Monday, August 10, 2009

Layoff Battle Doesn't Have Clear Heroes Or Villains

Well, there's one clear villain. But it's not human. We'll get to that in a minute.

This is a rare instance in which I disagree with Blogdaddy Griff. The current fight in Cincinnati over the city manager's proposal to lay off 138 police officers--over ten percent of the uniformed complement--is not one where the folks in white hats are easy to sort from those wearing black hats. There's merit to both sides of the dispute, and plenty of blame to go around for our leaders' apparent inability to handle the current economic crisis in a manner that inspires the confidence of the citizenry.

First, what do we know? Milton Dohoney has announced that he'll order the layoff of 138 uniformed police officers. But he says he has a plan to do so that will not reduce the size of any district's complement or affect "street strength," commonly understood as the number of officers on patrol. In the last few days, we've heard some officials say publicly that the Vortex unit would be effected or altogether eliminated in the layoff. I'm not sure why this is surprising. Anyone with even a limited understanding of CPD's organization understood that if officers were being cut but district force levels weren't being impacted, the layoffs had to be in non-district-based units, like Vortex. I don't think Vortex has 138 uniformed officers (I could be wrong), so you have to wonder about the status of other units, such as Vice, Special Events, and others.

Next, why has this turned into such a mess? Frankly, the process foisted upon the City by its own charter is the real culprit. In this pandemonium, we see the problems with a manager form of government. Milton Dohoney has never stood for election in Cincinnati, yet he's the one empowered to make all the decisions. The Mayor can't do it, and Council's budget votes turn into advisory statements of policy rather than legislation with the force of law. As I've previously argued, Cincinnati should have a truly executive mayor. Under the current system, the real power lies with an appointed (in other words, unelected) official. I don't doubt Mohoney's competence, integrity, or sincerity. But a city our size should be led by an elected mayor, not a politically-insulated manager.

The structure created by the charter created the chaos of the last week. City councilmembers have been free to do anything they want because they all realize that their actions don't matter. That means that the Dems on Council were free to do as they did: shrug their shoulders at the thought of laying off that many officers and and defer to the expertise of the City Manager. Similarly, the Republicans on Council were free to launch bottle rockets in the general direction of Dohoney without proposing any real alternative. An alternative proposal, by the way, does not have to find $28 million in cuts; instead, those who oppose police layoffs need find only an additional about $3 million, the amount to be saved this year by laying off police.

Even within the flawed process created by the charter, though, some of our leaders could have behaved better. Mayor Mallory was wrong to stifle debate at the Wednesday council meeting. That meeting was the only scheduled session prior to Labor Day. That meant that had the mayor had his way, the public would have had no opportunity to weigh in on the proposed cuts before they were enacted. And Council would have had no opportunity to publicly question the Manager about the necessity and breadth of the cuts. That's bad government.

Leslie Ghiz and Chris Monzel were right to call a special meeting of Council. Their action permitted the public, as well as Council, to be heard on the manager's proposal. Public debate is not grandstanding; it is political discourse, and essential to the healthy functioning of a representative democracy. If you disagree with NAACP/COAST's excessive referendum efforts (as I do, even though I do not support the streetcar), then you must favor a transparent decision-making process by our elected officials. For representative democracy to work, we must have access to our elected officials, and they must have open, public debates that explain their decision-making to their constituents.

Finally, what about the merits of the decision? When I first saw the numbers, I was aghast. 208 full-time positions are being eliminated city-wide. 138 of those--or 66%--are uniformed officers. No one (or at least no rational person) expected the police department to be entirely spared. Had 20, 30, or even 50 police layoffs been proposed, I'd have not been surprised. But the scope of the layoffs was startling, and immediately struck me as the position the administration would take if it were playing a game of chicken with the FOP. The problem with this particular game of chicken, though, is that the FOP has no reason to swerve. They take issues with the priorities the City has set. But more understandably, the City has been unwilling to give them any assurances about the 2010 budget. Why should the FOP give back bargained-for benefits if their members only keep their jobs for the next four months?
And regardless of whether the end result of the current dilemma is 1 layoff or 138, it is (and should be treated as) a sad decision by the City. The officers to be laid off will be young officers, fresh out of the academy. These are individuals who made a decision to serve the residents of the City; many are people who could have done what many others their own age did and left the region in pursuit of other professional opportunities. Their decision to stay and to serve and protect should be honored, and we should not make light of a decision to add them to the unemployed in our region.
As long as we have a weak mayor and an overly strong city manager, Cincinnatians will be spectators to overly dramatic but non-productive political theater. But the players in that theater need to behave like adults, something almost all of them forgot this past week.

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