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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.

Cincinnati City Council members are elected at-large. Why attempts to change that have so far failed

Council chambers in Cincinnati City Hall
Jason Whitman

Over the years, I've heard the same questions from folks new to Cincinnati when they are first confronted with the daunting task of sorting out a bedsheet ballot of city council candidates.

The questions go like this:

  • Why nine council members?
  • And why are they elected at-large and not from districts?

Good questions, and the answers date back to 1924 when the newly born Charter Committee helped do away with decades of corrupt and incompetent political boss rule and replaced it with a council-manager form of government, with a bright line drawn between the politicians and the administration at City Hall.

It was long overdue. Before the city charter was adopted, Cincinnati City Council was made up of 26 members elected from wards and six elected at-large. The ward council members were almost always saloonkeepers who functioned as mini political bosses in their fiefdoms.

The adoption of the charter changed all of that.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to create a new way of electing council – usually with a combination of districts and at-large seats.

In fact, had it not been for the pandemic slowing down a petition initiative, this 2021 council election could have been held under a system where five council members were elected from districts and four from the city at-large.

But the organizers of the effort, Fair Cincy, failed to get their plan on the ballot last year; and their idea, while not completely dead, currently doesn't have much of a pulse.

"I still think there is a lot of support out there for some kind of district plan,'' said Lesley Jones of Mt. Airy, a Democrat, pastor and one of the organizers of Fair Cincy. "And I think what we proposed was a very viable plan."

In the nearly 100 years of Cincinnati's council-manager form of government, there has only been one major change in the way the nine council members were elected.

And that was a rather shameful episode in Cincinnati's political history.

The history of proportional representation in Cincinnati

For the first 30 years of the existence of the council-manager form of government, council was elected by proportional representation (PR), in which voters ranked their choices in order of preference. A threshold of first place votes was set; and votes were distributed until nine candidates reached the threshold.

It was complex and a bit cumbersome, but it worked. And it did something that seemed impossible at the time – it allowed Black candidates to gather enough votes to win council seats, starting with Frank A.B. Hall in 1931.

Cincinnati History Library and Archives
Frank A.B. Hall.

By 1955, Theodore M. Berry, a Black man and Charterite, was the leading figure in the civil rights movement in Cincinnati. He was also vice mayor of the city.

That meant that Berry was in line to become Cincinnati's mayor during a time when council itself chose the mayor.

The idea of a Black mayor was more than most of the city's white establishment could take. So, the Republican Party led the charge to repeal PR, with the subtle message to white voters that "bloc voting" was a bad thing.

The result was the repeal of PR in 1957, to be replaced with the current "9X" system, where voters choose up to nine candidates in a field race, with no order of preference. White precincts voted 2-1 to do away with PR; Black precincts voted 4-1 to keep it.

It was another three election cycles before another Black candidate - Berry, again - was elected to council.

After a stint working for President Lyndon Johnson's administration in the War on Poverty in the 1960s, Berry was re-elected to council in 1971 and became the city's first Black mayor in 1972. He argued vociferously for a return to PR until his death in 2000.

But now, Berry's beloved Charter Committee, which brought PR to Cincinnati in the 1920s, seems to have given up on its return.

Darrick Dansby, who became president of Charter in the spring of this year, said there have been no discussions among Charter Committee members lately about a return to PR or adopting a combined district/at-large system.

"Right now, we're focused 100% on electing our candidates,'' Dansby said, referring to the slate Charter endorsed for council, school board and judicial candidates. "We're busy working with our candidates to help get them elected."

Changing the system by which council is elected, Dansby said, "is not something that has come up lately."

And if Charter doesn't open the discussion, it is hard to imagine who will.

At least one Charter-endorsed candidate for City Council, Jackie Frondorf of Westwood, is on record as favoring a combined district/at-large system.

In 91.7 WVXU's voter guide, Frondorf says she doesn’t have a specific plan in mind but would like to see a move to gather "community input" into what kind of changes are needed in the way council is elected.

Frondorf points out that 48 of the 50 largest cities in the country do not elect all of their city council members at-large. Cleveland, for example, elects all 17 council members from wards; Kansas City has six elected at-large and six from districts.

Tamie Sullivan of Hyde Park, who ran as an independent for council in 2017, was one of the four leaders of Fair Cincy in 2019 and 2020, as was Jackie Frondorf's husband, Henry, a Charter candidate for council in the same year.

Sullivan said she still sees a need for a combined district/at-large system of electing council.

"All you have to do is look at how many people are running for council this year and how hard it is going to be for voters to sort it all out,'' Sullivan said. "Running as an Independent is nearly impossible. You almost have to have a party endorsement to make it.

"If we had districts, the party label wouldn't be so important and running a campaign for council would not be so expensive,'' Sullivan said.

What opponents say

Opponents of districts, though, fear that dividing the city up into districts would lead to the balkanization of City Council and that council members would lose sight of the big picture on issues that impact the entire city.

One of this year's mayoral candidates, Council Member David Mann, was opposed to the Fair Cincy plan when it was proposed, calling it "a solution in search of a problem." He told WVXU that he is still does not believe districts are the answer.

Jones, the pastor from Mt. Airy, was part of the group that formulated the Fair Cincy plan, but, today, she believes it should go even further – even though she admits it is probably an impossible dream.

"I'd like to see council elected totally from districts,'' Jones said. ''I know we are never going to get that. But that's what I would like."

If it were up to Jones, she would also expand the number of council members from the current nine to somewhere between 15 to 18.

Jones and other proponents of district council elections don't expect anything to happen quickly. Very little in this city does happen overnight.

But, as long as there is a 9X system of electing at-large council members, the buzz for districts will go on, just below the surface.

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