Thursday, January 30, 2003

Luken still testing his powers

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Mayor Charlie Luken talks to Cincinnati police officers at District 4 this week. He gives his State of the City address today.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
| ZOOM |
As Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken gives his annual State of the City Address today - his second since embarking on the city's "stronger mayor" experiment - there can be no question that the state of the mayor's office is strong.

In 14 months, Luken has exercised almost every power the new charter has granted him. And he has used those powers to make the most profound changes in city government since the original charter was adopted in 1925.

He picked a new, dynamic city manager. He signed a historic police reform agreement with U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. He got a rancorous City Council to behave for the first time in more than a decade. His $2 billion biennial budget eliminated city departments and trimmed the bureaucracy by about 150 positions.

But for all that, the transformation within City Hall has yet to produce noticeable results beyond 801 Plum St.

Violent crime is up. Economic development remains stalled. The boycott continues.

Luken himself is the first to admit that there's little reason for city residents to celebrate 2002.

"2002 was a year that was too sour, too negative, too divided," he said. "But we laid some pretty good foundations in 2002. We're changing the culture of government - there's a willingness to serve our customers first, and the bureaucracy second. The big-picture focus and direction we're trying to set is not going to make the life of the average city resident any better - yet.

"It's a four-year term for a reason."

In a speech to 400 neighborhood activists Saturday - a speech that will likely foreshadow language he will use today at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal - Luken said 2003 would have to be the "year of the rollout."

"We can't just have new policies on paper. We have to see some results," he said.

Most of those neighborhood leaders, surveyed by The Cincinnati Enquirer last week, said they haven't yet seen a strong mayor make a difference in their communities. Asked whether the new system has improved the delivery of city services to neighborhoods, only five of 35 community council leaders surveyed said yes. A sampling:

Daniel Schimberg, Corryville: "No. And I think that's because of the mayor. The strong mayor system is a good system. It can work. I think Charlie is overwhelmed. We have a strong mayor system. We just don't have a strong mayor."

Matt Strauss, Camp Washington: "I haven't noticed any difference one way or the other. It's so ambiguous what the strong mayor is, and I think Charlie realizes that as much as anybody else."

Frank Hollister, East Price Hill: "Not yet. I think it could. If we lose there, the only other alternative we have is to go to district representation on City Council. One way or another, we have to stop bending to pressure groups and do what needs to be done, whether it's popular or unpopular."

A recent Enquirer survey of Cincinnati's 100 largest privately owned companies was only slightly more encouraging.

Forty-five percent of business owners and managers expect that the "strong mayor" form of government will make a difference in Cincinnati's business climate.

Where Luken has made inroads on downtown issues, his successes have been because he exercised traditional "weak mayor" powers.

Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, the mayor had the ruby slippers all along. He only needed to carry the mantle of "strong mayor" to use them.

Luken appointed a 17-member Economic Development Task Force to study ways to cut red tape at City Hall and target tax incentives to key industries. And in a time-honored Cincinnati tactic, he appointed a high-powered CEO - George A. Schaefer Jr. of Fifth Third Bank - to give the panel heft.

He pushed through a plan to finance the expansion of the convention center, getting county, state and business support for a $140 million project.

He declared Vine Street "the most important street in the city" and - with mixed success - focused city government's attention there.

Perhaps most revealing, he was able to force the $171,461-a-year president of Downtown Cincinnati Inc. to resign by complaining publicly about his six-figure salary.

If nothing else, the mayor's increased authority has turned up the volume of his bully pulpit.

"The efforts I made with DCI have been very helpful to me in other areas, because people took notice that if they don't do what we want them to do, we're going to find someone else who will," he said.

He's already done so, quietly, with some obscure boards.

Over the summer, without debate, Luken quietly dismissed and stacked the Woodward High School Board of Trustees, a 50-year-old foundation which owns $3.5 million worth of property in Bond Hill, after the previous board raised rents without notice.

And he's made it known that he would do the same with any other board.

"I'm taking a closer look, for example, at SORTA appointments, and zoo appointments, and arts appointments to make sure they're moving their institutions in a direction the city wants to go," he said.

So far, his highest-profile board battle has come on the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority, or SORTA. There, he replaced Betsy Stivers, an Indian Hill resident first appointed by Roxanne Qualls, and looked for a city resident with credentials as a tightfisted fiscal watchdog, a history in mass transit and an unquestioned loyalty to the mayor.

He appointed his father.

Thomas A. Luken's appointment to the SORTA board was held up for months by the Board of County Commissioners, prompting a debate over the limits of the mayor's authority and the region's collective political vision for mass transit.

Mr. Luken has used similar political skill to tame a young and ambitious City Council, which had a 12-year history of factionalism and infighting.

Luken was able to co-opt his most likely rivals by giving them key assignments. The headstrong Alicia Reece is vice mayor. Republican Pat DeWine is chairman of the Law and Public Safety Committee.

His influence over City Council is often subtle. He doesn't get involved in the day-to-day grind of motions and ordinances. In his first year, he's vetoed exactly one piece of legislation - a relatively minor ordinance calling for a $100,000 study of federally subsidized housing.

Sometimes, it has been difficult to figure out where the mayor's influence ends and the city manager's begins.

Indeed, the Charter Committee - Cincinnati's third political party and an advocate of strict adherence to the city's charter - has criticized how Luken has used his powers.

He submitted the name of only one city manager candidate - Valerie Lemmie - to City Council for a vote. And his influence over her budget proposal was profound.

Given the cry for results, Luken said, he's not going to be shy about stretching the limits of his power.

"On the one hand, people say I took too much power. Other people say I didn't take enough," he said. "In two or three years, we should take another look at whether this city needs a strong, executive mayor. The powers of the mayor in this system are still cloudy."

And then?

"I think I'm the right guy for this period of the city's history," he said.

Does that mean he won't run for mayor again, under either system?

He wouldn't say.


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