The city of Cincinnati cannot even build a bike trail without accidentally shaking the foundations of its political structures and relationships.
For years, the Wasson Way project has sought the means to convert a 6.5 mile stretch of unused train tracks between Xavier University and Newtown into a bike and pedestrian path. After innumerable snags and conflicts (the project seemed dead when it failed to receive $3 million that was supposed to come from the failed parking meter sale), the project seems likely to receive federal grant funding and move forward.
Upon its reentry into the local political conversation, however, the Wasson Way bike path proved mildly controversial. Advocates of public transit and streetcar development would like to leave the land open to the possible development of light rail, while those against the street car would prefer the path be zoned purely as a park. This debate was minor enough, until the City Planning Commission tried to bring it to discussion and potential vote at a recent meeting and City Manager Harry Black removed the item from the agenda.
Ever heard of the City Planning Commission? A remnant of Cincinnati politics’ debauched past, the commission is a coalition of seven: five electors appointed by the mayor, the city manager, and one member of city council. Their job is to oversee and vote on any zoning or city planning laws, initiatives or ordinances proposed by the mayor or the council. Their approval (or disapproval) carries weight, as any legislation passed by the commission requires a two-thirds vote on the part of council to override.
The Commission generally operates autonomously and was intended as oversight of mayoral power. The Planning Director, who serves as secretary for the Planning Commission and who is responsible for creating the agenda, does, however, technically report to the City Manager, the mayor’s right-hand man. In an unusual move, City Manager Harry Black struck the discussion of Wasson Way’s rezoning to allow for future transit, claiming that the plan was improperly vetted.
The issue goes deeper than may appear. Black’s meddling with the agenda is scarcely illegal, as some have suggested, but it is unprecedented. Although the autonomy of the Planning Commission is customary, it is not, strictly speaking, necessary according to the city’s charter. While the City Manager is not directed to oversee the agenda for the Planning Commission, it is not outside of his role to do so.
Interestingly, Mayor Cranley has expressed his concern that the commission may have overstepped its bounds by attempting to originate legislation rather than simply approve or disapprove the issues brought to them. As a commission designated for oversight, Cranley posits that items of this nature ought to originate with him and be passed down to the commission — this plan was not.
If Black’s action becomes precedent, the power of the Planning Commission is severely limited, and perhaps this is a good thing. The original reason for the development of the Planning Commission was to ensure that the mayor could not attempt the sort of corrupt redistricting and development seen during the era of “boss politics” in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
An attempt, such as with the Wasson Way debate, by a largely unelected body to discuss and potentially approve legislation which did not originate from an elected source is worrying. Commission Chairman Caleb Faux has expressed concern over granting the city manager power to dictate the agenda. It seems far more concerning, however, to allow a commission of appointed officials to create and approve legislation which requires six of the nine council members to veto.
It is true that the conflict here appears to be between the commission and the city manager, another unelected official, but it is important to note that the city manager’s basic job description is to ensure the adherence by the government to the charter and the law. In this sense, Black is well within his job description in removing the Wasson Way rail discussion from the agenda.
Yet, it is not clear how the balance of power will resolve itself moving forward, nor where Wasson Way’s development stands. All that is clear is that the City Planning Commission cannot, and apparently will not, be allowed to continue exerting the kind of power to which it seems accustomed. Hopefully this debate does not mean more interminable delays for the Wasson Way project, but it is probably more important to ensure that the balance of power in government makes sense first.