Analysis: Cranley made the job of mayor more powerful. What happens when he leaves office?
There has never been and may never be again a Cincinnati mayor who has wielded more power than John Cranley has over the past eight years.
Not since Cincinnati adopted its council-manager form of government nearly 100 years ago, anyway.
For his entire tenure – two four-year terms – Cranley has taken the 1999 city charter amendment creating a "stronger mayor" with more executive powers and influence over legislation and run with it, to an extent that previous directly elected mayors did not do.
In the process, he has developed a reputation among some of being a mayor with a my way or the highway attitude, an abrasive, confrontational personality that has often clashed with council members, including those of his own Democratic Party, and, his critics say, overstepped his bounds when it comes to dealing directly with developers on major projects.
He also has a reputation of being extremely sensitive to criticism. Ask any journalist in Cincinnati who has written or broadcast any story even mildly critical of Cranley, and that reporter is almost certain to get a phone call from an agitated mayor, complaining loudly that he was treated unfairly. And that's fair enough. He doesn't suffer in silence; and that's OK.
The most famous confrontation Cranley has had with the city administration came in 2018, when then-city manager Harry Black accused Cranley of meddling in development deals. Cranley wanted Black gone, accusing him of creating a hostile work environment for his employees, and Cranley got his wish.
The mayor defended his involvement in development deals. It is part of his job, he said.
"I am proud to have made a difference in bringing jobs to the city," Cranley said at the time. "I have to be involved and should be. I am fully ethical and transparent and reject any insinuation otherwise."
Some are wondering if Cranley, who is now running for the 2022 nomination for Ohio governor, would take that same management style to the Ohio Statehouse if he is elected.
Cranley thinks the criticism is overblown; and that he is simply doing what the city charter allows a mayor to do. And, he says, he has produced results.
On a Tuesday night in October, speaking to a room full of community leaders, business people and elected officials at TQL Stadium, Cranley delivered his final "State of the City" address. Although he shared the credit with many, he made one thing very clear – his administration and his management style has paid off for Cincinnati in a big way.
"Eight years ago, where I hoped we would be is surpassed by where we are," Cranley said. "We are now in a city that is growing again; we have 29,000 more jobs; fewer people living in poverty; a revitalized Downtown and Over-the-Rhine; dozens of neighborhoods showing rebirth; more minority owned businesses; a truly funded regional public transit system; a lower earnings tax; carbon emissions down and green jobs up.
"It has not been without struggle or strife, but we have turned Cincinnati into a comeback story. For decades, our city was on the decline - job loss, an erosion of our middle class, and people leaving the city. Because of our hard work, we have written a different story for Cincinnati."
It is unlikely that Mayor-elect Aftab Pureval is going to follow Cranley's lead when it comes to management.
"I think we've got to be skeptical of any politician involving themselves in development deals, whether it's the mayor or City Council," Pureval said. "It would be my job as mayor to respect the charter and get back to the fundamentals of the charter. And the charter lays out very specifically what the role is for both council, the mayor and also the city manager. And it's my role as mayor to set a bold vision, and make sure that we're executing with excellence to achieve that vision."
A recent study of Cincinnati's government structure by the National Civic League, with a grant from Cincinnati's Seasongood Foundation, came to the conclusion that it may be time to scale back the mayor's powers under the "stronger mayor" form of government approved by the voters in 1999. (The Seasongood Foundation has also awarded a grant for WVXU's Trust in Local Government series.)
The study, headed by Dr. Kimberly Nelson of the University of North Carolina School of Government, interviewed 20 "stakeholders" this summer – a mix of community leaders, business people and members of the media – to get their views on what works and what does not under the council-manager form of government that was altered in 1999 to give the mayor more authority.
The stakeholders were not identified in the study.
"Supporters of a strong mayor system were pleased that the current mayor is exercising more influence, while others are concerned that the City Council has abdicated its role in many areas, allowing the mayor to have more control over both executive and legislative functions," the report said. It has resulted in, as one of those interviewed said, "a major blurring of the lines between the executive and legislature."
The National Civic League had some rather significant recommendations on how the system could be improved, particularly when it comes to the proper role of the mayor.
"The mayor’s legislative and administrative powers should be scaled back to return the city’s governance to a more professionally managed system and increase the influence of the legislative body," the report said.
The mayor should review annual budgets in the same manner as council members, as a body, and not have the ability to “preview” and make comments on the budget in advance; and legislation should be assigned to council committees by the city manager, not the mayor, the report said.
"In addition to strengthening the role of council and encouraging council members to fulfill their responsibilities under the charter, we believe the mayor’s authority over the city manager and extra legislative powers should be reduced," the report concluded.
Cranley told WVXU at the time he had not read the entire National Civic League report, but "skimmed it" and was familiar with the recommendations regarding the mayor.
"I didn't take it personally," he said.
But he did disagree strongly with the notion that council needs more power than it already has under the charter.
"Look, we have had a number of City Council membersindicted on criminal charges," Cranley said. "If the source of the corruption is City Council, I think the last thing we should do is give council more power."
"I've acted honorably and ethically all the time," Cranley said.
The "stronger mayor" system, Cranley said, "has led to growth."
"This is the only major city in Ohio to make gains after decades of decline,'' Cranley said. "We had been losing population in every Census since 1950 and now the population is growing again."
Cranley said he is much more interested in the recommendations of a development reform panel which came out with recommendations in July on how to take political influence out of development decisions.
On Oct. 25, council passed an ordinance, sponsored by Council Member Steve Goodin, which will ban council members and the mayor from soliciting campaign contributions from developers when they have an ordinance pending before council. Council also passed a proposal by Council Member Greg Landsman which would create an "ethics and good government counselor" to operate as a watchdog for ethics on council and in the mayor's office.
Council member and former 2021 mayoral candidate David Mann, who was mayor under the "weak mayor system," told WVXU's Becca Costello that he thinks the mayor "has the right to engage with possible new businesses that want to come to the city, talk about a general framework," but leave the negotiating to the city manager and the city's development professionals.
"I think we need a mayor who has some independence from council and the ability to advance a vision, but to do so transparently, respecting the role of the city manager,'' Mann said.
Cranley is totally unapologetic for how he has used the powers that the 1999 charter amendment gave him – even though his predecessors in the direct mayoral election era, Charlie Luken, a mentor to Cranley, and Mark Mallory, were not nearly so aggressive in asserting their authority and had a much different style.
"The mayor is an executive role," Cranley said. "That's how it is. That's how I have done the job."
Unless, somehow, the National Civic League recommendations are adopted, that’s the way it is going to be in the future.
It's just a question of whether future mayors will adopt the Cranley style or chart their own courses.
Either way, Cranley's eight years as mayor won't soon be forgotten.