Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Neighborhood power

A vote for elections by district


Emanuel D. Marshall became convinced in 1990 that an imbalance of power exists between corporate interests in Cincinnati and the residents of its neighborhoods.

That's when his neighborhood, College Hill, was suddenly and unexpectedly blessed with a landfill - that took over 84 acres of forest.

Residents didn't know it was coming; they weren't given a choice, Marshall says.

"One day our neighborhood woke up and saw trees gone. A few months later, trucks with debris came through."

Residents queried city council members, but none could say who authorized the landfill, Marshall says.

If just one of those council members had owed his or her seat to College Hill voters, Marshall says, that landfill wouldn't have landed in College Hill.

Fast-forward to now.

Status quo reigns

In Clifton Heights, several businesses have sued to stop the city from declaring their area "blighted" and seizing their property through eminent domain. The city wants to develop homes, apartments and commercial buildings there.

Meanwhile, in Oakley, an active community council drew up its own development plan, but it was ignored by a city council that favored a so-called big-box retail development.

Now, council members and Mayor Charlie Luken are talking about privatizing the city's economic development functions - such as the right to take property by eminent domain or to issue bonds.

If that happens, how will elected officials be held accountable to neighborhoods for development decisions?

District voting

Marshall says he has a plan.

Typically, big money rules city elections, he says. The mayor and council members are elected by voters citywide, so the politicians spend large sums just to get their names out to voters everywhere.

"Most of the people writing the (campaign) checks don't even live in the city," says Don Driehaus, a former council candidate from Price Hill.

It follows then, the men say, that after elections, the concerns of most neighborhoods fade into background noise. They're drowned out by big-splash, name-making projects like stadiums and Saks Fifth Avenue's expansion.

It's been happening for so long that many voters have unplugged from local politics.

The answer, says Marshall, Driehaus and Peter Witte, another former candidate, is to elect most council members from districts, rather than from the city as a whole.

This idea has been percolating for years. But in recent weeks, the three men have forged a compromise plan that may garner broad support - if it captures the public's attention.

The plan would require changing the city charter from allowing nine at-large council members to only three. Seven additional council members would be elected by districts.

With 10 council members, the mayor would have the tiebreaker vote.

Of course, how these districts are drawn up is a key component.

The trio have proposed a map that divides the city into districts and preserves the boundaries of 50 of the 51 neighborhoods and all the existing election wards.

Only Oakley would be split into two districts, so it would pick two council seats.

The men, part of the so-called District Election Committee for a Greater Cincinnati, pitched their plan at a forum downtown. They'll also speak to community councils.

The proposal is worth voters' attention. Neighborhoods must try to tie city candidates' fortunes to neighborhoods' fate, or neighborhood residents will lose even more fights with City Hall.

E-mail or phone 768-8395

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