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Rocking the Status Quo

Challengers shake up City Council race

By Kevin Osborne · October 11th, 2011 · News
news_juan_wlw_jason_riveiro_glJason Riveiro
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In the dysfunctional world of Cincinnati City Council, the group that theoretically guides the direction of our fair metropolis is currently divided 5-to-4 about how to avoid a looming $33 million deficit next year. Just as it was divided in July. And just as it was in April. The seasons might change, but council's inaction doesn't.

So, just as council did last December, it looks like officials will once again wait until the last minute to decide on spending cuts. Amid frantic negotiations and heated rhetoric, it will pass a municipal budget just before the New Year's deadline despite having months of advance warning in which it could've cobbled together a compromise.

It's an old tune, one that's been sung many times in recent years at City Hall.

Perhaps surprisingly, the five-member majority on council — comprised of four Republicans and one Charterite (who, in fact, is a registered Republican on the rolls at the Board of Elections) — describes itself as fiscally conservative. But the majority has refused to unveil its budget proposal before the November council elections. The faction says that's because it shouldn't draft a plan that might be overturned after a new council is elected Nov. 8 and sworn into office a few weeks later.

If history is any guide, however, there's rarely any large-scale turnover on Cincinnati City Council due to the at-large system used to elect its members. More likely, the majority's reticence to put forward a budget plan has more to do with avoiding politically unpopular decisions — such as possibly laying off police and firefighters or closing health clinics — before Election Day.

Profiles in courage it ain't.

Which brings us to an old saying: Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Next month, voters will get the chance to help City Hall break that dysfunctional cycle.

All nine seats on council are up for election in a citywide field race, just as they are every two years. That means candidates don't campaign against each other, they merely run at-large, and the top nine vote-getters are elected.

The system generally has benefitted incumbents, as most voters only strongly support a few candidates. Many voters then use the remainder of their nine votes on candidates they might have some qualms about; generally, those votes have gone to mediocre incumbents, who have greater name recognition than challengers. Cumulatively, those “after-thought” votes have a large impact.

As a result, rarely has more than one or two members of City Council been replaced in a single election, except when incumbents couldn't run again due to term limits. This year all of the nine incumbents can run again. That means unless voters make a concerted decision to opt for a switch, the same group will be back in December.

The current City Council consists of Republicans Leslie Ghiz, Wayne Lippert, Amy Murray and Charlie Winburn; Charterite Chris Bortz; and Democrats Roxanne Qualls, Laure Quinlivan, Cecil Thomas and Wendell Young. Three of those members, though, could be particularly vulnerable. Lippert, Murray and Young were each appointed to council to replace a member who resigned before his or her term was completed, and none have been elected in their own right.

As in previous council elections, CityBeat is again spotlighting the non-incumbents, many of whom are ignored by mainstream media. Besides the nine incumbents, 14 other people are vying for a seat on City Council. They include a former Republican county prosecutor who left office due to a sex scandal and now is attempting a political comeback; a Democratic campaign consultant who is running as the first openly gay candidate endorsed by a major party; an ex-council member ousted after a single term several years ago who now is president of the NAACP's local chapter; a Republican newcomer who might be best known for appearing in TV commercials for her family's fence company; and a Democrat who is a former CityBeat “Person of the Year.”

The challengers are Democrats Nicholas Hollan, Jason Riveiro, Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld; Republican Catherine Smith Mills; Charterites Kevin Flynn and Yvette Simpson, the latter of whom is cross-endorsed by Democrats; and independents Jacqueline Allen, Mike Allen, Kathy Atkinson, Patricia McCollum, Sandra Queen Noble, Christopher Smitherman and Orlando Welborn.

Of those candidates, Jacqueline Allen, Atkinson, Simpson, Smitherman and Welborn didn’t respond to CityBeat’s request for comments or were unable to meet the deadline.

Dems groom next generation

On the Democratic side, perhaps the most visible candidates have been Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld, both of whom are seeking public office for the first time. With well-organized campaign structures in place, their yard signs have dotted the city and both were among the first candidates to air TV commercials.

Seelbach, 31, is an Over-the-Rhine resident who is vice president and chief financial officer at The Seidewitz Group, a local marketing and consulting firm where he's crafted commercials for many local Democratic candidates in the past. A Louisville native who is a Xavier University graduate, he was a campaign manager and City Hall staffer for former Vice Mayor David Crowley, who died last year.

Like his mentor, Crowley, Seelbach describes himself as a champion of progressive causes. He helped lead the campaign to repeal the anti-gay Article 12 from the city's charter in 2004. Unlike several of Cincinnati's closeted and semi-closeted politicians, Seelbach is openly gay and has often mentioned his partner, Craig, on the campaign trail.

Seelbach is an outspoken supporter of the city's planned streetcar system and, although opposed to any further layoffs at City Hall, believes all departmental budgets must be examined — including police and fire — for possible cuts, if needed.

“In the last five years, some departments have seen 50 percent cuts while others have seen 50 percent growth,” Seelbach says. “This disparity cannot continue as we lose nearly all state funding for future budgets. There can no longer be departments that escape cuts and reform, we are simply losing too much money. I support even-handed cuts across all departments, no longer leaving large portions of our budget unscathed.

“We need to have frank conversations with department heads, union representatives and city employees to find greater efficiencies, and if necessary negotiate short-term concessions to prevent further layoffs,” he adds.

Further, Seelbach supports reforming the city’s zoning policies to “create more livable neighborhoods” and wants to focus on attracting “the educated, creative class who are flocking to cities like Austin, Portland and Charlotte and leading their job growth” to improve Cincinnati's economy.

Sittenfeld, 27, is a Mount Lookout resident who works as an assistant director at the Community Learning Center Institute. A Cincinnati native who graduated from Princeton University, Sittenfeld's father is noted investment adviser Paul Sittenfeld, while one of his sisters is best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld. Before returning to his home city, P.G. Sittenfeld spent time at Oxford University in Britain and had internships at Time magazine and Google.

Possibly due to expertise imparted by his dad, Sittenfeld has easily led the council pack in campaign fundraising, collecting more than $217,000 as of July, far more than even council incumbents.

Among his mentors is David Pepper, an ex-city councilman and county commissioner.

But Sittenfeld has been criticized in some political circles for playing it safe and not taking a definitive stance on certain issues, like whether he supports the streetcar system or  keeping the city's Environmental Justice Ordinance, which has been targeted for elimination by the Chamber of Commerce, although he wants to protect the Office of Environmental Quality (OEQ).

Regarding the streetcar, Sittenfeld says, “The city's focus right now needs to be on basic services ahead of streetcars, but the reality is, this project is now in the hands of the voters, and I will respect the direction they give us in November. I plan to vote 'no' on (Issue) 48 because tying the city's hands for such a long duration and denying citizens the chance to revisit critical issues and changing circumstances when it comes to transportation or any other city function is bad governance that I cannot support.”

The city's fiscal problems could make keeping the EJ ordinance impractical, he adds. “EJ is a trickier item since it's not yet implemented and has many components I think could stand to be reformed. OEQ, meanwhile, is saving the city significant money every year and needs to be preserved,” Sittenfeld says.

If elected, Sittenfeld would focus on economic development by increasing efforts to include city residents or city-based firms on taxpayer-funded projects, proposing a job creation tax credit and working with existing businesses to create a better young professional recruitment strategy.

Making his second run for council is Nicholas Hollan. A Westwood resident, Hollan, 31, is a University of Cincinnati graduate who owns a dental practice in Bond Hill. He's previously worked for the American Red Cross and the United Way of Greater Cincinnati. Hollan finished 16th out of 19 candidates during his first race two years ago.

With his background in health-related professions, it's no wonder that chief among Hollan's concerns are improving the infant mortality rate and increasing immunizations for children. 

“As a health-care professional, I am an ardent supporter of keeping the health clinics open and accessible to those individuals who desperately need them,” Hollan says.

Hollan also wants council to create individualized action plans for each of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods, based on their unique needs. Based on his experience as a neighborhood activist, Hollan believes focusing on funding alone isn't effective in deterring crime. 

“Public safety isn’t measured by the amount of dollars spent or the number of police on the street,” he says. “Crime reduction and increased public safety in our city will only happen when we use a strong two-pronged attack: Proactively focus on education and job training, while deterring crime through policing and community engagement.

“We should remember to fund the police to the best of our ability, but not forsake those programs necessary to lessen their workload,” Hollan adds.

Rounding out the Democratic ticket is Jason Riveiro. This is Riveiro's first campaign for council, although he unsuccessfully ran as an independent against incumbent State Rep. Dale Mallory — the mayor's brother — for the Ohio House 32nd District seat in 2008.

Riveiro, 31, is a Walnut Hills resident who works as publisher of La Jornada Latina and as market manager for WZFR (97.7 FM), Cincinnati’s Spanish-language radio station. Riveiro is a first-generation American, born and raised in Houston. He's the first Hispanic candidate to run for City Council, a sign of the region's burgeoning Latino community.

Based on his efforts at stopping a racist billboard campaign by WLW (700 AM) and helping develop a push-back strategy against the demagoguery of the anti-immigration movement, Riveiro was selected as CityBeat's “Person of the Year” for 2007. Additionally, he is the Ohio director for the League of United Latin American Citizens and helped bring the group's national convention to Cincinnati last summer.

Like Sittenfeld, Riveiro also wants to keep recent college graduates in town and promote local hiring through a new policy. Under Riveiro's proposal, priority would be given to hiring local residents for any Cincinnati public works project, and the city would provide a 50 percent cut on its earnings tax for every new, well-paying job created during the next three to five years. Further, incentives would be created for graduates who stay in Cincinnati and the companies that hire them.

Riveiro also wants to help neighborhoods by creating a land bank of vacant properties, and then aggressively selling them at a nominal price to individuals or businesses that bring the properties up to code; and by restoring money cut from the Neighborhood Support Program and the Cincinnati Initiative to Reduce Violence.

To help eliminate the city's deficit, Riveiro proposes creating a one-time fee for banks when they foreclose on properties, and a daily fee for blight violations; reducing the supervisor-to-non management employee ratio at City Hall; and pushing for efficiencies in the city's contracted professional services such as legal and audit.

Riveiro opposes any police or firefighter layoffs: “I believe there is room for improvement (in finding departmental budget savings) but we must work together with the Police and Fire departments instead of council acting alone. I am not in favor of layoffs because we can find areas within administration to improve.”

GOP, Charter keep it short and sweet

As it has often done in the past, the local Republican Party isn't running a full slate of nine council candidates. Instead, it's focusing on a five-person slate that — if elected — would give the GOP control over City Council, an unlikely scenario in a predominantly Democratic city.

(The current conservative majority only occurred when maverick-y Democrat Jeff Berding, a Bengals executive, resigned and selected Republican Wayne Lippert as his replacement; both men are strongly backed by corporate interests.)

The only Republican non-incumbent seeking election is Catherine Smith Mills. A Mount Lookout resident, she is 31 and works for Mills Fence Co., a family business with offices in Golf Manor and Walton, Ky. A perky, smiling Mills appears in TV commercials for the firm.

Mills has been actively involved with the Hamilton County Republican Party for the past nine years and served as co-chair of its Leadership Council in 2009-10. In June, she received a Master's Degree in public policy and management from the Ohio State University. She's also worked in the Congressional offices of Rob Portman and Jean Schmidt, and served on the board of Cincy PAC, a local young professionals group.

As is the official GOP stance, Mills opposes any budget cuts or layoffs in the Police and Fire departments, and opposes the city's long-planned streetcar system.

“When the plan was first unveiled, I served on the Cincy PAC board which endorsed the plan based on its economic development potential,” Mills says. “Unfortunately, the times have changed and so has the streetcar plan. I cannot support a plan that no longer has state funding, that is taking city dollars while we have a $33 million deficit, and no longer will connect downtown with the uptown area. I am in favor of better transit options to reduce pollution like bus rapid transit, bike paths and planning more walkable communities.”

Asked how she would eliminate the city's projected deficit for next year, Mills replies, “In the immediate future, I agree with common sense cuts like those recommended by Councilman Bortz and others to close a portion of the deficit. For example, budget gas prices for $3.71, the current market value, and not over $4. But we also need to pursue long-term savings that will lead to a structurally balanced budget. These types of savings can be found by doing an audit of city departments and also collaborating with the county to find areas where shared services make sense.”

Kevin Flynn is one of three Charterites on the ballot. The others are incumbent Bortz and newcomer Yvette Simpson, who didn't respond to CityBeat's request for comment. 

Flynn is arguably the non-incumbent of any party with the best chance at gaining a seat on City Council. That's because when Flynn ran once before, in 2009, he finished in 13th place — one spot above current appointee Wendell Young. In fact, of the three candidates who finished ahead of Flynn that year but weren't elected, only one (appointee Amy Murray) is running again.

Flynn, 50, is a real-estate attorney from Mount Airy who also teaches at the University of Cincinnati's law school. He has been confined to a wheelchair since a serious automobile accident in 2002.

Flynn opposes any police or firefighter layoffs, supports the streetcar project and opposes the city manager's proposed garbage collection fee. During the '09 election, Flynn lost support from some women's groups because of his anti-abortion stance, but his backers say that's an issue that has almost no bearing on a city-oriented race.

Asked how he would eliminate the deficit, Flynn replies, “Council’s role should be to set policy and direction for our city and leave micromanagement to the administration. Policy should primarily be set by determining, through an open and transparent process, how the city will spend the $1.3 billion in annual revenue that our city has … we can and must eliminate duplication of services within our own departments. By centralizing back office functions such as I.T., budget and purchasing, we can save significant money. Combine capital items, utilize personnel more efficiently, reach out to the community to partner on projects.”

Forging their own paths

As is typical in most council elections, there are several candidates who have no party affiliation. The most well-known independent is Mike Allen, a former Hamilton County prosecutor who decided not to seek reelection in 2004 when it was revealed that he had an extramarital affair with an assistant prosecutor who later sued the county; Allen has since divorced his then-wife, Muncipal Court Judge Lisa Allen.

In his long career, Mike Allen, 55, also has served as a Cincinnati police officer, a municipal court judge and as county GOP chairman. Now a downtown resident who has a private legal practice, he is seeking to reenter politics after a seven-year hiatus.

Allen opposes any police or firefighter layoffs, wants to open some city services to possible privatization and consolidate others with Hamilton County, opposes the streetcar project and wants to abolish the Office of Environmental Quality.

“I would work to balance the budget by consolidation of city departments such as parks and recreation,” Allen says. “We should also look into merging the Metropolitan Sewer District and the Cincinnati Water Works as has been suggested by Council Member Wendell Young. I believe that we need to increase managed competition and continue to eliminate waste and duplication in the city budget.”

Allen adds, “I am strongly in favor of combining many city and county services. For instance, there is no reason that the county handles birth certificate records for all of the county but the city. We should look into the cost effectiveness of the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office assuming the duties and responsibilities of the Cincinnati City Prosecutor's Office. When I was prosecutor, we worked with the city and determined that there was no significant cost savings to be realized by such a move. Times and caseloads have changed, and it should be looked at again.”

Also running as an independent is local NAACP President Christopher Smitherman, a man that Allen once called “a smart-mouthed little punk” on a radio show. (Allen later apologized.) Smitherman served a single term on council beginning in 2003 but was defeated in his reelection bid in '05. In 2007, he was elected as NAACP president in a hotly contested election, and has since been reelected to that post.

A financial planner, Smitherman, 44, lives in North Avondale. In recent years, Smitherman has forged an alliance with the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), an ultra-conservative group, and has tried to block the city's streetcar project. In 2009, he collected enough signatures to place an issue on the ballot that would've required a public vote on any streetcar expenditures; it failed 56 percent to 44 percent. This year, he's placed an issue on the ballot to block all passenger rail projects in the city for the next decade.

Also, during a successful campaign in '09 to prevent the city's Water Works from converting into a regional water district, Smitherman remarked that the switch might allow city officials to pump polluted water or diseases like syphilis into African-American communities, which was roundly criticized as inflammatory and misleading.

Smitherman didn't respond to CityBeat's request for comment, but he gave limited answers to the League of Women Voters. He listed police, fire and sanitation as the city's essential services, said he supports keeping the OEQ open and he wants to “slow down tax abatements, tax exercised stock options … (and) centralize all purchasing to manage inventory and lower costs.”

Making their first runs for City Council are Patricia McCollum and Sandra Queen Noble.

McCollum, 64, is a College Hill resident who's a social worker and adjunct professor at the University of Cincinnati. She opposes the streetcar project and wants to solve the deficit by eliminating overtime and consolidating some departments. McCollum also wants the city to partner with area universities to provide job training.

Noble is an Evanston resident who wouldn't disclose her age and lists her occupation as “fashion designer.” She previously ran unsuccessfully for Cincinnati mayor in 2005, receiving 121 votes; and for Congress in Washington, D.C., in 2010, receiving 785 votes.

Noble is suing the “Stolen United States of America” for “$994 trillion” in a personal injury lawsuit. Noble's responses to CityBeat's questions were off-topic and rambling, to put it kindly. 



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