The Charter Review Task Force was created by a unanimous vote of Cincinnati City Council on December 13, 2013 to oversee a complete and holistic review of Cincinnati’s Charter. The charter is the city’s constitution. It defines the roles of the mayor and city council, sets the number of council members, determines who they represent, and how council and the mayor are elected. The charter determines how our park system is governed, how zoning changes can and cannot be made, and establishes the chain of command in times of emergency. It impacts essentially every aspect of city government.
The Charter Review Task Force (CRTF) was given a mammoth task and no funding with which to accomplish it. The Cincinnati Research Institute helped overcome this hurdle in a number of ways, including donating the use of its website to enable the task force to engage the public on the web; to advise citizens of public forum dates, topics and locations; and to post studies and data received by task force committees.
The Charter Review Task force was not a group of people who were selected to re-write the charter. The role of the task force, composed of members from an intentionally diverse set of interests and backgrounds, was to facilitate an open, extensive, community discussion about how city government should function, and the ways in which it should be accountable to the citizens. The process included public meetings every week for roughly 18 months, research conducted by committees, and the collection of studies and data produced by third-parties (most notably CRI.) Although it was not required to do so, the CRTF chose to operate in compliance with Ohio’s Sunshine law to ensure true transparency in its process.
After research was conducted and public discussions were held, each of six CRTF committees produced a set of recommendations. These recommendations were then publicly discussed among the full task force in open meetings. (Meeting minutes and the reports of all of the committees can be found on the Resources page of this website.) The information and opinions collected through this process was reduced to specific proposed changes to the text and structure of the charter. The mission of the CRTF was to produce recommendations that City Council could place on the ballot for consideration by Cincinnati voters.
CRTF went through this process twice. Recommendations for removing obsolete and ambiguous provisions were made in 2014, placed on the ballot by City Council, and adopted by the approval of 73% of the electorate in November 2014.
The CRTF completed its final set of recommendations in July 2015, constituting four proposed amendments to the charter. Ultimately, these amendments were supposed to be considered by the voters. Unfortunately, voters will only be given the opportunity to consider the least significant of these recommendations in November 2015.
One of the substantive recommendations that voters will be unable to consider is the elimination of the so-called “pocket veto.” The Charter states that the mayor “shall” assign all matters referred by council members to City Council committees. In committee, potential ordinances are publicly discussed and can be moved forward for passage by council. After they are passed by council, ordinances are subject to the legitimate veto power of the mayor. However, due to an unintentional oversight during 1999 changes to the Charter that created a “stronger mayor” form of government, the specific time limit within which this administrative obligation is required to occur (originally 14 days) was left out of the Charter. As a result, although the mayor is required to assign all matters for consideration in a timely manner, the “pocket veto” became an abuse of power whereby the mayor would refuse to assign legislative matters to committees as required by law, either preventing their public discussion and consideration permanently or only permitting their consideration after back-room concessions are made by council members. The “pocket veto” violates municipal law, but preventing its use either requires a clarification to the Charter (as proposed by the CRTF) or it requires members of City Council to file a lawsuit against the mayor (at taxpayer expense) every time the abuse of power occurs.
The wisdom and importance of eliminating the “pocket veto” was confirmed when Mayor John Cranley (who vehemently opposed the use of the “pocket veto” during Mayor Mallory’s administration) refused to let Council consider the ordinances that would have placed these recommended changes on the November ballot (i.e. he used the “pocket veto” to prevent elimination of the abuse of power known as the “pocket veto.”) Eventually, three of the four recommendations moved forward, but only after Mayor Cranley had made personal threats and visceral attacks on the civic volunteers who had composed the CRTF, “convinced” Councilman Kevin Flynn to remove one of the four recommendations from consideration in a private meeting, and “lobbied” other City Council members to vote against the ordinances. Ultimately, there were not six members of the same City Council that unanimously created the CRTF who possessed the resolve to place the recommendations on the ballot. As a result, voters were denied the opportunity to consider amendments to the Charter that would have curbed egregious abuses of power and restored more accountability to city government.
The only way that these changes will now be made is if they are placed directly on the ballot in years to come by the citizens of Cincinnati.
The final recommendations of the task force can be read here: CRTF-FinalReportJuly2015
CRI research regarding the abuse of “emergency” ordinances can be read here: CRI Emergency Ordinance Research
CRI research comparing Cincinnati city government to peer cities can be read here: Cincinnati report final with cover pic and ES
CRI research regarding City Council’s inability to conduct executive sessions can be read here: CRI Executive Session Research
CRTF Balance of Power Committee’s final report can be read here: CRTF-BOP-FinalReport