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News: SORTA Troubling

Revealing messages from or elaborate smear of transit board member?

By Kevin Osborne · December 6th, 2006 · News
  At a 2002 rally, Stephan Louis (at podium) was joined by other foes of light rail in Hamilton County.
Doug Trapp

At a 2002 rally, Stephan Louis (at podium) was joined by other foes of light rail in Hamilton County.

Stephan Louis was quickly reappointed last month to the board overseeing the Metro bus system, just before computer messages were made public that indicate he might have a hidden agenda on transportation issues.

In one of his final actions before leaving office, Hamilton County Commission President Phil Heimlich worked with his fellow Republican to reappoint Louis, a controversial critic of light rail, before the GOP loses its majority on the county commission.

Computer messages allegedly written by Louis have surfaced that endorse the use of automobiles while criticizing government-subsidized mass transit systems like Metro and appear to praise the virtues of suburban sprawl over living in more densely populated urban areas.

Other computer messages allegedly written by Louis derisively refer to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center as a "temple of healing" built to lessen "collective white guilt" over slavery and repeatedly refer to young people who live in inner-city neighborhoods as "youts."

Yet another message, this one on the topic of rude drivers, discusses "low class individuals who's (sic) parents were never successful at training their children to think of others." Another says some suburban residents fear expansion of bus routes could lead to higher crime in their communities.

Even before the messages emerged, County Commissioner Todd Portune wanted a legal opinion about rescinding Louis' appointment once Democrats take control of the commission next month, to give newly elected David Pepper input into the selection process for the three-year appointment.

But Portune says the computer messages raise troubling questions about whether Louis truly reflects the county's position on mass transit issues while he serves on the Southwestern Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA) board. SORTA manages and operates the Metro bus system using a combination of local, state and federal funds.

Portune says some of the comments allegedly written by Louis reveal "hostility" toward publicly owned mass transit.

"If that's his view of transit, then he clearly has no business sitting on a board whose purpose is delivering services for mass transportation," Portune says.

Heimlich, a conservative Republican who lost his reelection bid Nov. 7 and leaves office at year's end, put Louis' reappointment to the SORTA board on the commission's agenda late last month. The matter was brought for a decision without advance notice to Portune or any public discussion.

Louis was reappointed in a 2-1 vote with Pat DeWine, Heimlich's fellow Republican on the three-member county commission, in favor and Portune opposed.

If the appointment stands, Louis will remain on the SORTA board through late 2009. Membership on the board is a non-paid position.

He was first appointed to the board in 2003 by then-Commission President John Dowlin, also a Republican. Dowlin was impressed by Louis' efforts heading the campaign in 2002 that defeated a proposed sales-tax increase to build a light rail system and expand bus routes.

'A sensitive subject'
The computer messages were posted over a three-year period, beginning in 2003, on an Internet message board for the Transport Policy Discussion Group, one of hundreds of discussion groups on various topics hosted by the Yahoo computer service.

Louis says he's a contributor to the message board but denies writing the postings that bear his name, shown to him by CityBeat. Because of his views on light rail train service -- which he calls an outdated mode of transportation that is an inefficient use of government money -- he is unpopular among many message board contributors, Louis adds.

"Those are not my words," he says about the postings. "There are people on the Internet who want to put words in other people's mouths. There is some absolute craziness on the Web circulating about me and other people who oppose light rail."

Although the message board ostensibly deals only with transportation issues, the chats often veer off into other topics.

In one exchange, a contributor writes, "By the end of this decade, all of the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the U.S. (as of the 2000 Census) will have rail transit service operating, as will 24 of the top 25 (Stephan's hometown of Cincinnati being the lone exception)."

Someone who signed his name as Stephan Louis replied, "Good points throughout your piece. With me sitting on pivotal boards, rail won't likely happen here for some time, but not necessarily. In either event, the city of Cinn. is unlikely to remain in the top 25 metros by 2010."

In another exchange, the subject of reparations to the descendants of former slaves is mentioned. A message bearing Louis' name mentions the Freedom Center, which the user describes as "a $100,000,000 monument to white folks who freed the slaves. As a result of all the heroic efforts made to right those historic wrongs, it's been suggested that those with white heritage be allowed to visit this 'temple of healing' for free."

Another exchange involves resistance by some suburban homeowners to the spread of Section 8 subsidized housing and whether expansion of bus routes assists the trend. Someone signed as Louis writes, "The connection to Section 8 housing and Youts hangin' at the mall after school has created pressure to curtail transit activity in some of these areas. ... I know this is a sensitive subject but if someone on this list isn't familiar with these issues, they're new here (welcome). We at metro find ourselves in the middle of a widening storm around these issues."

Louis says he doesn't recall writing that posting but adds that the use of the term "youts" isn't racially motivated regardless.

"I hear that expression all the time," Louis says. "I think it comes from the movie My Cousin Vinny. I think that's where the expression started."

Another computer posting extols the use of the personal automobile.

"I believe that the auto has been one of the greatest reasons for our supremacy in the world and it's responsible for continuing our very real freedom," the posting says. "This is why I think so many liberals dislike the auto, they see it as undercutting 'collectivist' transit. Once you have the public hooked on the Govmn't (sic) for your transportation ... well, it's like they say. The Govmn't (sic) will tell you where and what time they'll pick you up, but they'll also tell you how they'll pick you up as well. J"

Louis' alleged computer postings were brought to CityBeat's attention by sources that frequent the same Yahoo discussion groups, before Louis was reappointed to the SORTA board. County commissioners and Pepper were unaware of the postings until they learned of them from CityBeat.

Responding to the collectivist comment, Portune says, "That is such an inappropriate remark, and it's an incorrect and foolish statement to make."

Portune, who supported Louis for his first term in 2003, says he is undecided about the reappointment and Louis is entitled to his opinions. Still, the comments give him reservations.

"I don't think because you sit on a county board that you give up your First Amendment rights," Portune says. "I do believe, as you express your opinion, it is mandatory that our appointees conduct themselves in a way that doesn't damage the county's standing or credibility in the community. It shouldn't cross any line of propriety."

Also, Portune worries that the messages -- if written by Louis -- reveal an agenda that blindly follows a political philosophy, namely Heimlich's.

"They're reflective of Phil's ideology, frankly, when it comes to board appointments," Portune says. "They do not demonstrate the kind of professional mindset or decision-making that I expect from board members serving the residents of Hamilton County."

'Rather foul people'
Louis says he's the victim of a smear campaign by rail supporters, including some local advocates, designed to "denigrate and sully" his name. He has been called a right wing fascist and a KKK member on the Internet, neither of which is true, he says.

More disturbingly, Louis -- a medical equipment salesman who lives in Pleasant Ridge -- says someone hired a private investigator to question his neighbors and the employer of one of his adult children in an effort to find information to damage his reputation.

"There are just some rather foul people who are vindictive and smear people who oppose rail," Louis says.

The heated rhetoric no longer surprises him, Louis says,

"For some, it's a matter of religion," he says. "They refer to themselves as devout rail followers."

Pepper, who is sworn in Jan. 2, is troubled by how the reappointment was handled.

"The voters voted and they voted for something different," he says. "They wanted me to be involved with major decisions like this that will affect the county for the next few years. If he wants reappointment, I'd ask him to explain his views on transit issues in his own words, and I would consider it in an open-minded fashion."

Louis, who describes himself as an avid supporter of bus service, wants to keep his seat on the SORTA board.

"I serve at the pleasure of those who appoint me," he says. "I want to stay, but only if I'm wanted there. I believe I can lend my assistance to the community. It's a solemn responsibility." ©