News: The Other Race

Dowlin and Wolterman battle for the other county-commission seat

Oct 12, 2000 at 2:06 pm


While Hamilton County Commission candidates Todd Portune and Bob Bedinghaus dominate headlines, the race for the other open seat on the commission is attracting far less attention. And incumbent Commissioner John Dowlin wants it that way. Dowlin, a Republican with 10 years' experience in the office, recently unveiled his one and only TV ad during a gathering of supporters from social-service agencies at the Mt. Adams Bookstore and Café.

"We're really rather a low-key campaign, low-money campaign," Dowlin says. "I don't want to do anything to raise (Joe Wolterman's) name ID."

The 15-second commercial, to run in the third week of October, shows Dowlin walking with his grandchildren near trees in their full fall colors. A deep-voiced announcer repeats Dowlin's name a few times, ending with, "John Dowlin: Your Hamilton County Commissioner."

Meanwhile, Democratic challenger Wolterman is joined at the hip with Portune, sharing a Web site, a truck equipped with a large video screen and public appearances.

A four-term Colerain Township Trustee, Wolterman has a somewhat harder task than Portune because Dowlin didn't take many of the controversial stances Bedinghaus did on Broadway Commons, riverfront development and the Paul Brown Stadium contract.

Wolterman instead argues Dowlin wasn't a harsh enough critic of the other two county commissioners. For example, Wolterman believes Dowlin should have refused to sign the Bengals stadium contract, which guaranteed the county would pay the Bengals if the stadium weren't finished on time or if fewer than 50,000 tickets per game were sold the first two seasons.

But Dowlin and Wolterman do share some points of view. Both have suburban roots, both oppose light rail, both are pro-life and oppose county funding for abortions, both have doubts about expanding the Albert B. Sabin Convention Center and both believe a new western bridge over the Ohio River should be studied.

Growth vs. growth
The stadium issue has defined the race between Portune and Bedinghaus. For Dowlin and Wolterman, the major issue is the Western Hamilton County Collaborative Plan (WHCCP), a Dowlin-led effort to bring regional planning to hilly, largely undeveloped western sections of the county.

The WHCCP is Dowlin's response to continued Hamilton County population loss and the fragmentation of the county through its 49 political subdivisions. The plan aims to develop the western part of the county and bring local governments together by asking them to adopt planning goals. Four of the 10 townships, villages and cities included in the plan have adopted it.

Wolterman, one of the plan's original steering-committee members, says the county commission voted on the plan when it was supposed to first get approval from the local governments.

But not everyone supports the plan. The Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County, a group of about 200, opposes the plan and how it's being handled and argues for low growth. In the summer of 1999, the county opted instead for moderate growth.

"How do you obtain low growth?" Dowlin asks.

More restrictive zoning could require compensating property owners for losses in property value, and the townships rejected it, Dowlin says.

But couldn't you restrict growth by not building sewers and roads to areas that shouldn't be developed?

"But if you don't build the roads, I don't know what's going to happen," Dowlin says. "I think you're going to get congestion."

Wolterman says the WHCCP can be a useful tool.

"You cannot stop growth ... but you can control it," he says.

Colerain Township has been sued four or five times on zoning disputes, according to Wolterman. In some parts of the county, septic tanks are sliding into neighbors' yards, he says. Property owners have a right to develop their land as long as it's not a detriment to the community, he says.

"I don't think anybody can object to the goals of that plan," Wolterman says.

Both Dowlin and Wolterman question whether citizens calling for low growth understand the issues.

"I would like to debate the people factually, rather than emotionally, which is where they're coming from," Dowlin says.

Concerned Citizens of Western Hamilton County have not endorsed either candidate.

Run against silence
When the three-member county commission has a split vote, Dowlin is usually the minority. He was the lone dissenter when commissioners approved the 1996 stadium sales-tax hike and when they ruled out Broadway Commons for the new Reds stadium.

A former Procter & Gamble executive who was mayor of Sharonville for 28 years, Dowlin believes the county is doing its share for downtown Cincinnati and sharply criticizes those who disagree. The county has invested hundreds of millions on the riverfront but nothing in other areas in the county, such as Lincoln Heights, one of the counties' poorest political subdivisions, he says.

Dowlin is proudest of creating the county's drug court, which routes non-violent drug offenders into a treatment program rather than jail. Ninety-two percent of the participants don't relapse, which has opened jail space for more violent offenders.

Dowlin is also proud of the auxiliary jail in Queensgate. The new jail that Sheriff Simon Leis wanted would have cost $65 a day to house an inmate, but the Queensgate center costs $22 a day, according to Dowlin.

Refusing to trumpet his dissenting votes even though he's often been vindicated, Dowlin is instead trying to run a low-budget campaign. He's even re-using thousands of campaign magnets he bought in 1996 that include the slogan, "Promises Kept."

If at first you lose, run again
Four years ago, Wolterman, an independent insurance agent, ran against Bedinghaus and lost. Several months earlier, voters had passed the sales-tax increase. Bedinghaus was a hero then, and Wolterman was the anti-sales tax candidate.

This time Wolterman, with Portune, is running a joint campaign on open government, among other issues.

A few years ago, during a closed meeting, Wolterman voted on a plan to create a police department for Colerain Township. The vote generated a lawsuit.

"I became very sensitive to making public decisions in the public," he says.

Wolterman wants to increase the amount of public discussion at county-commission meetings. The public has a difficult time understanding how decisions make are made, he says, because commissioners don't talk much before they vote.

Wolterman cites among his achievements a new Colerain Township administrative building, the creation of the Police Department and the Fire Department's high rating by the Insurance Service Organization.

Wolterman says Dowlin didn't do enough to oppose the Paul Brown Stadium contract or to enable County Auditor Dusty Rhodes, a Democrat, to audit stadium expenditures.

"I'm running against Mr. Dowlin's silence," Wolterman says.

Going underground
Wolterman often attacks Dowlin about his promise to upgrade the emergency-communications system, which is still in progress. Wolterman says the job should have been finished years ago. The current system doesn't reach all of the county — including certain spots inside buildings — and doesn't allow different police and fire departments to talk to each other.

Dowlin says the effort has just taken time.

"I think we do have a plan," he says. "The real question is a financial one."

The county proposed tax levies for a countywide emergency communications system three times, and voters rejected them three times. The most recent was a $60 million plan in spring 1999.

Shortly thereafter, the county set aside $30 million to pay for radio towers, other framework and one 800 MHz radio for each fire unit and ambulance unit, with local governments paying for the rest. The lowest bid was $20 million, so now the commissioners are thinking about covering more units, Dowlin says.

Wolterman says the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority, approved Oct. 4 by the city and county, will be able to attract enough private investment for The Banks, a proposed riverfront neighborhood between the stadiums. But Wolterman says the commissioners used $80 million of the $145 million needed for underground parking spaces to pay for cost overruns on Paul Brown Stadium.

"I don't think the commission knows how much money they have (for parking)," Wolterman says.

Dowlin says the question isn't about the $145 million in parking money. Those costs are spread over five years, and the county can meet them, he says. The question is about the additional $105 million to build infrastructure for The Banks, including a park and streetscape.

Neither Wolterman nor Dowlin have specific plans for public transportation.

"I think it should be county-wide and it should be cross-county," Dowlin says.

Wolterman says he wants public transit to be effective and efficient and to reach as many points as possible, with easy pedestrian access. ©