Cranley-Black Clash: An Inevitable Result Of The 'Stronger Mayor' Government

Mar 18, 2018

Hate to say I told you so.

But I told you so.

Back in May 1999, when I was writing politics for another media outlet in town – one which bought its ink by the barrel – I wrote something to the effect that the passage by Cincinnati voters of a charter amendment changing the city's form of government might some day lead to Trouble with a capital T, right here in River City.

Well, some day has come.

The irresistible force has met the immovable object.

John Cranley demanded a week ago that City Manager Harry Black resign. He wouldn't. A series of frantic negotiations began to find a severance scenario in which Black would leave. 

Early Saturday evening, Cranley announced that Black had signed a deal to leave  and that council's Finance Committee would vote on the agreement Monday. The Enquirer reported it would give Black 18 months pay. 

But five council Democrats - P.G. Sittenfeld, Wendell Young, Tamaya Dennard, Greg Landsman,  and Chris Seelbach - skipped a special meeting of council on Friday because they are at odds with Cranley over Black; and there is absolutely no guarantee that any one of them will change his or her mind and vote for this package. 

And it takes five votes to pass. 

City Manager Harry Black, Mayor John Cranley
Credit Provided/City of Cincinnati

The friction between Cranley and Black came to a head when Black pushed out one of the city's top police officers, Executive Assistant Chief Dave Bailey, after somebody leaked to the Enquirer an internal police audit of overtime pay.

Black claimed that there are forces within the police department that are trying to undermine the chief, Eliot Isaac, because he is African-American.

And there wasn't a darned thing Cranley, who likes getting his way, could do about it.

These two incredibly stubborn characters are in trench warfare with each other, housed in a suite of first-floor City Hall offices that are so close to each other that they could shoot rubber bands and spitballs at each other.

That charter amendment that created the conditions for this situation to exist passed in 1999, and was something of a Frankenstein monster of legislation – bits and pieces of the old council-manager form of government stitched together with enhanced power for a directly elected mayor, who, from 1925 to 2001, had no more authority than any one of the other eight council members.

It was to be a "stronger mayor" form of government, as it was called by its proponents back in 1999, a coalition of interest groups that called itself "Coming Together for Cincinnati."

It would give the mayor more authority – the ability to name council committee chairs, veto legislation, and hire and fire the city manager (with the consent of a council majority).

And, to make happy the descendants of the original Charter Committee that threw out the corrupt political bosses in the 1920s, it preserved the city manager's office.

An earlier attempt at a charter amendment that would have abandoned the city manager form of government altogether, replaced by a "strong mayor," who would run the day-to-day operations of city government, with council acting as a board of directors.

But the ghosts of the Charter battles of the 1920s were too strong, and that was rejected by the voters.

The "stronger" mayor proposal passed with 53 percent of the vote. Only 18 percent of the city's voters bothered to show up.

What the new system, including direct-election of the mayor, did not foresee was the day when a mayor would initiate the hiring of a city manager just as stubborn and bull-headed as he is.

Or a mayor who is gathering what he calls evidence of a city manager who has a pattern of being "abusive,'' "retaliatory," and "threatening" to city employees.

Black seems unimpressed by Cranley's threats.

Remind me again – which one is the irresistible force and which one is the immovable object?

Find a timeline of the Cranley-Black clash here