By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken proposed the creation of an electoral reform commission Wednesday, a step that could lead to the most sweeping change in city government in 78 years.
The mayor wants the commission to study whether the city should resort to a ward election system for City Council, which existed in Cincinnati until 1925, or a proportional representation system, which existed from 1927 to 1957. Also under consideration: a move to an executive mayor form of government that would eliminate the city manager.
Luken, in his second year under a hybrid "stronger mayor" system, said the commission would address the concerns of many residents - especially African-Americans and west side residents - that they have been historically underrepresented at City Hall.
But critics of Luken's commission say those reforms will be more effective and more likely to pass if they come from outside City Hall.
"I think they're late to the party. I think this is something that bubbles up from the people, and not trickle down from the top," said Peter Witte, president of the Price Hill Civic Club and a Republican candidate for City Council.
Witte and Democrat Donald Driehaus are the chief architects of a plan that would divide the city into seven wards, plus three at-large seats on City Council. "I think City Council jumping on to this thing is more of an effort to slow it down than to get it going."
Proponents of the district plan hope to get it on the ballot as soon as Nov. 4. The commission wouldn't report back until Feb. 1, 2004.
But a council-controlled commission could have advantages. There are two ways to get a charter amendment on the ballot - a petition from 10 percent of voters in the last city election (now 9,244), or the vote of six members of City Council.
Vice Mayor Alicia Reece, a co-sponsor of the mayor's proposal, said the commission would hold community hearings to get the broadest possible input into any proposed amendment. And she insisted that any change in the council election system be specific enough to include ward boundaries and the mathematical formula that would be used under proportional representation.
The commission would also have the benefit of sorting out competing proposals. State Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Mount Lookout, has his own district plan, and some civil rights advocates are still pushing proportional representation.
"I don't see this as anything other than an airing of the issues," Luken said. "Everybody likes districts until someone draws the lines. Everyone likes PR until you explain how it works."
With proportional representation, voters rank their preferences one through nine, giving organized minority groups a better chance of electing candidates to council in proportion to their strength in the community. Voters rejected a return to that system in 1988 and 1991.
Fueling the debate over council elections is the fear that African-Americans - who make up 43 percent of the population but hold 33 percent of the seats on City Council - could lose seats in the November election. Minette Cooper, a proven vote-getter, cannot run again because of term limits, leaving only Reece and the newly appointed Y. Laketa Cole.
Councilman Chris Monzel, a Republican from Winton Place, said some change is needed. But he said he's skeptical that any real change can come from a City Council vested in the current "nine at-large" system of election.
When voters approved the change to allow a stronger mayor in 1999, the movement came from a cross-section of political, civic and business leaders, he noted. Indeed, the Charter Committee that led the 1925 reforms came from outside the party-controlled City Hall machine that it saw as corrupt.
"It wasn't tainted by the politics of City Hall. Coming from the inside, I don't know if it will have legs," Monzel said. "But we'll see."
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