The Mayor's the top dog, but can be overruled

Jun 23, 2013

We learned something about Cincinnati City Council this week.

The mayor is not the absolute monarch inside city council chambers.

Except, that is, when he is.

Since December 2001, Cincinnati has had a directly-elected mayor who is not a voting member of council but chairs the meetings and controls the agenda. If a council member tries to raise an issue on the floor of council that the mayor doesn’t want to deal with, he or she can simply rule the council member out of order, proclaiming that it was a subject not on the council agenda and that was that.

The council member who tried to raise the offending issue will generally just sit there and take it.

Mayor Mark Mallory, who is coming to the end of his eight-year reign as mayor and council’s presiding officer, has been the master of that, shutting down debate on issues he didn’t want to hear about over and over again.

The controversial parking lease agreement, which Mallory supports wholeheartedly, is one of those issues he doesn’t want to hear council members trashing on the floor of council.

Mallory has been quite adept at shutting off discussion he considered unpleasant.

But Wednesday’s council session was a bit different.

Council member P.G. Sittenfeld, a freshman Democrat who is running for re-election, may have put a permanent crack in that supreme mayoral power this week.

Sittenfeld came into council’s Wednesday afternoon meeting armed with a motion to repeal the controversial parking lease agreement – an agreement that had been signed two days earlier by City Manager Milton Dohoney, after the courts cleared the way for him to do so.

Sittenfeld was certain he had five votes – a majority of the nine-member council – for his motion.
He knew that as soon as he brought up the subject, Mallory would rule him out of order, saying there was nothing on Wednesday’s council agenda about the parking lease agreement.

So Sittenfeld came armed with something else.

He had scoured the official council rules and came up with the little-used and largely unknown Rule 5.4.
Here’s what it says:

“The chair shall decide all questions of order subject to appeal. Upon appeal, the chair shall be sustained unless overruled by a majority vote of council.”

“It was a ‘eureka’ moment,’’ Sittenfeld told WVXU.

Sittenfeld entered the session believing he had five votes to repeal the parking lease ordinance – Charlie Winburn, Christopher Smitherman, Chris Seelbach, Laure Quinlivan and himself, of course.

After Mallory gaveled the council into session, Sittenfeld let loose with some parliamentary questions for the chair. Mallory ruled him out of order, saying he was raising questions about things that were not on the council agenda.

Then Sittenfeld laid Rule 5.4 on the mayor. There was an immediate hub-bub on the council dais, with the city solicitor talking to various council members, little clusters of council members huddled together, and, on the far right of the dais, Mallory had pulled up a chair next to Quinlivan and began a conversation with Quinlivan.

From where we stood, we couldn’t hear what was said, but it was a rather one-sided conversation, with the mayor doing most of the talking and Quinlivan doing most of the listening.

After about 20 minutes of this, council went back to business; and Mallory, like it or not, had to call a roll call vote on whether or not his overruling of Sittenfeld would be sustained.

Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and council members Yvette Simpson, Pam Thomas and Wendell Young voted with the mayor.

That was no surprise.

And Quinlivan voted with the mayor.

That was a surprise.

There went Sittenfeld’s fifth vote to repeal the parking lease ordinance.

What was said in Mallory’s little sidebar conference with Quinlivan.

She’s not saying.

“We talked about a lot of things,’’ Quinlivan told WVXU. “The mayor doesn’t want to be overruled by people in his own caucus.”

Mallory didn’t threaten political repercussions if she voted with Sittenfeld, Quinlivan said.

“For me, it was a matter of professional respect,’’ Quinlivan said. “I’m not into just sticking it to the mayor because we can.”

Sittenfeld lost the war, but he took some satisfaction in winning one battle – establishing that a council majority can overrule a mayor when he or she tries to shut off debate. Even so, though, the mayor, under the charter, has the ultimate power – the power of veto over legislation.

“I didn’t accomplish what I set out to do, but I established a precedent on council – that the majority on council, and not necessarily the mayor, rules.”

“This,’’ Sittenfeld said, “is not going to be the last time this rule will be used.”

Future mayors, take note:

You may want to make sure you have five votes in hand before you start ruling council members out of order.