Tuesday, July 22, 2003

Inside City Hall


Activists criticize 'panhandling' by Convergys

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As soon as a proposed $63.4 million tax incentive deal for Convergys Corp. became public, the city's most left-leaning activists accused the company of "panhandling without a license."

They were referring, of course, to the city's new law requiring street beggars to register with the city Health Department. After all, if Richard Witherspoon and Don Henry - Cincinnati's new most famous homeless men, with addresses on Fort Washington Way - had to get a license before begging people for money, why didn't Convergys?

What the activists didn't know is that they were half right.

Since 1997, Cincinnati Municipal Code Section 112 has required professional lobbyists seeking money from the city to register as "legislative agents" with the Clerk of Council's office. Failure to do so is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine.

Convergys execs have been ubiquitous at City Hall over the past two weeks. As of Monday afternoon, no Convergys lobbyists had formally registered.

With the largest tax break in city history on the table, the Convergys lobbying is exactly the kind of activity that the authors of the law wanted to be disclosed.

"Citizens should know who is down at City Hall in a formal way trying to influence the direction of government," Councilman Dwight Tillery said at the time.

"It's just about open and responsible government," then-Mayor Roxanne Qualls said.

• • •

More lobbying: Convergys executives admit they underestimated the political minefield they were walking into when they began pushing for city tax incentives. Lately, they've gotten savvier.

Convergys has added two new heavyweights: Judge Nate Jones, retired from the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and Betty Hull, a public relations practitioner with the Northlich firm.

Hull is a political adviser to Councilman Pat DeWine, considered a swing vote.

Jones is a mentor to Councilman David Pepper, who worked for Jones before running for council.

Pepper said he had already made up his mind to oppose the deal before Jones could lobby him.

• • •

Press release of the week: Three members of council urged their colleagues Monday to repeal a controversial new tax on home security systems. The new ordinance assesses a $50 fee every two years on homeowners, with a schedule of increasing fines for false alarms.

"It's bad enough that too many homeowners in Cincinnati find that they need alarms to ensure their safety," said DeWine in a release.

"The last thing we should be doing is imposing new fees on responsible homeowners," added Councilman Chris Monzel.

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece has called for a public hearing 7 p.m. Aug. 5 at the Clifton Recreation Center, 320 McAlpin Ave.

None of their news releases noted how they voted on the tax, which passed unanimously in May.

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




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