As Erlanger Weighs Council Reduction, Florence Serves as Example
As the City of Erlanger considers the possibility of reducing the number of council members from twelve to six, it can look to its neighbor, the City of Florence as an example.
Erlanger currently has the largest legislative body in Northern Kentucky.
In 1989, Florence decided that that number was too many, and voted to cut its council in half, from twelve to six.
Councilwoman Evelyn Kalb led the charge for change in Florence, first moving for a vote in 1986 in which she was defeated by her peers, 11 to 1. In 1989, Councilman James Collins made the same motion to reduce the council by half, and was seconded by Kalb.
In a first reading of the ordinance changing the number, the vote was split, six to six. In the second reading, which would make it official, if approved, the council split again, six to six. Mayor Roger Rolfes cast the tie-breaking vote that would leave Florence city council with six members, which it still has today.
Then-Councilman James Ewing said that he had talked to members of the 12-person council and only one problem was mentioned: staggered terms. He had argued for a vote by the public on the matter. Then-City Attorney Hugh O. Skees said the issue was to be decided by the council, though, not voters.
One member of the city council in 1989 is on council in Florence currently, too. David A. Osborne opposed the reduction then. In the next election, when only six seats were up for grabs, Osborne lost, along with four others who were opposed to the new number.
"I remember Evelyn (Kalb) always thought twelve were too many," Osborne said. "Roger (Rolfes) also thought council should be cut in half."
Osborne said that at that time, the power within council was with the committees, which governed the budgets of city departments.
"When budget time came, each department wanted their share of the budget, and they wanted their committee to get money for them," Osborne remembered. "There was probably some jealousy going on."
Now, Osborne thinks the reduction was the best thing that happened to the city. He said it put egos behind and let the decisions be made in the best interest of the city. The city also modified its committee system.
"I can see both sides of the story," he said. "I think some of the council people wanted more power than the mayor. But I think that the city would not be where it is today if we still had twelve members."
As for his neighbors in Erlanger, Osborne said that he hasn't seen problems there like what Florence experienced within the government when twelve council members plus a mayor handled things.
Erlanger Councilman Tyson Hermes floated the idea of a reduction in March. Hermes, who had been elected mayor in 2014 and served one term before running for council, said he wanted to start the conversation.
One council member agreed with Hermes, ten others did not.
Erlanger's twelve-member council features two sets of relatives, a husband-wife combo, and a mother-son.
Erlanger Councilwoman Corinne Pitts said that the current make-up of the city council is a fair representation of the city: four members from the east, four from the west, and four from the central part, she said.
But Florence was known for putting off decisions when it had twelve members. In 1990, Kentucky Post reporter Dan Hassert, now the public information officer at the City of Covington, wrote, "The old 12-member council wasted time rehashing issues and often shied from decisions on development. The new six-member council, which began meeting in January, takes a more business-like approach. Discussion doesn't drag from meeting to meeting. Decisions are prompt."
Hassert continued that without the old committee system, council members were better able to focus on big-picture items. He quoted Kalb as saying council's duties were to set policy, enact legislation, and pass the budget.
"That's it, that's our duties under the law," Kalb said back in 1990. "Before that we went beyond that, I think."
Erlanger Councilwoman Patty Suedkamp said that she believes with only six council members, the mayor would have too much power. Councilwoman Renee Skidmore agreed.
When Florence's council was reduced, then-Councilman Fred Metzger was quoted in the Kentucky Post as saying that he believed that the council had given up too much power with the change. He and Councilman William Hudson had preferred a mayor-city commission form of government, like in Covington or Newport, where the city commissioners and the mayor mostly share power.
Hermes, in Erlanger, asked for the issue to be put on the agenda for committee meetings next week.
Written by Patricia A. Scheyer, RCN contributor
Photo: Florence city building (via Facebook)