Protection From Council in a Can

President Bush's spending habits must be rubbing off locally: The city of Cincinnati brings in $3 million more than expected, and who's the first clamoring to spend it? The Republicans on city c

Feb 16, 2005 at 2:06 pm
April L. Martin

Roger Owensby Sr. reacts to a comment by a police officer allegedly involved in his son's death.

President Bush's spending habits must be rubbing off locally: The city of Cincinnati brings in $3 million more than expected, and who's the first clamoring to spend it? The Republicans on city council. Councilmen Chris Monzel and Sam Malone introduced a motion Feb. 9 to drop plans for traffic-enforcement cameras.

The budget that council passed in December, with Malone's support, anticipates $6 million in revenue over the next two years from the cameras. Also known as "red light cameras," the unmanned devices catch speeders as well as those who let the yellow light bleed to pink. The cameras snap an offender's license plate, and the ticket arrives by mail.

"This is a $6 million credit card we basically took out in the taxpayers' names," Monzel said. "We do know we have $3 million in hand. You pay your bills with cash in hand."

Monzel's and Malone's motion said council should find other ways to shore up the 2005-06 budget "in light of recent developments."

But of the six developments listed, only two weren't known at the time council voted to pass the budget. One is that the city's recent earnings tax income was 1 percent, or $3 million, higher than the budget had projected. The second new development is that the GOP majority of the Ohio General Assembly is drafting legislation to ban the cameras statewide.

Several council members railed against Malone for coming out against the cameras after supporting them in the budget.

"I'm surprised that my Republican brothers are the first out of the gate to tap into that $3 million," said Councilman Christopher Smitherman, a Charterite who harps on fiscal responsibility.

Malone said he wasn't the first council member to change his mind, and he hadn't known at the time there would be extra money. Council rejected his proposal 5-4.

As always, where there's money there's spam e-mail. Some of the more useful spam in inboxes lately urges, "Fight back! Don't let the red light cameras take your money! Make your license plate invisible!" The ad is for a spray can of something called "Photo Blocker."

Somebody's Got to Do It
Smitherman won't let the city move past the 2000 asphyxiation death of Roger Owensby Jr. in police custody — not until someone is held accountable. He told council Feb. 9 it's imperative that there be intervention on the Owensby family's behalf. He'd told the Hamilton County Commissioners the same thing earlier that day.

"It reminds me so much of historical cases that we will look back on and say, 'We didn't get this right,' " he said.

In a Feb. 11 letter to U.S. Attorney Gregory Lockhart, Smitherman requested that the two police officers involved in Owensby's death, Robert Jorg and Patrick Caton, be tried in federal court. He noted that Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune says an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department is ongoing. But the statute of limitations runs out Nov. 7, Smitherman said.

"The irony of the Owensby story is that Mr. Owensby served his country and fought for other people so they could enjoy the freedoms that many Americans take for granted," he wrote. "However, when he returned home to Cincinnati, he was deprived of the very same liberties for which he fought as a member of the U.S. Armed Forces. There are two realities in America: one black, one white."

Smitherman also questioned a couple of other instances of preferential treatment by the city. First, the husband-and-wife development team of Scheer & Scheer spent about $340,000 of the city's money for the Findlay Market area, did very little actual work and then moved to Utah, he said.

"We went around the country looking for (LaShawn) Pettus-Brown," Smitherman pointed out, referring to a former basketball star who ran off with $182,000 the city had given him to rebuild the Empire Theatre. He's now in the Hamilton County Justice Center awaiting trial. Their more learned counterparts are faring far better, according to Smitherman.

"The Scheers are professors somewhere in this country," he said. "There's something wrong with that."

Then there's the Kroger Co.'s recent decision to pull a failing grocery store out of Camp Washington while the city is building a $12 million parking garage for Kroger employees at Vine Street and Central Parkway.

"We need to be much firmer as we move and support corporations in this city," Smitherman said. "We also have a responsibility to lobby for citizens, because corporations are looking out for themselves."

Councilman Jim Tarbell, ever the advocate for cleaner streets, has joined Councilwoman Laketa Cole in calling for the Over-the-Rhine Ambassadors program to be restored.

"Since the Over-the-Rhine Ambassadors program was cut at the beginning of the year, trash has quickly accumulated to unacceptable levels in Over-the-Rhine and the perception of safety on the streets has plummeted to an all-time low," Tarbell said.

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