If you think voters always determine who occupies a seat on Cincinnati City Council, think again.
Some of the most memorable names in Queen City politics got their entry to City Hall by means other than winning at the ballot box, including Jim Tarbell, Todd Portune, John Cranley, Roxanne Qualls and Dwight Tillery, among others. All served long and illustrious terms on City Council, and some have moved on to other political offices.
Each of those heavy-hitters was appointed to fill an unexpired term on City Council, replacing a member who either left for another office or, in most cases, faced term limits and wanted to give their replacements the advantage of incumbency and greater name recognition as they later sought election in their own right.
And the cycle is a continuing one. When Charlie Luken left for Congress in 1990, his council seat went to Tillery. When Tillery left in 1998 due to term limits, the seat went to Paul Booth. When Booth left in 2003, it was passed to Laketa Cole — each initial selection made without voters’ input.
There are plenty of other examples as well, cutting across all party lines (see the “Appointments” chart below). In fact, there have been nine City Council elections since 1990; during the same period, there have been 13 appointees to council.
The most recent instance occurred last month, when Greg Harris was tapped to replace Cranley. Of council’s nine current members, four of them first made it onto the group through an appointment.
The situation occurs because the replacement process spelled out by Cincinnati’s charter allows each City Council member to sign a form designating other council members of his or her choice to make the decision should the initial member leave for whatever reason. Typically, each Democrat on council designates all the other Democratic members to make the selection, each Republican designates all other Republicans and so forth.
As might be imagined, political party leaders usually insert themselves into the selection process, concerned about who can keep the seat for the party when the next election rolls around.
The power of special interests to affect the process, along with allegations of frequent backroom deal-making between the departing member and the appointee to vote certain ways on pet issues, have caused some critics to say it’s time for a change.
City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a Republican, is asking her colleagues to place a charter amendment on the ballot in either May or November that would seek to change how council vacancies are filled. Under her proposed system, a special election would be held in even-numbered years to allow voters to select a replacement. In odd-numbered years, the seat would remain vacant until that fall’s regularly scheduled council election.
Her proposal is fairer to voters than the current system for selecting replacements, Ghiz says.
“The reason I’m doing this is it should be the people’s choice, not council’s,” she says. “I don’t have any disrespect for anyone who’s been appointed to council, it’s not about them. It’s about what is fair to voters.”
The replacement process has been used since Cincinnati’s charter was written in the 1920s, ostensibly as a method to lessen the influence of unelected political bosses. But the use of appointments kicked into high gear after term limits took effect in 1999, which restricted members to serving four consecutive two-year terms.
There are two ways for charter amendments to make the ballot: At least six members of City Council can agree to place one before voters or residents can mount a petition drive and collect the signatures of a percentage of city voters, usually totaling about 6,300 people.
So far, Ghiz has the backing of only two colleagues.
Charterite Chris Bortz supports placing the issue before voters, and Democrat Jeff Berding says he’s open to considering it.
“Appointments are a significant problem,” Bortz says. “It’s not fair to the voters, and it’s not good for the city. The decisions happen behind the scenes, and it’s all political calculation about who can get reelected. It’s not good government.”
Winning a council seat already is hard enough for challengers, he adds. “It’s difficult to break into unless you’re an insider, have a lot of money or are appointed.”
Berding wants to review the issue further.
“I agree that in general elections are better than appointments, but leaving council with only eight members for an extended period of time would be a problem — maybe a much worse problem than having a member appointed who then has to face voters in an election,” Berding says. “I want to think through the implications of having an even number of council members trying to perform city business. In general, I do not believe that this is the most important charter reform we should be considering.”
Berding prefers changes that would elect some council members by districts and give greater executive authority to the mayor.
Ghiz and Bortz counter that the mayor could be given a tie-breaking vote during the period when council has just eight members.
Regardless, critics of the current system also say it encourages term-limited council members to leave early, before their final term is expired, and violates the unwritten contract those members made with voters who cast their ballots for them and expected them to serve the entire two years. The switch would be an incentive to stay.
In the most recent instance, Cranley left council in January with 11 months left in his term due to pressing work commitments and successfully lobbied for Harris to replace him. Even the staid Cincinnati Enquirer, which has endorsed Cranley and likes Harris, editorialized against the swap.
“We wish Cranley well, but the seat he is leaving is not the property of his party,” stated an Enquirer editorial. “It belongs to the people of Cincinnati, and they should decide who fills it.”
As expected, most party leaders oppose a process change.
“The system that is currently in place has served Cincinnati well for almost a century,” says Hamilton County Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke.
It’s similar to the process provided under state law that allows precinct executives to make the choice. Here, elected officials make the selection, which is better, he adds.
“Ghiz’s proposal is costly, to both the city and candidates, and would leave seats on City Council unfilled for long periods of time,” Burke says. “City Council terms are short to begin with. And we all understand that elections can interfere with getting the business of the city done. I think it would be a mistake to create such interference any more than once every two years.”
Michael Goldman, the Charter Committee’s executive director, believes the real problem is term limits.
“If the problem is early resignations, then you’re applying the wrong medicine for the disease,” he says. “If we had a longer term, a four-year term instead of two years, there would be a more sound argument for a switch. Because of the cost associated with campaigning, I know there are council members frustrated with two-year terms.”
Alex Triantafilou, Hamilton County Republican Party chairman, says it’s up to the GOP’s policy committee to take a stance, which it won’t do unless the measure makes the ballot.
“I think me coming out one way or another might have an impact on that decision-making,” Triantafilou says. “I think what Leslie is doing is what she thinks is in the best interests of the citizens. Her opinion would certainly carry a lot of weight in our party. She is one of our leaders.”
Even if council balks at the proposed amendment, Ghiz might have an unlikely ally.
Christopher Smitherman, the NAACP’s local chapter president, likes the concept and would consider mounting a petition drive, although the final decision would be up to his membership.
“I think she’s on the right track,” Smitherman says. “If you run for election to a two-year term, you should meet your obligation to citizens. … This matter of leaving early and appointing replacements is undermining democracy.”
Because Cincinnati is a predominantly Democratic city and Ghiz is one of only two Republicans on council, Smitherman gives her credit for proposing a switch.
“It’s noble that Councilmember Ghiz would entertain this motion because it could negatively impact her party and she’s doing it anyhow,” he says.
Ghiz believes any partisan impact would be negligible.
“There are pros and cons for my party, but that’s not why I’m doing this,” she says. “The reason I’m doing this is it should be the people’s choice. At least any potential candidate could win from the ground, if there are vacancies. It’s the voters who really win, though, by getting to pick who they want.”
Appointments to Cincinnati City Council (1990-2009)
Year: Departing member/Appointee (Party)
1990: Steve Chabot/Nick Vehr (Republican)
1990: Charlie Luken/Dwight Tillery (Democrat)
1992: Jim Cissel/Nell Surber (Republican)
1992: David Mann/Todd Portune (Democrat)
1996: Nick Vehr/Jeanette Cissell (Republican)
1998: Bobbie Sterne/Jim Tarbell (Charter)
1998: Dwight Tillery/Paul Booth (Democrat)
2000: Todd Portune/John Cranley (Democrat)
2001: Charlie Winburn/Chris Monzel (Republican)
2003: Paul Booth/Laketa Cole (Democrat)
2005: Pat DeWine/Chris Monzel (Republican)
2007: Jim Tarbell/Roxanne Qualls (Charter)
2009: John Cranley/Greg Harris (Democrat)