Friday, August 31, 2001

Strong, silent mayor system

        A couple of years ago Cincinnati voters decided they wanted a strong mayor — that is, someone with the authority to make the important decisions.

        The idea was that the city needed a sense of direction that couldn't be provided under the existing rule-by-committee system where all nine council members are essentially equal. Strong mayoral candidates would thrash out the important issues in vigorous debate and the people would directly choose the dynamo who would power us into the new millennium.

        So now we are in the throes of our first head-to-head mayoral race and it is so awash in tepid restraint the voters can't possibly know what will really happen after election day.

        Case in point: picking the next city manager.

        A couple of months ago John Shirey, council's bi-partisan punching bag for the past several years, agreed to resign Dec. 1, if council members would stop taking turns trying to fire him. Dec. 1 also is the day the new “strong mayor” is supposed to take over.

        One of the strongest things about this new mayor is that he will get to pick a new manager, who will then need to be confirmed by a five-member council majority. On Monday, Republican Councilman Pat DeWine asked Democrat Mayor Charlie Luken and Charterite candidate Courtis Fuller how they would exercise this new power.

        Mr. Luken said he saw no reason to “politicize the process,” by going into it during the campaign. Mr. Fuller said there would be plenty of time to deal with the issue “after the election.”

        Mr. DeWine must have chortled with glee. Here he is, a member of the party that couldn't even come up with a candidate for mayor, and he made the two people who are running look like weenies.

        Given the Republicans' shameful lack of interest in the job, why has Mr. DeWine decided to poke a stick at this particular issue?

        “Whoever is elected mayor will have to make that decision shortly,” he said. “I think the voters have a right to know how they plan to go about it.”

        Actually, Mr. Luken does have a plan, or at least the broad outlines of one. He says he expects to find a local search firm with national connections and tell them to gather a list of candidates. The main qualification is that it be someone he can work in tandem with, Mr. Luken said.

        He doesn't necessarily want some career bureaucrat, but he doesn't rule out a professional city manager from elsewhere. He wants to look at local candidates and national candidates and people from business, government or academia.

        That pretty much covers everyone with managerial experience from Bill Clinton to Bob Boone, but it's a start.

        Mr. Fuller said he doubts there is much difference between himself and Mr. Luken on the kind of manager they want. He suggests that the current council could get the selection process started and he will just pick up the ball after election day.

        Neither candidate was willing to rise to Mr. DeWine's suggestion that they identify specific people they would nominate to be manager. With 27 candidates running for council, that would politicize the issue. It would be like throwing hamburger into the surf at a Florida beach.

        No one who has witnessed the rancorous antics in council chambers over the past few years can blame Mr. Luken or Mr. Fuller for wanting to keep the city manager search on a higher plane. But each candidate should be willing to detail what he thinks the city needs in its next manager.

        Should it be someone with proven expertise in development or interracial cooperation? Would someone with previous political connections be inappropriate under our new system? Are there cities managed out there the way the candidates think Cincinnati should be run? If there are, should we be looking to hire their managers? Who, if anyone, is advising these candidates on how to approach this problem?

        Answering these questions will not commit either candidate to a particular person, but as Mr. DeWine noted, the answers would show they have given some serious consideration about what it will mean to be in charge.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610;


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