SURVEY RESULTS: The Impact of Four-Year Terms on City Governance
Survey conducted and report prepared by Jeffrey L. Stec and Susan R. Wilke
For the first time in 2013, Cincinnati City Council members were elected to four-year terms. During the 2012 debate on Issue 4, which voters approved to make the switch from two-year to four-year terms, several members of the Rookwood Group of civic organizations (the League of Women Voters, the Woman’s City Club, A.I.R. Inc., the Urban League, Citizens for Civic Renewal, and the Cincinnatus Association) researched council terms from around the country and identified the following benefits to four-year terms:
- Council members have more time to focus on getting things done legislatively rather than on fundraising and running for re-election after one year in office;
- Members would have time to learn their jobs well before having to run again;
- Members would develop greater knowledge of their constituency and the issues, leading to better service-oriented decision making;
- Members would have more time to actively engage citizens;
- Members would have more time for effective coalition building, leading to greater continuity and enabling council to accomplish important tasks;
- Members would have an opportunity to create a longer-term vision and work on projects that may take some time to come to fruition;
- Holding elections half as often would save taxpayer money—both the public cost of running the election and the private savings of fewer campaign contributions.
This past fall, the Rookwood Group sponsored a follow-up survey, conducted by Jeff Stec, Executive Director of Citizens for Civic Renewal and Sue Wilke, Vice-President of the Northside Community Council, with city council members and community leaders. Its purpose was to determine the extent to which the potential benefits of four-year terms have been realized. This article reports our findings.
We should note that neither the survey, nor this report, includes an analysis of the financial savings to taxpayers and the community of political donors. We take that as self-evident by cutting the number of elections in half, and were not concerned about determining the exact figure. Our primary concern is whether four year terms provides our city with the best governance model – meaning, do four year terms help council do a better job and were any of the hoped for benefits realized?
Our first step was to design a survey that allowed citizens and council members evaluate the various ways in which four-year terms could foster productivity and collaboration on council. After consulting with Rookwood members, we devised the following survey for neighborhood leaders (questions in bold were also asked of city council members):
- What is your name and neighborhood?
- Have four-year terms resulted in greater visibility of Council members in your neighborhood, at neighborhood events and gatherings, etc.
- Do you think four-year terms have resulted in Council members getting to know your neighborhood and your constituent needs better? Why or why not?
- Do you think four-year terms have promoted greater collaboration among council members? Why or why not?
- Has moving from two-year to four-year terms affected the working relationship between Council members and the mayor, and, if so, how?
- Have four-year terms changed the balance of power between City Council, the Mayor and the City Manager? If so, be specific on how.
- Does having four-year terms provide more opportunity to work collaboratively with city administration? Why or why not?
- Do you think moving from two-year to four-year terms had a positive or negative impact on the overall governance of the city, and, if so, how?
- Would you favor returning to two-year council terms? Why or why not?
- What do you think Council members should do to improve their relationship with your neighborhood and/or better engage citizens in the work they do?
Questions for council members only:
- Has a four-year term allowed you to work on longer-term issues or projects? Why or why not?
- Do you think four-year terms has allowed you to develop more in depth knowledge of the issues? Why or why not?
- How has the move to four-year terms affected your fundraising?
- Any additional comments about the switch to four year terms.
The “neighborhood survey” was sent to the following groups: presidents of each community council; leaders of each Rookwood organization; eight leaders of African American civic organizations; a selection of long time civic leaders. In total, approximately 80 surveys were emailed to neighborhood leaders, from which we received 26 responses, a 33% response rate. Six of nine city council members replied to our survey.
Responses of Community Leaders
Community engagement has NOT increased – and was weak to begin with!
Generally, neighborhood leaders believe that four year terms have not increased community engagement by council members. Five responses reported a decrease in engagement:
- Sometimes they would come more in 2 year terms because of elections. California.
- For some, it may have had the opposite effect, since they have no need to campaign here every two years. Hyde Park.
In the end, 19 of 24 neighborhoods cited the need for more visibility and engagement on the part of council members—spending more time in the neighborhoods and working more on issues of importance to neighborhoods.
Several responses, however, pointed out that the level of community engagement depended on the individual council member—and that the council members who were well-engaged during two-year terms continued to be under four-year terms (while dis-engaged council members simply got worse).
Neighborhood leaders continue to be unsatisfied with the level of council engagement under four-year terms despite the fact that council members rate themselves as doing a good job engaging the community, especially under four-year terms (see below). Therefore, the most important data from the survey are neighborhood suggestions as to how city council can improve its level of community engagement. Here are some of the suggestions (please note that many neighborhoods simply suggested that council members “come to more of our community council meetings”, but not all of those comments are listed below):
- There should be better methods and processes of communication between Council members and neighborhoods beyond appearances at meetings because the Council member is running for election. Clifton.
- Push the Administration to implement the citizen engagement policy and budget strategy process which were previously being pursued but which have been ignored more recently. Hyde Park.
- Get out in the community; go to community council meetings; have their meetings at night; stop the practice of using “emergency” ordinances; have them wait a week between posting an agenda item and the date of the meeting; use social media to “discuss” issues with the people; etc.
- They seem to spend most of their time on issues that have little to do with neighborhoods and they are not out and about as much. I think there would be a lot more creativity and a lot more partnerships if city council members spent more time at neighborhood events and with neighborhood leaders / and they would have more fun! Walnut Hills.
- Return to public Council members where the citizens can speak throughout the meeting and add evening meetings. Roselawn.
- Use the Neighborhood Summit in the second or third year of a council term as a public 360 performance review by the neighborhood/community councils. In the long term and in the absence a district and at large system, the 9 members need staggered terms. All 9 should not be up all at once. College Hill.
- Asking to be on the agenda of a meeting of the Community Council, or even to do the same with the neighborhood’s redevelopment corporation. Or, to send a questionnaire/survey to the neighborhood’s leadership groups (community council and redevelop. corp.). We need to explore some ideas about civic engagement tactics and strategies on improving the relationship with neighborhoods and City Council. Kennedy Heights.
- Come to our meetings! Washington.
- Council members/staff should proactively check in regularly with each neighborhood leadership just to stay current on our neighborhood concerns. Act like a relationship manager and don’t wait for us to push an issue. Would provide an opportunity for strategizing on issue resolution and collaboration. Spring Grove Village.
- I can’t say extended terms have resulted in an increase in visibility. Come out to community council meetings and not politic but listen to residents. They can offer solutions, and follow up on residents’ concerns. Mt. Airy.
- Visit more often. Council tends to be responsive if we request a visit, but we don’t often request a visit. Lookout.
- It is interesting that they visit council meetings more often the closer we get to elections. And they think that our residents don’t notice. College Hill.
- Always seek opportunities to engage with folks in the community and not just community council meetings. West End.
Council collaboration difficult to read:
Neighborhood leaders were less clear when it came to any potential increase in the levels of collaboration within council, between council and the mayor, and between council and the administration. Generally, they saw somewhat less collaboration in all areas—but the strong mayor structure and Mayor Cranley’s leadership style appear to have significantly clouded the ability of neighborhood leaders to evaluate these questions in the context of four year terms.
As to the mayor’s role generally:
We have an adversarial if not arrogant kind of Mayor, and that tends to create a climate that undermines collaboration. I wish the Mayor could be more collaborative in tone but I am not convinced that his personality will allow that to happen. The Mayor sets the tone…for better or for worse. Kennedy Heights.
As to intra-council collaboration:
I can’t see any improvement in them working together. They still push their own separate agendas. OTR.
No increase in collaboration. While it should have (since they’re not running for office as much), the individualism among Council members, the lack of empowerment of the Council Committees to impact the agenda and the physical setup of the meetings (everyone lined up like a debate) seem to have more impact. Kennedy Heights.
As to council-mayor collaboration:
Hard to divorce the current Mayor’s push for power from Council members not exerting their power. Four year terms may have nothing to do with this dynamic. Clifton.
Relations do not appear to be strong between Council and the Mayor- again this seems to have more to do with the personality/vision differences than term length. Northside.
As to council-administration collaboration:
The Mayor has undermined the City Manager’s authority and resisted efforts to make the Manager more independent. Council has failed to support proposals to redress the unintentional shift of power from it to the Mayor when the Charter was amended to create a “stronger mayor.” Four year terms have been irrelevant to these problems. Hyde Park.
In the end…
Interestingly, neighborhood leaders were far more positive when it come to the bigger questions: only a slight majority find city governance to be worse under four-year terms,
and a solid majority would prefer to stick with four year terms despite consistent agreement that council is less engaged with, and accountable to, the neighborhoods. The responses below do a good job explaining why…
Keep four-year terms:
- I would like to see another 4-year term before weighing in on whether this is working or not. Northside.
- I do believe that four years allows for more work and less campaigning. Paddock Hills.
- Constant state of elections incentivizes short term thinking. Mt. Washington.
- I believe it allows for more times for communities to work on longer term goals with council members. I believe it affords council members more time to work with communities and not working on campaigning right after then assume office. West End.
- I think it gave council more time to implement planned projects. Mt. Airy.
- As far as College Hill specifically (and selfishly), positive. Administration, Mayor’s office and council all want to do the right thing for one of the City’s largest, most active and most cohesive neighborhoods. College Hill.
- More commitment from council members, less disruption with elections. California.
But tweak the system:
- While four year terms should have made them more effective, it’s clear we have work to do — but not necessarily returning to 2 year terms. The bigger issues include 1) how or whether the council decides to work together (vs. individually trying to amass power/press coverage); 2) who determines the Council agenda. Kennedy Heights.
- I would prefer staggered terms so there would be electoral accountability every two years. Mt. Washington.
- Four year terms would be okay if they were elected by district/ward so that the accountability would be clear and direct. OTR.
- I would not because 4 yr. terms are a better system if you could get members to stop acting like they are still in a two-year system. College Hill.
- I would favor electing half of council every 2 years. Or, frankly, a mixed ward system; running for council is ridiculously expensive. Madisonville.
- They need to reach out to the neighborhoods and be a part of meetings, etc. I think the real reason Council members are absent at meetings is more structural. There should be area representation, as opposed to “at-large” elections. Communities such as ours get largely ignored in favor of the eastern neighborhoods and OTR. Paddock Hills
Responses of City Council Members
Despite repeated requests, only 6 of 9 council members responded to our survey: Wendell Young, PG Sittenfeld, Amy Murray, Chris Seelbach, Yvette Simpson, and David Mann. Their perception of four-year terms tended to be much different than those of community leaders, as you will find below.
Neighborhood engagement is (generally) not increasing
Council responses varied dramatically when they evaluated whether community engagement is increasing under four-year terms:
More engagement (2): Wendell Young, Yvette Simpson (“The four-year term has allowed me time to visit all of the 52 neighborhoods and a few more than once due to issues or needs of the community.” Yvette Simpson)
Same engagement (3): PG Sittenfeld, David Mann, Amy Murray (“It is the same. I attend community activities frequently and I try to attend every Community Council once per year.” Amy Murray)
Less engagement (1): Chris Seelbach (“Campaigning really does help you feel more connected to neighborhoods and constituents.” Chris Seelbach)
Regardless of the impact of four-year terms, five of six council respondents essentially said that they are doing a good job with engagement, whereas the clear majority of community respondents felt like council was still doing a bad job at engagement (though several community leaders pointed out that one or two council members were doing a good job at engaging them).
The real insight, then, is the disconnect between council members and their constituents when it comes to defining “good community engagement”. Council might consider reviewing the 13 suggestions listed above as well as the Policy and Principles of Engagement they adopted in 2015 as guides on how to improve their community engagement in the eyes of their constituents.
Council able to take a longer-term view
Four of six respondents feel like a four-year term has allowed them to take a longer-term view because there is more time to work on issues rather than worry about a campaign.
- Four year terms have allowed me to be more intentional and thoughtful in projects I have been a part. Having the extra years in between terms allows Council members to focus on issues and priorities without the worry of re-election around the corner. Wendell Young
- Serving a four-year term provides me the flexibility to address issues that concern me and see the results of what I have implemented. For example, the Youth to Work program is a citywide Summer Youth Employment program I began in 2012. After operating the program out of my office for four years I transitioned the program over to the city to manage. A two-year term would not have let me do that. Yvette Simpson
Council collaborating more
With near-unanimous agreement, council members feel that four-year terms increased collaboration “because we don’t have to start immediately campaigning once elected” (Chris Seelbach). One caveat: collaboration depends on the “commitment of the individual member” (David Mann), with PG Sittenfeld similarly saying he has always been collaborative, so term-length is irrelevant.
Uncertain impact on collaboration with the mayor
When asked whether four-year terms have increased collaboration with the Mayor, council members replied:
Depends on the council member (1)
Clear increase in collaboration with city administration
The following quote captures the essence of five of six responses:
Yes, because there is room for richer and deeper discussion about substantial issues. I would also add, the more opportunity you have to work with someone the more you learn about them, their interests and their work styles – which makes for a better work environment. Wendell Young
Uncertain increase in knowledge of issues
Three respondents feel like their knowledge of issues has increased, two said that the increased term length has not increased their knowledge, and one said that the answer…
Depends. It has allowed me to understand how policy works, but I’ve probably lost some of the knowledge I would have gained by campaigning in the neighborhoods for an extended period. Chris Seelbach
In general, then, four-year terms seems to help somewhat when it comes to council member knowledge of the issues.
Not sure how fundraising has been impacted
Council members said that this question is not easy to evaluate because the next election cycle is just beginning.
Return to two-year terms?
3 No because (Simpson, Young, Murray)
“…because otherwise everyone will be in campaign mode.” (Young)
“…but concerned that community involvement has decreased.” (Murray)
“…the duration is not as important as the person filling the seat.” (Sittenfeld)
“…four years is too long without a check-up from voters.” (Mann)
1 Let voters decide
“There are good arguments on both sides.” (Seelbach)
- Council members’ citizen engagement and neighborhood knowledge has not improved per community leaders (though council members feel otherwise).
Recommendation: Council members should consider the “better-engagement” suggestions made by community respondents and develop their own action steps to improve engagement considering their adopted Policy and Principles.
Recommendation: community members should be proactive during the campaign season in understanding candidates’ commitment to and goals for citizen engagement.
- Council members believe they have more collaboratively addressed bigger issues, but the knowledge and impact of their work appears unknown in the community or has been overshadowed/impeded by their relationship with the mayor.
Recommendation: more effective and timely communication about councils’ inner workings would be a good first step in addressing this disconnect.
- Most community leaders want to keep four-year terms, despite their belief that a) the promised benefits have yet to be delivered; and b) the larger electoral system needs to be adjusted to fit four-year terms.
Recommendation: Follow the recommendation of the citizen-led Cincinnati Charter Review Task Force and create a new task force to address the issue of election systems for future consideration by the electorate. The City has yet to act and Council should consider moving forward on this recommendation.