2016 in the News

There was good news this year, then there was the rest of the news

Dear lord. What a year 2016 has been. Do we even need to remind you? So much has happened that, actually, we probably do.

There’s a crazy space train zooming around downtown, a very divisive reality TV star will soon be president and Democrats run Hamilton County. There were many darker things afoot this year as well. There’s been deep controversy about the city’s parks and sewers and an empty building downtown. Opiates are a continuing scourge in the region and Cincinnati was once again holding its breath due to a racially charged police shooting. 

It’s a lot to take in, and you probably don’t want to be reminded about some of it. But that’s what we do, so here goes.

Streetcar Finally Launches

It took years, a lot of political back and forth as well as a few strained friendships and uncomfortable family dinner table debates, but it’s here. The Cincinnati Bell Connector launched Sept. 9, 2016 to big festivities, and now, a few months and more than a quarter-million rides later, Cincinnati’s first streetcar in more than 60 years looks like it’s going to be around awhile. 

Gliding around the city on the futuristic train almost makes it easy to forget how controversial the transit project has been. Cincinnatians of various political persuasions have been pulling their hair out for one reason or another about the project since at least 2007, when it rose from the ashes of an ambitious regional transit plan called Metro Moves. 

There were more political fights over hours of operation, parking meter schemes designed to raise revenue for the streetcar, the project’s contingency fund and anything else you can imagine this year, and there are still plenty of naysayers. 

There have been complications as the transit project rolled out, including a couple malfunctioning ticket machines at streetcar stops and snags involving traffic and passenger wait times that exceeded 15 minutes, the goal the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority is contractually obligated to meet. 

More recently, low ridership has cast a shadow on the transit system, while SORTA wrangles with both operator Transdev over its performance — threatening to yank the French company’s contract — and with streetcar manufacturer CAF over cold-weather operating issues and other maintenance problems. 

The city had contractors tweak ticket vending machines and pushed SORTA to press more cars into service on weekends, when the transit system is most popular. It has also commissioned a traffic study to find ways to better time stoplights to speed up both the transit system and automotive traffic.

The rough patches are a contrast to the excitement around the streetcar’s launch. More than 50,000 rode it its opening weekend, when it was free to the public. Another 200,000 people have paid the dollar fare to hop on board since. 

Now, new transit fights loom. Some, including mayoral candidate Councilwoman Yvette Simpson, a streetcar supporter, would like to see an increased focus on regional transit efforts that will connect regional residents to jobs. Meanwhile, some are pushing to complete so-called “phase 1b” of the project, which would take the streetcar uptown near the University of Cincinnati and the city’s hospitals. As smooth as a ride on the streetcar’s 3.6-mile downtown and Over-the-Rhine loop can be, the path to the transit system’s next step looks plenty bumpy. 

Democrats Take the Hamilton County Commission

The national election was a brutal lesson in humility for many Democrats around the country. But locally, the story was a little different. The party picked up control of the Hamilton County Commission, a shift in leadership for the county’s highest governing body. 

Incumbent Democratic commissioner Todd Portune won an easy re-election here against challenger Andrew Pappas, while Democrat State Rep. Denise Driehaus prevailed narrowly in her hard-fought challenge against Republican interim commissioner Dennis Deters. No matter how many votes each got, the duo’s win means a big change for Hamilton County. 

It’s been years of Republican control of the county’s highest governing body, a tenure that has seen deep budget cuts. Portune has been the lone Democrat on the commission during this stretch and until now has had little control over the commission’s direction. Now he and Driehaus have the opportunity to chart a different path. 

Both Driehaus and Portune have promised to make the county more than a buckled-down, bare-bones machine, pledging renewed focus on economic development efforts through the Port of Greater Cincinnati Authority and other means. Driehaus has supported ideas like Sheriff Jim Neil’s proposal to put a detox facility in the Hamilton County Justice Center, a move that could cut down on recidivism and reduce the number of overdoses seen in the county. 

But Portune, Driehaus and their Republican counterpart Chris Monzel will also face big challenges. The county has a lot of work to do when it comes to the troubled Metropolitan Sewer District, which is sagging under a contracting scandal and the continued stress of a federal court-ordered, multi-billion-dollar overhaul. 

Meanwhile, the heroin crisis continues to grip the region, requiring a coordinated response from all of the county’s law enforcement agencies and service organizations. And the Western Hills Viaduct, a vital artery between Cincinnati’s central core and the West Side, is crumbling, with no funding source for a replacement in sight. 

Both Portune and Driehaus have also talked about an increased spirit of cooperation between the county, the city of Cincinnati (which is also run by Democrats right now) and other municipalities. They’ll need it to overcome the big challenges ahead.

What will Hamilton County’s new era look like? We’ll see. 

Ray Tensing on Trial

It started with a traffic stop for a missing front license plate, escalated to the shooting death of an unarmed black man and culminated with a white police officer on trial. Now, after a jury couldn’t decide if former University of Cincinnati Police officer Ray Tensing is guilty of murder, manslaughter or none of the above for shooting Sam DuBose, the city waits for Tensing’s retrial, which will take place this spring.

Tensing has said he was dragged by DuBose’s car and that he feared for his life before he shot the 43-year-old father of 13 in the head. But during his trial, expert witnesses for Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters poked holes in that story with frame-by-frame analysis of footage from Tensing’s body camera. The analysis showed that Tensing didn’t have his arm tangled in the car’s steering wheel, as he claimed, that he was upright when he fired his weapon and that DuBose’s car didn’t start moving until after he drew his weapon and only a split-second before he fired. The car had moved about a foot when Tensing killed DuBose.

Tensing’s attorney Stew Mathews had some experts of his own to call, however, and the jury ended up in a stalemate. Four jurors originally voted to convict Tensing on murder charges. Those jurors eventually joined with others to make eight jurors who voted for a manslaughter charge. Four believed Tensing shouldn’t face a conviction. 

DuBose’s shooting made national news when it happened in July, 2015. The incident was one of many that have drawn attention to the issue of racial disparities in America’s justice system, starting with the 2014 shooting death of unarmed black man Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. by a police officer there. That shooting, and subsequent ones in Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere, sparked massive protests and moves to reform policing across America.

The furor over police shootings is familiar to many in Cincinnati, which saw days of civil unrest in 2001 over the police shooting of unarmed black 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in Over-the-Rhine. Fifteen years later, familiar tensions and questions have again gripped the city. 

The University of Cincinnati fired Tensing after his indictment in 2015 and has pledged to make big reforms to its police department. UC had greatly increased its police force in the years leading up to DuBose’s shooting, and officers there were encouraged by then-police chief Jason Goodrich to establish a “no fly zone” around the campus to ward off drug activity. Tensing was among the most aggressive cops on the squad, and the vast majority of the tickets he wrote went to black motorists, data released by UCPD shows. 

The lack of a verdict in the Tensing trial sparked protests that drew more than 1,000 people into the streets of downtown and Over-the-Rhine and had Cincinnati City Council members and other city officials calling for a retrial. Prosecutor Deters has decided that Tensing will be retried on the same charges — murder and manslaughter. His trial will take place here in Hamilton County in May. Judge Megan Shanahan, who presided over his first trial, has removed herself from the proceedings. She’ll be replaced by Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Leslie Ghiz.

Spending Shakeups at City Hall (MSD/Parks Scandals)

This year, Cincinnati saw not one, but two  big controversies around public spending related to offices under some level of city administration.

In July, Cincinnati City Manager Harry Black released a city audit of the Cincinnati Parks Board and its nonprofit foundation. That audit showed arrangements that could “result in a lack of accountability” in the organization. 

The foundation raises money from private donors, while the Parks Board spends mostly public dollars. However, the flow of money between the two has little structure or oversight, the audit found. That could cause some conflicts of interest and even questions about whether certain parks projects are owned by the city. In addition, the audit found that the Parks Board doesn’t do a comprehensive budget, making it extremely difficult to know all of its inner workings. 

The board and its relationship with the foundation had been under scrutiny since last year’s push for a new tax levy to pay for parks improvements pushed by Mayor John Cranley. During that campaign, it was revealed that the board gave $200,000 for promoting the levy, even though it is restricted from political activity. That money came from a private foundation that raises money for the parks. The parks levy campaign returned the money, but the genie was out of the bottle. 

Other questions around board member perks — lavish spending on expensive headphones, foreign trips and other items — have also arisen in the wake of investigations into the board’s operations.

Meanwhile, in June, City Manager Black released a report on the region’s Metropolitan Sewer District commissioned in the aftermath of allegations that MSD officials misspent millions in taxpayer dollars on contracts related to a federally ordered sewer overhaul. MSD is owned by Hamilton County and administered by the city of Cincinnati, per a 1968 agreement that expires in 2018.

The report found “areas of concern and control weakness” in MSD’s contracting practices, including inappropriate use of existing “master contracts” instead of competitive bids as well as an “extraordinary” use of outside contractors and consultants. 

A report by The Cincinnati Enquirer claims that MSD misspent as much as $680 million in contracts to handle a $3.4 billion sewer overhaul ordered by a 2003 federal consent decree and needed to bring the system into compliance with the U.S. Clean Water Act. The report calls out a move made by then-City Manager Milton Dohoney in 2007 giving then-MSD Director Tony Parrott final say over MSD contracts. That undermined needed checks and balances on MSD spending, the report says.

The report makes recommendations in seven areas around MSD’s procurement process, specific projects and an internship and workforce development program run by a private foundation, among other areas of focus. 

Some City Council members have questioned the independence of the audit, which was launched in February and wrapped up weeks before it was publicly released. Critics have cited that lag and pointed out that all the investigators work for the city in some fashion as reasons the report might not be truly independent.

RNC in Cleveland and the Rise of Trump

President-elect Donald Trump’s November victory has caused rapturous celebration among a large, mostly white, mostly male chunk of America’s electorate. But his statements about women, immigrants, Muslims, Black Lives Matter and other groups have caused deep anxiety from nearly every other corner of the country.

Trump’s unlikely and game-changing victory has roots beyond this election year. During the four days of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, America’s long-running and increasingly intense fears and fault lines were unleashed in the Buckeye State.

CityBeat was there to witness that historic moment — gun-toting white supremacists, celebrity convention speakers, fear-mongering politicians, flag-burning anarchists and all. 

Much has happened to make Cleveland a microcosm of the nation’s frustration on both sides of the coin. The police shooting of an unarmed 12-year-old black child named Tamir Rice in 2014, along with a U.S. Justice Department report slamming past practices by the Cleveland Police Department, made the city an icon of racial troubles in America’s justice system. Beyond that, the city is one of the most segregated in the country, and racial and economic trenches run deep and wide there. 

On the other side, the city is surrounded by counties that have been deeply hurt by the loss of manufacturing jobs and have large working class white populations angry about NAFTA and other free trade agreements. In other words, Trump land. 

Trump himself exacerbated the long-running tensions dividing the greater Cleveland area and much of America. Over the course of an improbable primary campaign, he equated Mexican immigrants with rapists, retweeted white supremacists, suggested barring Muslims from entering the United States, made uncounted misogynistic statements toward TV reporters and on and on. New outrages came by the week, and each time they did, Trump improbably surged in the polls. 

Many have ascribed Trump’s rise to a growing, regressive angst among white folks tired of the status quo, of factories moving, coal plants closing, of feeling like they’re losing security and economic ground as America’s demographics change. On the other side, however, minorities disproportionately shut out of economic prosperity who bear the brunt of law enforcement efforts see Trump’s victory as an ominous sign that things in America are about to get worse for them. 

It’s the country’s biggest, most complex and most consequential argument. It’s far from settled, and in Cleveland, we saw it play out in person.

Fighting Over the Dennison

If you’re a fan of long legal battles and arcane architectural and construction details, your Super Bowl kicked off this year.

An exhaustive legal fight continues over the 124-year-old Dennison Hotel building on Main Street downtown after playing its way through the city’s Historic Conservation Board this summer. That board rejected a request by Dennison owners Columbia REI, LLC, owned by the powerful Joseph Automotive Group family, to demolish the building. The Dennison, designed by the firm of famed Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford, sits in a historic district, meaning developers must prove an economic hardship before tearing it down. 

The city’s HCB said Columbia, which would eventually like to build a headquarters site for a Fortune 500 company on the spot, didn’t try to sell the building and couldn’t prove it was under economic duress.

Earlier this month, the city’s Zoning Board of Appeals reversed the HCB’s decision, approving the demolition request. Preservationists are expected to appeal that ruling.

If they do so, the next step would be the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. The controversial fight could go all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court. Dennison owners the Joseph family say they’re ready to exhaust all legal options. Hanging in the balance, some say, is the way the city deals with its historic architecture, which preservationists and city officials alike cite as one of Cincinnati’s biggest assets. 

Heroin’s Dark Cloud

Ohio is fighting a killer with unprecedented power and reach. This year, Cincinnati and the surrounding region were at the center of that fight. 

More than 1,400 people have overdosed on heroin in the city this year, according to city data. Back in mid-August, the city saw 174 such overdoses in just a week. Overdoses involving heroin and stronger, deadlier additives like fentanyl and carfentanil continue to occur at crisis levels here, and local and state leaders are scrambling to find strategies to stop them.

That has led to a number of anti-overdose efforts here in the city, including short-term saves like increasing the availability of anti-overdose drug Narcan. That drug blocks dopamine receptors in the brain triggered by opiates and can bring an overdosing person back from the brink of death. 

But solutions will have to go beyond emergency response, many officials say, and must include expanding currently strained treatment options. Though overdose levels have decreased slightly since this summer’s spike, Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco says she still sees an average of two drug overdose deaths a day. Many of those are taking place in specific regions of the city. 

Some Cincinnati City Council members are hoping part of that help will come via $700,000 to expand West End’s Center for Chemical Addiction Treatment, the city’s strained detox facility. Council and city administration have also chipped in about $50,000 to increase the availability of Narcan to first responders 

The roots of the current heroin crisis are deep and stubborn and lie mostly with recent additives like fentanyl and carfentanil. 

Over the past year, authorities have become increasingly concerned about fentanyl, a factor in the prescription opiate boom that sparked the ongoing drug crisis over the last decade. As that crisis has transitioned into the heroin addiction epidemic, fentanyl has made a comeback as a powerful additive.

From 2007 to 2013, according to Hamilton County Public Health, fentanyl contributed to just seven of the county’s overdose deaths. But in 2014, it played a role in 81 fatal overdoses, or 30 percent of the county’s 251 total overdose deaths. 

The crisis has gripped the entire state. By Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine’s count, eight people a day are dying in Ohio from overdoses, many caused by the additives. ©

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