Wrong Plan, Wrong Time

Cincinnati desperately wants change. Like many long-term relationships, city dwellers have grown vaguely dissatisfied with their hometown, and its once-endearing quirks are now just annoying. Afte

Jun 23, 2004 at 2:06 pm

Cincinnati desperately wants change. Like many long-term relationships, city dwellers have grown vaguely dissatisfied with their hometown, and its once-endearing quirks are now just annoying.

After the relationship's boiling point, the racial disturbances in 2001, Mayor Charlie Luken spoke the words most of us longed to hear: Cincinnati was due for fundamental change. And he was going to make sure real, lasting change happened.

The past few years haven't quite worked out as planned, and citizens of all races, ages and economic levels remain confused, concerned and dissatisfied. Lacking enthusiastic leadership on the important issues, Cincinnatians have begun grasping at anything — mostly development proposals and corporate handouts — that smells like change.

Cincinnati is the obese person who just can't lose weight. We're the last kid picked in a dodge ball game. Our collective flop sweat is on view around the world. Desperation is in the air.

And into this vulnerable situation strides a shyster pop psychologist saying all the right things: "It's not you, babe, you're great! You don't have to change! Just change the rules, you'll feel better!"

No, Cincinnati, you don't have to actually pay more attention or show up to vote on Election Day. You don't have to demand more from your city council and mayor. The system is the problem, see, so if we overhaul the system everything will be fine.

And thus we have not one but two voter initiatives being debated in council that will fundamentally change city government. One will eliminate the city manager's office and give vast powers to the mayor, while the other will elect council from districts rather than the current at-large system (see "Strong, Stronger, Strongest" on page 18).

Normally I'm all for change, and in some ways I agree with the proposals being floated. But this isn't the right time to destroy Cincinnati's council/manager form of government, and this isn't the plan to do it.

The repeal of Article 12 this fall has to be the No. 1 priority for anyone in favor of fundamental change in Cincinnati. Considering our distinction as the anti-gay capital of the United States and the terrible loss of revenues, respect and creative young people over the past decade, nothing will put Cincinnati back on track quicker than passage of this repeal.

It's encouraging to hear Luken acknowledge that ballot initiatives for overhauling city government might distract city voters from considering the Article 12 repeal, which he supports. This fall's ballot is already crowded with the presidential race, congressional races, county races, the Drake Hospital levy and probably a Cincinnati Public Schools levy.

I have to believe a successful repeal of Article 12 will create a positive ripple effect throughout the city. It might even make Cincinnatians feel better about the community's fortunes.

It's disappointing to see council and the mayor in such a hurry to approve one or both of these proposals for the fall ballot. These are the same people, after all, who rejected taking a council vote to put an Article 12 repeal on the ballot, arguing that "the people" passed Article 12 in the first place and thus a public petition campaign was the right way to bring this issue to the ballot — which is what's happening.

"The people" also changed the mayor's job description in 1999, and their will is being challenged with these proposals. Why not let a petition campaign bring these proposals to the ballot, too?

Oh yeah, gay rights is explosive and controversial and government structure is technical and boring. No one's going to be targeted at re-election time because they supported more powers for the mayor.

Cincinnati voters already gave additional powers to the mayor, including a four-year term beginning in 2001. We haven't even finished a single term under the new system, and only one person has held the position so far. It's way too early to change the job again.

As for the plan itself, I don't see how giving the mayor the ability to hire his or her law firm pal as the city solicitor or to fire the head of sanitation on a whim will boldly move Cincinnati forward into the 21st century. And this plan isn't the magic bullet for fixing the police department — the chief would leave tomorrow if the mayor didn't support him, and current law would then allow the city manager to hire a new chief from outside the city.

I've gone back and forth on the concept of districts, but this plan doesn't impress me. Ultimately, I don't see how council members would be concerned with larger issues beyond their districts, which couldn't help Cincinnati as a whole. Still, I'm open to hearing more about how districts work elsewhere.

But don't remind me that districts could make council elections cheaper. We briefly had real campaign finance reform in the city until the business community, which paid for the Election Reform Commission work, helped kill public financing of council candidates. So they're not really interested in candidates spending less money.

The business community wants a streamlined path to a single decision-maker. If the mayor gets new powers, as outlined in this plan, the corporations won't have to deal with council to get their $51 million payouts or $15 million parking garages.

We're all burning for fundamental change. Just don't confuse smoke with fire.