News: Opening Debate

Cincinnati City Council candidates discuss how to develop neighborhoods

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Scott Beseler


City Councilman Chris Bortz (left), a Charterite, and John Eby, a Republican, speak at The Greenwich.



With abandoned storefronts just a few hundred feet away and others struggling to stay in business, incumbent Cincinnati City Council members defended their records on neighborhood revitalization efforts at the first major debate of the election season Oct. 6 in Walnut Hills.

Also attending were more than a dozen council challengers, who were supposed to let the audience know what they would've done differently during the past two years if they had been in office. Some gave specific replies, others were vague and a few veered onto other topics altogether.

Held at The Greenwich nightclub near Peebles Corner, the debate allowed each candidate to give a four-minute opening remark on neighborhood revitalization, then have one minute each to respond to questions from a panel of journalists.

Answers revealed that some incumbents were touchy about their records, and a few first-time candidates didn't have a clear grasp of how city government works or what current programs were available.

The need to choose
The debate got off to a lively start with City Councilman Chris Bortz, an incumbent Charterite, stating that because City Hall has limited resources, council cannot afford to invest in all of Cincinnati's 52 neighborhoods equally and must target funds to certain areas where it would get the most bang for its development buck.

"You have to focus on key areas, clustered neighborhoods, and focus all of your energies there," said Bortz, who heads city council's Economic Development Committee. To determine which areas get the extra help, council must determine "what neighborhoods provide the most opportunity, what neighborhoods are the biggest job centers," he added.

Council shouldn't pander to every neighborhood that seeks city subsidies, Bortz said.

"We have to have the courage as leaders to say, 'This is where we will begin because this is where we will have the most opportunity,' " Bortz said.

Also, Bortz blamed previous councils for abolishing the city's planning department and not having a coordinated citywide development strategy. The current council and Mayor Mark Mallory have reestablished a scaled-back version of the department.

"Over the last 20 years, the city has failed to keep up with its basic infrastructure," Bortz said.

The recent "Go Cincinnati" program begun by the current council aims to spark more neighborhood redevelopment by stepping up code enforcement on properties that are blighted, adding targeted police activity in problem areas and offering tax abatements.

Democrat Jeff Berding and Republican Leslie Ghiz, two incumbents who've often worked with Bortz on council initiatives, repeated the theme that the current council has done more than it's generally given credit for.

Berding downplayed council's bitter budget battles last winter, adding that by the time it was over, council unanimously approved a budget and tried to set aside hard feelings.

"This is a democracy," he said. "Sometimes you have a disagreement and then you move on. It's much easier to agree when you have a (budget) surplus than a deficit."

Berding credited the current council with improving cooperation with Hamilton County Commissioners. He cited an upcoming effort called "Don't Borrow Trouble," which will attempt to crack down on predatory lending in low-income areas, as well as an upcoming task force that will try to improve city government's financial stability.

Like Berding and other incumbents, Ghiz noted that Cincinnati's violent crime rate has dropped by 14 percent in the past year. "In order to revitalize neighborhoods, we have to have safety. ... To have a 14 percent drop in violent crime is pretty amazing."

Some non-incumbents, however, called the statistic misleading because local crime rates have risen so dramatically since 2001 that any drop seems significant; the rates remain much higher than in the 1990s, they added.

'Forgotten about people'
Wendell Young, a Democratic challenger making his second attempt to win a council seat, said city officials should seek more input from residents when crafting a development plan for a neighborhood.

"Too often, people plan for our neighborhoods who don't live there," Young said.

Greg Harris, another Democratic challenger, agreed. Citing city-approved projects in Oakley and Over-the-Rhine that were against Land Use Plans created for the areas, he said council should act to make such plans binding and not merely advisory. "(Neighborhoods) can use their Land Use Plans as leverage" to encourage the types of development they want, Harris said.

Justin Jeffre, a Green Party candidate, is creating what he calls a "neighborhood rescue plan." It involves creating trust funds for neighborhoods to buy vacant buildings in their areas and use community groups to redevelop them, providing job training for residents in the process — a concept also supported by Democratic challenger Brian Garry.

"We've had leadership at City Hall that's only looked out for big business and seems to have forgotten about people," Jeffre said.

Charlie Winburn, a Republican seeking a return to council after an absence of several years, wants to give $75,000 to $100,000 to each neighborhood so they can hire full-time development officers to attract projects and leverage private money.

"You can't do anything with (the current) $10,000," he said. "You can't leverage that to create jobs and do economic development to make a difference in neighborhoods."

Asked where the money would come from with City Hall facing deficits, Winburn replied that council should cut middle management jobs there. How many could be cut, though, is unclear because many of the positions are protected by labor union contracts.

Patrick Fischer, a Republican seeking his first council term, said Cincinnati lacks a vital development resource that most other major cities have and he would push to create: a locally-owned, minority-controlled bank that specializes in making loans to small businesses in struggling areas.

"This is the way of the future for the city right now. We're missing the boat," Fischer said.

Steve Pavelish, an independent candidate, views the problem in simpler terms.

"I've seen 42 years of government programs wrecking our city, wrecking our country, wrecking our families," he said. "What were we doing differently then? Everyone had God in their lives."

Of the 26 candidates seeking a council seat, only three didn't speak at the event.

They were Charterite Joan Kaup, who attended but had to leave to attend a previous engagement before her turn at the podium; independent Sean Robert Lackey, who doesn't seem to be actively campaigning this year; and independent Mitch Painter. ©

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