Atmosphere at City Hall Changes for the Worse

It took less than 30 minutes for it to become very clear on Dec. 2 that change had come to City Hall, but it likely wasn’t the change Cincinnati voters were expecting.

It took less than 30 minutes for it to become very clear on Dec. 2 that change had come to City Hall, but it likely wasn’t the change Cincinnati voters were expecting.

Within half an hour, Vice Mayor David Mann abruptly recessed the Streetcar Committee he chairs. The cause: Some council members, including top vote-getter P.G. Sittenfeld, didn’t appreciate that they were expected to discuss and vote for ordinances that no one on council had read prior to the meeting.

Put another way, the first debate of the new City Council was whether the city’s legislators should read an ordinance before voting on it.

Mayor John Cranley, who was oddly present at a committee meeting, insisted the ordinances were obviously about pausing the streetcar project.

Maybe, countered streetcar-supporting council members Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell Young, but that doesn’t mean the ordinances shouldn’t be read prior to a discussion and a vote. After all, council members could find something in the ordinances that have unintended consequences.

For example, 10 of the ordinances each appropriated $100,000 seemingly at random — or maybe because 100,000 is a really nice number. 

No council member denied that even numbers are the best, but some questioned whether an ordinance stopping a $71.4 million construction contract should get the same appropriations as an ordinance stopping a $20.5 million contract to build the streetcars.

For its part, the coalition in charge of the construction contract — Messer Construction, Prus Construction and Delta Railroad (MPD) — says $100,000 isn’t enough. MPD estimates the amount necessary to pause construction for one month is $590,000.

After some debate, Mann apparently agreed that reading bills is an important step to a discussion and a vote. He recessed the meeting for 30 minutes so the ordinances could be finished, printed out and read. 

Little did Mann and his other colleagues know that the debacle was only the beginning of what would be a long, chaotic day at City Hall — perhaps best marked by council’s literal lack of rules on how to operate for the day.

The atmosphere in council chambers didn’t improve once the meeting reconvened. When Mann refused to acknowledge Simpson so she could speak, she and two other council members held a silent protest and refused to vote on one of the anti-streetcar ordinances being jammed through the committee by a council majority.

Cranley similarly tried to silence Sittenfeld later in the night at the full council meeting. Sittenfeld then motioned to overrule the mayor, and, surprisingly, he got enough votes to do so. With council’s permission, Sittenfeld went on to criticize Cranley’s anti-streetcar ordinances. 

The tensions between Cranley and Sittenfeld were particularly high after it was revealed that the ordinances are not open to referendum. 

When the previous city administration pushed the parking privatization plan through council, Sittenfeld and Cranley both argued the plan should be open to referendum. Cranley repeatedly referred to the “people’s sacred right of referendum” while making his case on the campaign trail.

Fast forward to Dec. 2, and Cranley suddenly opposes the right to referendum because such an effort would force the city to spend on the streetcar project until November 2014, when voters would get a final say on the pause ordinances. (Nevermind that stopping the parking plan also cost the city an upfront $85 million.)

Sittenfeld says Cranley’s stance is inconsistent. And that’s obvious. It doesn’t require much thought to realize Cranley is conveniently supporting or opposing a referendum effort depending on how he feels about the particular policy.

Supporters of the streetcar project also say the referendum immunity shows a lack of respect from Cranley and other opponents of the project. It’s hard to blame them if they feel disrespected. When a heckler was escorted out of the chambers after more than 60 supporters of the streetcar project and only two opponents spoke, Cranley remarked that council had already “endured” hours of public testimony.

The snide comment came a couple weeks after Cranley called Streetcar Project Executive John Deatrick, a city employee, “incompetent.” 

Given Cranley’s attitude problem, it’s unsurprising how the first day of the new city government unfolded. But for the sake of Cincinnati, Cranley and council leaders should work toward better decorum as the city takes on major issues for the next four years.

CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: [email protected] or @germanrlopez

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