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.

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.

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

But what works for fast-growing communities in the South and the West no longer works for shrinking Cincinnati. The chief complaint among African-Americans: the chiefs of the police and fire departments - two of the biggest city services - are not under the control of political leaders, but selected through a merit system.

Thus, even if they wanted to, political leaders have no way to replace the police chief, who has come under increasing fire as at least 15 black males (and no whites) have died at the hands of city police in the last six years.

"We have yet to see a real cadre of leadership emerge to lead the charge" of reform, says Joseph Tomain, dean of the college of law at the University of Cincinnati. And "we have a structure that serves to suppress the leadership that does emerge."

The string of fatalities has prompted a federal probe, as well as a federal civil suit by the mother of Timothy Thomas, the black 19-year-old whose shooting death a month ago sparked the current wave of protests.

The city is already in the midst of changing the way it picks mayors. Instead of voting for nine city council members and automatically giving the top vote-getter the mayor's post, residents this fall will be electing a mayor directly. The new mayor will have powers over city council for the first time, although a city manager will remain.

"I'm not sure anybody knows how it's going to work," says Anderson, who remains hopeful. "With goodwill, we can make it work."

But goodwill is exactly what Cincinnati is lacking right now. When the city council voted this week to hire a special prosecutor to handle the case against the police officer who shot Mr. Thomas, the county's white prosecutor called it "the dumbest thing I've ever seen come out of Cincinnati City Hall." Meanwhile, black leaders say their campaign of civil disobedience is just starting. They hope to force the cancellation of a police march and, for Memorial Day, a large city festival known as the Taste of Cincinnati.

Don't tell me who my leader is

The current uproar highlights splits not only between blacks and whites, but also between traditional black leaders (many of whom are Republican) and liberal neighborhood groups. These groups complain that the business community and local media refer to "black leaders" who have little connection to minority neighborhoods.

"They tell you who your leader is," complains Stephen Scott, pastor of the First Recovery Christian Fellowship Church. But in the past year, African-American churches and faith-based neighborhood groups have come together to address economic and legal concerns of minority residents, he adds. Even the traditionally independent Nation of Islam has signed on.

This grassroots rebellion has not yet anointed a leader or jelled into a cohesive political movement. But it's clear the events of the past month have exploded the conventional political wisdom and complicated the reelection hopes of incumbent Mayor Charlie Luken, who, until recently, looked like a shoo-in.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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