By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer
In the last two years, Cincinnati City Council has increased taxes four times, raising the hotel tax, passing the "jock tax" and allowing property taxes to creep up $14 on a $100,000 house. The fourth tax - a $50 fee on home security systems - was unanimously repealed two months later.
But the council also balanced a budget while hiring 75 more police officers - without the painful layoffs other major cities have faced during the recession.
This City Council has approved police reforms that U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft describes as a "model" for the rest of the nation, fundamentally changing the way police use force against citizens. It rejected a contract for police supervisors because it allowed assistant police chiefs to be selected by civil service.
At the same time, the council has passed tougher laws against drug dealing, panhandling, littering and pit bulls.
This City Council has spent $140 million to expand the convention center, $52 million to keep the downtown headquarters of the Convergys Corp., and $6.6 million to handsomely furnish the Saks Fifth Avenue store downtown. It also voted to put $184,217 into the pocket of a developer who reportedly blew the money on Australian concerts and is now wanted by the FBI.
This is the record of the 38th Cincinnati City Council at the traditional start of the campaign season.
Eight incumbents - five Democrats, two Republicans and a Charterite - will defend that record against challenges from 18 more office-seekers. There's one "open" seat - that held by term-limited Democrat Minette Cooper.
But because 90 percent of City Council incumbents have been re-elected over the last 30 years, it's likely that the next council will follow the course set by this council.
If any one councilman has been steering that course, it's David Pepper.
Since being sworn in in 2001, Pepper has voted with the prevailing side 99 percent of the time - more than any other council member, according to an Enquirer analysis of City Council's 1,471 recorded roll-call votes from Dec. 1, 2001 through the Aug. 6 recess meeting.
He is the swing vote on a City Council otherwise split between liberals and conservatives, allowing him to steer the city's legislative agenda on issues from economic development to crime and safety. Rarely does an ordinance or resolution come to the floor for a vote unless it has his support.
Pepper said the record of the current City Council is one of "stabilization."
"We had riots in April 2001. The numbers bear out that arrests were way down. Crime was way up. As soon as I was elected, we were faced with a $50 million deficit. We weren't going to have the same city manager we had for eight years. There was no downtown plan to speak of. We were out of control," Pepper said.
"That was 2001. Now ask me again if we're better off now than we were two years ago."
$54 million 'windfall'
This City Council has cracked down on petty crimes from panhandling to littering. It has set aside a $54 million "windfall" for neighborhood development. And it has moved tentatively toward managed competition, a system of privatizing city services in which city workers compete with private bidders in an attempt to cut costs.
Most of those issues were led by a small core of activist council members, who chair its most important committees: Pepper, the Neighborhoods chairman; Finance Chairman John Cranley; and Law and Public Safety Chairman Pat DeWine.
If Pepper cast the fewest "no" votes (19), the biggest naysayer on City Council is Chris Monzel, who has voted no 78 times. DeWine, a fellow Republican, was close behind, casting 73 no votes so far this term.
But even Monzel says City Council is moving in the right direction.
"If you look at our voting record, a majority of City Council has said we need a safe city. That's our number one priority. Have there been some bumps along the way? Yes.
"I think we have a majority on council that is trying to work together, but we've stumbled at times," Monzel said. Votes to reject the police contract and to enact a "living wage" requirement for city contractors were most disappointing, he said. And though he said he supports the Republican slate of nine candidates, "That doesn't mean I can't work with the people who are there," he said.
Indeed, some of the most important legislative accomplishments of the term were the result of unanimous votes. Almost 90 percent of City Council's votes came with no opposition, including the approval of a court-monitored settlement on racial profiling, the agreement with the U.S. Justice Department on police use of force, and two annual billion-dollar budgets.
Beyond the yeas and nays, the current City Council - the first under a "stronger mayor" system - is younger, more civil and less partisan than its predecessor. With a median age of 35, it's younger than any council in at least a generation.
"I wouldn't say partisanship is irrelevant anymore, but I don't think it's the prime glue that holds together votes on any given issue," said Gene Beaupre, a political science instructor at Xavier University and a 35-year observer of Cincinnati politics.
"In the '70s or '80s you could go to a caucus before council and know how the votes were going to line up on the six most important issues of the day. Today, when you have an issue - not to mention a vision - you need to shop it council member by council member, and you have to put a coalition together and keep it together," Beaupre said.
A rancorous Democratic majority in the 1990s led voters to approve a charter amendment giving a "strong mayor" more control over City Council. That mayor, Charlie Luken, has a four-year term and is sitting out the 2003 election.
Luken agreed that City Council has been more pragmatic and less partisan since 2001. But he said he's also become more pessimistic about City Council in recent months. The two landmark votes, he said, were City Council's rejection of the police contract and its rewriting of the tax incentive deal to keep Convergys Corp.
"I have increasingly walked away from council meetings feeling that there was a lot of blather, but that the good of the citizens was lost in the debate," Luken said. "They have started to behave like the council of the '90s. We have nine mini-managers."
The chief mini-manager, he said, is Pepper - a fellow Democrat.
"The good and the bad of this City Council have little to do with Republican and Democrat politics," Luken said. "Politics, at some level, is the art of compromise. And I have never seen David willing to compromise. Some people might think that's a good thing. But if I have nine people saying, 'It's my way or the highway, it's going to be hard to get things done." Still, Luken said, the 2001-2003 City Council ranks head and shoulders above the council he came back to in 1999.
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