Top Stories of 2013

The people, budgets and controversies CityBeat covered while writing about the streetcar all year


ith the end of 2013, Cincinnati is wrapping up a year that saw the election of a new mayor and City Council, the slim survival of the streetcar and a scuttled attempt to privatize Cincinnati’s parking meters. 

At the same time, Ohio is wrapping up a year in which state legislators continued pushing an anti-abortion agenda, the privatization of one of Ohio’s prisons grew increasingly questionable and some advocates called for new solutions to the state’s prison overpopulation problem.

Along the way, CityBeat was there covering the issues — sometimes ahead of other media outlets and other times providing a much-needed different perspective.

It was a big year for the city and state, and it allowed CityBeat to produce some journalism we’re really proud of. So without further ado, here are our big stories of 2013.

Survival of the streetcar

Nothing dominated local headlines this year like Cincinnati’s streetcar project. Starting in January, it became obvious that the 2013 mayoral race would pit John Cranley and Roxanne Qualls against each other on the issue of the streetcar (“Back on the Ballot,” issue of Jan. 23). The contentious issue became an easy, understandable way for the two Democratic candidates to differentiate themselves from each other.

As the streetcar debate carried on and the price tag on the project suddenly grew to $132.8 million after construction bids came in over-budget, we noticed both sides — but mostly the anti-streetcar side — were still disseminating misinformation about the project. That inspired a look at the top 10 worst arguments (“Top 10 Misrepresentations of the Cincinnati Streetcar Project,” issue of July 10), which, among other clarifications, noted the difference between the capital budget funding the project and the operating budget that pays for police and firefighters, which had become a misleading campaign talking point for many anti-streetcar candidates.  

A few months later, CityBeat followed up by asking whether cancellation numbers for the streetcar had grown. Given Cranley’s increasing chances of victory in the mayoral race, it seemed like a relevant question. After all, when discussing the cancellation of the project, opponents consistently made it seem like the city would be able to tap into all of the $132.8 million in capital funding for other projects.

The result: CityBeat heard from multiple officials, particularly those closely involved in the project, that cancellation could nearly reach the cost of completion (“White (and Orange) Noise,” issue of Oct. 9). It was the first time a local news outlet shined light on the issue, and it was verified by the city administration one month later and by an independent audit a month after that when Streetcar Project Executive John Deatrick and consulting firm KPMG produced cancellation estimates that confirmed many of the concerns raised by city officials in our story. 

And for the three council members who eventually became the deciding votes on council — P.G. Sittenfeld, David Mann and Kevin Flynn — the cancellation numbers were the beginning of the end to their campaign-staked opposition to the streetcar. 

The three swing votes were enough for the streetcar to get a veto-proof majority on City Council. But Flynn in particular only agreed to the vote after he reached a deal with the philanthropic Haile Foundation to deliver $900,000 a year for 10 years for the streetcar’s operating costs.

Although the streetcar continues, it came at some cost to the city: The two-week pause added $1.7-$2.8 million in delay costs to the project, and the city allocated $250,000 to pay for KPMG’s audit.

Parking privatization plan collapses

Just when it looked like the mayoral and council elections would largely focus on the streetcar, along came the parking privatization plan. The idea from the previous city administration, led by City Manager Milton Dohoney, was to better leverage the city’s parking meters, lots and garages by outsourcing them to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority and private companies.

It didn’t take long for the deal to run into controversy. Following the release of a memo that labeled the deal a bad call for the city, Councilman Sittenfeld told CityBeat the story of his behind-the-scenes involvement in trying to make the parking plan — an idea he opposed — somewhat good for Cincinnati (“Thwart Authority,” issue of July 24).

The story of Sittenfeld and the memo further showed the misleading claims made by the previous administration about the parking plan. Despite Mayor Mark Mallory and Dohoney’s insistence that the city would need to lay off cops and firefighters without the plan, City Council passed a budget with no public safety layoffs, and later revisions to the budget completely removed all city layoffs with higher-than-expected revenues.

Once Cranley and the new council won office, the parking plan was declared dead within a couple weeks. But the ongoing saga showed even some of Cincinnati’s most progressive leaders can make major missteps and misleading claims.

The year we met Mike Moroski

When CityBeat first heard of Mike Moroski, it was under bad circumstances: Moroski had just been fired from his job at a Catholic high school for publicly stating his support for same-sex marriage on his blog (“Testing Faith,” issue of Feb. 12).

But what might have been bad news back then helped launch Moroski to local prominence. He later ran an impressive City Council campaign that was endorsed by CityBeat (“Being Like Mike,” issue of Oct. 30). The campaign brought a fresh perspective to the council race, even if it ultimately came up short; Moroski’s focus on homelessness and poverty with specific policy ideas was atypical in a campaign mired by issues such as the city’s structurally imbalanced budget, streetcar and parking plan.

Moroski’s bid for council was unsuccessful, but the loss didn’t seem to deter him from local politics. He became a prominent voice in support of Cincinnati’s streetcar project as the newly elected Cranley and council debated whether to cancel it. When the streetcar won on Dec. 19, Moroski got his first taste of a major political victory — and, who knows, perhaps another one will come in 2017.

Greg Landsman, from campaign to campaign

Greg Landsman, executive director of the education-focused Strive Partnership, also ran for City Council this year. CityBeat also endorsed the campaign (“Holding Out Hope,” issue of Oct. 30), but it also proved unsuccessful.

But, like Moroski, Landsman quickly moved on to another issue: Cincinnati’s Preschool Promise. The transition made sense, given Landsman’s priorities. During his campaign, Landsman told CityBeat, “Getting universal preschool for every 3- or 4-year-old in this city — to fundamentally reduce poverty, change outcomes for every kid, improve every single school, make it easier for businesses to attract and retain talent, and get the city growing again — is way more important to me than my election.”

It’s now looking like the Preschool Promise is moving quickly enough to appear on the November 2014 ballot (“Future Investment,” issue of Dec. 18). With Landsman at the helm of an empirically supported cause, it appears Cincinnati will make another major decision in the coming year — and, as CityBeat first reported, it could be a big one for all the city’s neighborhoods.

Supportive housing in Avondale

While the citywide elections became a major issue for all of Cincinnati, a supportive housing facility grew increasingly controversial for neighborhood activists in Avondale (“Home Invasion?,” issue of Sept. 4). 

For CityBeat, the fight was another chance to shine light on the generally under-covered issues of homelessness and poverty in Cincinnati. It also spoke to what can make fixing these problems so difficult: Although no one is willing to admit they oppose anti-homelessness and anti-poverty efforts, a few people closely hold not-in-my-backyard attitudes that make permanent supportive housing facilities very difficult to build.

Although the project already received state funding and could proceed without City Council’s approval, some council members — mainly Christopher Smitherman — are now calling for council to rescind its support for state tax credits financing the project. It remains unclear whether a majority of council or Cranley will follow Smitherman’s lead.

Human services cuts

On the issue of homelessness, CityBeat took a look at a decade of cuts to the city’s human services funding — despite promises from city officials to keep such funding at 1.5 percent of the total operating budget (“Poor Priorities,” issue of July 31).

What we found: The priority-driven budgeting process and the surveys it produced were heavily skewed in favor of Cincinnati’s wealthiest and against the city’s poorest, making it no small wonder that survey responders ultimately deprioritized human services that help the impoverished and homeless.

City Council almost carried out more cuts to human services funding with the budget passed this year, but the cuts were later undone with higher-than-expected revenues. Council members have since vowed to CityBeat that they will manage to structurally balance the budget without cutting human services (“Easier Said Than Done,” issue of Nov. 26). Whether they’ll actually do it remains to be seen. 

Fight for the Emery Theatre

The fight to save the Emery Theatre, one of Cincinnati’s hidden cultural treasures, again took center stage this year. The Requiem Project, a nonprofit tasked with renovating the century-old theater, was evicted from the building in August, and its leaders sued University of Cincinnati, Emery Center Corporation (ECC) and Emery Center Apartments Limited Partnership (ECALP) for breaking their original contract (“Curtain Closing?,” issue of Aug. 7).

The fight is still ongoing in court as both sides try to lay claim to who has the rights to renovate the theater. UC originally told CityBeat it had no relationship with Requiem, while one person on the boards of ECC and ECALP, which lease the building from UC, said it was UC that shut the theater down.  

Whatever happens, the struggles of the Emery Theatre definitely renewed a movement to preserve historical locations that Cincinnatians sometimes take for granted.

Controversy at Loveland High School

Slightly beyond Cincinnati’s borders, another controversy boiled up last winter when Loveland High School fired a drama instructor after a play’s vague references to sex went a little too far for school administrators and unnamed parents. CityBeat reported the details in March (“Legally Banned,” issue of March 6), after public records requests turned up the administration’s main complaint about the show: an anonymous staff member’s list of issues that included the No. 1 complaint: “booty bounce moves.”

The controversy shined light on John Marschhausen (“Dr. John”), the superintendent of Loveland Schools, and his apparent dislike of all things racy. Before drawing criticism for firing a perfectly qualified drama instructor over a PG-rated, administration-approved musical, Dr. John had overseen a previous scandal known as “Yoga-gate” when he banned girls from wearing yoga pants to school. 

Given the unnecessary controversies over sex, it’s no wonder Dr. John briefly brought in a public relations consultant to help school administrators before he took his prudish tastes to Hilliard City Schools in Columbus.

The abortion-focused budget

Ohio’s Republican legislators also took issue with sex in schools earlier in the year when some state representatives attempted to promote chastity and ban comprehensive sex education, including mentions of birth control, from public schools (“The Chastity Bunch,” issue of April 24). 

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Ohioans, particularly Democrats coming off a 2012 victory largely thanks to support from women, didn’t react well to the proposal. Ultimately, the Ohio House agreed to do away with it.

Undeterred, Ohio Republicans, from Gov. John Kasich to the General Assembly, managed to cram anti-abortion restrictions in the state budget that will make it more difficult to open and maintain abortion clinics around the state (“Bad News Budget,” issue of July 3). The budget also reduced funding for family planning services like Planned Parenthood, even though no public funding actually goes to its abortion services, and passed across-the-board tax changes that largely favor the state’s wealthiest.

Prison privatization

A previous budget’s policies came home to roost in a bad way for Kasich and his Republican allies this year. Multiple sources revealed that Ohio’s Lake Erie Correctional Institution (LECI), which the state sold to Corrections Corporation of America in 2011, became increasingly unsafe after it was privatized (“From the Inside,” issue of May 29). As CityBeat collected public records, audits and letters from inmates and their families regarding LECI, we learned the prison had issues with rising violence, health, sanitation, staffing and even a gas leak that sent inmates to the prison’s medical wing on stretchers.

Since then, a follow-up audit from the state’s prison watchdog organization found some improvements at LECI. But it’s unclear how true to reality the so-called changes were since the follow-up audit was scheduled, while the previous audit, which found a host of issues, came as a total surprise to prison staff.

War on drugs crowds Ohio’s prisons

Ohio legislators decided to privatize a state prison because it cost the state too much money, largely because the facilities are becoming so overcrowded that the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction expects they’ll reach unconstitutional levels by 2019. But some advocates told CityBeat that there’s a better way to address the prison issue: legalize and decriminalize drugs (“Surrender Imminent?,” issue of Sept. 4).

The opinions, which come from a University of Cincinnati professor and a former Cincinnati police captain, stem from the total lack of results from the war on drugs in 42 years. In the past two decades of available data, the war on drugs failed to meaningfully reduce drug use.

Given the failure, advocates argue it’s perhaps time to stop imprisoning people for using and selling drugs and instead give them a legal — or at least non-criminal — avenue for their preferred activities.

A long year

Those are some of the big items CityBeat covered in 2013, but it’s important to note it was only a part of what we did. Dozens more stories, from checking in on progress at the award-winning Banks project to local government funding cuts at the state level, government shutdown coverage and yet another busy election cycle, filled our pages and covers over the past year. And that’s not even mentioning the amount of coverage we offered on our daily updated News Blog. 

Just like it was a big year for Cincinnati and Ohio, it was a big year for the CityBeat news team. ©

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