Cincinnati City Council ponders rule change that could prevent referendum on streetcar money

CINCINNATI - Cincinnati City Council will discuss a rule change Tuesday that critics said could prohibit any potential voter referendum on extra money for the troubled streetcar project.

A council majority wants to amend the group’s rules so no City Council member could "separate a question" – or single out a specific provision from a larger item for a separate vote.

City Council must approve a budget for Fiscal Year 2014 by June 1, so it can take effect by July 1.

As part of the budget, council may include an extra $17.4 million for the city’s streetcar project to cover a shortfall caused by higher than expected construction bids.

For years, council members have been able to “separate a question” on any item that contains multiple provisions that come before the group for a vote.

But Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, a Democrat/Charterite, introduced a proposal April 29 that, if approved, would end the ability.

In her proposal, Simpson wrote, “If a council member disagrees with an item’s structure, the better course of action is for the council member to vote ‘no’ on the item and propose an alternate item conveying his desired language. This new item can then be introduced for consideration by the full council.”

Besides Simpson, five council members have indicated their support: Roxanne Qualls, Laure Quinlivan, Chris Seelbach, Pamula Thomas and Wendell Young.

That’s enough for passage when a final vote is taken Wednesday.

Like Simpson, all of the co-sponsors are Democrats and streetcar supporters – except Thomas, who is a recent appointee and hasn’t yet publicly declared a stance on the streetcar project. (She replaced her husband, who was a streetcar supporter.)

Councilman Christopher Smitherman, an independent who opposes the project, said the proposal’s intent is clear.

“I believe this motion is directly related to the imminent streetcar vote and to undermine any ability of the citizens of Cincinnati to exercise their right of referendum,” Smitherman said.

Many state and local laws involving voter referendums exempt ordinances that involve appropriation of money.

In March, Smitherman successfully pushed to separate council votes on a controversial lease of the city’s parking system. He then helped organize a petition drive to force a referendum on the lease in November.

City officials are fighting the parking referendum in a pending court case.

P.G. Sittenfeld, a Democrat who leans against the streetcar project, said he would oppose the rule change.

“There is a strong precedent for using ‘separation’ in the legislative process,” Sittenfeld said. “It allows an item to receive an up-or-down vote on its own merits, rather than masking or hiding a given action in broader omnibus legislation.”

Despite her signature on Simpson’s proposal, Quinlivan said her mind isn’t made up.

“I don't know if it's necessary or not, and haven't decided whether or not to vote for it,” Quinlivan said.

Quinlivan’s vote could be crucial: It requires six votes to change any of council’s rules.

With Sittenfeld, Smitherman and Republican Charlie Winburn opposed to the change, Quinlivan would provide the swing vote on the nine-member group.

Simpson, though a staffer, said Monday she would not discuss the issue until after the meeting on Tuesday. 

A vote on the proposal is scheduled at a special meeting of City Council’s rules and government operations committee at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday. The session will be held at City Hall, 801 Plum St., downtown.

If the committee recommends approval, the full council will make a final decision Wednesday.


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