Big Costs, Empty Seats

Cincinnati City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz has an idea: Let's elect our council members. Seems like a great idea, huh? Straight out of the Democracy 101 textbook. Problem is, most city council members are already elected and the alternative to the current

Feb 25, 2009 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz has an idea: Let’s elect our council members.

Seems like a great idea, huh? Straight out of the Democracy 101 textbook. No brainer, a let’s-get-going-and-get-this-done type of proposal.

Problem is, most city council members are already elected and the alternative to the current system has two shocking options: big costs and empty seats.

What got Ghiz bent out of shape was the recent resignation of Councilman John Cranley and the subsequent appointment of ubiquitous Democratic candidate Greg Harris to take his place. On the surface, Harris — a calm, intelligent, thoughtful man whom many Democrats, Republicans and Charterites seem to like — would be an excellent choice for a council seat. Bonus for his taking Cranley’s seat: Trade one Westsider for another.

I don’t believe Harris’ appointment is anything personal for Ghiz, but it sure has put Harris on the defensive. Needlessly, I might add. Way to welcome your new colleague!

Let’s take a look at Ghiz’s plan, news of which Kevin Osborne broke in last week’s CityBeat (“Power to the People”). I’m sure it makes perfect sense. We’ll even use Harris’ case as an example — I’m sure he’s starting to get used to the regular city council beatings, so one more won’t be a bother.

Cranley, himself an appointment to council to replace Todd Portune in 2000, decided it was time to resign from council. Four consecutive terms is what the city charter allows, and Cranley had been elected four times.

No matter, says the charter, that eight years is probably not long enough for most council members who are really good at their jobs — but that’s a topic for another day.

Cranley left, and as council rules say, a designate or group of designees chose his successor. For example, Councilman Chris Bortz just changed his designate from fellow Charterite Roxanne Qualls to Democrat Jeff Berding, but that’s also a topic for another day.

The other council Democrats met and chose Harris, who ran for council in 2007 and lost, to take Cranley’s seat. Those Dems could have appointed fellow native Cincinnatian Charles Manson, I suppose, but his attendance at meetings might have been difficult to secure. Judges and wardens can be so strict sometimes.

Harris will have to run this fall to keep his seat. And, yeah, he can say “Councilman Harris” on his campaign material and he’ll get (and has already gotten) media attention for issues he brings forward in the months before Election Day. But he still has to win.

Ghiz says her plan is to “have elections.”

“The current system of replacing members of council is straight out of Boss Cox’s play book,” Ghiz said, referring to fellow Republican Cox, who ran the powerful city political machine almost up to his death in 1916. His dictatorship floundered for his less-skilled cronies in the years after his death but birthed the Charter Committee in 1924, which lives on to this day.

In Ghiz’s proposal, depending on the time of the council vacancy, the seat would either sit empty or there would be an “even year” election for Council. That costs money.

According to the Hamilton County Board of Elections, an election costs $1,600 per precinct, with the fee charged to the localities that have elections or issues on a particular ballot. Depending on what’s on the ballot, that fee is divided and proportioned.

Cincinnati has 332 precincts. That means it will cost the city more than $530,000 for an election, lessened only by other localities or the school board with issues on the same ballot. Estimates start at a quarter of the total cost and most likely go up.

The September mayoral primary — which happens when more than two candidates file for the post — will cost the city the full half-million dollars. At a time when budgets are tight, this has to be one of the worst ideas I’ve ever heard.

Another option under Ghiz’s plan is to leave the council seat open until the next election, which means citizens would have at least one fewer person representing their interests. Or, perhaps worse, someone who wishes they weren’t on council anymore.

Ghiz might have shown her true colors at a Feb. 24 council committee meeting when she responded to Vice Mayor David Crowley’s inquiry into why she was pushing for the change. Because the appointment of Councilman Chris Monzel “didn't go the way it was meant to,” she said, and he was appointed instead of her.

Ah-ha. That’s the seat Ghiz originally wanted. Politics as usual.

CONTACT JOE WESSELS: [email protected]