All politics might be local, but they're also damn near unpredictable. That about sums up the first few weeks of Republican Phil Heimlich's term on the Hamilton County Commission.
Things looked bleak for Democratic Commissioner Todd Portune on Jan. 13. He arrived at the year's first county staff meeting in a wheelchair, plus his political agenda was under fire from Heimlich, often his philosophical opposite.
Heimlich and fellow Republican Commissioner John Dowlin were promising to roll back $5 million in projects that Portune convinced outgoing Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. to include in the 2003 budget, passed in late December. The package included $360,000 to boost juror pay, $75,000 in support for a riverfront skatepark series and $1.8 million for countywide emergency sirens.
But state cuts were coming, Heimlich and Dowlin said, and so the county couldn't afford that kind of spending.
Heimlich also was upset that the Neyer-led commission, during an annual review, added at least $159,000 to County Administrator David Krings' severance benefits.
More importantly for Portune, a tumor had wrapped itself around his spine, cutting off sensation below his chest the weekend before the first meeting and confining him to a wheelchair. It was a more severe recurrence of a similar problem that led to surgery seven years ago.
But few people knew that Jan. 13.
Down but not out
As he wheeled himself into the Jan. 13 commission meeting, Portune's staff members were tight-lipped. The word around the county building was that he'd hurt his back, but the expressions and lack of details from his two staff members — Dave Schaff and Karen Ball — hinted at a more serious situation.
Portune said it wasn't a secret that he was having issues with his back, but he kept up a smile.
"It's affecting the mobility in my legs," he said, adding that he'd be in the hospital for a few days.
Heimlich and Dowlin didn't roll back any of the $5 million in spending at that meeting; instead they stuck to the day's modest agenda.
But the move seemed inevitable, as did a general derailment of Portune's political agenda during the last two years of his term — particularly his spending on progressive social issues. Portune and the conservative Heimlich had often clashed on Cincinnati City Council, and more of the same seemed to be on the horizon for the next two years.
Portune wheeled himself out of the Jan. 13 meeting deflecting questions about his back, joking that Bengals owner Mike Brown had finally made a move on him after years of Portune's steady insistance that the team's stadium lease is unfair to taxpayers. (Portune also recently filed suit against the Bengals and the NFL for anti-trust violations.)
The day after the staff meeting, Portune underwent eight hours of surgery to remove tumor from his spine. After three weeks of intensive rehabilitation at the Drake Center, he held a press conference Feb. 5 at the facility to publicly discuss his condition.
Despite his earlier optimism, it obviously was going to take more than a few days to get back on his feet.
"(The illness) was probably more serious than I was willing to accept or admit at the time," Portune said, adding that during his last bout with non-cancerous tumors he was in and out of the hospital in a week and quickly back to work.
On Feb. 5, Portune could walk with a walker for only short periods. During the day's commission meeting, held just after his press conference, he propped himself up by his wheelchair-gloved hands during the Pledge of Allegiance.
"He has made a remarkable recovery at the Drake Center," said Dr. Austin I. Nobunaga, director of Drake's Spinal Cord Rehabilitation Program, during the press conference.
But not a full recovery. Portune might walk under his own power in a few months, Nobunaga said, or never. That depended on whether he could regain coordination with his legs. The muscles worked, Portune said, but it was difficult to tell where they were moving without looking directly at them. He planned to leave the hospital Feb. 7 and begin a three-day-a-week schedule of therapy.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "I think I'm going to be in the best shape of my life."
Building delicate political coalitions was never Heimlich's strong suit during his eight years on Cincinnati City Council. He's a right-and-wrong, we're-either-saving-or-wasting-money kind of guy, a former Hamilton County assistant prosecutor who left to begin cross-examining government budgets.
As a Republican, he usually was in the minority at City Hall. For a couple of years he found himself and fellow Republican Pat DeWine at the short end of many 7-2 votes. After he left, however, some of his ideas, such as managed competition — allowing private firms to compete with city workers to do city services — have been adopted by a Democratic council majority. That's his style: leading with ideas and strong words, not by compromise or committee.
What began as a friendly relationship between Heimlich and Dowlin — based on their shared disdain for tax increases — frosted over quickly. While Portune was recovering, Heimlich repeatedly claimed Krings' contract was exorbitant and questioned the lack of public debate about it. The changes added $159,000 in potential expenses to a severance package already worth at least $284,000. Heimlich said it was a sweetheart deal and should be taken back — if possible — and didn't hesitate to paint the previous commission as inept for approving it.
The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) piled on, threatening a lawsuit against the county, and County Auditor Dusty Rhodes complained that he hadn't certified the extra contract expense, a legal requirement to make sure the county has the money to pay for it.
The lightning rod in the new contract was a change that allowed Krings to receive his severance package — which included almost two years of benefits — even if just one commissioner threatened to fire him.
At the Feb. 5 commission meeting, Portune said the change was designed to keep Krings from going through the politically motivated verbal whipping that former Cincinnati City Manager John Shirey suffered before he agreed to resign in December 2001. Krings — who, with a base salary of $179,636, is the highest-paid county administrator in Ohio — has offered to re-open contract negotiations.
Portune also said the county auditor hadn't certified any of Krings' previous 11 contract adjustments and that the new contract was a publicly available document voted on in a public county commission meeting.
Then Portune went further, accusing Heimlich of unreasonably politicizing the issue by characterizing the Krings contract as a sweetheart deal negotiated behind closed doors.
"I think that's the kind of political gamesmanship that the public hates to see from elected officials," Portune said.
Of course, Mike Brown could make a similar argument against Portune, who was elected two years ago on a wave of dissatisfaction with stadium cost overruns and hasn't let up on the issue since.
Dowlin called for a vote for a closed meeting to discuss Krings' contract, as is customary with personnel issues. Under the commission's rules of order, a visibly frustrated Heimlich couldn't respond to Portune, who quickly agreed with Dowlin to have the closed meeting.
After the hour-long "executive session," the three commissioners spoke briefly. All supported taking a second look at the Krings contract.
Out of right field
Unexpectedly, Heimlich saved at least one part of Portune's $5 million spending package on Feb. 5.
Portune introduced a motion to increase county juror pay from $7.50 a day to $19 to encourage a more diverse jury pool. Dowlin wanted no part of it because he didn't believe many people are refusing to serve because of the pay rate. Heimlich agreed with Dowlin but said jurors deserve to have their lunches and parking paid for; Heimlich voted with Portune to pass the motion.
Heimlich also might help repeal a legal handcuff Portune has been operating under since the summer. Portune, citing Heimlich's repeated calls for open debate and more disclosure, brought up the June 5 commission-adopted requirement that it takes two commission votes to release a document marked "privileged" by the County Prosecutor's Office (see Open and Shut, issue of June 13-19, 2002).
You might think Heimlich, the former assistant prosecutor, would go along with such a pro-prosecutor rule. He made no promises to Portune on Feb. 5 but restated his support for more openness in government. ©