Last November, a task force of the Cincinnatus Association and Citizens for Civic Renewal issued a report entitled “A Dysfunctional Region,” focused on championing the cause of regional cooperation. The report drew a scathing response from Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes, a Democrat who has spent his career defending township government. This pattern of critical analysis resulting in a call for modernization, followed by attacks from those invested in maintaining traditional structures and the ultimate death of all reform proposals is over a century old. That history also spotlights the difficulty of even politically astute business leaders to overcome entrenched political inertia.

Between 1870 and 1914, those interested in rationalizing the delivery of local government services in the face of suburbanization promoted annexation. During those years, the city expanded from 5.4 to 77 square miles. But a change in state law in 1902 and city policy after World War I meant the city stopped growing geographically in 1914.

With the abandonment of annexation, reformers shifted their focus to restructuring county government. The first serious attempt occurred in 1934. Inspired by the success of the charter committee during the 1920s in the City of Cincinnati, a commission recommended a plan under which a nonpartisan county council would appoint a professional manager. The manager would appoint the heads of all county departments (treasurer, clerk of courts, engineer, recorder, sheriff and health director, who would appoint the coroner) except the prosecutor, who would continue to be elected. This proposal was soundly defeated in November 1935 in the face of opposition from the Republican Party.

By 1967, increasing pressure from the state to deal with the inadequate suburban sewer system prompted the county to again explore reform. That proposal was also defeated at the polls, 118,790 to 108,074.

But defeat did not change reality. In 1969, Hamilton County Commissioner Jake Held and Cincinnati Mayor Gene Ruehlmann, both Republicans, proposed another joint commission. But Held soon undercut the effort because of Charterite involvement at the staff level.

In 1971, frustrated government officials turned to the business community in search of outside leadership and borrowed credibility. They enlisted Walter “Jake” Lingle, Jr., a retired executive vice president of P&G to lead the effort. Though a Republican, Lingle had taken a leave of absence from the company between 1962 and 1964 to serve in the Kennedy Administration in the Agency for International Development and as associate administrator of NASA.

Lingle made it clear at the beginning that he had no intention to end with “one big consolidated county government where everybody loses their identity.” The 100-member executive committee of the Lingle Commission (officially, the Citizens Committee to Improve Local Government) was composed of representatives from all three political parties, the city, county, the Hamilton County Municipal League, the Township Trustees Association, neighborhood councils, the Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO Labor Council and the League of Women Voters.

During the year, the commission issued interim reports suggesting reorganization of pollution control, sewer development and water supply and the consolidation of the city and county health departments as well as the county and city jails.

The executive and general committees agreed fairly quickly on a county structure in which some commissioners would be elected from districts, and would appoint a professional county executive. But the committee became bogged down on whether the commission should have seven or nine members and how many should be elected from districts and how many at-large, thus missing its opportunity to place a proposal on the November 1971 ballot. Though the committee continued to work, support for the process quickly eroded.

Business leaders sometimes assume that they have the skills to step in and provide leadership where elected officials fail. Walter Lingle was a tough-minded realist whose career straddled both business and government, but he failed to find a way to overcome the inertia that protects governmental forms that date back to 1851.

No successful business is still structured the way it was 164 years ago, but the Lingle Commission in the 1970s and the experience of Bob McDonald and the Cultural Facilities Task Force in 2014 demonstrate that business leadership skills are not necessarily transferrable to the public sector.

Dan Hurley is an historian and the Director of Leadership Cincinnati for the Cincinnati USA Regional Chamber.