Cover Story: A Real Stand Up Guy

Todd Portune becomes the standard-bearer for progressive causes in Greater Cincinnati

 
Woodrow J. Hinton



The Hamilton County Commission meeting was ready to begin at the Drake Center Feb. 5, and Commissioner John Dowlin called for the usual reading of the Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone in the room stood to face the flag, including Commissioner Todd Portune, who moments earlier had held a press conference to discuss when he'd be able to walk again.

Portune and his doctor had answered media questions about the long rehabilitation process ahead at Drake, the result of surgery to remove a tumor from Portune's spine.

"Todd, sit down," whispered Angie Portune, who watched from the back of the room as her husband propped himself up against the table into a standing position to recite the pledge.

Portune smiled as he scanned the room to find her.

"God, he's the most stubborn man I know," she whispered to herself and those within earshot.

Many in Greater Cincinnati would say the same thing — some in admiration, some in disgust. It depends on whether Todd Portune is, pardon the pun, standing up for your rights or kicking your butt.

In the past year, Portune waged high-profile battles with two of Cincinnati's most powerful institutions: the Bengals and the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office. He says he's simply representing the interests of the people who elected him against wasteful spending (Paul Brown Stadium) and unnecessary secrecy (prosecutor's office).

But the political ramifications are undeniable. As the first Democrat elected to the county commission in more than 35 years, Portune is truly on his own — one of only two Democrats in countywide office and the only official pursuing any sort of progressive policies.

The contracts to build Paul Brown Stadium and lease it to the Bengals were negotiated by Republican Commissioners Bob Bedinghaus, Guy Guckenberger and Tom Neyer Jr. and approved by the prosecutor's office. And so Portune's struggles with the Bengals and Prosecutor Mike Allen suggest the sports saying "The best defense is a good offense."

When public opinion turned against the bloated stadium spending and lopsided Bengals lease, of course, Portune ousted Bedinghaus in the 2000 commission race. Portune's current lawsuit against the Bengals and the National Football League thus also suggests the continued fanning of stadium dissatisfaction that swept him into office.

He dismisses talk of a grand plan to strike at the heart of the dominant Republican Party. He laughs and says he can't even get fellow Democrats in office to support his causes.

To him, serving the public is "a temporary privilege" that's not a birthright or even a career.

"Sticking to your principles isn't that hard," Portune says. "When you realize you're only here (in office) a short while, it's easier to do the right thing."

Local progressives of all persuasions have been floundering since last November's rejection of their candidates and ballot issues, which mirrored Democrats' dismal showing across the country. One of the few bright spots, many agree, is Portune's success as a county commissioner while sticking to his progressive roots and ideals.

He's become the standard bearer for progressive politics in Greater Cincinnati, a position he embraces knowing that many consider "progressive" and "Cincinnati" mutually exclusive terms. But he's willing and eager — if not literally able right now — to walk the walk.

For that willingness to support the public welfare against institutional neglect, abuse and secrecy, CityBeat names Todd Portune our 2002 Person of the Year.

The $200 million solution
The Cincinnati Bengals can be compared to the old saying about the weather: Everyone complains, but no one does anything about it. Portune decided last fall to do something about the Bengals.

He began gathering information about the team's and the NFL's finances, though it's been notoriously tough to verify facts and figures since 31 of the league's 32 franchises are privately-held businesses. Based on a number of sources, including a 2001 Los Angeles Times investigation of the Oakland Raiders' lawsuit against the NFL, Portune established the following evidence against the Bengals and the league:

· The NFL salary cap dictates the amount each team can spend on players, a team's No. 1 expense; the cap figure is based on a formula relating to shared revenues — the NFL pools national broadcast fees, ticket revenues and licensing fees and shares them roughly equally among all 32 franchises. On-field competitiveness (i.e., player payroll) thus is based solely on a share of national revenue, a fixed dollar amount for each team.

· Franchises' profits really are determined by non-shared revenue — local broadcast fees and stadium-related income (parking, concessions, luxury boxes, club seats, etc.); none of that local revenue has to be shared with the other teams. Such non-shared revenue — which doesn't count toward the salary cap — totaled $1 billion throughout the NFL in 2002, almost one-fourth of total league revenue.

· Personal profits for team owners, therefore, depend heavily on stadium revenues. Not surprisingly, the Bengals are one of 18 of the 32 NFL teams that have opened new or overhauled stadiums in the last decade.

· The Bengals made profits of between $8.6 million and $14.4 million in the five years leading up to Paul Brown Stadium's debut in 2000. According to ESPN Magazine, the new stadium has helped the Bengals to annual profits of $16.8 million.

· In 1999, NFL owners directed the league to set up the G-3 program to provide low-interest loans to teams facing opposition to public funding of new stadiums; to date the NFL has loaned a total of $650 million to eight teams but offered nothing to Hamilton County.

· The generous Bengals lease was designed to be a win-win for the team and the county — the team would get all the stadium revenue, and the county would receive higher sales tax revenue through increased spending by additional fans attending games at Paul Brown Stadium as well as spin-off spending and development downtown. With the team's poor play since 2000, however, attendance has been pathetic.

· When promoting passage of the half-cent sales tax increase in 1996, Bedinghaus and Bengals and NFL officials promised the new stadiums would be paid off in 20 years. Due to the sluggish economy and the negligible impact of Paul Brown Stadium, county sales tax receipts are well below projections; Portune says it'll now take as long as 36 years to pay off the stadium debt — dragging out the public's contribution and increasing interest costs. Plus the county doesn't have enough tax revenue to finance the riverfront parking decks on which the ballyhooed Banks development is supposed to be built.

· In its Feb. 3 issue, ESPN Magazine ranked all 121 franchises in the major professional North American sports — NFL, Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Hockey League — for value, which it defined as everything from ticket prices and accessible players and officials to fan loyalty and championships; three franchises haven't been in existence long enough to qualify in all eight categories. Of the 118 teams that qualify, the Bengals ranked 118th; they finished in the bottom five in all eight categories. The magazine's pithy take on the franchise: "The Bengals represent the dark side of NFL revenue sharing: a franchise that pockets other owners' money while shredding its covenant with fans to field a viable team."

Portune thought he had a great case for getting the Bengals to renegotiate their lease and for the team and the NFL to provide the county with some financial relief. But when he took the matter before the county commission in December, Neyer and John Dowlin voted against suing the team or the league.

An attorney, Portune studied his options and decided he could bring legal action as an individual taxpayer on behalf of county residents. Before taking that step, however, he attempted to engage the Bengals and the NFL in some sort of discussion of the situation.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue responded to Portune's discussion offer with a three-paragraph letter saying that it would be more constructive to support the Bengals' constant rebuilding effort than it would be to sue them. Portune sent back a letter asking how Hamilton County could possibly provide more support than what's already been done — a $450 million stadium and a sweetheart lease.

Neither the NFL nor the Bengals offered hope of further talk, so Citizen Portune filed a lawsuit Jan. 30 against the NFL, the Bengals and the league's 31 other teams. The claims:

· Fraud: The Bengals didn't need the new stadium to remain competitive and viable; additional stadium revenues contribute mostly to owner profits.

· Civil Conspiracy: The NFL and its teams kept knowledge of the G-3 loan program from Hamilton County officials in order to squeeze the most money possible from taxpayers.

· Restraint of Trade: The NFL artificially limits its number of franchises in order to drive up their value and play cities against each other in attracting or retaining teams; all franchises, including the Bengals, restrict their stadiums from hosting other professional football teams in order to squash a potential start-up league; and the league forbids its teams from being publicly owned in order to not allow a city like Cincinnati to buy its team and keep it from moving (the Green Bay Packers' traditional public ownership has been allowed to stand).

· Breach of Contract: Since Hamilton County's benefit from the stadium lease depends almost entirely on the Bengals' ability to draw fans, interest and spin-off spending and since the Bengals have been unwilling or unable to hold up their end of the deal, Portune thinks the lease is voidable.

He asked for compensatory and punitive damages of at least $200 million and noted that Ohio law prescribes tripling the damage award if the court finds an antitrust violation.

Why $200 million? Portune figures the NFL could have provided an $80 million low-interest loan — the average of its G-3 stadium loans — and "modest" changes in the Bengals lease could save the county $120 million over its life. He also figures $200 million is enough to get the stadium debt payment back to 20 years and to allow the county to finance its part of The Banks.

Since the filing, Portune says he's heard from at least one NFL team that would be willing to provide information and/or testimony on his behalf in exchange for being released as lawsuit defendants. In a strange twist of fate, he might have to get either Dowlin or Commissioner Phil Heimlich to vote with him to amend the suit — since it was filed on behalf of the county, the commissioners have some control over issues relating to settlements.

People have told him he's crazy to think he can beat the NFL, America's most popular and prosperous pro sports league, but Portune thinks his lawsuit has "gotten legs." Still, he's as anxious as Tagliabue to avoid a trial.

"My best outcome would be for the league to grant us one of their loans and for the Bengals to agree to renegotiate parts of the lease," he says. "It would put us on track to retire the debt earlier, saving taxpayers a lot of interest payments, and give The Banks a huge boost."

Don't ask, don't tell
One of Portune's main campaign issues in 2000 was making county government more transparent and more approachable. He says that when he spoke to people during the campaign many said he was the first county commissioner — candidate or officeholder — they'd ever met.

For generations, Hamilton County government has been run almost entirely by the local Republican Party. Only three Democrats won a county-wide race for government office between 1970 and 2000 — Paul Fricker (1972), Dusty Rhodes (1990) and Eve Bolton (1992) — and only Rhodes was re-elected.

The relationship among and between the three commissioners and the prosecutor's office was particularly cozy. When Allen served as head of the local GOP, Neyer was appointed to fill Guckenberger's opening on the commission; Neyer subsequently won a term on his own right. Allen later appointed himself prosecutor when Joe Deters left for state office. Deters' office was part of the team that negotiated the Bengals stadium lease.

Into this relationship strode Portune, who immediately started sharing the inner workings of the prosecutor's office and the commission with the public and the media as promised. To counter that, more and more commission business was handled in "executive session" away from public scrutiny.

The issue finally came to a head last year when Dowlin and Neyer passed a rule that required a majority commission vote to make public any information or correspondence passing between the commission and the prosecutor's office, all of which was to be considered private under "attorney/client privilege" unless the commissioners said differently. Portune felt he clearly was the target of that decision.

"Too much of the business of the county is kept secret in executive session or attorney/client privilege," he says. "The new rules basically keep me from talking in public. I even received a letter from the prosecutor threatening legal action against me if I speak about these issues. Who's really in charge around here? And what about the public's right to know what's going on?"

Conflict between Portune and the prosecutor's office has never been clearer than in the controversial morgue photography cases. Photographer Thomas Condon and Assistant Coroner Jonathan Tobias were convicted in 2001 of gross abuse of a corpse for Condon's photography of bodies at the Hamilton County Morgue and Tobias' help in providing access for Condon.

Many believe, however, these cases were corrupted by a possible conflict of interest in Allen's dual roles as county prosecutor — as the legal representative for county government and as the chief prosecutor in the county justice system. With legal action looming against Hamilton County from the families of the photographed corpses — a lawsuit was in fact filed — many think Allen singled out Tobias to prosecute as a "rogue employee" in order to shield the county morgue from liability.

Portune agrees with those who think the morgue photography cases have become tainted by political motivations.

"I've talked about these cases in executive session, about certain elements of the cases and about how they affect the county," he says. "Now the prosecutor's office tells me anything I've said in those sessions is their information and I can't use it or talk about it in public. I'm supposed to give a deposition in the lawsuit against the county about what I know, but it's been cancelled several times. I don't think the prosecutor wants me to give it. And if I do give it, I don't know what I'll be allowed to say."

Portune also is blunt in his criticism of the overall job the prosecutor's office does for him and his fellow government officials.

"I don't know if their work for the county is the best," he says. "It's not substandard, just too narrowly focused."

While researching the case against the Bengals and the NFL, Portune says he asked Allen for an opinion on a legal matter and the prosecutor answered only the question asked, offering no other advice or direction.

"I'm an attorney, too, and if I had a client who was asking for help on a complicated legal issue I'd be more open to looking at the whole situation," Portune says. "Instead I got only a narrow interpretation of my issue. The prosecutor's work is too restrictive in my opinion."

Portune also wonders why the prosecutor's office staffs commission meetings only when asked. He points to Cincinnati City Council, which has a legal representative at all council meetings and committees as a matter of practice.

"Having our lawyers present at meetings might help us avoid mistakes," he says. "At the very least they can instantly give us some advice on the legal ramifications of what we're discussing. We might have avoided some problems with the (County Administrator David) Krings contract if prosecutors had been sitting in with us. But they say they're not needed and haven't been asked."

The overly secret dealings might change, Portune says, now that Heimlich is on the commission. Heimlich has been a vocal critic of how Krings' new contract was negotiated in executive session by Portune, Dowlin and Neyer, accusing them of avoiding public scrutiny and of not having the prosecutor's office OK the contract.

Portune thinks Heimlich will join him in pressing to open up county government again by abolishing the requirement that commissioners must take a vote every time they want to release internal information to the public.

'You think they can stop me?'
That's actually one of the things Portune likes about being a county commissioner — he's always just one vote away from accomplishing his goals.

With a three-member commission, Portune says he's constantly working to build consensus on his issues. And he's had some success getting Neyer and Dowlin to back him on particular issues, if not the "attorney/client privilege" squabble.

He's hopeful he can find common ground as well with Heimlich, his philosophical opposite with whom he often clashed on city council. Already the two authored a sweeping financial review package called Accountability to County Taxpayers, and of course they'll likely end up fighting side-by-side for more openness in how the commission conducts its business.

It's that kind of pragmatism mixed with principle that impresses Portune's supporters.

"He's progressive and pragmatic," says Dr. Jean Siebenaler, who lost to Heimlich last fall in the race to fill Neyer's open commission seat. "Todd knows what can be done, and that comes from experience. Despite being entirely on his own in county government, he's been very effective. But he's had a lot of help from the Republicans he's recruited to his issues."

Besides the stadium-related lawsuit and struggles with the prosecutor's office, Portune had a busy 2002:

· He brought the county on board to the Cincinnati Convention Center expansion, which Mayor Charlie Luken had proclaimed dead after Delta Airlines backed out of its sponsorship deal. Portune was able to work through opposition from hotel operators in the northern suburbs and help fashion a city/county partnership.

· He introduced the Home Improvement Program to provide low-interest loans to county homeowners investing in fixing up their houses.

· He questioned city and county officials about why Huntington Meadows residents were being forced to move as the result of alleged environmental concerns at the apartment complex, which provided low- and moderate-income housing with the help of city and county funds.

· He suggested that city council — which received a damning report from Police Chief Tom Streicher — take action against police officials who covered up the truth about the death of Timothy Thomas.

· He successfully defeated a move to increase the county's property transfer tax.

· He's came up with an overhaul of the county's emergency warning system, getting various villages and townships to finally agree on one standard. He still needs funding approval from Heimlich or Dowlin to implement the system.

· He asked Cincinnati Arts Association, which manages county-owned Memorial Hall among other facilities, to drop its lawsuit against the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, which had countersued; CAA declined. The two organizations announced a few weeks ago they'd settled the lawsuit.

· He organized the celebrity softball game on Sept. 23 that officially closed Cinergy Field and brought Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, Tony Perez and other Reds stars together for the last time in the stadium.

Few of those good deeds, however, went unpunished. For instance, Portune and Luken got into an unfortunate e-mail spat over convention center spending, with each accusing the other of not doing enough. Portune feels that, as a result, he's being shut out of the ongoing planning for the expanded facility.

"I hear from (Convention & Visitors Bureau President) Lisa Haller that new designs for the expansion have been approved by the city," he says. "The county, a full partner on this project, doesn't know anything about it."

Portune's scolding of city council over the Huntington Meadows controversy left several council members demanding he put county money where his mouth was. And it effectively derailed his plan to work with council's Democratic majority on mutually beneficial projects.

"I've tried for the two years I've been a commissioner to have city council's Democratic caucus meetings opened up beyond just council members," Portune says. "We have a real opportunity to meld city and county issues and get more bang for our bucks. But people on council haven't wanted it to happen for both political and personal reasons."

And so one of Portune's strengths — his knowledge of and commitment to city of Cincinnati issues — has gone untapped due in large part to his fellow Democrats' lack of interest. It's a shame, say some progressives frustrated by the leadership vacuum at City Hall.

"The black community has often been betrayed by our black politicians, and from what I hear throughout the community and what I've observed Todd is a good man who stands by his work," says Victoria Straughn, the HIV/AIDS outreach leader at UC's Infectious Diseases Center, a civil rights activist and CityBeat's 2000 Person of the Year (see Previous Persons of the Year). "It's not about black and poor but what's right. Others should follow his example and perhaps this city would be in a better place."

"He sees the context of how the city fits into the county and the state," Siebenaler says. "The convention center issue shows he has a good sense of regionalism, better than most people. And he got all the fire departments to agree on the emergency warning system, which no one was able to do before."

She says the reason for Portune's success is actually fairly simple — he loves being a public servant and loves being in contact with people.

"I saw it during my campaign and I've seen it before," Siebenaler says. "Todd will go out and walk the grounds of an event or show up at a meeting and talk to everyone. He clearly loves his job. And I think that's very obvious to people."

It's also obvious that Portune's political future is in doubt — and that's true even if he fully recovers from his back surgery.

He acknowledges that his battles with Mike Allen will make him even more of a target in his 2004 re-election campaign, since the prosecutor's office is the nexus of Republican Party politics in Hamilton County. And he's realistic about the amount of help he can expect from his own disorganized party or from the city's Democratic mayor and council majority that keep him at arm's length.

Yet it always comes back to the people, Portune says, and that's enough for him.

"I've helped expose important issues and raise the level of debate in the county," he says. "I hear comments that people feel more informed. If things don't work out (with re-election), that's the way it goes. I'd be disappointed, sure, because I think I bring a lot of passion to this job and I think I'm making a difference. There's always more to do, although my doctor thinks I'm doing too much right now."

One of his current schemes is to get Pete Rose involved in the Reds' Opening Day festivities March 31. Portune says Rose wants to play a part somehow but the Reds haven't responded to requests for what Major League Baseball would allow.

"I think the Reds are doing a ceremony honoring retired greats, and I want Pete involved," Portune says. "I've been trying for a month to get details from the Reds about Opening Day, and Great American Ball Park, after all, is owned by the county. Maybe I'll just make Pete a county employee for the day and put him on the field to represent us. You think Major League Baseball can stop me?"

Just let 'em try. ©

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