Cincinnati Charter Amendments Offer Voters Mighty Thin Soup

Sep 6, 2015

 The city of Cincinnati’s 24-member Charter Review Task Force, given the task of studying the city’s ancient charter and recommending changes, labored for 18 months doing exactly what they were asked to do.

But, as the old saying goes, they labored mightily, and brought forth a mouse.

It wasn’t their fault. They did nothing wrong. They ended up giving Cincinnati City Council four recommendations for charter amendment ballot issues, two of which would have made striking changes in the relationship between the mayor and the nine-member city council.

But those two recommendations failed.

The only ones which council voted to put on the ballot were two relatively harmless and bland ballot issues which will not exactly start fist-fights in the streets of Cincinnati.

Most of the members of the Charter Review Task Force, which was formed by council member Kevin Flynn, a Charterite and a true believer in the process, are not entirely politically naïve; they’ve been around the block a few times.

But, after doing their due diligence for 18 months and presenting their recommended changes, they ran into the buzz-saw of City Hall politics; and the never-ending tug-of-war between Mayor John Cranley and the council members who would like to rein in his authority.

Here are the four recommendations the task force delivered to council to put on the November ballot:

-         A measure that would give city council the ability to initiate the removal of the city manager, a power held only by the mayor under the present system.

-         Elimination of the “pocket veto” requiring the mayor to assign all legislation within receiving the item for referral. Currently, the mayor can withhold assigning legislative items or putting them on the council agenda if he doesn’t like, in effect, “sticking them in his pocket.”

-         Allow city council to conduct executive sessions for limited purposes, such as interviewing city manager candidates and discussing security measures for City Hall and big events.

-         Changing the city council’s current swearing-in date of Dec. 1 to the first week in January; and moving the mayoral primary from September to May. Moving the primary would give more time for a recount if necessary – not to mention give the two top vote-getters in the primary, who would face each other in November, more time to raise money.

Only the issues of changing the mayoral primary date and changing the swearing-in date made it through city council to the November ballot.

Mike Morgan is a member of the Charter Committee, Cincinnati’s self-proclaimed “good government” political party, which created the city charter form of government back in the 1920s. He also is founder and president of Queen City History, a company that conducts historic tours of the city and consults on historic preservation projects.

Morgan was co-chair of the Charter Review Task Force; and after the tumult over the task force’s recommendations at City Hall last week, he was asked if he was pleased with the result.

“Absolutely not,’’ Morgan said. “I’m not going to sugar-coat it. If you could at least have corrected the pocket veto, we would have accomplished something meaningful. But we couldn’t get that through council.

“It’s really frustrating.”

Morgan said the task force took five separate votes on the pocket veto. Three of them, he said, were unanimous in favor of getting rid of it; the final two voters “were something like 15-4.”

“There were some people who believed you shouldn’t change anything until you go to an executive mayor,”

Doing away with the city manager form of government and going to a strong executive mayor was something the task force discussed, but there never anything close to a consensus that that was a good idea.

It’s something that Council Member Christopher Smitherman has been pushing, but Smitherman has said he’s not sure the public support is there yet; and will probably try to do it by petition initiative in 2017 – the next year in which there will be a council and mayoral election.

Morgan and the other task force members sat by and watched last week as council and the mayor went through its gyrations over the four recommendations.

It takes six votes on council to put a charter amendment on the ballot.

Council ended up rejecting the charter amendment to allow council to begin the process of firing the city manager.

There were five votes on council to put the charter amendment doing away with the pocket veto on the ballot – Flynn, P.G. Sittenfeld, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson and Wendell. But Charlie Winburn, Smitherman, David Mann and Amy Murray voted no.

That was enough to kill the amendment to get rid of the pocket veto.

So Cranley was able to keep his veto pen in his pocket, because there were not enough votes to override the veto that would have surely come.

Cranley has used the pocket veto, even though early in his term as mayor, he said he had no intention of using it. His predecessor in the mayor’s office, Mark Mallory, loved the pocket veto and used it often.

Vice Mayor David Mann pooh-poohed the idea of a charter amendment doing away with the pocket veto, because he says it doesn’t exist in the first place. And He has a 2010 opinion from then-City Solicitor John Curp saying the charter “does not provide for a ‘pocket veto’ of legislation.

Council can act if it wants items considered in a timely fashion.

“I think it’s a solution in search of a problem,’’ Mann said.

Morgan and a majority of the Charter Review Task Force disagree.

“This is something that John Cranley complained about when Mark Mallory was doing it,’’ Morgan said. “It needs to be done away with, once and for all.”

But a charter amendment to do that will not be on the November ballot.

Then, on Tuesday, came this bit of strangeness from City Hall:

Six council members had voted earlier to put a charter amendment on the ballot that would allow council to meet behind closed doors to discuss some issues.

Cranley vetoed it, saying he didn’t believe council should be conducting business in private.

But it looked like council would override the veto, as long as the six stuck together.

Then, out of the blue, Seelbach, a Democrat, announced that he wouldn’t stand in the way of Cranley’s veto. In the end, he wasn’t present for the vote to override, and it failed.  

To say that Seelbach and Cranley do not always see eye-to-eye is a vast understatement. There is no love lost between these two Democrats.

But Seelbach gave the mayor what he wanted – a veto that would stand.

“I believe our city runs well without an executive session,’’ Seelbach said. “While there are legitimate moments when a legislative body would benefit from executive sessions, including security updates around major events and city hall, it is something to be proud of that Cincinnati does all of its business in public and prohibits a veil of secrecy that would be abused or increase suspicion and distrust.”

So much for that major reform, like it or not.

And Cincinnati voters are left with deciding momentous issues such as when the mayoral primary will be held and when council members will be sworn in – issues not likely to create long lines outside Cincinnati polling places.

Morgan said that as far as he is concerned, “the work of the task force is done.”

“There are a number of other changes that need to be talked about, including how council is elected and the powers of the mayor, but that’s not my job,’’ Morgan said. “I don’t know whose job it is going to be.

“I wish we could have done more.”