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Debating executive mayor government in Cincinnati

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Jay Hanselman
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WVXU

Discussions continue around changing the balance of power between Cincinnati's mayor and the city council.  City voters may see something on the ballot for a Charter change next year.

Council Member Christopher Smitherman is working with city lawyers on his fourth version of an ordinance to create an executive mayor form of government in the city.  He discussed the issue Tuesday during a committee meeting.  

His plan calls for the mayor to act as the chief executive officer of the city with the power to appoint and remove a chief operating officer and certain city administrators.  Smitherman's plan would eliminate the current city manager position.  

The mayor would also no longer preside at city council meetings, and that group would organize itself and select a Council president to appoint committee chairs and set the agenda.  

Smitherman said he is still getting feedback and comments on this proposal.  He also said getting it on the ballot should involve a petition drive.

“And not a majority or super-majority of Council like we did this year in placing an issue on the ballot for clean-up,” Smitherman said.  “I agree this is very substantive and I think deserves, philosophically from my perspective, a knock on a door and a conversation with a citizen on how they would like to proceed.”

Smitherman's plan will likely anger some supporters of the current city-manager form of government, including the Charter party which championed its creation many years ago.  

Some argue the current strong mayor blurs the line between the city's executive and legislative branches of government.  That is because the mayor presides at Council meetings, selects committee chairs and decides what's on the council agenda.  

Smitherman's plan is not the only effort to change the city's form of government.  A task force has been reviewing the city's charter for several months, and the mayor-council relationship is one issue the group is looking at.  

“The task force in this particular area is just about wrapped up with its work and is going to be coming forth I think in January or before the end of the year with their proposal relative to the balance of power,” said Council Member Kevin Flynn who worked to setup the Charter review task force.

Flynn will likely hold a special Rules and Audit Committee meeting to hear about the task force report on the issue, and compare its conclusions with those of council member Smitherman's plan.  

Flynn said “he has grave concerns” about such changes.  His colleague Wendell Young also has questions aboaut the executive mayor proposal.

“I am not at all certain that, even though I have many issues with our current form of government, I’m not yet there in terms of whether we ought to change what we do,” Young said.  “I think part of the difficulty is always going to be for all of us, to find a way to look at this without consideration of who currently holds the position.”

Young does agree any proposal to change the form of government should come through a petition drive, not a two-thirds majority of Council voting to put the issue on the ballot.  

Acting City Solicitor Terry Nestor said any plan going to voters needs to be clear.

“The process for the public is best when the public gets as close to consensus as possible and knows what those outlier issues are that people can’t agree on,” Nestor said.  “And understands what is going to be either on the petition or through Council vote however ultimately it is decided to go on the ballot if at all.”

The earliest voters could be asked to consider any charter amendment would likely be next November.  If any changes are approved, they would take effect during the city's next election in 2017.