As Cincinnati questions the city manager system, maybe it should remember why the position was created
By Don Mooney
The dust is settling at Cincinnati City Hall following the epic John “The Mayor” Cranley vs. Harry “The Manager” Black showdown.
Their WWE-worthy rumble had roots in the summer of 2016, when the mayor undercut the manager’s authority by personally negotiating budget-busting raises with the city’s police union. The two frenemies managed to patch things up over the 2017 mayoral election campaign, but once Cranley won four more years, the knives came out.
The manager fired a white assistant police chief without the mayor’s permission. Cranley accused the manager of dragging city colleagues to a Denver strip club. The manager fingered the mayor’s “pay to play” meddling in city development deals. It was only after that tragic 911 incident that the mayor mustered the votes to force out the manager.
One fallout from this melodrama: a new generation of Cincinnati politicians are questioning this whole “city manager” thing. Who needs a professional manager when we have an elected mayor more than happy to take charge? But before we deep-six Cincinnati’s long-standing experiment in good government, Cincinnati would be wise to reflect on George B. Cox.
It was Boss Cox who, inadvertently, spawned our town’s tradition of hiring a seasoned non-partisan professional, not a politician, to run day-to-day city business.
Boss Cox died on May 20, 1916. His New York Times obituary dubs him the “Easy Boss of Cincinnati,” a GOP fixer who outlasted other powerful party bosses of his era.
Cox’s power grew in the West End, where he began as a boot black, drove a delivery wagon for Pogue’s, ran a Keno gambling room salon and ultimately opened a popular tavern at “Deadman’s Corner” at Longworth and John Street.
Cox parlayed his role as barkeep into a seat on City Council. He then won a spot on the influential board that set property values for real estate taxes. By cutting deals with business owners for big tax discounts, the Easy Boss enriched himself and cronies.
Cox ruled the city with an iron fist for more than 25 years. It took the Cincinnatus Association and Charter Committee, led by reformer Republican attorneys Murray Seasongood and Charlie Taft, to uproot the corrupt Cox political machine. In 1925, voters adopted a Charter that called for nine at-large council members, serving two-year terms, who selected a professional city manager to run the city. The mayor was selected by council to serve as its chair, but had no executive powers.
For years, Cincinnati earned a reputation for honest, efficient government, led by professional managers. The Cincinnati manager’s job was considered the top job in the nation for aspiring city administrators.
But probably not any longer.
Now the mayor is directly elected, and has accumulated power to influence the selection of a manager, the budget and council’s agenda. Harry Black was the first manager hired with no prior experience as a manager. Will any experienced city manager apply for the current vacancy in light of recent drama?
No doubt developers and other special interests prefer a stronger mayor. Before his exit, Harry Black publicly complained about the mayor cutting development deals in exchange for campaign cash. And all those tax abatements passed out at city hall to campaign donors? They bear an unseemly resemblance to the way Boss Cox accumulated his wealth and power by fixing tax bills for his benefactors.
So before we scrap the city manager system, let’s remember the late, but not so great, Boss Cox. Forgetting the past is a good way to repeat it.