he Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) is making a lot of use of member and lawyer Chris Finney these days. The group was recently involved in two lawsuits filed within one week: one regarding the Blue Ash Airport deal and another accusing Cincinnati Public Schools (CPS) of campaigning for Issue 42, a ballot initiative that voters were set to decide Nov. 6, the day before this issue of CityBeat went to print.
The lawsuit against CPS, which was filed Oct. 31, goes back to 2002, when Tom Brinkman, chairman of COAST, sued CPS for “illegal and unconstitutional use of school property for campaign purposes,” according to the lawsuit. That case ended in a settlement, which forced CPS to enter into a “COAST Agreement” that says, “CPS will strictly enforce a policy of preventing … Other Political Advertisements on CPS Property.”
But COAST now says the agreement has been broken, and the lawsuit cites emails as evidence. The emails show staff promoting voter registration drives, which aren’t directly linked to Issue 42 in the emails, and staff offering to contribute and volunteer to the campaign. In the emails, there are a few instances of Jens Sutmoller, Issue 42’s campaign coordinator, asking CPS staff to give him personal emails, which shows he was trying to avoid breaking any rules.
Daniel Hoying, assistant general counsel to CPS, says CPS “did not do anything wrong.” He says Ohio law requires high schools to assist students who want to vote, which is why the school district hosts voter registration drives. “Our efforts are completely nonpartisan,” he says. “(COAST) draws some connection to the levy campaign; there is, as far as I know, no connection.”
Hoying claims the emails offering to contribute and volunteer to the levy campaign do not break the agreement with COAST because they reflect the opinions and intentions of individuals, not the school district: “It’s not surprising to CPS that many of our employees are very supportive of the school levy, and they have every right to support the school levy or oppose the school levy ... on their personal time. There is no kind of mass email to all employees saying anything.”
In CityBeat’s in-depth look into CPS and Issue 42 (“Battered But Not Broken,” issue of Oct. 3), Brinkman defended COAST’s position against Issue 42 by saying it’s important to hold schools accountable: “It’s a five-year levy. The reason we have five-year levies is so the public can gauge after four or four and a half years how the entity where the taxes are going to is doing with the money.”
Criticism of CPS levies is not new for COAST. The group campaigned against last year’s new, permanent $49.5 million levy, which CPS said it needed to meet new technology needs and keep some buildings open. COAST opposed that levy because it raised taxes.
In a different lawsuit filed on Oct. 26, COAST is aiming at the Blue Ash Airport deal. Criticism of the $37.5 million deal is also not new for COAST. The group has repeatedly criticized the deal, largely because as much as $26 million from the deal will be used to fund Cincinnati’s $110 million streetcar.
The deal between Blue Ash and Cincinnati is not new, but it did get reworked earlier this year in a deal that allowed Blue Ash to continue its park project and gave the city of Cincinnati the flexibility to shift funds to the streetcar project.
But COAST doesn’t want any funding redirected to the streetcar, and it claims the reworked deal is not legal. The lawsuit filed by Blue Ash resident Jeffrey Capell and Finney cites a section of the Blue Ash City Charter that disallows some contracts: “No contract shall be made for a term longer than five years, except that franchises for public utility services and contracts with other governmental units for service to be received or given may be made for any period no longer than 20 years.”
Mark Vander Laan, Blue Ash’s city solicitor, says the city charter section the lawsuit is referencing is irrelevant. He argues the deal is not a contract as the city charter defines it; instead, it’s a mortgage and debt instrument. In the Blue Ash City Charter, there’s another section that deals with debt instruments, and that’s what the redone deal falls under, according to Vander Laan. He says the city would not function as it does today if the lawsuit’s claim was correct: “If that were the case, all the bonds we’ve ever issued would have been incorrect.”
Vander Laan says the real issue here is disapproval of the streetcar, not any legal technicalities: “They may have a complaint about the streetcar, but that’s not the city of Blue Ash’s issue at all. We don’t think it’s even an appropriate basis to challenge this.”
He added, “Frankly, if somebody had an issue with (the deal), they should have taken that issue back in 2006 and 2007.” But money wasn’t going to the streetcar back then. The streetcar didn’t even exist at the time.
In 2006, the deal had Cincinnati selling Blue Ash some land on the Blue Ash Airport property, which Blue Ash was going to use to build a park. Blue Ash voters approved the deal, which contained a 0.25 percent earnings tax hike, in a two-to-one margin.
When Cincinnati couldn’t get a $10 million grant from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the city stopped working on the airport as it became too costly. With money no longer going to the airport, the city tried to shift the proceeds from the airport deal to the Cincinnati streetcar, but the FAA said funding must be used for airports since the property was classified as an airport when sold.
Cincinnati asked Blue Ash to rework the deal. The plan was Blue Ash would rescind the deal, and then Cincinnati would officially close down the airport and resell the land to Blue Ash while it’s no longer classified as an airport.
The reworked deal, which was approved by Blue Ash City Council in a 6-1 vote on Aug. 9, seemed like a win-win for both sides. Cincinnati would get more funding for ongoing projects, and Blue Ash netted $2.25 million from the deal — $250,000 to cover fees for Blue Ash’s new park and $2 million was subtracted from the deal since Blue Ash would no longer have to match the FAA grant.©