Monday, March 11, 2002

'Strong mayor' settling in

Some good, some not in Luken's first 100 days

By Gregory Korte,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
        One hundred days ago, Charlie Luken took the oath of office under a new system that gives Cincinnati's mayor more power than any of his last 23 predecessors.

        In that short time, those new agenda-setting powers have been on display almost daily.

        Mr. Luken made an overwhelmingly popular pick for city manager, helped pass a historic budget allowing for the privatization of city services, cracked down on panhandling and made Vine Street a top priority.

        But the dawn of the “strong mayor” era at City Hall has also been defined by Mr. Luken's inability — or unwillingness — to stop a boycott of the city by groups protesting the treatment of African-Americans by police.

        And he has been criticized by some for spending $6.6 million to keep Saks downtown, for his inconsistencies as a regional leader, and for occasionally pushing the envelope of authority.

        The first 100 days of a new term is just enough time to set a tone. And by that measure, community leaders say, there has been a palpable sense that the city is inching in the right direction.

        “I think people who really pay attention have noticed that things are working better than they used to, but I don't think the average person has seen the results of that yet,” said Pete Witte, president of the Price Hill Community Council.

        “I think if the atmosphere weren't so racially driven, maybe we would have seen more out of the mayor's office,” Mr. Witte said.

        The 100-day yardstick for gauging new administrations can be traced to President Franklin Roosevelt, who ushered an ambitious agenda through a compliant Congress.

        Ever since, presidents — and governors and mayors — have resented being held to the Roosevelt standard.

        All the same, Mr. Luken said he wishes he could add another month to the 100-day calendar. By early April, he said, he expects to have two clear accomplishments in race relations: an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department over police use of force and a settlement in the racial profiling lawsuit.

        And Mr. Luken never expected that the boycott — which had been dormant since last summer — would get new life when comedian Bill Cosby decided to cancel shows here.

        Indeed, Mr. Luken's first 100 days could be separated into two distinct eras, before and after Feb. 6. Mr. Luken calls them “Pre-Cosby” and “Post-Cosby.”

        And Mr. Luken said he knows many people will judge him on that issue alone.

        “I know the boycott is what's on people's minds. I think we've moved the city forward in significant ways, but there's nothing I'd like better than for the boycott to go away,” he said.

        But Mr. Luken is eager to talk about progress he's made — even if symbolic — on other fronts.

        They are not so much signs of his personal effectiveness, he said, as they are a validation of the new “strong mayor” system.


Unwritten powers

               In 1999, 53 percent of voters approved a charter amendment to give the mayor more influence over the city manager, veto power over City Council and the ability to pick the vice mayor and committee chairs.

        And they gave themselves the right to elect the mayor directly for the first time since 1925.

        The mayor has yet to veto legislation from City Council, and City Manager-designate Valerie Lemmie's much-heralded arrival won't come until April 2. But the first three months have shown that the mayor's most important powers are the unwritten ones.

        “It just seems there are more people coming to me saying, "I want to tell you about this,' or "I want your support on this' — even if I have no control over that item,” he said. “Many people look to this office for verification that what they're doing is important to the community.

        “So how have things changed? I guess I'm a hell of a lot busier,” he said.

        With so many important issues dominating the mayor's time, neighborhood leaders say they think Mr. Luken has been distracted by the boycott.

        And until last week — when the mayor pushed through a $49 million neighborhood development plan using a city stock windfall — Mr. Witte said he was worried that the mayor and council had forgotten their campaign promises of neighborhood rebirth.

        “I was shocked and amazed when the mayor gave his State of the City address and said Vine Street is the most important street in the city,” he said.

        “That wasn't anything I heard in the campaign,” Mr. Witte said. “But it also emphasizes that there's this myopic view that only downtown and Over-the-Rhine are important. I personally think the most important street is Glenway. Someone in Northside might think it's Hamilton Avenue.”

        Mr. Luken has found little difficulty getting his legislative agenda through City Council.

        On some votes — including the $1 billion city budget, and the city's controversial contract with an Over-the-Rhine housing developer — Mr. Luken turned contentious 5-4 votes into 9-0 votes after some compromise and deal-making.

        As Mr. Luken begins to define the parameters of the new job, he has sometimes asked City Council for guidance, as when he asked and received permission to negotiate the sale of the Blue Ash Airport.

        Other times, he's gone it alone — creating the position of a Vine Street coordinator in his office without further council action.

        “Whether the issue is $50 million for neighborhoods, or Vine Street or foot patrols, those all start in the mayor's office. I believe you have to provide political leadership to accomplish any of these things,” Mr. Luken said. “I hesitate to mention it, because it's not popular with people, but Saks is another good example.”

        The 5-4 vote by City Council to spend $6.6 million on a subsidy to Saks Fifth Avenue ranks as one of the most controversial decisions of the first 100 days.


Occasional missteps

               Mr. Luken has found much of his added influence in a clause of the city's charter that's often overlooked in discussing the powers of the “strong mayor.”

        It reads: “The mayor shall be recognized as the official head and representative of the city for all purposes.”

        That's what gives him the authority to negotiate with boycott leaders, or refuse to, he said. And it puts him in charge of “foreign relations” — dealing with suburbs and state and federal governments.

        But Mr. Luken has been somewhat less successful as a regional leader. Though he brokered a deal with Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune to split the costs of the convention center expansion, that deal may now be in jeopardy.

        Delta Air Lines is reconsidering its commitment to buy naming rights to the expanded convention center, and the region's state legislative delegation is split on whether to give its blessing to the deal.

        Mr. Luken conceded that there have been occasional missteps and missed opportunities.

        He worried that, in constant meetings with lobbyists, corporate leaders and other influential Cincinnatians, he's losing touch with everyday Cincinnatians.

        He doesn't answer his own phone, he changed his home phone number and he doesn't return as many phone calls as he did. But he has shed his technophobia, and often answers constituent e-mails in the early-morning hours.

        And, while the atmosphere on the third floor of City Hall has been remarkably harmonious, at least one councilman, Paul Booth, has publicly disagreed with Mr. Luken over the scope of the mayor's job description.

        Mr. Booth brought the mayor to a meeting with the National Progressive Baptist Convention, which had threatened to honor the boycott.

        But the closed-door meeting ended with little clear agreement, and the two men — both with formidable Democratic names — later clashed publicly on the issue of negotiations with boycott groups.

        Mr. Luken thought Mr. Booth overstepped his bounds as a councilman at that meeting.

        “That is simply the mayor's position,” Mr. Booth responded. “I think the roles of the mayor and council are open to interpretation. It's pretty clear that the mayor sets the agenda and he articulates the vision, but his power is not absolute, and so there's room for disagreement on issues. That's normal in politics.”


Naysayers surprised

               Mr. Luken also left himself open to criticism that he overstepped the power of his office when he sent only one city manager candidate to City Council.

        Strict constructionists of the city's charter — like former councilwoman Bobbie Sterne — argued that the law required Mr. Luken to give City Council more choices.

        But even those who were opposed to a more powerful mayor will grudgingly admit that their predictions of a cataclysmic breakdown in city government have not come to fruition.

        Tyrone K. Yates, a former vice mayor who led the anti-Issue 4 campaign, said it's too soon to judge whether the new system has staying power. But there have been some encouraging signs.

        “The feature that has been a surprise has been the desire of council to be involved in all decision-making. And that is, at this early stage, a healthy surprise.”

        David Mann, a former mayor and another skeptic of the “strong mayor” system, said the mayor is enjoying a honeymoon with other elected leaders.

        With a change in mayor, or even slight turnover at City Council — or just the passage of time — that whole dynamic could change, Mr. Mann said.

        “There's a difference between the first 100 days under somebody as talented as Charlie Luken, and what we'll think of it all after we've had three or four different personalities in the position,” he said.


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