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Cincinnati's woes rooted in 1920s reforms

Critics say the city's once-revolutionary system of governing has generated mistrust and a lack of leadership.

By Laurent Belsie Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 11, 2001


Cincinnati, the city that helped revolutionize local government 75 years ago, is having to learn a tough civics lesson: You can't rest on old reforms.

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As the city has stopped growing and become racially diverse, its political machinery has grown unwieldy and, critics say, unresponsive.

That creakiness - along with a series of blunders by city leaders - has led to charges of police brutality and arrogant leadership. A month after a white policeman shot an unarmed black teenager, sparking riots here, an ugly war of words and economically damaging protests have tarnished the city's reputation and threaten to spiral out of control.

While local officials have approved a number of reforms for later this year, it's not clear they will provide a solution to the city's deeply rooted social problems.

"We have for a long time prided ourselves on being formally polite and in control and 'everything's fine,' " says Jane Anderson, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and candidate for city council. But, "I think a lot of people are reeling right now."

On a single day this week, for example:

* Three members of a group calling itself the Special Forces spoke out at a local county-commission meeting where, ironically, commissioners were reviewing progress on the construction of the Freedom Center, honoring the underground railroad. When Kabaka Oba, a "general" of the group, accused city officials of gangsterism, the commission president ordered him removed. "I am leaving on my own," Mr. Oba shouted back.

* In a stormy city-council meeting, several black leaders accused the police of murder and publicly dressed down the mayor, at one point calling him a liar.

* When organizers cancelled a local music festival, citing poor ticket sales, many black leaders cheered, even though the event would have helped businesses in a minority neighborhood where many police shootings have taken place. "We are beginning a war on economic apartheid and that's the beginning of this war," says James Jones, a local minister and chairman of the Coalition for Justice and Equality. Having gotten so little from the city, these leaders say, they have nothing to lose.

Such outbursts might not make the headlines in the rough-and-tumble politics of Chicago or New York, but here in gentile Cincinnati, it's high drama. Political observers lay the blame at the feet of several mayors and city councils. But one of the biggest problems, they add, stems from the structure of local government.

Exactly 75 years ago, Cincinnati made a name for itself by replacing a corrupt mayor and his cronies with a revolutionary system in which a city manager handled day-to-day affairs, guided by an egalitarian city council. The system worked for decades, lessening corruption by spreading power around, and today it represents the fastest-growing form of city government in the United States, says Professor Anderson.

A questionable system