Retooling City Hall

Whether you think it’s run like a Banana Republic or model city, change is coming to town.
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CM_MAR15_FEATURE_FutureIconIn a moment of intense regional change, we thought it would be fun to ponder tomorrow from various angles. So for our April 2015 issue, we looked at the immediate future of Cincinnati.

In the future, Cincinnati’s Mayorbot will run the city according to the wishes of a citizenry that casts votes while watching a 24/7 CitiCable reality show. That’s in a few years. In the meantime, less dramatic—but still meaningful—change is coming. And worth your attention.

It’s been 90 years since the city charter was meaningfully futzed with and city government was reinvented in the wake of the supremely corrupt politician George “Boss” Cox. Mayoral legislative power was turned over to a city manager and city council, and patronage was replaced with a civil service bureaucracy. In recent years the mayor’s office has gotten back some of its former powers. Now, a variety of forces have aligned to evaluate how well things are working.

Councilman Kevin Flynn has assembled the Charter Review Task Force, made up of interested citizens of various political persuasions. Having gone through a round of revisions last year—like fixing gender-specific language and eliminating anachronisms—the task force is ready for the big show. They are weighing dozens of possible options that include relieving the mayor of his legislative powers, enhancing his administrative mojo, and thereby downgrading the status of the city manager’s office. Plus there’s interest in redesigning city council by assigning some of the current nine at-large seats to districts, staggering elections every two years, and having candidates run against one another. Public hearings will be held this spring, with the aim of putting changes that get the committee’s consent on the ballot in November. Not to be outdone, Cincinnati’s favorite political gadfly, councilman Chris Smitherman, intends to put his own charter amendment bolstering the strong mayor model up for a vote, too.

Making the so-called “strong mayor” even stronger could lead to the biggest change. But one of the cochairs of the Charter Review Task Force thinks that’s a misnomer. “We now have the strongest mayor in the United States,” says attorney Mike Morgan. “No [other] mayor has complete dictatorial ability to foreclose public discussion of an issue before it ever sees the light of day.” He is talking about the pocket veto—the mayor’s power to control what goes on the city council agenda, and therefore, what gets voted on. Morgan also notes the mayor’s power to choose who sits on council committees and to assign committee topics. “Nobody except a Third World country gives any elected official that kind of authority,” he says. So we could end up with a mayor with different powers—or fewer of them.

No matter what, change is in the air. “We’ve got a good system of government here. But there’s a lot of things that are out of date,” says Flynn. “The 1920s, when we moved away from Boss Cox and politics running City Hall…I don’t see that same sense of a watershed moment coming out of this. But I’d like to see improvements.”

Originally published in the April 2015 issue.

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