CINCINNATI — It is a sentimental gesture to recognize famous Cincinnatians with an honorary street sign, often in a favorite color.
But it is also an increasingly common way for City Council to spend its time as Election Day nears.
So far in 2021, as city council faces a historically crowded election field, it has renamed 15 streets. It has honored religious and community leaders, fallen police officers and notable residents, such as ice cream shop entrepreneur James Aglamesis and chef Jean-Robert de Cavel.
“These ceremonial events are a successful way to grab a headline, to grab some news coverage,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven.
During non-election years, council only approves a handful of honorary street signs. There were two each in 2019 and 2020, and five in 2018.
In fact, the last time City Council spent so much time renaming streets was in 2017 – when many of its members were running for re-election. That year, council chambers were filled with elaborate street-naming ceremonies to honor dignitaries such as entertainer Doris Day.
After the sign-naming frenzy of 2017, then-City Manager Harry Black sent a memo to council warning them of the impact it was having on city workers and the city budget, and tightening up application procedures.
The city’s current administration declined comment for this story. A spokesperson said each honorary street sign costs the city roughly $750 in time and materials. That cost is paid for through a contingency fund within the Department of Public Services.
At that price, taxpayers have spent more than $11,000 so far this year on honorary street signs.
Yet Mack Mariani, a Xavier University political science professor, said these honorary street signs rarely create a controversy.
“I can’t ever remember anybody opposing the naming of a street, anybody mounting a campaign against it,” Mariani said.
Holding public ceremonies to unveil honorary street signs is a good way to capture media attention ahead of Election Day, and show constituents that you are actually working for them.
“When so much of the work of the council is inherently a group project, you might not get credit for it,” Niven said. “But you can personally put your name and effort into renaming a street. You can show up and embrace the community and say, this is who you are and what you care about.”
Street namings are a symbolic act that give incumbents a real advantage, especially with a historically large field of candidates for City Council this year at 35.
“The ability of incumbents to use resources and time to do that, on the taxpayer dime, is something they can do that non-incumbent and challenger candidates can’t,” Mariani said.
Councilwoman Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, who was appointed to her seat in March of 2020 and is running for her first election to keep it, has led efforts to honor six figures with ties to Cincinnati with honorary street signs this year.
“It’s really an honor after whom the street is named. For the family and for the community … to keep history alive and to keep people aware of all of the wonderful contributions that our citizens have made,” Kearney said.
Kearney leads council’s Neighborhoods Committee, which takes the initial vote on the honorary signs before it goes to full City Council. When she actually sponsors a sign, it always comes after being approached by a resident. She researches the person and brings the idea to each neighborhood community council. She said she has never received objections.
“When you see a street name, you wonder who is that person, and hopefully people will look them up if they don’t know who they are. It’s an ongoing part of history,” Kearney said.
But some council members who are term-limited from running for office again are also sponsoring ordinances to name street signs for fallen police officers, as in the case of Councilman Christopher Smitherman, or for famous chef de Cavel, which was led by Councilman Chris Seelbach.
“That’s a feel-good, legacy moment,” Niven said. “For these council members who are being term-limited out of office, this is one of the last ways they can offer a tribute to the neighborhoods and the people.”
Council historically does not take up big issues or make policy stances in the weeks leading up to Election Day. Instead, four honorary street renamings were on Council’s agenda for Wednesday’s meeting.
But Kearney insists it’s not about the votes, it’s about honoring history.
“It’s not really a great way of getting votes,” Kearney said. “I mean it doesn’t hurt. But of all the ways of getting votes, I think street namings are really not the best way.”