Monday, March 11, 2002

City council, mayor say more gets done under new system

Mutual admiration society

By Gregory Korte,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken works with members of city council during a meeting Wednesday afternoon.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        When two Democratic councilmen called a press conference in Northside to announce their 100-day plan for neighborhoods this month, Mayor Charlie Luken was nowhere to be found.

        Mr. Luken said he thought about going to lend his support. But he decided not to.

        “Council members need to get some of the credit,” Mr. Luken said. “In case you haven't noticed, I've tried very hard to share.”

        Despite worries that the broad, agenda-setting powers of the “stronger mayor” system would diminish the role of City Council, the Cincinnati nine have shared the spotlight.

        Pat DeWine pushed through a tough panhandling ordinance, and is cracking down on city overtime. Alicia Reece has taken the lead in fighting the boycott of the city. And John Cranley and David Pepper came up with the 100-day plan for neighborhoods.

        Often, the mayor has been in the background.

        Mr. Cranley, a close Luken supporter, said the mayor has shown he's not “power-hungry.”

        “They say if you have to tell someone you have more power than they do, you really don't,” Mr. Cranley said. “Charlie — or, I should say, the mayor — asserts his influence by being cooperative. And that's the subtle strength of his "strong mayor' status.”

        Not everything that's happened in City Hall these past 100 days is because of Mr. Luken. But, council members said, much of it has happened as a result of the enhanced powers of his office.

        Mr. Cranley described the new stronger mayor system as “the Force” — that mysterious, behind-the-scenes power that holds the universe together in Star Wars movies.

        When the mayor appoints committee chairs, threatens a veto, or puts together a budget, there's a cause-and-effect relationship, council members said. Council meetings have become more orderly, and there's more consensus on key issues. Even when the vote is 5-4, there's a willingness to accept victory or defeat and move on.

        It was Mr. Pepper who got the credit when City Council unanimously passed an agreement with ReStoc, an Over-the-Rhine housing developer, to build low-income housing but also open more properties to market-rate development.

        But Mr. Pepper said it might not have been possible under the previous “weak mayor” system. It was Mr. Luken's threat of a veto — communicated to ReStoc by Mr. Pepper — that ensured the city would get a favorable agreement, he said.

        “Even though he hasn't used it yet, I think his veto is a very powerful thing in the background that people have to think about.”

        The subtle change in atmosphere on the third floor of City Hall is partly because of the personalities. Council members of all three political parties accept as fact that former councilmen Phil Heimlich, Charlie Winburn and Todd Portune created a volatile mix of partisanship that tended to poison any attempt at compromise.

        “This new council is very open, very eager to please, short on selfish agendas and long on enthusiasm,” said Councilman Jim Tarbell, who as a Charterite is fearful of the influence of political parties on City Council. “It's a smart, thoughtful group.”


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