Friday, May 25, 2001

Judge will decide if seats deal fair

OK expected; five speak out in opposition

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Only five people spoke out Thursday against a proposed settlement that would end the dispute among Hamilton County, the Cincinnati Bengals and more than 12,000 season ticket holders.

        Common Pleas Judge Robert Ruehlman will rule on the fairness of the proposed settlement Tuesday. The settlement will essentially be final if the judge decides it is fair, because a majority of the Hamilton County Commission is in favor of it.

        Commissioners will officially vote on the settlement — which will cost taxpayers no more than $2.6 million — on June 6 if the judge approves it.

        Six fans sued the county and the team last year, claiming they purchased seat licenses to sit in specific sections of the stadium but were assigned seats in less expensive zones. All season ticket holders are now a part of the lawsuit.

        The settlement will give nearly 2,500 fans the option to either upgrade their seats at no charge, keep their seats and be refunded the difference by the county, or give up their seat licenses and get a total refund. For fans wanting a full refund, the county would pay the difference in cost between the sections and the Bengals will pay the rest.

        Only 2,500 fans are entitled to a cash refund because they were seated in less expensive zones. All 12,000 fans can participate in the seat-relocation program.

        Janet Abaray, attorney for the fans, said the settlement amount could be as high as $6 million. She said it's a good deal for fans.

        “Without this settlement, the (fans) are looking at two appeals before we even get to a jury trial,” Ms. Abaray said. “That represents a risk.”

        If approved, Hamilton County will initially pay $2.4 million to cover payments to fans who were seated in a wrong zone but want to stay there. Then the county will receive payments as fans are relocated.

        “This squares everything because it gives fans the full benefit of the bargain,” said Carl Stich, a chief assistant prosecuting attorney. “There is nothing else we can do to make things right. This gives people the full value of what they paid for.”

        The settlement has been on-again, off-again for weeks. It took hours of negotiations over two weeks just to hammer it out. Then commissioners balked at it, with two of the three having different ideas of what is fair.

        The deal seemed in jeopardy as recently as Monday, when it appeared the Bengals had overstated their contribution by $250,000.

        But late Wednesday, the Bengals agreed to pay at least 50 percent of the cost of the settlement, should county taxpayers end up paying more. The Bengals total payment toward the lawsuit won't be known until after the season, because fans have until then to decide if they want a full refund.

        That concession by the Bengals convinced Commissioner John Dowlin, who holds the swing vote. He and Commissioner Tom Neyer are expected to vote in favor of the settlement. Commissioner Todd Portune is not in favor because he thinks it costs taxpayers too much.

        Although 12 fans had filed protests with the court over the settlement, five spoke Thursday. Most complained that the team held back seats for luxury-box owners, league officials, players' families and others. Those holds, they say, mean they were given worse seats than they should have received.

        “I was told I would receive priority in the new stadium; there was nothing about holding seats back in the literature,” said Mike Doppes, a Cheviot resident and holder of season tickets since the mid-1990s.

        Jeff Beach agreed. The people displaced by the 2,500 seats held back had to go somewhere, he said, and they're sitting in front of him.

        “I didn't get the best seat possible because of the way this was done,” said Mr. Beach, 30, of Fort Thomas. “In the end, it was about who you knew.”


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