City Solicitor Seeks Streetcar Opinion

In an attempt to end the controversy about whether some Cincinnati City Council members might financially benefit from the proposed streetcar project, the city solicitor today sent a letter to the Ohio Ethics Commission asking for a specific opinion about the project.

City Solicitor John Curp sent a four-page letter to the Ethics Commission, along with five pages of diagrams about the streetcar project’s likely route.—-

In his letter, Curp asks the commission to decide if the project is “a public infrastructure improvement which is a general and uniform benefit to the residents, workers and business owners of Cincinnati, sufficient by permit, in the absence of a direct benefit, individual members of Cincinnati City Council to discuss, deliberate and vote on matters related to the authorization of appropriations or authorization of the issuance of bonds to build the streetcar?”

Curp’s letter then provides several pages of background information about the proposed $128 million project. He wrote, “This is not a local project with a narrow impact. I request that the commission consider the type, scope, and impact of such a large-scale transportation project in the city of Cincinnati.

“As the commission is aware, our community is concerned about alleged violations that individual members of council are serving a personal interest rather than a civic one in relation to the streetcar,” Curp wrote. “The commission staff and I have offered opinions with differing outcomes on this item. I believe we have done so based upon a differing set of facts and differing understandings of the streetcar project and votes at issue. We look forward to engaging the commission to seek clarity and avoid any further confusion.”

The letter continued by stating that various similar mass transit projects in other cities provide a benefit to all residents by “potentially revitalizing neighborhoods, reducing traffic congestion, increasing local tourism, increasing property values, encouraging business growth and development, and increasing retail sales.”

Curp wrote, “Because most elected officials in Ohio are required to live in the geographical areas which they represent, it would be difficult to conceive of any large-scale transportation project which would not indirectly benefit most, if not all, of the elected officials of a particular community.”

He added the project would provide “a general and uniform secondary benefit to large segments of the Cincinnati community including, but not limited to, residents and business owners in Over-the-Rhine, the Central Business District, The Banks, Mount Auburn, Fairview, Clifton Heights, Corryville, University Heights, Clifton and Avondale. Now and through completion of the city-wide network, all Cincinnati residents and business owners in all of the city’s 52 neighborhoods are intended to benefit from increased tourism, increased business growth, and revitalization of Cincinnati’s Central Business District and surrounding neighborhoods.”

The letter then lists several previous advisory opinions from similar situations that support Curp’s stance.

Questions were raised about Councilman Chris Bortz possibly having a conflict of interest after it was revealed late last month that the Ethics Commission issued an advisory opinion in June 2009 that recommended Bortz not vote on issues connected to the project.

Bortz, however, had received contradictory advice from Curp and private attorneys he had hired.

Bortz works for his father’s firm, Towne Properties, which develops and manages several residential and commercial real estate projects citywide, including apartments and condominiums within a few blocks of the tentative streetcar route.

Streetcar supporters, including Bortz, have touted the project’s economic spin-off effect, alleging it can spark redevelopment and increase property values within a three-block radius.

This week City Council — including Bortz — voted 6-2 to approve issuing $66.5 million in bonds to help pay for the project.

Also, the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments approved $4 million in funding for the streetcar system, and the Ohio Department of Transportation approved $15 million.

The actions bring the total amount of funds pledged for the project to $86.5 million. Local officials hope to get much of the remainder needed in federal grants.

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