The Times They Are A-Changin’

2011 in Cincinnati was an interesting, and sometimes bumpy, ride


orget all that hype about 2008 and the presidential election: When local historians gaze back from the future, 2011 in Cincinnati probably will be remembered primarily as the year when true change occurred.

As the year comes to a close, several politicians and hotly debated issues find themselves in far different situations than when 2011 began, with many experiencing what could be best described as a reversal of fortune. They range from the makeup of City Council to the progress of Cincinnati’s streetcar project, and from attacks on public-sector labor unions to the tactics and style of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

To be sure, many things remain as they’ve been for the past few years at the national level: The economy still is stuck in a ditch, unemployment is high and the federal government is paralyzed by partisan gridlock. But the Queen City saw several dramatic turnabouts, although whether they are welcome depends on your political perspective.

The year began with a bitterly divided Cincinnati City Council that had spent the entire holiday season bickering about budget cuts and barely approved a spending plan for 2011 in time for New Year’s Day.

As part of the budget, City Council voted 5-4 to repeal Cincinnati’s marijuana recriminalization law. Although Ohio law makes the possession of up to 100 grams of marijuana a minor misdemeanor that’s punishable only by a $150 fine and no criminal record, City Council had changed it in 2006 so the same crime here would be punishable by up to 30 days in jail, a $250 fine and a criminal record.

Originally, the law was meant to discourage “drug tourism,” in which people from surrounding communities come to Cincinnati to buy pot, along with allowing police to more readily conduct full-body searches of people they suspect of carrying guns.

It didn’t quite work: Statistics showed the reduction in out-of-state residents buying pot here was minimal — less than 1 percent — but costs to prosecute the cases more than doubled. Also, data showed that 85 percent of people charged under the law were African American, despite statistics indicating that marijuana use among blacks and whites is roughly equal.

With the city facing deficits, council decided it was a good time to dump the ill-advised measure.

In late January, Democrat-in-name-only Jeff Berding announced he would resign his council seat, ostensibly to focus on his day job as sales director for the Bengals, along with parroting that old political chestnut, ‘to spend more time with my family.”

It took another two months for Berding to find someone willing to accept his seat, Republican Wayne Lippert. His choice formally gave City Council a conservative majority, finally making official what had essentially been true for at least four years. Also in January, longtime Republican incumbent Chris Monzel left council to become a Hamilton County commissioner. Monzel selected Republican Amy Murray to fill the rest of his term.

Lippert and Murray wouldn’t have much time to grow comfortable in their new roles. Voters in November ousted them, along with longtime incumbents Chris Bortz and Leslie Ghiz. In their place, voters elected two Democrats who were first-time candidates (Chris Seelbach and P.G. Sittenfeld), a Charterite who is a registered Democrat (Yvette Simpson) and an independent (local NAACP President Christopher Smitherman).

The outcome leaves the nine-member City Council with six Democrats firmly in control of the group — or seven if you count Simpson. Additionally, the group has its first openly gay member (Seelbach) and its first African-American majority.

After the change, the new group was able to pass a 2012 budget with great haste, approving it Dec. 14 in a 7-2 vote. Council was able to avoid dealing with a projected $33.6 million deficit thanks to higher than estimated tax collections and a $14 million cash influx from the city renegotiating its job-retention deal with Convergys Corp.

City Council’s switchover also marked a turning point for Cincinnati’s long-planned streetcar project.

When Kasich took office in January, the mass transit foe quickly made his displeasure known about the project. Shortly thereafter, the state’s Transportation Review Advisory Council pulled nearly $52 million it tentatively approved for the streetcar last year — even though the project rated 84 on the group’s 100-point scale, far higher than other projects it funded.

Mayor Mark Mallory and other streetcar supporters rebounded by reducing the size of its initial route, eliminating segments from downtown to the riverfront and from Findlay Market to the uptown area near the University of Cincinnati.

Then the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) and the NAACP’s local chapter decided to mount their second ballot initiative in two years to block the project. COAST dislikes mass transit and most publicly funded projects, while the NAACP believes the city should spend its limited resources on basic services and neighborhood projects.

In 2009, the two groups put an initiative on the ballot that would’ve required a public vote before taxpayer money was used for any rail-related project within Cincinnati. Voters rejected the amendment, 56 percent to 44 percent.

This time, the groups tried an initiative that would’ve prohibited city officials from spending money on anything related to preparing any type of passenger rail transit, including the streetcar system, through Dec. 31, 2020. Further, it would’ve restricted the city from accepting federal grants for such projects, along with entering into public-private partnerships or even accepting private investment for a passenger rail project within the city’s rights-of-way.

But the groups failed again. In November voters rejected the measure, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Buoyed by the public support, the pro-transit Obama administration this month awarded a $10.92 million grant to the project. The cash means the riverfront connection will be restored.

Construction of the streetcar system will begin next year, with opening scheduled for late 2013.

Other funding for the project includes $25 million from an urban circulator grant awarded by the Federal Transportation Administration; $4 million from a congestion mitigation and air quality improvement grant by the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Regional Council of Governments; $6.5 million from Duke Energy; and the remaining $64 million will come from construction bonds issued by the city.

Council’s turnover partially was due to the large Democratic voter turnout sparked by Kasich’s memorable overreaching. While campaigning last year, Kasich mostly talked about how creating jobs would be his focus. Once elected, however, the governor spent much of his time and energy on getting Senate Bill No. 5 approved, which was aimed at restricting the collective bargaining rights of public-sector labor unions.

Enacted into law in late March, the bill allowed Ohio’s 400,000 public employees to collectively bargain for wages, but prevented them from collectively bargaining on several other items like working conditions, health insurance and pensions. It angered not only teachers’ unions, as expected, but also police and firefighters’ unions — two groups that had supported Kasich in the 2010 election.

A referendum effort was quickly launched, with supporters ultimately collecting more than 1.3 million signatures, a new state record. During the summer, after approval ratings for Kasich plummeted, the once-stubborn, autocratic governor tried to get repeal supporters to drop their effort and negotiate changes to the law. They refused; the proper time for negotiations was before legislators approved it, they replied.

After a skillful campaign that painted the law as an attack on the middle class that also could jeopardize public safety workers, the measure was easily overturned with 61.3 percent of voters favoring repeal.

A more conciliatory, humbled Kasich has dialed back his rhetoric in recent weeks. Many pundits, though, believe he likely will again target teachers with collective bargaining restrictions sometime in 2012.

Meanwhile, Hamilton County continued to be plagued by deficits in its stadium account. Because sales tax collections have never met the rosy estimates given to voters in 1996, the county doesn’t have enough revenue to cover the costs of operating and maintaining the Reds and Bengals stadiums, as well as fund other related costs.

In December 2010, a deficit was avoided for this year when Commissioners Greg Hartmann (a Republican) and David Pepper (a Democrat) decided to reduce the amount of a property tax rebate pledged to homeowners back in ’96, before the public’s vote to increase the sales tax by a half-cent.

With Pepper gone from the commission, however, its members spent much of this year arguing about how to avoid a $14.2 million deficit in 2012. This month, Hartmann was on the losing end of a vote when he opposed a plan by Chris Monzel (a Republican) and Todd Portune (a Democrat) to sell the county-owned Drake Center hospital in Hartwell.

Although Drake’s value has been appraised at anywhere from $45 million to almost $100 million over the years, Monzel and Portune agreed to sell it for $15 million to UC so they could keep the property tax rebate intact and have a one-time cash infusion to fill the deficit for next year.

Still, the sale might not happen. Local attorney Tim Mara, the activist who opposed the sales-tax hike back in ’96, said Ohio law prohibits commissioners from merely voting to sell a public asset like Drake. Rather, they must follow a process spelled out under law that includes auctioning off the property to the highest bidder. As the New Year begins, county attorneys are reviewing the deal.

Regardless, a more permanent solution must be found. Deficits in the stadium account are expected to grow to $93.4 million by 2014 and be roughly $700 million by 2032. 

Even as the county grapples with funding the two sports arenas, Forbes magazine reported this month that Bengals owner Mike Brown will spend $200 million to buy the 30-percent stake in the team controlled by the estate of Austin Knowlton. A co-founder of the team, Knowlton died in 2003. After the deal, the Brown family will control all but a few shares held by local attorney Charles Lindberg and Dr. Edison Miyawaki of Hawaii. The Bengals are valued at $875 million, according to Forbes.

The team is currently having difficulty getting fans into seats at the stadium. Although the facility has 65,535 seats, the team has had just one sellout in their last 11 home games; in three of those games, less than 42,000 tickets were distributed. The team has offered various ticket deals for the Jan. 1 season finale against the Baltimore Ravens, when the Bengals will be playing with a playoff spot on the line. 

Cincinnati in 2011 found itself involved with perhaps the most noteworthy national story of the year: The rise of Occupy Wall Street. The protest movement began Sept.17 in Zuccotti Park, located in New York’s Wall Street financial district. Targeted primarily against economic inequality, corporate greed and political corruption, the movement’s slogan is, “We are the 99 percent,” which refers to the growing income disparity in the United States between the wealthiest 1 percent and the rest of the population.

A report by the Congressional Budget Office ignited widespread populist rage after it revealed the incomes of the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans grew by an average of 275 percent during the past 30 years, while the middle 60 percent of Americans saw their incomes rise by just 40 percent or less. The 1 percent’s massive gains are being made to the detriment of the public good, protestors have said.

The movement’s local version, Occupy Cincinnati, camped overnight for 10 days in November at downtown’s Piatt Park, before police arrested them and removed their tents and signs from the plaza. About 45 people were arrested on misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing; no violence occurred, unlike in some other cities such as Boston and Oakland, Calif. The protestors were charged for violating park rules that state people must leave by 10 p.m.

One of the multiple judges hearing the cases, Municipal Court Judge David Stockdale, stated in a letter to his colleagues and municipal prosecutors that the city’s charter lacks a section that codifies the breaking of park rules into a misdemeanor criminal violation. Further, Stockdale believes the city’s Park Board lacks the legislative authority to make the violations a criminal offense.

The initial trespassing cases have been recessed until late January while the city’s prosecutors and attorneys for the defendants try to settle the cases.

Like its national counterpart, some people have criticized Occupy Cincinnati for lacking a coherent agenda and clear-cut goals. Nevertheless, the group has promised to remain active in 2012.

In another legal battle between a symbolic David and Goliath, the Cincinnati City Center Development Corp. (3CDC) quietly settled a federal lawsuit in September that had been filed by a group of tenants that had been forcibly removed from their downtown apartments.

The former tenants of the Metropole Hotel on Walnut Street were given $80,000 by 3CDC to settle their claim that they were improperly forced out; the settlement’s breakdown means each tenant will receive about $480.

As part of the deal, 3CDC didn’t admit to any wrongdoing but did agree to hold quarterly meetings for one year that outline affordable housing options in downtown and Over-the-Rhine. The first session was held Dec. 19.

Located across the street from the Aronoff Center for the Arts, The Metropole was home to about 207 people, many of them elderly or disabled. The building was operated as federally subsidized affordable rental housing since 1971, but the building’s long-term contract with HUD to provide affordable housing expired in 1991. Its owner, Showe Builders Inc., decided to sell the dilapidated property to 3CDC in November 2009 for $6.25 million.

All tenants were given notice that they must relocate within one year. The firm provided tenants with vouchers that could be used at an apartment or house of the person’s choice, and paid moving expenses.

3CDC is converting the Metropole into the 21c Museum Hotel, modeled after a similar hotel in Louisville’s West Main Street Historic District. The luxury hotel, slated to open in mid-2012, will feature 160 rooms, a contemporary art gallery and other upscale amenities.

And in one of the more noteworthy moves during 2011, Cincinnati Police Chief Thomas Stretcher Jr. retired after serving 12 years in the department’s top spot.

During Streicher’s rocky tenure, Cincinnati endured three days of scattered rioting after the April 7, 2001, police shooting death of Timothy Thomas. The 19-year-old, unarmed black man — wanted only on misdemeanor warrants — was killed during a late-night foot chase down a dark Over-the-Rhine alley. He was the 15th African-American killed by Cincinnati Police in five years, a period in which no white people had been killed in police encounters.

Even before the Thomas incident, a class-action lawsuit had been filed that accused police of harassing African Americans. After the riots, the U.S. Justice Department was invited to Cincinnati by city officials — against Streicher’s wishes — to monitor local operations and recommend improvements. Ultimately, dozens of police reforms were implemented, even though Streicher initially resisted the changes and took to talk radio to criticize the process.

Other highlights of Streicher’s rocky reign included the domestic violence complaint lodged against him by his then-wife, Kathryn, when she filed for divorce in 2001; his later marriage to a subordinate officer who was then granted disability retirement; and his reluctance to confront the slowdown in arrests that occurred after the riots.

A study by a nationally renowned police expert in 2005 found officers had low morale not due to City Council but because of department leadership.

In June, James Craig was hired to succeed Streicher. Craig, 54, is Cincinnati’s first African-American police chief and the first person hired as chief from outside the current ranks.

Craig was police chief in Portland, Maine, a position he took after retiring from a long career with the Los Angeles Police Department.

During his time with the LAPD, Craig served as the commanding officer in Juvenile Division and the Operations Support Divisions, where he implemented strategies to crack down on gang activity and sustain crime reduction efforts over a three-year period in the Southwest L.A. area.

Now that’s a change we can believe in.©

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