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Commentary: Unsurprisingly, Parties Are Split On Changing City Council Election System

fair cincy
Courtesy of Fair Cincy
Fair Cincy members, from left, the Rev. Leslie Jones, Matt Woods, Tamie Sullivan and Henry Frondorf.

If you have been following Cincinnati politics for the past three or four decades, the recurring debate over how the city elects its nine-member City Council is sort of like being stuck in the movie Groundhog Day.

Every once in a while, the debate over whether council should remain made up of nine members elected at-large throughout the city or from a combination of districts and at-large seats fires up like a solar flare and eventually collapses in on itself like a black hole in space.

Much wind is expelled from the pie-holes of politicians of all stripes, but nothing ever happens.

Except maybe now.

The issue is about to return with a bang.

It is all because of four people – two women and two men; three of them former council candidates; all of them well-known in their neighborhoods as community activists – are launching a petition drive to put a combination district/at-large system on Cincinnati's March 2020 primary ballot.

The four are Henry Frondorf and Matt Woods, both Charterites and both residents of Westwood; Tamie Sullivan of Hyde Park and Pastor Lesley Jones, a Democrat from Mt. Airy. Frondorf, Sullivan and Jones were unsuccessful candidates for council in 2017, but only Jones says she may run again in 2021.

They've put together a plan in which five members would be elected from districts – they've already drawn a map they say would work for the 2021 election – and four elected at-large throughout the city.

fair cincy map
Credit Courtesy of Fair Cincy
Fair Cincy's proposed map.

The idea? Five council members who would be responsive to the neighborhoods in their districts and would likely have to spend considerably less money to win; and four council members who could take the long view and think about the impact of council actions on the city as a whole.

Big picture, smaller picture. Two kinds of council members for a city with 52 diverse neighborhoods – some of which have leadership that is politically savvy and knows how to deal with City Hall and some of which have no clue.

"Over the years, the focus of council has been on the urban core, the central business district, and not so much on the neighborhoods,'' said Jones. "This system would mean neighborhoods are more directly involved in decision-making."

With districts, Jones said, "more grassroots folks will be able to get involved in the process."

Sullivan said each of the five districts would have somewhere in the neighborhood of 58,000 to 60,000 people.

"Right now, we have a situation where all nine of the present council members live in just three of those districts,'' Sullivan said. "There is a large part of the city that is unrepresented on City Council."

There would be a primary election in each of the five districts, with the top two finishers facing each other in the fall campaign. The four at-large candidates would be chosen in a field race, with voters casting votes for no more than four candidates.

They need to gather 6,000 valid signatures of Cincinnati voters to put the plan on the ballot. They need to have approval for the ballot language in December so they can make the Jan. 17 deadline to file ballot issues for the March primary.

The petitions probably won't hit the streets of Cincinnati until this coming weekend, but the plan is already drawing a really critical response from the Hamilton County Democratic Party, which put out a statement on the plan last week.

"This is a backroom deal that would limit the number of African American officials, extend the influence of big business and crowd out grassroots candidates," the Democratic Party statement said.

"The plan and proposed map were cooked up behind closed doors with no community input," the Democrats said. "The public needs to be part of any plan that vastly reshapes how we elect our city representatives."

Woods, a member of the Charter Committee board, said the four worked with hundreds of residents to come up with the plan.

"This has been a grassroots effort, so we purposefully did not take it to the political parties because we did not want to see it become partisan,'' Woods said.

The four of them did agree to one change the Democratic Party wanted – they decided to ditch their originally plan to have a primary election for each at-large seat. 

Council member David Mann, a Democrat who has served on council in the 1970s, 1980s and for the past six years, has seen these attempts to change the at-large system come and go, and says he has never understood the need for rewriting the city charter.

"It seems to me we have a solution without a problem here,'' Mann told WVXU. "I don't know what the problem is. The present council is certainly diverse.

"And I have always seen it as my duty as a councilman to represent all of the people of the city, not just those from a handful of neighborhoods."

As much as the Democratic Party hates it, Republicans may be able to warm up to the idea of council members elected from districts.

"It's all in the abstract now and I want to learn more about it, but I wouldn't turn my nose up at the idea of electing council members from districts,'' said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. "I am open to anything that would give the conservative point of view a foothold on City Council."

If this plan ends up making the ballot, it may well turn into a highly partisan issue, whether the originators of it like it or not.

politically speaking 2
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

 Read more "Politically Speaking" here. 

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.