Council Battles over Charter Amendments

During a contentious city council meeting on Aug. 24, Cincinnati City Council moved along one proposal for amending the city’s governing charter, putting it on the November ballot for voters to approve. But questions remain about whether four other propo

During a contentious city council meeting on Aug. 24, Cincinnati City Council moved along one proposal for amending the city’s governing charter, putting it on the November ballot for voters to approve. But questions remain about whether four other proposals will also find their way to the ballot.

The Charter Review Committee, convened to modernize the city’s charter, suggested the five amendments earlier this summer. Since that time, however, members of the task force have met with the mayor and have pulled back on some of those suggestions.

The proposal that did receive council’s go-ahead would clarify when council can meet in executive session, away from the staring eyes of the public and off the public record. Ohio state law allows some use of executive session for municipal governments, and the charter amendment proposed would specify limited times when council could get together for discussions behind closed doors.

Those include discussions about certain sensitive property transactions, ongoing court cases, security measures for city facilities and personnel, certain information about development deals and some discussions about the city manager’s job.

Council passed the amendment proposal 6-3. Council members Charlie Winburn, Christopher Smitherman and P.G. Sittenfeld voted against it. Winburn said it would allow council to conduct secret meetings and that all council business should be conducted in public.

At least one of the other amendments, a measure that would clarify how long the mayor has to refer legislation to council committees, seems to have died on the vine. While it sounds arcane, the issue has big, contentious implications. The mayor’s ability to hold on to legislation amounts to a so-called “pocket veto,” critics on council claim, or a way for the mayor to effectively kill council actions he doesn’t like.

Former mayor Mark Mallory used this power more than 200 times during his time as mayor. Councilman Kevin Flynn, who chairs Council’s Rules and Audit Committee and helped convene the charter task force, says the amendment is needed to clarify the fact that the mayor is obligated to refer legislation to council.

“If council submits legislation, it is to be assigned,” Flynn said of the charter’s intent at the Aug. 24 council meeting. I want to clarify that in the charter.”

Mayor Cranley is opposed to the amendment, but he also claims that the pocket veto isn’t a real thing. Some council members agree, saying that the mayor clinging on to legislation could be challenged in court. In 2010, the city solicitor issued a memo expressing that exact legal opinion. Council members unhappy with the mayor’s expediency in assigning items could sue to have them considered. Vice Mayor David Mann, also an opponent of the controversial measure, points to that opinion, saying the amendment solves a problem that doesn’t exist.

Without Mann, Democrats on council advocating for the measure fell one short of the six council votes needed to put the amendment on the November ballot.

Other amendments, including one that would give council the power to fire the city manager, are hanging in the balance and might be considered next week, just short of the deadline to get the proposals on the November ballot.

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