Sunday, November 26, 2000

County delays vote on art fund

Anti-tax group alleges impropriety

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A scheduled vote by Hamilton County commissioners on a $600,000 grant to a local arts group that one of the commissioners helped establish has been pulled from Wednesday's meeting agenda, county Administrator David Krings said Saturday.

        “I suppose that all the controversy has had an effect in that we want to make sure this thing is checked out as much as it can be,” said Mr. Krings, a day after a local watchdog group asked Hamilton County prosecutor Mike Allen to intervene.

        An anti-tax group called the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxation (COAST) sent a letter to Mr. Allen asking that he file suit against the grant because of an apparent conflict of interest by Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr.

        COAST spokesman Jim Urling also said Saturday that his group opposes funding the Regional Cultural Alliance because arts programs should not be financed with public money.

        “You either get funding for the kinds of projects that many people oppose, like Mapplethorpe, or you get sued by artists who didn't get funded and claim censorship,” said Mr. Urling, an Oakley lawyer. “You see what's going on nationally with the National Endowment for the Arts. It just opens a Pandora's box of First Amendment issues that the county should not be involved with.”

        The 1990 Contemporary Arts Center exhibit of sexually explicit photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, which brought obscenity charges against the museum and its then-director, Dennis Barrie, did not rely on public money. A jury acquitted the museum and Mr. Barrie of all charges.

        However, a Philadelphia museum received $30,000 from the federally funded National Endowment for the Arts in 1989 to help create Mr. Mapplethorpe's initial exhibit.

        The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that the NEA does not have to subsidize art the government considers indecent - a decision that came after several other controversial exhibits funded by the NEA.

        COAST, founded by Mount Washington lawyer Tom Brinkman in January 1999, has opposed levies for schools and the Cincinnati Zoo in recent years as well as other tax increases — paying as much as $20,000 for anti-tax advertising during recent campaigns.

        Mr. Brinkman, who won the 37th District seat in the Ohio House of Representatives this month, said his group has about 30 active members.

        The Regional Cultural Alliance held its first meeting Aug. 29, and its goals include coordinating marketing among regional arts institutions across Greater Cincinnati.

        Mr. Neyer, who chaired a “transition team” that helped create the RCA, said Mr. Urling's point about publicly funding the arts “is one point of the discussion that has merit.”

        “I will gladly talk about the wisdom of this community priority relative to others,” he said Saturday.

        Mr. Neyer said he disassociated himself with RCA after it was created.

        “I am not, contrary (to) other assertions, was not, and will not be associated with the RCA, and my staff is not,” Mr. Neyer said. “My role is to evaluate their potential and effectiveness as we consider the funding going forward.”

        Mr. Urling said the letter is the first step toward a possible “taxpayers' lawsuit” against the grant. If Mr. Allen refuses to file a suit, COAST is allowed under Ohio law to file its own private lawsuit, which could come as early as next week.

        Mr. Allen said he had not seen the letter, and could not comment.

        The letter also asks Mr. Allen to recuse himself from the case and appoint a special prosecutor, because in February 1997 Mr. Allen — then chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party - appointed Mr. Neyer to a vacant commission seat. Mr. Neyer won re-election in 1998.

        As for the argument that the commission is not authorized to fund an arts program, Mr. Neyer said the RCA is a tool for economic development.

        “That is clearly within the statutory powers of Hamilton County commissioners,” Mr. Neyer said.


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