mr. Blodgett headed the task force that wrote the “Model City” guidelines that separate council-manager forms of government from “strong mayor” cities, like Chicago and New York, where mayors unquestionably run government.

        Cincinnati's new form of government, Mr. Blodgett said, will be much more like the strong mayor towns.

        Cincinnati is not alone among major American cities in giving the mayor more power; but, the urban government experts say, none has gone quite so far in enhancing the mayor's office without doing away with the professional city manager altogether.

        “There are a lot of us who study these things who are convinced that Cincinnati will no longer have a council-manager government,” Mr. Blodgett said. “This is a major change.”

        Cities such as Kansas City, Mo.; Charlotte, N.C.; and San Jose, Calif., have enhanced the mayor's powers in recent years, but none of those cities gave the mayor the power to initiate the hiring of the city manager, as Cincinnati's change does. And in all of those cities, the mayor remains a member of council. That will not be the case in Cincinnati.

        Under the new system:

        • The mayor is directly elected for four years in a November election after a nonpartisan primary in September. Since 1987, the top vote-getter in the council field race was mayor.

        • The mayor gets the power to appoint the vice mayor, council committee chairmen and to assign legislation to council committees, even though the mayor will no longer be a member of council.

        • The mayor initiates both the hiring and firing of the city manager, with the consent of a majority of the nine-member council.

        The best part of the change, proponents say, is that it will provide accountability to a government system where, for decades, it was hard to figure out who was in charge.

        “There will be higher expectations of the mayor,” said Councilman Pat DeWine, a Republican who helped organize the Issue 4 campaign, which passed the change. “People are going to expect action.”

        And, because of the expectations and the fact that the mayor will initiate the hiring and firing of the city manager, the mayor will be forced to take charge, Mr. DeWine said.

        “If people are looking at (the mayor) and expecting him to do something, the mayor is going to be more and more involved in the daily operation of the city,” Mr. DeWine said.

        That, in itself, would be a fundamental change for Cincinnati government. Under the old council-manager system, the mayor was just one of nine council members, all of whom hold nearly equal sway over city government.

        Mr. Svara said Cincinnatians may expect a more focused government with the new system.

        “This kind of government succeeds if the new mayor has a majority of council working with him,” Mr. Svara said. “It works best when there is a citywide discussion of issues, and the mayor has a clear agenda.”

        But former City Council member Tyrone Yates, a Democrat who led the opposition in the 1999 Issue 4 campaign, said he fears the new system will create two things “nobody wants” — a mayor too easily influenced by downtown business interests and a council that is toothless compared to the mayor.

        “I can tell you, I wouldn't have wanted the job if we had had this system 10 years ago,” said Mr. Yates, who ended an eight-year run on council in 1999.

        The change had the support of a wide-ranging coalition of groups and individuals: the Republican Party, which saw it as a chance to be competitive in a city becoming increasingly Democratic; the Charter Committee, which created Cincinnati's council-manager form of government in the 1920s; the NAACP; Democratic Party leaders (though not the party itself); and former mayors such as J. Kenneth Blackwell, Eugene Ruehlmann, Bobbie Sterne and Arn Bortz.

        But even now, just months from the election, some on City Council are unclear about how the new system will work.

        Council members recently peppered city lawyers with questions about some of the things that could occur under the new system.

        They wanted to know how the council will control city officials; what power they have to overrule the mayor; if the mayor will actually work enough to justify a salary double that of a council member, now at $55,701 a year; whether the mayor and city manager will be able to hide documents from the council; and what would happen if the mayor turns into a demagogue and decides to ignore the council?

        The answers at times were not immediately clear.

        “We don't know of any other city set up like this,” Assistant City Solicitor Nancy Simmons said when asked what would happen if the mayor disregarded council entirely.

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        Councilwoman Alicia Reece, who chairs council's rules committee, said her concerns aren't just about what happens immediately.

        “It may not be an issue today, but it may be one 20 years from now,” she said.

        Mr. Blodgett agreed, saying that if Cincinnati elects Mr. Luken and the new mayor keeps the present city manager, John Shirey, Cincinnatians may not much notice the difference.

        “But sooner or later somebody is going to come along and exercise all these powers the mayor now has; and that will get people's attention.”

        Mr. Luken, who was mayor in the 1980s and the top vote-getter in the 1999 council election, thinks Cincinnatians generally see the new system as an improvement.

        “This is a democracy; it is not always going to be pretty,” he said, adding that some things are already changing. “I certainly believe that some of the posturing that characterized council will be reduced.”

        Pettiness and vindictiveness among council members — coupled with arguments and marathon council meetings — are some of the things people complain about most, he said.

        “It's time for people to expect a lot from local government,” Mr. Luken said. “If people expect we're going to do better, then we will.”

        The expectation is that a strong mayor will put an end to squabbles on council, Councilman Paul Booth said.

        “But only time will tell,” he said. “The perception is that if something's wrong on council, then the strong mayor will come and fix it. I'm not sure what will happen.”

        Pete Witte, a small-business owner and Price Hill Civic Association president, has talked about it to people in his neighborhood. He said that many believe “some kind of super-powers are being granted to the mayor.”

        “That's just not the case,” Mr. Witte said. “But there will be somebody — the mayor — who will be held accountable. And that should light a fire under whoever is elected mayor.”

        Pinkie Williams, a longtime Evanston neighborhood activist, agrees that people should not expect too much out of the fact that Cincinnati will have a directly elected mayor with more powers.

        “It's not so much about who's in charge,” Mrs. Williams said, “as it is about who's going to be held accountable.”
       
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