Tuesday, February 08, 2000

County sued for decision in private

Attorney: Deal on riverfront illegal

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A Cincinnati lawyer has flagged the Hamilton County commissioners for illegal procedure.

        Tim Mara, who four years ago led the campaign against raising the sales tax to pay for sports stadium construction, filed a lawsuit Monday claiming the commissioners acted illegally in approving a $2 million expenditure for riverfront development in a closed-door meeting.

        His lawsuit also alleges that two key aspects of the county's lease agreement with the Bengals — using tax money to buy unsold tickets during the next two seasons and giving Mike Brown a say in development near the stadium — also are illegal.

        If successful, the lawsuit could void all the agreements in dispute. It is unclear whether the county would then have to reopen lease negotiations with the Bengals or whether the remainder of the lease would remain in effect.

        Mr. Mara said lease issues have been brewing for years.

        But he decided to file suit only last week, when commissioners on Jan. 30 came out of a private session and announced they would give $2 million to Cincinnati for construction along Fort Washington Way.

        Commissioners formally approved that decision Feb. 2 at a public meeting.

        The Enquirer published a story Feb. 2, pointing out that the public decision was made in private and quoting commissioners as saying the subject came up in executive session.

        Commissioners are allowed to discuss a limited scope of items in executive session, such as property acquisition, personnel matters and lawsuits.

        “They just keep adding on to the reasons, and something had to be done,” Mr. Mara said. “They have to conduct the public's business in public.

        “I really wasn't moved to do anything until (last week when) they added to the pile of reasons.”

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said his office will file an answer to the allegations within the allotted 28 days.

        Commissioner John Dowlin said lawyers with the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office have been with them through every step of the lease negotiations with the Bengals.

        “The prosecutors have been a very important part of the negotiations,” Mr. Dowlin said. “All we can do is trust them to check the legality of those issues.”

        The $2 million went to the city to build a steel foundation along the roadway that may someday hold a three-block covering, linking the downtown with the riverfront.

        A parklike covering over the road would allow people to easily walk from downtown to the riverfront attractions.

        But even if the lawsuit is success ful, it probably will not throw off the road's construction schedule.

        The city is putting up the $10 million to get the work going, and is expecting to be reimbursed $2 million by the county and $2 million by a group of private business leaders.

        Mr. Mara admitted Monday that the commissioners could simply reopen debate on the issue during a public meeting and vote to approve it afterward.

        “But it's a matter of principle,” Mr. Mara said.


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