Monday, February 10, 2003

Light rail fight still smolders

Stephan Louis and John Schneider are both nice guys. They love Cincinnati. They have given up hours, weeks and months of their lives at public hearings, appearing like a holy civic spirit wherever two or more people gather to talk about transportation.

Just don't get them started on light rail unless you have a spare life to burn.

And don't get them started on each other unless you have asbestos ears.

Their tag-team smackdowns over light rail, leading up to last November's vote on Issue 7, showed how politics can get very personal.

Rocky wins

In one corner was Schneider, the Light Rail Champion with a posse of big name backers, weighing in at $750,000.

In the other corner was No-Trains Louis, a political pencil-neck with only $10,000 to spend.

Louis won by a knockout.

Voters shot down the half-cent tax for light rail, 69 percent to 31 percent. But while he was ring-dancing like Rocky, Louis was sucker-punched by a complaint to the Ohio Elections Commission.

According to the complaint by Schneider, a cable TV ad opposing light rail said, "The Federal Transit Administration rates it one of the worst plans in the country.''

Schneider says that was false. "If someone went to the trouble to be untruthful in a paid ad, what else was said in the campaign?'' he said. By filing the complaint, he said, "We're sending the message that this is an important issue and you've got to speak truthfully.''

Louis replied: "It's an absolutely baseless charge. I don't know what the motive is here other than to intimidate me.''

The FTA report he cited in the ad gave Cincinnati's I-71 corridor plan lukewarm scores and "low'' cost effectiveness. Of 51 plans, Cincinnati's was among four that got the worst score: "Not Recommended.''

The big chill

Congressman Steve Chabot, an opponent of the light rail plan, said the ad was accurate. "To continue pushing this complaint is just not warranted - in fact it's outrageous,'' he said. "It could have a chilling effect on public debate on issues such as tax levies.''

Louis, who sells medical devices, says the cost of missing work during the campaign is already "catastrophic.'' Now he has to pay lawyer fees and defend himself in Columbus. "I'm not crying about it, but I don't have very deep pockets.''

The complaint has made it past a "probable cause'' review and there will be a hearing later this month, said Elections Commission Director Phil Richter. The maximum is criminal prosecution and a fine of $10,000, but reprimands are more common.

Louis says he cited the FTA report enough times to make paint peel during the campaign, yet light rail supporters never challenged it until they filed a complaint at 4 p.m. on the day before the election.

"It's absolutely not sour grapes,'' Schneider said. "It's part of a healthy debate. There will be a Round 2 on this. This is going to come back.''

Stephan Louis wonders if it will ever go away.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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