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Are amendments to Cincinnati's charter getting out of hand?

Cincinnati's skyline in 2014.
Al Behrman
Cincinnati's skyline in 2014. Ten years earlier, voters approved the repeal of an amendment passed in 1993 that prevented the city from providing legal protections to gays and lesbians.

Will the people of Cincinnati ever grow tired of an annual parade of city charter amendments on the ballot?

Probably not.

It's been going full-bore for at least the past 30 years and shows no signs of letting up.

Some say this is a good thing – the city charter was adopted in 1925, they say; it should be a living, breathing document that is constantly being adapted to change with the times, as issues present themselves that could never have been dreamed of by the founders of Cincinnati's council-manager form of government.

Others say it is getting out of hand. Everything that City Council can't or won't act on ends up on the ballot through a petition initiative. It is to the point, they say, of turning Cincinnati into a mini-California, where voters in the Golden State routinely are asked to sort through dozens of ballot "propositions," some on the most obscure subjects.

This year, for example, among the 35 propositions on the California ballot is one which would decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms, which can cause hallucinations.

"We see charter amendments on the ballot a lot, but I don’t think we are anywhere near California status,'' said Sean Comer, director of government relations at Xavier University. "In California, they get pretty deep in the weeds on ballot propositions. It's like the state is skipping the legislature and governing by vote of the people."

In this November's election – where early voting is already in full swing – Cincinnati voters have a big honking chunk of charter reforms to chew on in Issue 3, an all-or-nothing ballot issue which would make eight different systemic changes in the culture of Cincinnati City Council and city government.

Issue 3 apparently had no public input whatsoever and is the brainchild of State Rep. Tom Brinkman, who is also a Republican council candidate.

It is broad and far ranging; and it is almost impossible to imagine that there are enough voters who would agree with all eight of Brinkman's "reforms," which include:

  • A cut in council members' pay from about $65,000 a year to about $46,000.
  • Requiring council approval of all lawsuits filed by the city.
  • Doing away with 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.
  • 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.
  • Eliminating 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.  
  • Requiring one-year residency in the city to serve as mayor or council member.
  • Allowing individual liability of city employees for some violations of open meetings and public records law violations.
  • Allowing for the recall of the mayor.

That package was the result of a successful petition drive.

"It seems to have been thrown together in response to the corruption issues at City Hall,'' Comer said. "It just appeared suddenly, without any input from the political parties or the citizens. A lot of people, I think, are looking at this and thinking that while there are portions they can support, they can't accept the whole package.

"But it's likely to be another low turnout election," Comer said. "Anything can happen."

Some amendments fail, but sill enact change

Anything can happen – and often does – when it comes to charter amendments.

The fact is that charter amendments have played an important role – either for good or ill – in major city issues for decades.

The most recent example was this year's May primary – when a ballot issue, also known as Issue 3, would have required the city to invest $50 million a year in an Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

It was opposed by nearly every elected official and prospective elected official in the city; and, in the end, 73% of the electorate rejected it in the May 4 primary.

But the affordable housing amendment did spark a conversation about how to make housing more affordable for those below or at the poverty line, and it has become a much-discussed issue in this year's City Council campaign.

"That ballot issue failed miserably but it did push the issue to the front burner,'' Comer said. "Even a ballot issue that fails can end up driving the discussion."

Should it be harder to get amendments on the ballot?

Charlie Luken, who served on City Council in the 1970s and became the city's first directly elected mayor in 2001, says the charter amendments need to be curbed a bit.

"Of course, every citizen has the right to petition the government,'' Luken said. "But my general impression is that what we need is a charter amendment to make it harder to put charter amendments on the ballot."

It took about 4,600 valid signatures of Cincinnati voters to put Brinkman's Issue 3 on the ballot this year.

"The bar is set too low,'' Luken said. "I think 10,000 signatures or something in that neighborhood would be better and would reflect more widespread support for a charter amendment in the community."

Luken said he took advantage of the low-bar for charter amendments once himself – in 1987 when he got a charter amendment on the ballot to make the top vote-getter in the council election the mayor. It was passed and Luken had a run of being the top vote-getter in three consecutive council elections.

Occasionally, the city ballot is just jam-packed with charter amendments. 2018 was one of those years. That year, Cincinnati voters decided six charter amendments, including:

  • One that passed returning City Council to two-year terms, after a period where there were four-year terms;
  • An issue which failed, which would have had five council members elected to four-year terms and four to two-year terms;
  • A charter amendment, modeled after the state law, which passed, allowing City Council to hold closed-door session on a limited number of subjects;
  • And a charter amendment that proposed doing away with a practice where wealthy donors could make multiple maximum donations of $1,110 each by setting up various LLCs. This came after Mayor John Cranley had raked in $260,950 in such LLC donations in his 2017 re-election campaign. That passed.

'We hire city council members to make a lot of these decisions'

Charter amendments – even some that have failed – have been at the center of the discussion of many top-drawer issues over the years.

One was Article 12, a charter amendment passed by the voters of Cincinnati with a 62% vote in 1993. It prevented the city from providing legal protections to gays and lesbians.

"That was the single most shameful episode in my years in Cincinnati politics,'' Luken said.

Article 12 was in effect for 11 years until gay rights activists and others put an issue on the ballot repealing the article. In the meantime, public attitudes toward civil rights and the LGBT community had changed radically. The repeal passed with 54% of the vote.

"I was glad to see the repeal, but it passed with a relatively small margin,'' Luken said. "That was disappointing."

Another major issue where charter amendments played a major role was in the controversy over the construction of Cincinnati's $148 million streetcar.

In 2009, a coalition of streetcar opponents, led by the NAACP and the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), put a charter amendment requiring that there be public votes on any city funds spent for the streetcar project. It was defeated with a 56% vote, allowing the city to go forward with planning for the streetcar.

Streetcar opponents tried again in 2011 with a charter amendment mandating that all money allocated for the streetcar be frozen through Dec. 31, 2020. That failed, although the vote was close – 52% no, 48% yes.

In the same election, a City Council that was inclined to support the streetcar project was elected; and, of course, the project ended up going forward, with a ribbon cutting in 2016.

Regardless of what happens with this year's Issue 3, it is unlikely the steady stream of charter amendments in Cincinnati is going to reverse tide anytime soon.

"It does speak a little more loudly when the people sign petitions to put issues on the ballot,'' Comer said. "I just hope we don't forget that we do have a representative government. We hire city council members to make a lot of these decisions."

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