The council-manager system in the City of Cincinnati has eroded over time and needs reform, according to a study recently completed by the National Civic League. The study was funded by the Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation and was spawned in part by the recent indictment of three city councilmembers.
The study, Enhancing Governmental Effectiveness and Ethics in Cincinnati, was conducted with assistance from Dr. Kimberly Nelson from the University of North Carolina School of Government. League president Doug Linkhart and research director Mike McGrath worked with Dr. Nelson to interview stakeholders in Cincinnati and conduct a comparative analysis of seven similar cities to examine trends in council-mayor-manager relationships.
The City of Cincinnati was an early adopter of the council-manager form of government, in which elected officials function similar to a board of directors to set policy, while the city manager acts as the chief executive officer. Murray Seasongood, founder of the Seasongood Foundation with his wife Agnes, was the mayor of Cincinnati from 1926-1930.
In 2020 three Cincinnati City Council members were indicted by the federal government and accused of trading official action for either cash or campaign contributions, with the most-recent charges coming in November. The indictments related to communications with developers seeking city approvals.
To help prevent corruption in the future, the League’s study recommends that the city adopt an ethics code for councilmembers and provide regular training, along with restrictions on private councilmember communications with developers in advance of council approval proceedings.
Other recommendations of the study include:
- Removing language in the charter giving the mayor power to appoint the city manager with council approval to making the appointment the responsibility of the city council as a whole, along with regular performance evaluations of the manager’s work;
- Changing council rules to having the city manager set the council’s agenda and assigning bills to committees rather than the mayor;
- Removing the mayor’s veto authority for council actions;
- Requiring the manager to present the annual budget to the full council rather than to the mayor first, who currently transmits the budget with his comments;
- Make greater use of executive sessions of the council for personnel evaluations and contract purposes; and
- Convene a community conversation to consider changes to the council election structure; currently all nine councilmembers are elected at-large on one ballot; options to be considered include district seats or a hybrid of district and at-large seats.
The League’s work on the Cincinnati study coincides with our revision of the Model City Charter and publication of the Ninth Edition, which reinforces the strengths of the council-manager system in assuring governmental effectiveness and reducing corruption. Dr. Nelson has been a contributor to that work and is nationally recognized as a scholar on city charters.
The City of Cincinnati has elections for mayor and all of its council seats on November 2. With others in the community discussing reforms to the city’s governance structure and ethics protections, the Seasongood Foundation is sure to remain a player in helping the city improve its faith with the voters.