Saturday, December 16, 2000

Neyer can't vote for arts funding

Ethics group cites conflict of interest

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The Ohio Ethics Commission has ruled that Tom Neyer, an arts supporter and Hamilton County commissioner, can't cast a controversial vote to give $600,000 to an arts advocacy group called the Regional Cultural Alliance.

        Mr. Neyer, the commission said Friday, has a conflict of interest in the matter.

        The opinion is a significant setback for the alliance, which was created to market arts institutions in the Tristate and had planned to rely heavily on public funding.

        Commissioner John Dowlin has raised questions about how public money for the RCA would benefit taxpayers, and incoming com missioner Todd Portune has said he is opposed to new spending. No other counties in the region have agreed to help fund the alliance.

        Mr. Neyer, a Republican, serves on several arts boards in Cincinnati. He also chaired a “Transition Team,” which was formed to find funding for the alliance.

        Under Mr. Neyer's leadership, the arts alliance approached the Hamilton County Commission for a grant of $600,000.

        The commission told Mr. Neyer that state law “prohibits you from voting, discussing, deliberating or participating in any other way, as a county commissioner, in the funding of an arts initiative known as the RCA.”

        Mr. Neyer, who asked for the opinion earlier this month, said, “I'm disappointed by the opinion, but I will certainly abide by it. That's why I asked for it. But I continue to believe the RCA has an important purpose in this community.”

        The importance of the RCA was never the central issue. It was Mr. Neyer's role in an organization he was about to fund with public money that concerned members of an anti-tax organiza tion called Citizens Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

        COAST members filed a complaint with the ethics commission in June over Mr. Neyer's impending vote on the matter. That complaint is still pending.

        Mr. Neyer sought an opinion from the Hamilton County Prosecutor's Office in July, asking if there were a conflict of interest. The prosecutor's office said there was not.

        But that request failed to mention Mr. Neyer's role on the alliance's Transition Team. Asked last month why the letter omitted that, Mr. Neyer said his activities there were “well known.”

        When asked if he thought Mr. Neyer intentionally withheld information, Prosecutor Mike Allen said: “I know Tom Neyer. He's an honest man and a man of integrity. He would not knowingly deceive anyone.”

        COAST lawyer Chris Finney said he thinks Mr. Neyer chose not to include his role on the Transition Team because he knew it would expose the conflict.

        “If it was up to Tom Neyer, this thing would have been funded six months ago,” Mr. Finney said. “He needs to be disciplined.”

        Mr. Neyer tried to push a vote on the alliance through in July as a last-minute item during a commission meeting. Mr. Dowlin refused to vote for it, and the resolution was changed so that county staff could simply negotiate a contract with the alliance — not sign the contract.

        “I told them I wouldn't vote for it,” Mr. Dowlin said. “And I was not prepared to vote for it next week because none of my questions have been answered. Frankly, I do not expect their answers to satisfy me.”

        David Herriman, chairman of the alliance, said his organization will not seek a vote on the funding from Hamilton County this year. Rather, it will wait until new commissioner Mr. Portune is sworn in next month.


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