Editorial: : A Tall Order

CityBeat Endorsements for Election 2003

Jymi Bolden

Brian Garry

Basking in the twin glow of a wonderful Tall Stacks and a stretch of beautiful fall weather, it's easy to remember why we love living in Cincinnati. Tall Stacks brought all kinds of people — young, old, black, white, urban, suburban, hipster, doofus — to the riverfront to celebrate our common heritage and our common love of music, food and a good time.

But when we woke up Monday morning — after the visitors went home, the tents came down and the trash was collected — those of us who live in the city faced the same Cincinnati we had before Tall Stacks. The problems are still there. So are the opportunities.

Ultimately, it's up to Cincinnati residents to determine which direction this city goes. We hear people from the county, from outlying suburbs and from Northern Kentucky praise Cincinnati as the heart of the Tristate region and our downtown riverfront, stadiums and museums as treasures for everyone to enjoy.

In the next breath, many of the same folks complain that crime and grime drive them out of downtown, that panhandlers mess up everything, that the public schools are a joke and that "those people" in certain city neighborhoods are dragging Cincinnati down to its death.

As we all know, fear can be a huge motivator. It's why many city residents pack up and move to the suburbs.

It's why some politicians promote "get tough on crime" messages even though crime is, by most accounts, on the decline. And it's why young leaders who should be open to new ideas instead fall back on the tried-and-true.

Maybe fear is also why Cincinnati voters, just seven months after the infamous riots in April 2001, re-elected every incumbent running for city office. If there had ever been a time for radical change in local government, the 2001 election was it. But voters evidently wanted continuity, returning Mayor Charlie Luken and all seven council incumbents, adding only David Crowley and David Pepper to fill open seats.

Two years later, it's hard to say Cincinnati has made a leap forward under this continuity of leadership. A lot of fingers are stuck in a lot of dikes in an attempt to keep the city from bursting, but the cracks keep growing — downtown vs. neighborhoods, police vs. African Americans, large corporations vs. small businesses, Over-the-Rhine developers vs. low-income residents, creative class young professionals vs. the old guard, everyone vs. the homeless.

Two situations stand out as examples of council's lack of leadership during this two-year term. The first involves enormous subsidies council voted for Convergys' downtown headquarters and for Kroger's parking garage on Central Parkway.

First, it's amazing that the city can creatively find money to subsidize for-profit corporations that snap their fingers, yet when the neighborhoods or schools or the arts come calling they get scraps at best and blown off at worst. And then it's astounding that the same council can berate homeless people for asking for handouts on public streets.

It's easy to blame the people on the bottom of society's ladder — the poor, the homeless, the uneducated, those barely getting by — for all of society's ills. My parents taught me that from those who are given much, much is expected. Yet council has nurtured a culture in which little if anything is expected from Convergys, Kroger, Saks, Lazarus or any other benefactors of public money other than business as usual.

The other outrage regards council's lack of responsibility for the continued missteps by Cincinnati Police. Earlier this year council agreed to settle outstanding lawsuits over police misconduct and to issue bonds or borrow money to pay for the $4.5 million settlement.

Of course recent police incidents have cost human life — Timothy Thomas, Roger Owensby Jr. and Michael Carpenter among them — that can never be replaced. And now the city can put a financial price tag on those incidents too.

I'd like to see council make the same hard budget decisions on this payout as they do on other issues — perhaps cut some essential public service in order to fund the settlement. Can't fill the potholes on your street? Sorry, the police screwed up. Can't man the health clinics and help your sick baby? Sorry, the police screwed up.

Maybe then council will take real responsibility for the public good. Maybe then they'll host an honest conversation about the many pros and the serious cons of how we police our city. Maybe then we'll learn why protesters and art galleries get busted while drug dealing in broad daylight goes unchecked.

In the meantime, it's "We need more cops on the streets" and Fraternal Order of Police council endorsements. Which are unrelated, of course.

Plenty of positive signs are evident beyond Tall Stacks. Councilman Jim Tarbell was able to scrape together city funds for a variety of arts projects. The city is partnering with Cincinnati Public Schools to turn neighborhood schools into neighborhood centers.

In between hounding panhandlers, council passed a number of "quality of life" measures, from a livable wage to cleaning up litter and junked cars to a one-stop center for potential developers. And after a year of gathering dust, the Over-the-Rhine Master Plan might be pulled off the shelf and implemented.

So where does that leave us as the 2003 city elections approach? Fed up with the last two years, I have to say I started with the basic assumption that CityBeat would endorse no council incumbents.

The Convergys deal summed up the current state of city affairs. After debating whether the $52 million would be delivered in gold bullion or in freshly minted Ben Franklins, council voted 8-1 to mortgage our future for one corporation. Those eight were dead to me, to quote The Godfather.

And Alicia Reece, who made a seemingly principled stand for neighborhoods and against the Convergys deal? Let's just say I still have "issues" with her threats against me, Kathy Y. Wilson and CityBeat from last summer.

In the big picture, one vote — particularly a crucial vote — says a lot about a council member's approach to governing. It doesn't, however, represent their entire term. And so I've revisited the idea of endorsing incumbents.

One note about the city council race: As you stand in the voting booth looking over the 26 names, remember you can always vote for less than nine. If you vote for more than nine, your votes don't count at all (they're tossed out); if you vote for less than nine, in a way they count even more.

It's called "bullet voting," but basically it means not throwing away your eighth and ninth votes on candidates you don't feel strongly about. Those throwaways might come back to haunt you when your preferred candidates are sitting just a few votes out of ninth place.

Vote for the seven city council candidates below, and no one else. The non-incumbents, in particular, face an uphill battle to win a seat — don't handicap them by using your final votes on familiar incumbent names.

Cincinnati City Council
We're impressed by the smart, talented Charter Committee slate and are endorsing three of the four. Christopher Smitherman has a lot of promise but less defined positions than his Charter mates. The Republican non-incumbent slate is also impressive (my God, I'll be crucified at the next Communist Club meeting for saying that), particularly Leslie Ghiz, Sam Malone and Pete Witte.

Like all races, the independent candidates are a mixed bag, but we endorse two and also back the platforms put forth by Larry Frazier and Marilyn Hyland. The Democrats, running only two non-incumbents, likely will lose their sixth seat (Minette Cooper is stepping down due to term limits).

Laketa Cole: Appointed during the recent term after finishing 10th in 2001, Cole deserves to be elected on her own. Among the new generation of young council members, she holds more promise than most of her peers.

David Crowley: He's an argument against re-electing twentysomething council members who waste their youth and energy supporting the status quo. Crowley is a codger who's weathered the storm — politically and personally — for his liberal beliefs.

Jim Tarbell: The ultimate arts backer who finally squeezed a few dimes out of City Hall. His vision for the new Art Academy neighborhood will energize both the arts community and a good chunk of Over-the-Rhine.

Brian Garry: He's done what CityBeat encourages all citizens to do — take a stand, get involved and make a difference. Having literally grown up in City Hall (his mother, Pat, was a longtime council aide), Garry's activist leanings will help shake the cobwebs off the old building.

Damon Lynch III: The most controversial non-incumbent, Lynch is used to being a lightning rod for public discussion of vital issues. His natural leadership came through loud and clear during the 2001 riots, though it's uncertain whether his presence will unite or divide city council. Lynch speaks for a part of the community that gets shushed too often, and it's time for the shushing to end.

John Schlagetter: He seems to spend more time analyzing city financial deals than anyone currently on council, which is both bad and good. Bad because Convergys, Kroger and other deals get rushed through council with less than vigorous debate, good because Schlagetter could help remedy that lax attitude.

Nick Spencer: In a time when city council and business leaders have jumped on the "creative class" bandwagon only to fall short on actual implementation of policies helpful to young professionals, Spencer is the real deal. He's young, smart, energetic and, as a Charterite, independent.

Cincinnati School Board
With the passage last spring of the much-debated facilities tax levy, Cincinnati Public Schools can get on with its massive building project. It's been long argued that kids who are already at risk — low income, tough neighborhoods, few role models at home — have a hard time learning when their schools are falling apart around them. Soon that excuse won't be applicable anymore, and so CPS leaders need to prepare the school system to succeed.

CPS seems to be on the right track, with many miles still to go. But the community school concept — in which schools are open to the community 12-15 hours a day, six days a week — is an excellent first step. New schools are being designed in conjunction with the city's recreation and health departments, and even the park board and library system are being consulted.

John Gilligan, Florence Newell and Rick Williams: Flipping from CityBeat's position on the city council race, we endorse all three incumbents running for re-election. Some of the challengers, particularly Robert Killins Jr., would make great additions to the school board, but we're pleased with the current direction of the board and Superintendent Alton Frailey.

Issue 1 (Ohio Constitutional Amendment): No
Once again Ohio voters are being asked to allow the state to borrow money for causes-of-the-day. In 1999 it was school facilities (the state will match the CPS tax levy to create a $1 billion fund for new buildings throughout the city), and in 2000 it was brownfield clean-up.

Now it's a constitutional amendment to allow the state to issue up to $500 million in bonds and give the money to science and technology purposes, which are supposed to create jobs and stimulate the Ohio economy. Why an amendment? Well, the pesky state constitution doesn't allow the state to give the public's money to for-profit corporations unless those corporations provide a product or service in return.

In this instance, the corporations will use the public's money to pay for research and development in the hope of turning Ohio into the high tech capital of at least the lower Great Lakes. Which will attract on-the-move tech firms, which will create cool jobs, which will attract those highly-desired "creative class" folks.

Or not.

It's a big risk, of course — the kind of risk driven by desperation over the idea of neighboring states doing the same thing. Like with the Convergys deal here, it's shameful that a government would hand over the public's money to a profitable corporation. But if Cincinnati or Ohio doesn't do it, someplace else will, and the corporations will head over there.

Another thing my parents taught me is that, just because everyone else does something, it doesn't make it right. Changing the constitution for this one exception (yeah, right!) isn't worth the precedent, especially when Gov. Bob Taft and the legislature have such a terrible record with our money.

Issue 17 (Zoo Tax Levy Renewal): Yes
This levy is the usual five-year renewal of operating funds for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens, although it reduces slightly the millage amount. For the past five years, county residents with a $100,000 house have paid about $11.20 a year. Under this new levy, that yearly amount drops to $9.12. (If the levy fails, of course, you pay $0.)

The levy raises more than $6 million a year, about one-third of the zoo's total annual revenues. People have complained for years that the zoo should wean itself off of public funds, but the current depressed travel market has taken that idea off the table for the time being.

About the only time one of these county levies gets defeated is in response to a scandal of some sort. Six years ago the zoo levy failed, mostly due to the organization's arrogant dismissal of concerns over its finances and the nepotism of the ruling Maruska family. The zoo learned some humility and some advanced accounting, and in 1998 county voters passed the levy. CEO Ed Maruska "retired" shortly thereafter.

The new top guy, Gregg Hudson, seems to have the zoo straightened out. And, gosh, those animals are just so darn cute.

Seriously, though, until Hamilton County gets its act together by eliminating or scaling back all these special tax levies, it's not fair to penalize the zoo. A movement is underway to package all the levies together on the same ballot, a move CityBeat supports.

NEXT WEEK: CityBeat's highly-anticipated, award-winning "Who's Endorsing Whom" charts for these and other races.

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