Cincinnati voters can limit council terms and campaign cash in NovemberDon Mooney High profile races for Congress, the Senate and governor should entice Ohio voters to the polls in November. But don’t stop voting after the headliners. Down ballot, Cincinnati voters can make some intriguing choices that will impact how we pick our mayor and council.
Two proposed charter amendments would change how we elect city council. Every two years from 1927 to 2013, Cincinnati elected nine council members in a free-for-all field race.
Then, in 2012, Councilmember Laure Quinlivan pushed for four-year terms. Her theory: with more job security, council would spend more time governing and less time raising campaign cash. Her proposal passed, though voters chose not to grant Quinlivan one of those shiny new four-year terms in 2013.
But voter remorse set in. For political junkies, the thought of waiting two extra years to relish the spectacle of the city’s chaotic and unpredictable 9X council race was a downer. Then, when several newly elected councilmen allegedly flip flopped on whether to complete streetcar construction, streetcar opponents wanted to elect a new council pronto.
On Nov. 6, voters will have what amounts to three choices:
– Return to the two-year terms;
– Staggered four-year terms, with voters picking four or five council members every two years; or
– If neither amendment passes, sticking with the four-year term status quo.
I prefer turning back the clock to the system in place from 1927 to 2013. More frequent elections will keep our council more accountable to voters.
A third proposed charter amendment would close what has been called the LLC Loophole, which allowed hundreds of thousands of dollars from real estate developers to flow into last year’s mayor and council campaigns. Back in 2001, voters adopted a campaign finance reform amendment that limited contributions to $1,000 per person for any council or mayor election. The limit was proposed by groups including the NAACP, AFL-CIO and Women’s City Club. The goal was to limit the influence of high rollers channeling thousands of dollars into the campaigns of their preferred candidates.
In 2005, then Councilman John Cranley asked the Cincinnati Elections Commission to opine on whether Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) were persons, too, with their own contribution limits. The commission played ball, with an unpublished opinion creating the LLC loophole. Each LLC was allowed to make the same (now) $1,100 donation as its owner(s). The more LLCs you own, the more you can give! This was contrary to Ohio law, which attributes any LLC donations to their owners for purposes of contribution limits.
Developers typically create a new LLC for each of their properties.
It did not take long for crackerjack political fundraisers to connect the dots between owners and their LLCs, leading to a blizzard of supersized donations.
Here’s how it worked: most people can donate only $1,100/election to a candidate. But a developer with 10 LLCs can donate up to $12,100. Just one developer donated a total of $32,500 to the mayor’s 2017 primary and general election campaigns. In all, the mayor harvested more than $550,000 from about 70 LLC owners.
Some (including me) believe that the Election Commission’s 2005 opinion was wrong, and that all those supersized donations were illegal. A lawsuit was filed, and remains pending. While the proposed LLC Charter amendment will not require the mayor to return all that developer cash, it will turn off this particular spigot to future candidates for mayor and council.
Maybe developers should consider this an early Christmas present. If it passes, there will be fewer pesky solicitations for all that LLC cash during the next mayor’s race.