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City Council's Bait and Switch

By Kevin Osborne · March 11th, 2009 · Porkopolis

It’s a sorry fact that political party leaders in Hamilton County like to undermine voters when it suits their own interests, but now some Cincinnati City Council members are jumping on that bandwagon.

People who follow local politics remember the odious deal struck last year between the local Democratic and Republican parties regarding the two separate Hamilton County Commission races. In return for the Democratic Party promising not to run a candidate against Republican Greg Hartmann in his commission race, the GOP didn’t endorse anyone who challenged Todd Portune, the incumbent Democrat.

No surprise: Portune and Hartmann handily beat unendorsed opponents.

The latest attempt to subvert voters involves the Democratic Party and its willing accomplices on City Council, who are quietly spreading misleading information about a proposal to change the way council vacancies are filled when a member resigns before his or her term is expired.

Under current rules, if a member leaves, other council members gather privately and decide on a replacement.

Usually, a departing Democrat lets other Democratic members make the choice, departing Republicans let other Republican members decide and so forth. For good measure, party leaders throw in their two cents, usually influenced by special interest groups like labor unions or big business.

City Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz, a Republican, has asked her colleagues to place a charter amendment on the ballot this year that seeks to end all the backroom deal-making. Under her proposed system, voters in even-numbered years would select a replacement in November’s general election. In odd-numbered years, the seat would remain vacant until that November’s regularly scheduled council election.

Until the vacancy is filled, the mayor would be given the power to cast tie-breaking votes if the remaining eight City Council members deadlock on an issue.

Such a process is fairer to voters and might encourage council members to serve their full terms, Ghiz says. Under the current rules, a member is facing term limits typically steps down anywhere from six months to a year early in order to give the replacement the power of incumbency and greater name recognition to keep the seat in the next election.

This isn’t a rare occurrence: Since 1990, there have been 12 appointments to City Council, while voters have only been able to cast a ballot for council members nine times during the same period (see “Power to the People,” issue of Feb. 18).

Of council’s current nine members, four were initially appointed to their seats: Democrats Laketa Cole and Greg Harris, Republican Chris Monzel and Charterite Roxanne Qualls. (In fact, Monzel was appointed twice. He first replaced Charlie Winburn in February 2001, then failed to win election in 2003; he was appointed again in January 2005 to replace Pat DeWine.)

Feeling its power base threatened, City Council is once again relying on time-honored bait-and-switch tactics to attack Ghiz’s proposal because members fear being labeled anti-democratic.

Several council members are spinning the issue as one of cost, alleging it would cost a half-million dollars to put a council race on the ballot in even-numbered years. They get that number because an election costs $1,600 per precinct, with the fee charged to the localities that have elections or issues on a particular ballot. Cincinnati has 332 precincts, meaning it could conceivably cost more than $530,000.

The problem with that logic is that fee is divided and proportioned based on other issues on the ballot, and there are always other issues on the November ballot, usually dozens of them.

In 2008, an even-numbered year, it cost $85,444 to place two city-related referendums on the ballot, one involving red-light traffic cameras and the other involving electing council by proportional representation.

The Hamilton County Board of Elections has said the cost of a special council election would be “nominal.” That’s another word for “small.”

“It cuts the cost way down,” says Jerry Collier, the board’s fiscal officer, referring to the splitting of fees.

Asked how many issues are placed on an average even-numbered year ballot, he says, “You can never tell. There could be 20 issues on the ballot or there could be 44, but there’s always something.”

Actually, more people probably would be involved in the choice under Ghiz’s proposal. During the past decade, the average voter turnout for even-numbered year elections is 55.2 percent, while it’s only 29.5 percent in odd-numbered years, when normal council elections are held.

“This just wouldn’t be giving power back to the people, it would be giving more power to more people,” Ghiz says.

City Council members usually oppose any switch to the current system. When various proposals have called for electing members by neighborhood or proportional representation instead of citywide, opponents declared the true change needed was giving the mayor more executive power.

Now Democratic Party Chairman Tim Burke maintains the real problem is that council’s two-year terms are too short. The leader of Cincinnati’s third political party, the Charter Committee, says the underlying problem is term limits, which he wants to abolish.

Regardless of what happens to Ghiz’s proposal, let’s see if Democrats propose a ballot issue lengthening terms or if Charterites propose one eliminating term limits. We’re not going to hold our breath while we wait.

Porkopolis TIP LINES: 513-665-4700 (ext. 147) or pork@citybeat.com



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