It’s been more than 60 years since legendary actress and singer Doris Day lived in Cincinnati, yet she stole the show last month during a Cincinnati City Council meeting.
Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld led a 25-minute presentation, displaying life-size photos of the smiling superstar at City Hall and playing a video presentation on the Cincinnati native’s life for fellow council members. And 25 minutes later, council voted to rename a city street in her honor – Doris Day Way.
It was a sentimental gesture to recognize a famous Cincinnatian. But it is also an increasingly common way for City Council to spend its time as Election Day nears.
So far in 2017, as most of council faces re-election, it has renamed 20 streets to celebrate history or honor notable residents such as Buddy LaRosa and Bootsy Collins.
Meanwhile bigger issues, such as what to do about the dilapidated Police District 5 and the number of cancer diagnoses of officers who work there, seem to simmer without much attention.
The Doris Day presentation came just a day after another officer had been diagnosed with cancer while city leaders delayed plans to move officers from the troubled District 5 building for months.
It prompted Hamilton County Republican Party Chair Alex Triantafilou to tweet “While @CityOfCincy PD faces a real crisis in Dist. 5, your council is enjoying pictures of Doris Day. Get Serious.”
With the election weeks away, and six of the nine council members running for re-election, WCPO examined the number of resolutions it passed that don’t change city policy in any way.
For example, in 2017, City Council passed 17 resolutions voicing their opinions on a range of state and national topics, such as the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the nation’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement.
Councilman Charlie Winburn chided his fellow council members for spending the bulk of a 28-minute meeting in September talking about President Donald Trump’s order to end a policy allowing children of immigrants to stay in the United States legally.
He ticked off a number of issues – from the streetcar’s operating budget to the heroin epidemic – that City Council should spend time on instead.
“Our time is better spent on these issues,” Winburn said. “We are not being fair to Cincinnatians when we focus on taking symbolic stands on national issues.”
And taking a stance on national issues – particularly with a controversial president like Trump — can be a good way for some council members to win favor with their base.
“If you’re Chris Seelbach and you’re saying things that appeal to a group of liberals in the community, they’re happy when you speak out against (Donald) Trump,” said Mack Mariani, chair of Xavier University’s political science department. “They’re thinking: ‘This Seelbach guy is thinking exactly what I’m thinking.’”
It’s not just national issues that have sucked up council’s time.
They’ve spent plenty of time taking up political causes, such as promoting Genocide Awareness Month or opposing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.
Over their nearly four-year term, members created 68 resolutions recognizing citizen achievements – from marathon runners to Food Network cooking champions, often with speeches and lengthy presentations.
“There’s a value in recognizing our history and a value in celebrating the good feeling people have for the city and its people,” said University of Cincinnati political science professor David Niven. “But it can only be a part of the job. … When it’s a regular, reoccurring and often central accomplishment of the day, that’s where it becomes a reason to be concerned.”
Councilman Chris Seelbach routinely honors city residents during Gay Pride Month and Councilwoman Yvette Simpson does the same for Black History Month, as a way to recognize important achievements.
Sittenfeld has had a busy and productive year on City Council – from new policy that forces banks to maintain foreclosed properties to launching a ‘Golden Cincinnati’ Initiative that created an aging and accessibility czar at City Hall. He also spearheaded an idea to use technology to solve the heroin crisis.
The resolutions he’s sponsored are just another way to respond to his constituents, he said.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever done a resolution without someone in the community saying ‘This is really important,’” Sittenfeld said. “It takes almost no time, and it’s almost always in response to sincere citizens who care about issues and want their elected leadership to take a position.”
And, he adds, he doesn’t think he won over any voters with those resolutions.
“I pretty strongly doubt that I would get a vote I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, to name a street after Doris Day,” Sittenfeld said.
The dog days of summer
In late August 2016, county and city leaders were grappling with a heroin catastrophe.
A wave of heroin spiked with animal tranquilizers caused 174 overdoses in less than a week — including 78 overdoses and three deaths in just two days on Aug. 23 and 24.
What was City Council doing on Aug. 24, as first responders struggled to keep up with the surge of overdoses?
Councilmen Charlie Winburn and Wendell Young called a special meeting to address rumors that City Manager Harry Black’s job could be in jeopardy.
For more than an hour, council members bickered over just that. The terms heroin or overdose were never uttered during the 75-minute meeting.
Councilman Christopher Smitherman called it “political gamesmanship” and a “waste of time.”
“With all respect, I don’t think that this day is our finest hour,” added Vice Mayor David Mann. “I think it’s very unhelpful and I’m bewildered at exactly why we’re here.”
The meeting even drew attention from Ohio Democratic Party Chair David Pepper, who re-tweeted a local news story about the unproductive meeting and wrote, “While dozens of overdoses occur across city… #productive”
That summer, council also took up the topic of bringing dogs to work in city buildings.
Councilman Chris Seelbach and Councilwoman Amy Murray sponsored a motion, which was signed by all nine council members, asking the city how it could create a dog-friendly environment for workers.
Sittenfeld even asked for the new law to be named after his dog, Oakley.
But the idea never gained traction after Black revealed it would cost the city $201,000 a year to allow dogs inside city buildings.
And just last week, council spent nearly 10 minutes of a 50-minute meeting debating how office space should be divvied up after the election.
Mann, who has served a combined 22 years on council, once again grew frustrated with council’s priorities.
“How bold of us to worry about what happens after the election,” Mann quipped.
But Councilman Kevin Flynn, who is not running for re-election, wanted to create specific new rules for office assignments to spare council’s clerk of court from the late night phone calls she receives from newly elected council members.
“On certain occasions, the clerk of council was contacted the night of the election, as soon as results were announced,” Flynn said. “I don’t care, really, which way it is. I just don’t think that it’s appropriate to put our clerk into a position where she would have to be making a decision that is not set forth in the rules.”
Because council is made up of nine people, who are members of different political parties, it is often difficult to find agreement on hard topics such as how to replace the Western Hills Viaduct. So it encourages talk about softer issues instead, Niven said.
“In their defense, this is an unwielding governing body,” Niven said. “You don’t know how the numbers will add up, if you can get six votes, and you have an uncertain relationship with the mayor.”
While the three-member Hamilton County Commission regularly takes up the issues of funding for the Western Hills Viaduct, U.S. Bank Arena and the FC Cincinnati stadium, City Council has largely been silent this year.
In an interview with WCPO, Commissioner Todd Portune suggested that a deal to help build a new $200 million soccer stadium with FC Cincinnati has stalled, in part, because of council’s inaction.
“Where is the city on this?” Portune said. “The best I can get out of the city is they’re not going to be able to talk about anything until after the election.”
Eye on re-election?
In an election year, council members spend more time on feel-good topics, such as street-renaming, than on controversial issues that an opponent could use against them.
“I think its particularly bad in an election year or when members have their eye on the next job,” Niven said.
For example, council renamed 20 streets in the first nine months of 2017. In the entire three years prior, it had renamed only seven streets.
The number of resolutions honoring famous Cincinnatians is also way up – from 11 resolutions in 2014 to 20 for the first nine months of 2017.
“Understanding issues is often complicated. Doris Day Way is a nice story that will get (people’s) attention in a way, sometimes, the viaduct won’t,” Mariani said.
And taking a stand on complicated issues can come at a political cost in an election year.
Mayor John Cranley and Councilwoman Yvette Simpson – both running to become the city’s next mayor – have been burned this year when they took controversial stances.
For Cranley, declaring Cincinnati a “sanctuary city” in January might have turned off moderate or Republican voters who would have supported him in the primary, which the incumbent mayor lost.
And Simpson’s decision to vote against a $550 million of expansion of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital in Avondale has continued to haunt her on the campaign trail.
“The decisions that legislators need to make about the viaduct, the soccer stadium, pension reforms, building a new police headquarters — those things often come with losses as well,” Mariani said. “People could be angry that you have to raise taxes to fix the viaduct.”
But in theory, those are the tough issues Cincinnati voters hope council members will solve when they put them in office, Niven said.
“Surely they didn’t run these arduous campaigns just to rename a block of city streets,” Niven said. “At the end of day, they need to be able to answer the question, ‘What did you do to make life in Cincinnati better today?’”