It was Mara who, back in the mid-1990s, collected enough signatures to force a half-cent sales tax increase onto the ballot so voters would have the final decision. The increase was sought by Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials so they could build new stadiums for the Reds and Bengals, and county commissioners had planned on raising it unilaterally.
Mara then campaigned against the tax hike, bucking powerful interests like the business community, politicians and activists like Chris Finney, all of whom insisted it was a good deal for taxpayers. But Mara warned that the two stadiums couldn’t be built for $544 million as alleged by politicians. Moreover, he said it was unlikely the tax would be abolished after 20 years, like they had promised.
In fact, the stadiums cost $795 million, plus hundreds of millions of dollars more in interest charges. And the rosy sales tax growth estimates proved supremely unrealistic, meaning county commissioners are mulling layoffs and reductions in services to residents to avoid a deficit in the stadium account.
Back then, Mara was the subject of much trash-talking by Reds and Bengals fans, who were panicked their teams would leave town if the tax hike failed. It didn’t, and residents have been dealing with the fallout ever since.
“It’s one of those things where I wish I hadn’t been right,” says Mara, 61, who lives in Green Township and has a law office downtown. “I have training in both law and planning, and and I could see that it just wasn’t right. It wasn’t adding up the way they said it was.”
Nowadays Mara is focusing his attention on the link between Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz and the city’s proposed $128-plus million streetcar system.
Mara filed a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission against Bortz, one of the project’s earliest and loudest champions. Mara believes the taxpayer-funded project would unduly benefit Towne Properties, the development firm owned by Bortz’s family.
Streetcar supporters say the project will increase property values within a three-block radius of its route, along with sparking development of vacant or dilapidated parcels. Because Towne owns a few parcels within that zone, Mara says it’s improper and illegal for Bortz to vote or discuss any matter involving the project that goes before City Council.
The Ethics Commission, at least initially, agrees.
The commission’s staff issued an advisory opinion in May 2010, the second it had crafted on the dispute. It stated Bortz has a conflict of interest under Ohio’s ethics law.
The opinion stated, “The commission has determined that the relationship between a public official and his or her family members (such as parents, children, spouse, or siblings) or business associates (such as an employer or partner) is so close that the official’s objectivity and independence of judgment would be impaired if the official were to make decisions or recommendations, or otherwise take action, on any matter that would result in a definite and direct benefit or detriment to these related parties.”
That decision essentially reiterated the stance of an advisory opinion issued in June 2009
Bortz denies there’s any conflict, but has since refrained from voting on the project.
Mara says, “Particularly in Southwest Ohio, there is just too close a relationship between politicians and developers. Too often, decisions are made to benefit friends and family, and not the public.”
Still, Mara isn’t satisfied with Bortz simply not voting on streetcar-related items. He filed a followup complaint with the Ethics Commission in October 2010, stating that Bortz appears to be continuing to discuss the project with his council colleagues, both publicly and privately.
Mara cites Bortz’s conduct during an Oct. 19 meeting of council’s Strategic Growth Committee, which Bortz chairs. During the session, Bortz agreed with a plan — hashed out in private among some council members — about how potential casino revenues should be allocated. The plan called for using up to 25 percent of the revenues for streetcar operations.
Although a council minority said it wanted to hold public hearings on the plan, Bortz replied that council should approve the plan and pass a budget, then hold hearings later. Also, Bortz commented that he would be “first in line” to vote against any ballot initiative that sought to block the project.
“I don’t know with certainty why he so blatantly disregarded the clear directive that he shouldn’t participate in deliberations pertaining to the streetcar,” Mara says.
The complaint appears to be pending before the Ethics Commission; typically, the outcome of such complaints only are revealed if a reprimand is made or if the complainant is told it’s been dropped. Mara hasn’t received any indication the latter has happened.
“Even if he’s not reprimanded or prosecuted, I think (Bortz) has gotten the message,” Mara adds.
Mara is scrutinizing possible city actions involving U Square @ the Loop, a $68 million residential and commercial project planned on Calhoun Street next to the University of Cincinnati. Formerly known as Uptown Commons, Towne Properties now is developing the long-stalled project and is expected to seek some tax-increment financing (TIF) funds from the city.
TIF funds are revenues generated by new development on a specific parcel that otherwise would go into the city’s General Fund.
Mara believes it’s important that citizens have attorneys with legal experience on their side to help perform a vital watchdog role on government.
With that in mind, Mara intends to keep tabs on the actions of newly installed Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He is concerned that the governor’s push to sell public parks, give tax money to private businesses and privatize some state functions might amount to a slush fund for Kasich’s friends and contributors.
“It’s nothing more than a politician doing things to benefit his friends,” Mara says. “I think it’s just a money grab and I urge every citizen to keep an eye on it. I know I will.”