Analysis: Charter Committee Has Century-old Solutions To Today's City Hall Problems

Mar 4, 2021

Cincinnati's Charter Committee – the independent political party that has fashioned itself to be the watchdog for "good government" in the city – is going back to its roots.

After 2020, which saw three members of the nine-member Cincinnati City council indicted on federal corruption charges – something unprecedented in the nearly 100 years of Cincinnati's council-manager form of government – the Charter Committee saw an opportunity to once again become a major player in city politics, doing so by re-establishing itself as the reform party.

Thus, the Charter Committee – which plans to run a full slate of nine council candidates in the November election – released an actual Charter Platform. Party platforms became as rare as hen's teeth in the last few decades of city politics. But Charter has one that its as-yet-unnamed slate of candidates will run on this fall.

The preamble to the platform pretty much says it all:

The Charter Committee ended political corruption years ago. We can do it again today! The Charter Platform is the answer for removing corrupt partisan politics from our city government.

That business about ending political corruption nearly a century ago is not an idle boast.

In 1924, voters approved a council-manager form of government for Cincinnati, ending the decades-old control of a corrupt Republican political machine.

The machine – led in its end days by businessman Rud Hynicka – was not only corrupt, but incompetent. It had driven the city into near bankruptcy and failed in doing the one thing political machines are supposed to be good at – delivering basic city services. Hynicka owned a string of burlesque houses in New York and spent much of his time there.

Corrupt and incompetent is a very had combination.

Charter was formed by lawyer Murray Seasongood and other reform-minded Republicans and Democrats to be the watchdog over the new form of government, which drew sharp demarcation lines between the jobs of the city manager and administration and the policy-making function of the mayor and city council.

Those lines have been horribly blurred in recent years. There has been mounting criticism of the current mayor, John Cranley, for his hands-on involvement in potential development deals.

All three council members charged with public corruption charges last year – Democrats P.G. Sittenfeld, Tamaya Dennard and Republican Jeff Pastor – have all been about council members allegedly getting involved in deals with a developer. Dennard, who has been convicted, and Pastor, whose case is still pending, both were accused of taking bribes in exchange for their votes. Sittenfeld is accused of coercing a developer to make contributions to a political action committee he controlled. Sittenfeld has been very vocal in proclaiming his innocence.

At any rate, the Charter Committee believes none of it should have happened under the council-manager form of government.

Here are some bullet points from the document (the entire document is embedded below):

  • Return to a fully-functioning council-manager form of government, with a professional city manager hired and reporting to the full city council and the mayor;
  •  Base appointments to city boards and commissioner on qualifications, not patronage. Such appointments should be vetted by a "board commission" which would include neighborhood leadership;
  • Implement a transparent, city manager-budget process with a minimum 60-day review period, instead of the practice in recent years of the mayor presenting the council with a budget proposal;
  • Require all campaign contributions to be disclosed prior to council voting on any development project, contract or appointments to boards;
  • Require neighborhood involvement for all traffic and streetscape improvements.

Much of this is aimed at Cranley, who is term-limited out as mayor this year. Charter believes the two-term mayor has amassed too much power in what is supposed to be a "stronger mayor" form of government, but not a "strong mayor" system. Cranley hotly denies that, saying he has done nothing except that which the city charter allows him to do.

"The role of the mayor is limited and I accept those limits," Cranley told WVXU in a written statement. "It's a stronger, not strong mayor system. We have led the city to record growth (after 70 years of decline) by forging great results despite dealing with a lawbreaking city council. The current form of a stronger mayor/manager government is a contributing factor to our success."

Matt Woods, the president of the Charter Committee, said in a video statement Wednesday that Charter wants to be part of the solution – just as it was back in the 1920s.

"The city has awoken,'' Woods said. "We want to be the answer. We want to get back to good governance."

Woods told WVXU that the Charter platform is not intended to walk back the "stronger mayor" charter changes approved by voters in 1999.

"We're just trying to get everybody back in their lanes – council, the mayor, the city manager,'' Woods said. "That's the only way we get back to good government."

The Democratic and Republican parties in Cincinnati will not have party platforms specific to this election for their candidates to run on.

"Our values as Republicans are listed on our website, and they really haven't changed for many years,'' said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party. "They are time-tested principles that Republicans adhere to."

Anne Sesler, co-chair of the Cincinnati Democratic Committee said "the purpose of the Hamilton County Democratic Party is the election of candidates to local, state and national offices and the promotion of the goals and principles of the Democratic Party as defined by the Ohio Democratic Party."

Sesler said the principles of the state party can also be found at the county party's website, hamiltoncountydems.org.

The Charter platform is clear, concise and easy to understand.

What they have essentially done is reach back to nearly 100-year-old solutions to 21st century problems.

This just may be a year where that Back to the Future approach may work.

Charter's '21 Platform by WVXU News on Scribd

Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

  Read more "Politically Speaking" here.