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Officials want to eliminate the pocket veto, but how much power should the mayor retain?

Mayor Aftab Pureval
Becca Costello
/
WVXU
Mayor Aftab Pureval at the Housing Solutions Summit in Price Hill on June 11, 2022.

Cincinnati Council Member Liz Keating is proposing a charter amendment that would more tightly limit the mayor’s power over when legislation is considered. Council is already set to vote Thursday on a similar plan to eliminate the so-called pocket veto; either version would need approval from voters to go into effect.

Mayor Aftab Pureval and Council Members Mark Jeffreys and Jeff Cramerding announced their proposed charter amendment Tuesday morning, although the text was available Friday afternoon.

“I don't think the process of doing this last minute to change the charter is what good government stands for,” Keating said in committee Wednesday morning. “And I think we need to have that discussion before the vote [Thursday]; I think that's very important to do if we're going to sell this as good government.”

Keating says the current version leaves too much room for the mayor to delay legislation. It would require the mayor to refer items to committee within four regularly scheduled council meetings; that’s typically four weeks, unless interrupted by summer recess or holiday cancellations. That’s longer than what the Charter Review Task Force of 2015 recommended, which was referral within 14 days or two regularly scheduled meetings.

Asked about the extended timeline, Pureval told WVXU Tuesday he doesn’t consider four weeks “a long time.”

“The four regularly scheduled meetings was a decision that the council members and I came to collaboratively,” Pureval said. “Our goal was to ensure that there was enough flexibility built in that the three branches of government could work towards any outstanding issues that might exist on a piece of legislation, any outstanding questions, while also not delaying it.”

Jeffreys later clarified the extra time was added at the request of the mayor, saying in committee Wednesday: “Working with the mayor, he said ... he wanted to see a little bit more time on, OK, let's make sure that we have that period, if needed, of kind of cooling off.”

The amendment is nearly identical to one proposed by former Council Members Chris Seelbach and Betsy Sundermann in 2021; their version required two regularly scheduled meetings. (Keep reading for Seelbach and Sundermann's thoughts on the new version).

It also included a piece the task force didn’t address: After the mayor’s referral to committee, it would require a committee chair to put an item on an agenda within three regularly scheduled meetings, and once an item passes out of committee, the mayor must put it on the full council agenda within another three regularly scheduled meetings.

The new version copies those requirements but changes each one to four meetings instead of three.

Because all but one committee meets every other week, that allows for a legal delay of up to eight weeks between when an item is referred to committee and when it actually appears on an agenda. That’s not technically within the power of the mayor, but the mayor has exclusive authority over committee chairs and could replace one not willing to go along with a delay.

Adding all those up, the mayor and a single committee chair could delay final passage of an item for 16 weeks.

“When we change the city's charter or invite the voters to change the city's charter, I think it needs to be very thoughtful, and making sure we're doing it in the right way,” Keating said. “And so all I'm hearing is that these numbers were changed from the past because the mayor wanted a little bit more time. But I think we should understand that time and then what the implications are because 16 weeks is a significant amount of time.”

Keating is introducing a separate version of the amendment that she hopes will be considered Thursday afternoon; it would reduce the time frame allowed for referral to two regularly scheduled meetings for each phase — mayor referring to committee chair; chair putting it on an agenda; and mayor referring to full council — that would allow for up to eight weeks of delay overall.

The mayor has discretion over whether to allow a “B version” of an ordinance onto the full council agenda or to make it go through a committee vote first.

If Council considers both versions on Thursday, they could send both to the November ballot. If both charter amendments passed with a majority, the one with the most votes would go into effect.

What Seelbach and Sundermann think about the new version

“I saw the pocket veto being used or threatened to be used several times,” Seelbach told WVXU of his time on council under then-mayor John Cranley. “Behind closed doors, the mayor would threaten, literally threaten, ‘I will not refer your legislation unless you make these changes, or unless you do this and that.’ “

Seelbach said the exact timing of legislative referral isn’t that important, but he wouldn’t support a “loophole” that allows for a 16-week delay.

“The intent of all of this is that regardless of your political party or your idea for legislation that everyone elected to council should get an up or down vote on legislation,” he said. “Having to wait four months for an up or down vote I think is unreasonable.”

Sundermann said her original goal was to require referral within one week, but was OK with two meetings instead.

“I think it's been expanded too much at this point, where it's not as effective as it could be,” she said. “But I would vote for it, because I think it's a step in the right direction. It does put some time limits, but I wish it was a little tighter.”

Charter Committee President Bill Frost spoke in favor of the amendment before Wednesday’s committee vote.

Becca Costello grew up in Williamsburg and Batavia (in Clermont County) listening to WVXU. Before joining the WVXU newsroom, she worked in public radio & TV journalism in Bloomington, Indiana and Lincoln, Nebraska. Becca has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including from local chapters of the Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists, and contributed to regional and national Murrow Award winners. Becca has a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University and a bachelor's degree from Cincinnati Christian University. Becca's dog Cincy (named for the city they once again call home) is even more anxious than she is.