Gone Fishin'? Cincinnati City Council cancels multiple meetings to campaign more

In election year, group seeks more free time

CINCINNATI - In one of its last actions before taking a two-month summer recess, Cincinnati City Council this week decided to cancel most of its meetings for the rest of the year.

Although the item wasn't on its agenda, Mayor Mark Mallory introduced a motion Wednesday to dramatically scale back council's schedule.

The motion quickly passed in an 8-1 vote, with little public comment by council members. Only Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld was opposed.

"When citizens send us to council and pay us to do work, the expectation is we put in a very full workload," Sittenfeld said.

But Mallory defended his motion.

Mallory is facing term limits and isn't seeking another term, but he noted it's an election year and council members need time to campaign.

City Council has been busy in recent weeks, approving a budget for Fiscal Year 2014, which begins July 1, and crafting a plan to cover $17.4 million in cost overruns on the city's streetcar project, the mayor added.

"The heavy lifting is over," Mallory said. "The major issues that council has had to deal with for this legislative session are mostly done."

Under Cincinnati's charter, which is the municipal equivalent of a constitution, council is supposed to meet weekly -- every Wednesday -- which equates to about 42 times a year excluding holidays.

For people keeping track, there are 22 Wednesdays between now and Dec. 1 -- or 15 not counting the usual summer break.

After this week's change, City Council will meet just seven times during that period.

Since at least the 1960s, council has chosen to take two months off in the summer. It typically meets just once, at the break's mid-point, to handle any emergency matters.

More recently, City Council also has decided to take off most of December, after the group approves the budget for the next year. With the budget process now changed to require approval in June, it remains to be seen whether council will meet at all during that month.

If so, that means council will be taking three months off each year, or a full one-quarter of its work schedule.

This year, the only times council will meet before December are Aug. 7, Sept. 11, Sept. 25, Oct. 9, Nov. 13, Nov. 20 and Nov. 27.

In fact, City Council has increasingly been taking more time off to accommodate campaigning and fundraising in election years.

Besides its usual summer break, the group canceled four other meetings in 2009. That number increased to nine meetings in 2011.

Supporters of the frequent breaks said it allows elected officials time to become reacquainted with constituents and their needs. Just because they're not meeting publicly doesn't mean they're not working, they added.

"Before '09 or '10, we didn't cancel as much," said Jason Barron, the mayor's spokesman.

Typically, there's been very few times that they meet the day after the election or the week before the election because everybody is too busy," Barron added.

For council's critics, the decreased schedule sparks two questions: Should City Council be paid less for not meeting as often as specified in the charter; and should the group officially change its schedule so it meets bi-weekly or even monthly, instead of weekly?

The mayor currently is paid $121,291 annually; council members are paid $60,645 each year.

"Given the irresponsible things this council does on a weekly basis, I'm almost happy they are not meeting to do more harm," said Alex Triantafilou, chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party.

"This mayor spends so much time traveling that this measure to reduce his workload shouldn't come as any surprise," he said. "The taxpayers are hardly getting their money's worth."

John Cranley, an ex-city councilman who is running for mayor against Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, also is critical.

"Rather than going on vacation at the taxpayers' expense, council should continue meeting until the majority of the members who support repealing the parking meter lease get to vote to do just that," Cranley said.

Barron, however, said fewer meetings don't necessarily impact council's workload.

"We have fewer sessions but they are longer," Barron said. "We pack more work into them to have more time to campaign and be out in the community talking to folks.

"If there's an issues that comes up that requires immediate attention, we'll call a session," he added.

The situation proves Cincinnati officials are overpaid, according to Triantafilou.

"The most livable communities in southwest Ohio are governed by people making far less than the members of Cincinnati City Council," Triantafilou said. "Yet, these communities function very effectively. I would strongly support a cut in pay for council members. Instead, what we have found is a council more interested in consolidating power by expanding their terms to four years."

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