Whenever Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr. eventually decides to retire, city officials will be able to look nationwide for the best possible replacement.
That doesn’t sound like a radical idea, but some special interests in this city have spent eight years and untold stacks of cash trying to prevent that from ever happening.
Last week the Ohio Supreme Court decided to dismiss an appeal from Cincinnati’s police union, the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), that sought to overturn a charter amendment approved by city voters in 2001.
That charter amendment, known as Issue 5, gives the city manager the authority to hire and fire the chiefs and assistant chiefs in the Police and Fire departments rather than using a civil service process. Under the system approved by voters, the positions can be filled from outside current ranks rather than being limited to in-house candidates from a promotion list based on exam scores.
Until the switch, Cincinnati was one of the few major cities in the nation without the option of hiring outside chiefs, leading to what some called “organizational in-breeding” and a dearth of new ideas.
Supporters pushed for Issue 5 after the April 2001 riots, triggered by the police shooting death of an unarmed black man during a foot chase in Over-the-Rhine. They said the change would bring fresh perspectives to the Police Department and provide more accountability for its leaders.
Opponents — which included Streicher and the FOP — insisted Issue 5 would make the police chief’s job too vulnerable to the whims of City Council.
The union also alleged it amounted to an unfair labor practice because it violated terms of previous FOP contracts.
During the heated campaign over Issue 5, Streicher was reprimanded by the city manager for wearing his uniform while stumping against the amendment because it violated the city’s personnel policies. Streicher didn’t seem to care much, perhaps demonstrating how the old system led to complacency and defiance because the chief knew he basically couldn’t be fired unless he committed a felony.
Voters ultimately sided with supporters and approved the amendment 52-48 percent.
Ever since, the FOP has fought the change tooth and nail.
With the Ohio Supreme Court deciding Jan. 28 to dismiss the union’s appeal, an earlier ruling by the State Employment Relations Board that upheld the charter amendment will remain in effect.
For the record, the legal battle’s outcome vindicates the views of Pat DeWine, a Republican who took a lot of heat for pushing Issue 5 when he was a Cincinnati city councilman earlier this decade. Now a Hamilton County common pleas court judge, he took a political gamble to stand on principle and marshal enough support on City Council to stand up against then-Mayor Charlie Luken’s public calls for the city to drop the lawsuit and accept the FOP’s demands.
The Issue 5 change is common sense: If my immediate supervisor left his job, my co-workers and I aren’t automatically entitled to fill it. Instead, we each must make our best case about why we should have the job, along with anyone else who applies. Theoretically, the best person is chosen.
What’s good for the private sector is good for City Hall, as my Republican friends often tell me.
Despite the recent legal ruling, Streicher probably isn’t going anywhere for a while. Issue 5 doesn’t apply to him since he already was in office when it was approved. Although the chief has been eligible for retirement for years, it’s not in his best financial interests to leave.
Under Ohio’s Deferred Retirement Option Plan, police officers and firefighters can maximize their pension benefits by sticking around until they become fully vested under the program. Streicher doesn’t become fully vested until 2011.
Still, the Ohio Supreme Court’s action brings us a step closer to ending the old boy’s network in the Cincinnati Police Department. City officials should begin planning now for what process they’ll use to fill Streicher’s job once he leaves.
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