Posted: 12:05 a.m. Monday, May 13, 2013

Dayton candidates look to boost mayor’s role

Leitzell says next-year’s all Democratic commission will silence alternative voices.


Dayton candidates look to boost mayor’s role photo
A. J. Wagner will face fellow Democrat Nan Whaley for the Dayton Mayor’s seat in November after a runoff election in May eliminated incumbent Mayor Gary Leitzel from the race.
Dayton candidates look to boost mayor’s role photo
Nan Whaley will face fellow Democrat A. J. Wagner for the Dayton Mayor’s seat in November after a runoff election in May eliminated incumbent Mayor Gary Leitzel from the race.

By Jeremy P. Kelley and Lou Grieco

Staff Writer

Dayton’s next mayor must take a more powerful role and be a catalyst for change in the city and region, political leaders say.

Nan Whaley and A.J. Wagner, who finished first and second in Tuesday’s mayor runoff, pledge they will be more vocal advocates for the city than current mayor Gary Leitzell has.

And while Dayton’s “commission-manager” form of government leaves significant power in the hands of the city manager, Miami Valley leaders say Dayton’s mayor can still be a force for change.

“It is the critical leadership position of the region,” said U.S. Rep Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who served as mayor of Dayton from 1994-2001. “It’s not just a leader for the city. It is the regional voice by which you advocate for the community, set a course and accomplish economic development and move the community forward.”

Leitzell finished third to Whaley and Wagner in last week’s mayoral runoff vote, knocking him off the ballot for re-election in November. He remains mayor until January.

Leitzell recently called himself “probably more of a hands-on person than any mayor in decades,” pointing to his personal, internal involvement in city neighborhood and housing programs. But others have criticized him for being too hands-off when it comes to working with regional and national leaders.

“Relationships … that’s the thing we truly missed under the current mayor,” said Rhine McLin, Dayton’s mayor from 2002-2009. “We saw how the current mayor treated the president when he came for the game.”

McLin was referring to President Barack Obama’s 2012 trip to UD Arena with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Leitzell greeted Obama’s plane, but declined to attend the game with the president, citing a previous commitment to a Turkish-American Society event.

While high-profile events like that are rare, Wagner and Whaley said opportunities to bring regional groups together are very common.

“There are a lot of leaders out there in the city, but they’re not all pulling in the same direction,” Wagner said, pointing to the city, the county, development agencies and downtown advocates. “What I see as part of the role of the mayor is bringing those leaders together, and saying, look, we need to go in one direction to make sure we get these projects done. … If we’re really going to move forward, we need to get together and set an agenda, much like they did in the (base realignment) commission.”

Form of government

Dayton uses the commission-manager system, where the five elected officials largely work part-time, voting on legislation brought forth by a full-time city manager, who controls the day-to-day operations of the city.

Leitzell sometimes refers to himself as “one vote out of five,” and pointed out that the city charter does not give the mayor overwhelming powers. He said some of his ideas didn’t get traction because he was a lone independent working with four Democrat city commissioners.

Turner, a Republican who worked with four Democrats for most of his time as mayor, said the structure of government never hampered him, and he didn’t have partisan obstacles until he got to Congress.

“The mayor’s position is a deal-making position,” Turner said. “You have to be the chief negotiator for the city. It’s the final deal that comes to the commission for the vote, but bringing the deal together — the parties and the resources — that’s the job of the mayor.”

Phil Parker, president and CEO of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, said he has seen different styles and personalities in Dayton mayors during the 39 years he has lived in the area, but said Turner stood out for creating positive change.

“Because of his professional experience (as a development lawyer), he was able to cut to the chase quickly,” Parker said.

Parker said the business community still prefers the city manager system, because it is nonpartisan and avoids nepotism. Even though the Dayton mayor’s powers are limited compared to those in “strong mayor” governments, Parker said the mayor’s visibility makes that office important.

“This person is perceived, perhaps, as being more of that leader-visionary,” Parker said. “Because of that perception the mayor probably does bring a lot to the table.”

McLin said it takes determination for a mayor to make things happen, because “Dayton’s a hard town for visionaries.” She said that stretches back more than 100 years, when the Wright Brothers won acclaim in other cities before Dayton. She said it continued in her term, when some people were desperate to save the Rike’s store, until they saw what it became, in the Schuster Center.

Other cities

In 1999, Cincinnati changed from a commission-manager system to a hybrid that gives more power to the mayor. The city manager is still in charge of city departments, but the mayor has more discretion, said Jason Barron, the city’s director of public affairs.

Cincinnati’s mayor still chairs meetings, but no longer has a vote on the council. He hires the city manager with the approval of the council and is the only one who can initiate the manager’s firing. The manager sends the budget to the mayor, who can make changes before sending it to council for approval. The mayor can also veto anything passed by the 9-member council, though that veto can be overridden by six votes – something that has never happened, Barron said.

“I think it gives you a much more clear leader in the community for folks to rally around,” Barron said.

Philip Russo, political science professor at Miami University, said the national trend is for larger cities to move toward the strong mayor system, while medium and small cities stick with professional managers. He said the arguments of Turner and Barron for a single leader are common.

“It’s this idea that we need a single elected official who can speak for the city from a representative, authoritative base, and speak to the business community and to potential investors in the city,” Russo said.

But he said in the end, the decisions of how cities organize and govern themselves are up to the residents, through charter amendments.

Power in Dayton

Leitzell, who has frequently railed against party politics, said the commission-manager form of government “is a fine system, if it’s allowed to work the way it’s supposed to.”

“The next four years, it won’t work,” he said. “You effectively will have a strong mayor. If you have an all-Democratic party commission, you have a strong mayor, and everyone else lives in fear.”

Wagner and Whaley disagree, talking about building coalitions, and McLin said the mayor can only be as powerful as the other commissioners allow, adding that even within political parties, commissioners have different priorities. McLin said the mayor should be the No. 1 cheerleader for the city, and a forceful voice for the region.

Turner said the mayor’s office is more than just a bully pulpit for stating priorities. He said it’s about being a leader and and getting things done.

“When the community wanted to build the Schuster Center, you wouldn’t have been able to secure the Second and Main property by a committee of five sitting behind the (commission) dais at city hall,” Turner said. “Somebody had to drive down to Cincinnati and meet with the president of Federated (Department Stores) to begin the negotiations for the site, and that was me, as mayor.”

“The next four years … you effectively will have a strong mayor. If you have an all-Democratic party commission, you have a strong mayor, and everyone else lives in fear.”

Current Dayton Mayor Gary Leitzell


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