Cincinnati City Hall, right and St. Peter In Chains Cathedral, background on Plum Street. Photo shot Friday October 19, 2018.
(Photo: Cara Owsley/The Enquirer, Cara Owsley/The Enquirer)
On June 5, Cincinnati City Council gathered for a night council meeting, intended to give the public a chance to weigh in if they can’t come to regular Wednesday afternoon meetings.
Dozens of people showed up, worried the cost of tickets to places like the Cincinnati Zoo and the Cincinnati Children’s Museum would increase because council was considering adding a ticket tax for all events, including those run by non-profit groups like the zoo and museum, which had long been exempt.
Thane Maynard, Director of the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden, speaks to city council in opposition of a new proposed tax on many of the city’s non-profits, including the zoo, at Cincinnati city hall in downtown on Wednesday, June 5, 2019.
But as the clerk called the roll, there were only six of the nine council members present. Missing: Amy Murray, Wendell Young and Tamaya Dennard.
That meant council didn’t have enough members to pass legislation that night, including a decision on $16 million in block grant money from the federal government.
Mayor John Cranley, who presides over council meetings, was annoyed that work had to be postponed.
He suggested perhaps there might be a better time to meet, "since we can’t seem to get council members to the meetings."
Did city operations grind to a halt because members didn’t show up? No. The grant money issue was handled the following week. Did the council members even have to come if they didn’t want to? Under council rules, no, again. But the question is, should they go?
Attendance is a problem that has plagued this council, which started a four-year term in January of 2018.
Councilman David Mann, chairman of council’s Budget and Finance Committee, which on the June night of missing members was in the midst of hashing out the city’s 2020, says, yes. Attending meetings where public votes happen is a key part of the job.
"Any council member without a really good excuse is expected to show up at meetings," said Mann, council’s longest-serving member, whose first term dates to 1974. "Without a quorum, or in this case seven members, it messes up the opportunity to do our job."
Council passed that budget on June 26 (with all members present) and is on summer recess for July and August, except for three days of meetings the first week of August.
In the first six months of this year, Vice Mayor Christopher Smitherman, who is an elected councilman, missed 37.5 percent – or nine — of 24 council meetings. But his absences came after his wife died in January and he took a leave of absence.
Four others, Tamaya Dennard, Amy Murray, Wendell Young and Jeff Pastor, missed 3 of the 24 meetings — or 12.5 percent of the 24 meetings. None responded to requests for comment except Murray. She missed meetings related to a family issue, foot surgery and a poverty discussion.
Absenteeism is an issue that’s plagued council’s budget and finance committee too, which Mann chairs.
Here, Pastor missed the most, nine of 30 budget committee meetings, or 30 percent. Dennard and Chris Seelbach missed six budget committee meetings, or 20 percent.
Amy Murray and Smitherman are not budget committee members, a change from past years when everyone on council participated on budget committee.
Mann has made budget meetings weekly in an effort to better vet the vast spending that comes through the committee and avoid all-afternoon meetings, as has been a hallmark of budget committee in the past. Other committee meetings are held twice monthly.
"I don’t understand why members are not always there," Mann said.
Mann is the only member not to have missed any meetings. And Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld only missed one – the day his son was born.
In February, The Enquirer published a look at council member’s attendance for the government body’s first year in office. It revealed, the absentee scofflaws were Dennard, who missed nearly 17 percent of meetings; followed by Seelbach, who missed three weeks of meetings following his wedding and Smitherman, who was caring for his wife before her death.
In 2010, The Enquirer found, for the entire year, the most meetings any council member missed was three.
After The Enquirer’s February story Dennard posted a string of tweets in response: "Council meetings are important. But they are only a fraction of the work that it takes to be an effective council member. I am in the second year of my first term and I feel good about the amount of legislation our office has been able to create. That legislation isn’t created in council chambers. I don’t feel the need to talk or post about the 7 and 8 hour days at City Hall on Saturdays and Sundays. I don’t feel the need to tell you about the mornings when I’m at City Hall at 7:00AM or the evenings I’m out until 10:00PM."
Night meetings were Dennard’s idea; council approved the idea. During the March 7, 2018 council discussion about the idea, Pastor expressed concern about not being able to attend night meetings because of his children’s activities.
Dennard responded: "People have to make tough decisions within their jobs all the time and it is an inconvenience for people to get here and be engaged. I’m not trying to inconvenience anybody, I’m just trying to make government more accessible to more people."
The motion passed with a unanimous vote.
Last month, to help council members as the public alike, Mann proposed providing childcare at night meetings, ensuring everyone really can come either to vote or as a citizen to voice their opinion.
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