Wednesday, February 06, 2002

City Hall becomes like a courtroom




By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Councilman John Cranley called it a tour de force.Deputy City Solicitor Robert H. Johnstone Jr. said he's never seen anything quite like it in his 28 years with the city.

        With its 33 footnotes citing century-old Ohio Supreme Court cases, a 12-page memo from Councilman David Pepper isn't exactly a John Grisham page-turner.

        But the councilman's legal opinion has nonetheless turned Cincinnati City Hall upside down this week.

        Mr. Pepper, former editor of the Yale Law and Policy Review and litigator at Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, disagreed with Mr. Johnstone's opinion that a $770,000 city contract with the housing group ReStoc was legal.

        “Even on first glance, I found its logic to be flawed in numerous places and far too casual a treatment of a crucial question,” Mr. Pepper wrote. “I found it to lack the rigor, balance and legal support necessary for Council to come to a responsible decision on this matter.”

        Council members have questioned the legal advice given to them before, but never as thoroughly as Mr. Pepper has.

        Mr. Johnstone's response was good-natured: “I am somewhat startled that lawyers would ever disagree with each other.”

        But the tongue-in-cheek reply belies a more fundamental issue, as framed by non-lawyer Councilman David Crowley: “Who's the arbiter in a legal spitting match between the solicitor's office and council?”

        Put another way, could Mr. Pepper's memo set a precedent that council is free to act as its own lawyer? And what happens if the solicitor's office is compelled to defend council's action in court?

        The other lawyers on City Council — Mr. Cranley and Pat DeWine — sided with Mr. Pepper, and the Finance committee voted 4-3 to reject the solicitor's opinion and break the ReStoc contract.

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        Showtime: Thursday will mark the premiere of City Council's new Arts and Culture Committee, chaired by Jim Tarbell.

        Ever the showman, Mr. Tarbell is keeping secret his exact plans for the 4 p.m. meeting, but they're said to include “both visual and performance art.”

        “It promises to be just a little different, perhaps, than what usually takes place in these chambers,” Mr. Tarbell reported at last week's council meeting. “Just be forewarned.”

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        Statistic: Cincinnati police wrote 54 panhandling citations last year, according to a report to the Law and Public Safety Committee.

        The number one area for panhandling last year was the corner of 12th and Main streets in Over-the-Rhine, where police wrote 11 tickets.

        The second-highest number of citations — eight — came in front of 310 Ezzard Charles Drive.

        That's the headquarters of the Cincinnati Police Department.

        Gregory Korte covers Cincinnati City Hall. He can be reached at 768-8391 or gkorte@enquirer.com.

       



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