CINCINNATI - Having multiple candidates run to become Cincinnati's next mayor may be good for democracy, but it can be bad for the city's budget.
With Libertarian candidate Jim Berns already filing paperwork to run for mayor this fall, it means at least three people will be seeking the top office at City Hall.
And that means the city must pay extra money – up to $400,000 – to hold a primary election in September.
Cincinnati's charter requires a primary be held on the second Tuesday in September if there are more than two mayoral candidates.
The top two vote-getters in the primary then face off in the November general election.
Both Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls and ex-City Councilman John Cranley have announced they're running for mayor. Although the pair hasn't yet submitted the required paperwork to enter the race, they have plenty of time to do so: The deadline isn't until June 27.
Qualls is a Democrat who's cross-endorsed by the Charter Committee, while Cranley is also a Democrat.
Cincinnati's mayoral race is nonpartisan, which means it's possible for two candidates of the same party to appear on the November ballot. In fact, that's exactly what happened in 2005 when Democrats Mark Mallory and David Pepper faced off.
This year, it's likely other candidates will join the mayoral race in addition to Berns. The local Republican Party is expected to field a candidate, possibly Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann.
Also, some people with no party affiliation have expressed interest in the job. They include perennial candidate Sandra Queen Noble, who ran as an independent for Cincinnati City Council in 2011, finishing in a distant 21st place.
(Noble ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2005, receiving 121 votes; and for Congress in 2010, receiving 785 votes. Also, she ran for U.S. president in 2004 and 2008.)
But having such longshot candidates on the ballot increases the cost for the city of Cincinnati.
Typically, no other community in Hamilton County holds a primary election in September, meaning Cincinnati has to pick up the full tab for holding that election. For 2013, that cost is expected to be $350,000 to $400,000.
As a result, some people – including Cranley and Berns – believe the city's charter should be changed to reduce the cost.
Berns wants to eliminate the primary election altogether, and let all candidates face each other in November. He thinks holding the primary gives an unfair advantage to major party candidates, and has called the system "rotten to the core."
"It is like having the Kentucky Derby and only letting the first two horses at the half-mile marker continue the race," Berns said.
"If Qualls and Cranley are the top two vote-getters in September, conservatives, Republicans and Libertarians have no reason to vote in the Nov. 5 mayoral election," he said. "Libertarians, Greens, independents and other third-party candidates will be knocked off the ballot in September leaving an undemocratic choice of two Democrats to choose from."
Cranley, however, likes having a primary election but wants to move it to either May (when the state holds an election) or August (when many communities hold elections for levy or bond issues).
"I like the idea of tying it into a county or state primary, to save some money," Cranley said.
In those instances, the cost can be divided among communities and school districts that have items on the ballot.
Still, Cranley thinks it's important to hold an election to winnow the field to just two mayoral contenders.
"I prefer having a runoff between two people in the November election," he said. "The whole point of having a direct election for mayor is to give people the time and energy to think about who would make the mayor. This spreads the process out a bit."
On this issue, at least, Qualls agrees with Cranley. Narrowing the field to just two candidates increases their accountability and requires them to get more specific.
"The purpose of changing to a directly elected mayor was to give the voters an opportunity to choose between two different visions and policy programs for the city," Qualls said. "It recognized that a field race for mayor resulted in an outcome more determined by name recognition and image."
"The change to a directly elected mayor was for the purpose of establishing a means by which the individual elected to office could be held accountable for policies and programs and outcomes during his or her tenure," she said. "To be able to do so requires that candidates for mayor engage directly with each other on the issues. A field race among multiple candidates does not allow this."
Qualls, however, thinks the charter amendment approved by voters in 1999 that created the September primary was a wise move.
"The reason the mayoral primary was
set for September was to reduce the amount of time the final candidates for mayor would spend campaigning for office, so as to limit amount of time devoted to a general election," Qualls said.
Cranley said if the system for electing the mayor is changed, it should be voter-driven and not be sparked by City Council.
"Obviously, this is for the voters to decide and the voters wanted it this way," he said.
Further, having a primary doesn't disadvantage some candidates, Cranley said. Anyone with strong, appealing ideas will emerge victorious in September, regardless of his or her affiliation.
"Republicans would have an equal chance to get to the November ballot," Cranley said. "I think anyone would have an equal chance with the right ideas."