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Politics
Politically Speaking is WVXU Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson's column that examines the world of politics and how it shapes the world around us.

Analysis: Meet The Man Making The Charter Committee A Force Once Again

darrick dansby
Darrick Dansby
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Darrick Dansby, at podium, became president of the Charter Committee in spring 2021.

I've been writing about the Charter Committee of Greater Cincinnati for about 40 of its 97 years of existence; and, after all these years, Charterites get cranky when I refer to them in print as a "political party."

Charter is, of course, the organization founded in 1924 to bring down the decades of incompetent and corrupt rule by political bosses and into the era of the council-manager form of government. The council-manager form of government, battered and beleaguered as it is, exists to this day.

Charterites prefer this rather long-winded title to being called a political party: An independent political organization dedicated to good government.

In my mind, a political organization which has endorsed and promoted slates of candidates for Cincinnati City Council – and occasionally for other offices – is a political party, but they are, of course, free to call themselves whatever they want.

Over the years, the fortunes of the Charter Committee have risen and fallen many times. But, in 2021, its leadership sees an opportunity to re-establish itself as a major presence in City Hall – mainly because of the scandals and indictments that have given City Council a reputation as a breeding ground for corruption.

This year – under the leadership of a new president, Darrick Dansby – Charter is branching out.

So far in this municipal election season, Charter has:

  • endorsed a candidate in a three-person race for an unexpired term on the Hamilton County Municipal Court;
  • come out against Issue 3, the gigantic, eight-part, all-or-nothing Charter amendment that would make some serious changes in the way City Council operates;
  • endorsed a very diverse slate of eight council candidates, in a difficult situation where Democratic candidates were told they couldn't accept a cross-endorsement from Charter.

With only one current council member running this year who has been elected before – Democrat Greg Landsman – there are plenty of breakthrough opportunities for the massive field of 35 candidates.

Charter, it would seem, is in a good position to pick up some seats on the new nine-member City Council.

The Charter slate includes:

  • Two former Charter council members in Jim Tarbell and Kevin Flynn, both with high name recognition throughout the city.
  • Two Republicans – Steve Goodin and Liz Keating - who were appointed to council seats when indicted council members left office.
  • And four first-time candidates - Jackie Frondorf, whose family is well known in Westwood, the city's largest neighborhood; Bill Frost, a native of England and an engineer who was president of the Pleasant Ridge Community Council; Galen G. Gordon, a West End neighborhood activist who is sales manager at the Hilton Netherland Plaza hotel Downtown; and John J. Williams, a lawyer who spent the first 12 years of his career in the city solicitor's office.

"It is a good, diverse slate,'' Dansby said.

Electing council members is the top priority, but Dansby said the Charter Committee is very concerned about Issue 3 and is urging a "no" vote on the package of charter changes proposed by State Rep. Tom Brinkman, who is also a Republican candidate for council.

Issue 3 would make sweeping changes in the way council does business. It would:

  • make council members' salaries equal to the median household income for the city. That would mean a pay cut from $65,000 a year to about $46,000;
  • require council approval of all lawsuits filed by the city;
  • the designee replacement, which has been used to fill council vacancies since the 1920s, under which council members pick one or more fellow council members to choose his or her replacement, would be gone;
  • if a council member resigned or otherwise left council, his or her spot would go to the 10th place finisher in the last council campaign;
  • eliminate the mayor's "pocket veto," where the mayor can choose never to place an item on the council agenda or even assign it to a committee;
  • require one-year residency in the city to serve as mayor or council member;
  • allow individual liability of city employees for some violations of open meetings and public records law violations;
  • allow for the recall of the mayor.

When I talked to Dansby about it, he wouldn't say specifically if there are sections of the charter amendment he and the Charter Committee disagree with.

"It's not about the issues; it's about the process,'' Dansby said. "It was put together without any input from the community, without any public discussion of the issues.

"It's a very dangerous thing to have that many amendments in one ballot issue,'' Dansby said. "This is not the way it should be done. Voters shouldn't be forced to cast an all-or-nothing vote. I can't support eight major changes to the charter in one fell swoop."

Dansby said he thinks it is all about Brinkman, who gathered over 4,600 signatures of Cincinnati voters to put Issue 3 on the ballot.

"This is just a move by Mr. Brinkman to push forward his own candidacy,'' Dansby said. "And I don't like to hear it called 'the Brinkman amendment.' I don’t want to give him the publicity. Just call it what it is – Issue 3."

The Hamilton County Republican Party's executive committee has endorsed Issue 3. The Hamilton County Democratic Party hasn't taken any formal action, but clearly party leaders oppose it, given the fact that a number of prominent local Democrats went to the Ohio Supreme Court in an unsuccessful attempt to stop Issue 3 from being placed on the ballot.

Dansby said he doesn't know how his endorsed council candidates come down on Issue 3.

"We allow our candidates to have their own views on the issues,'' Dansby said.

This is certainly not the first time the Charter Committee has taken a stand for or against a ballot issue, but if you combine it with their rather impressive slate of council candidates and the fact that they are getting involved in a municipal court race, we are definitely seeing a version of Charter much more aggressive than it has been in recent years.

Last week, Charter came out in support of Elizabeth A. Tye, a lawyer from North Avondale who has worked as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer, for the unexpired term in District 2 of the Hamilton County Municipal Court.

Tye has two opponents in the race - the incumbent, Republican Bertha Garcia Helmick, who was appointed to the municipal court vacancy in April, and lawyer Donte Johnson, the candidate endorsed by the Hamilton County Democratic Party. Tye is a Democrat too, but Johnson won the party endorsement.

Dansby said Tye "has an incredible amount of experience in the legal system and, to Charter, was clearly the best choice among the three. She is a dynamic person."

The new Charter president, a real estate agent who has been involved in Charter for seven years, said he is "focused on bringing younger people to Charter; and people who do not necessarily just vote a party line. We need to diversify our base and reach out to all 52 neighborhoods."

Dansby himself represents something new to Charter.

Throughout its history, Charter has had a record of running and supporting Black Cincinnatians – from Ted Berry and Marian Spencer to Tyrone Yates and Yvette Simpson.

But, in the 97 years of its existence, Charter has never had an African American president until Dansby came along earlier this year.

"The history of this organization has been a great one,'' Dansby said. "And I am very proud to be a part of that."

Already, the new president of Charter is making his presence known. Charter is a force again in city politics.

Just don't call it a political party.