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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: Brinkman Tries To Remake Cincinnati Government In An All-Or-Nothing Charter Amendment

City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Jason Whitman
City Hall in Cincinnati, Ohio, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Smorgasbord or a la carte.

It looks like in November, we will find out how Cincinnati voters like their charter amendments – one dish at a time, or in a smorgasbord of eight not-insignificant city charter amendments, rolled up into one humongous all-or-nothing ballot issue.

The smorgasbord is being offered by State Rep. Tom Brinkman of Mount Lookout, who gathered over 4,600 signatures to get his big ol' charter amendment on the Nov. 2 ballot.

City Council last week voted – as they always do with petition initiatives – to place Brinkman's package on the ballot.

"It didn't have to be one big package,'' Brinkman told WVXU. "If council could have gotten six votes for each one of those items they could have gotten them on the ballot a la carte. But they didn't."

Brinkman, who is term-limited out of the Ohio House this year, is trying to get himself on the 2022 City Council ballot, although the Hamilton County Board of Elections split along party lines Tuesday morning on whether or not his petitions to run for council were done legally. It will be up to the Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose, Brinkman's fellow Republican, to decide that.

But with or without Brinkman on the long list of council candidates, his package of charter reforms will be on the Nov. 2 ballot – not as individual charter amendments but one big honking package of far-reaching reforms he says he believes are necessary to restore public confidence in a institution marred by scandal and corruption in recent years.

"They are all tied together,'' Brinkman told me. "It is all aimed at eliminating opportunities for corruption and better government for the city. They are eight issues, but they all work together."

Maybe so. I don't know about you, but I've never been to a smorgasbord where I ate every item on the buffet. And I have a big appetite.

It would be surprising if Cincinnati swallowed whole every one of the eight provisions Brinkman has crammed into his charter amendment.

In my experience, Cincinnati voters most commonly have one of two reactions when confronted with this kind of bedsheet ballot issue:

  • They are either turned off immediately and vote no;
  • or they find that, while they agree with parts of it, they disagree strongly with other parts. And they vote no.

I've been wrong before, though. And this may be another time.

One of this year's mayoral candidates, current Council Member David Mann, has been around Cincinnati politics a lot longer than I have, and he is not so sure – he fears the whole package could be approved by voters.

"People could look at it and say, 'I like this; I like that; and I don't like a few of the ideas,' but they end up voting for the whole thing because of the parts they like,'' said Mann, who opposes Brinkman's charter amendment.

Mann's rival in the mayor's race, County Clerk of Courts Aftab Pureval, says he also opposes the Brinkman package, for many of the same reasons as Mann.

"I think if it were passed, it would lead to more chaos and more opportunities for corruption at City Hall," Pureval said.

"The problem with this is that voters don't get to pick and choose the pieces of this they like and the pieces they oppose,'' Pureval said. "It is all or nothing. And that is what makes it such a bad idea."

So what does Brinkman want Cincinnati voters to approve? It's a long list:

  • He wants to 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.
  • It would require council approval of all lawsuits filed by the city.
  • The designee replacement system, 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.
  • It would 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.  
  • Another section would 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.
  • And it would allow for the recall of the mayor.

It is that last one - recall of the mayor – that sticks under the craw of the current mayor, John Cranley, who is term-limited out and is running to become the 2022 Democratic candidate for governor.

"This isn’t going to have an impact on me, because I will be gone,'' Cranley told WVXU. "But I could see a situation where every time a mayor makes a controversial decision, he or she will have to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to prevent recall.

"It wouldn’t be that hard to get the signatures to start a recall process,'' Cranley said. "Then you would have an up or down vote on the mayor. It could be the mayor only gets 49.9 percent of the recall vote." Then, he posited, you could end up with a huge field race - as anyone could enter - and you could end up with a winner that had the distinct minority of the actual vote.

"It makes no sense to me."

Brinkman argues that his proposal for lowering the salary of council members is sound because he believes serving on council should not be a full-time job.

"Being a state legislator is not a full-time job and, frankly, I think it is a much harder job than being a council member,'' Brinkman said.

Mann said he doesn't think Brinkman understands the nature of the job of a council member.

"You can have another job, as I do, as a lawyer, but you make a lot of sacrifices in your other job in order to do the job of being a council member,'' Mann said. "It is a very difficult job."

In 2020, Cincinnati saw three of sitting council members – one-third of the body – indicted by federal authorities on bribery-related charges. Two of them – Tamaya Dennard and Jeff Pastor – were accused of putting the money in their pockets; the third, P.G. Sittenfeld, was accused of strong-arming a developer for money for his mayoral campaign fund.

You can make a pretty good argument that this is not the time to be lowering the pay of council members. Higher salary, less temptation for bribery. Pay them well so they can tell the bad guys to get lost.

Brinkman disagrees. He says council members should be people who are not entirely dependent on their council paychecks.

"We need more people who have other sources of income,'' Brinkman said. "This is supposed to be a part-time job."

I don't know if the voters will see it that way or not. We will find out on Nov. 2. Even if they do, it will be a major package of charter changes that will be decided by a minority of the city's voters, as turnout tends to be low for these local elections.

Because that's the way city elections work in Cincinnati. And that is unfortunate.

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