Thursday, April 20, 2000

Hamilton Co. to start over on $2 million for pilings

BY Howard Wilkinson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Hamilton County commissioners, faced with a lawsuit saying they broke the law by giving Cincinnati $2 million for pilings along Fort Washington Way, pulled the money Wednesday and started the process over.

        Chances are, the end result will be the same — the county will hand over $2 million for the project.

        But, this time, it won't do so until it has heard from proponents and critics of the project in a public meeting — instead of deciding behind closed doors, as commissioners did in February.

        “I see the wisdom of this going forward or I wouldn't have voted for it the last time,” said County Commission President Bob Bedinghaus. “But we'll hear what everybody has to say.”

        The three commissioners discussed the $2 million contribution to the city's Fort Washington Way piling project behind closed doors for about two hours. The money will help the city pay for the foundation for a future top covering the highway, allowing people to walk from downtown to planned attractions along the riverfront. The pilings have already been put in place.

        Two days after the private discussions, commissioners voted in public session to approve the payment.

        But attorney Tim Mara filed suit against the commissioners, claiming the decision made in a closed-door meeting was a violation of Ohio's Sunshine Law, which requires that most meetings be open.

        Last week, Common Pleas Judge Thomas Nurre, who will hear the Mara suit, asked Carl Stich, assistant county prosecutor, whether he would talk to the commissioners about holding a public debate and voting again on the Fort Washington Way contribution.

        Mr. Bedinghaus said Wednesday's vote to rescind the $2 million contribution was done to follow the judge's suggestion.

        The commissioners have scheduled a hearing on the $2 million contribution for May 3.

        Then, Mr. Bedinghaus said, the commissioners will take another vote.

        Mr. Mara's suit also challenges the county's guarantee to the Bengals of a minimum number of ticket sales in the new stadium and the giving up of rights to some of the land surrounding the stadium.

        A separate lawsuit was filed this month by attorney Kenneth Lawson raising some of the same issues. County lawyers have asked the court to combine the two lawsuits.

        Wednesday, Mr. Mara said the action by the commissioners to start over is a “tacit acknowledgement” that they acted improperly.

        Mr. Mara said that on May 3, “They are going to have to look sincere when they hear the criticism. They'll have to make sure it's not just a sham.”


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