National Civic League Study Examines Opportunities to Improve City of Cincinnati Governance

October 7, 2021 (CINCINNATI, OH): An independent study conducted by the National Civic League looked at Cincinnati city government, how its governance has changed in the past two decades, and ideas for improving its functionality and integrity. The study was funded by the Murray & Agnes Seasongood Good Government Foundation following the indictment of four sitting Cincinnati City Council members.

The Seasongood Foundation, which is devoted to the cause of good local government, wanted an independent examination of the broader issues that may pose a threat to effective local governance. It issued a Request for Proposals earlier this year that resulted in multiple proposals from a wide range of organizations. The Seasongood Foundation selected two recipients: Cincinnati Public Radio/WVXU, which used the grant to produce a Trust in Local Government series looking at ethics in government; and the National Civic League, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that promotes civic engagement through a number of programs, including research.

The League looked at seven similar local governments that employ the council-manager form of government, interviewed stakeholders and national experts, and analyzed documents that included the City of Cincinnati Charter. The City of Cincinnati was an early adopter of the council-manager form of government, in which elected officials function similar to a board of directors to set policy, while the city manager acts as the chief executive officer. Murray Seasongood was the mayor of Cincinnati from 1926-1930, the first under the then-new Charterite reform movement, and Murray and Agnes Seasongood were philanthropists whose work focused primarily on the promotion of good government and civic reform. Research suggests that council-manager governments have lower levels of corruption than the main alternative form, mayor-council.

Some of the study’s findings and recommendations include:

  • While retaining the label council-manager, Cincinnati has evolved away from the form in important ways, in part due to changes such as the 1999 Charter amendment that modified the role of the mayor. As a result, Cincinnati’s mayor has more legislative powers than most mayors in the council-manager form of government, including initiating the hiring and firing the city manager and controlling the legislative process.
  • To practice in alignment with the existing council-manager charter, Cincinnati’s City Council should reassert its authority in several key areas, such as a stronger role in the manager selection process, evaluating the city manager’s performance and calling an executive session when the purpose fits within the bounds of open meetings laws.
  • While modifications to the form of government are not directly responsible for any of the recent corruption charges, the study’s authors suggest that the traditional council-manager form includes elements related to professionalism and accountability that can provide protection from corruption.

“Professional managers receive training in ethics, financial management, and internal controls,” the study’s authors write. “Oversight over the administration is greater in the council-manager form than the mayor-council form. In the council-manager form, the council has direct oversight over the manager, but this is not the case in the mayor-council form.”

To return to a more traditional form of council-manager government, the National Civic League recommends “strengthening the role of the city manager as the city’s chief executive, reasserting the city council’s role as the chief legislative body, and repositioning the mayor to be the city’s political leader, rather than being the overseer of both the manager and council.”

The indictments spurred several charter amendments, proposals by Council members and a panel to look at how economic development deals work. The Seasongood Foundation’s Board of Directors sought to look at the broader issues related to the city’s governance structure when it commissioned the study. The Foundation did not provide any input on the design or findings of NCL’s work.

“We found the work of the Economic Development Reform Panel to be a helpful way of examining the issues related directly to economic development,” the board said in a statement. “In funding the Cincinnati Public Radio grant, we wanted to encourage public education around issues of ethics in local government provided by an independent, trusted source of local news. We elected to fund the National Civic League’s proposal for this study because of their perspective as outside experts, their research experience, and their focus on broader issues of how Cincinnati’s government functions. We hope that by supporting it, we will enlighten and educate all Cincinnatians desiring a continuous improvement path for City governance.”