When Cincinnati found out about the city manager’s parking plan, it was not through a press conference or a widely dispersed announcement from the city; it was through a silently released memo that media outlets stumbled upon almost by accident.
By itself, the incident wouldn’t mean much, but that quiet memo reflects an ongoing lack of transparency from City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr. and his office that is haunting the city’s plans to move forward with major development projects.
That lack of communication has particularly afflicted the city’s plan to lease its parking assets to the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority to help balance the budget for the next two fiscal years and fund development projects, including a downtown grocery store.
Whether someone supports or opposes the plan, it’s hard to deny that it has been poorly communicated to the public. Once it was fully unveiled, the city held a couple public meetings and waited a couple weeks to take a City Council vote. To the public it seemed like the plan was being rushed, as if something was hidden in its many pages that would terrify everyone into opposition.
Councilman Chris Seelbach, who voted against the parking plan, explained his take on the situation at Christ Church Cathedral Undercroft on March 28: “Some of my colleagues in the administration are often surprised when the public feels overwhelmingly against an issue like this, but it’s not a surprise to me because we haven’t engaged them (and) we haven’t sold why we would do something.”
He added, “While I voted against the parking plan and do think there’s a better solution, I actually don’t think it’s as horrific as the media and some of my colleagues and opponents for city government this year have made it out to be.”
In an ideal world, public engagement for the plan would start with a simple justification.
The city could explain that it was Gov. John Kasich’s local government funding cuts that cost the city $22.2 million in 2013, according to Dohoney’s own estimates. Or it could explain that much of the deficit has been caused by a drop in revenues brought on by a dwindling local population — the city has lost about 10 percent of its population in the past decade.
The city could then explain that the parking plan attempts to tackle both issues at once: The deal creates a shot of revenue that can be used to hold down budget deficits for the next two fiscal years, giving Cincinnati the time necessary to parse out budget cuts without sudden austerity that would halt the momentum of downtown’s recent growth.
The plan also brings in the one-time revenue necessary to fund big development projects that are needed to keep the city’s momentum going, from a downtown grocery store to completing the I-71/MLK Interchange. These are the kinds of projects that could bring more people to Cincinnati, creating more sources of revenue needed to financially run the city.
But, as Seelbach explained in his statements, that justification has been poorly messaged. By effectively announcing the parking plan through a nearly invisible memo and seemingly rushing the plan through City Council, the city administration has fed into public concerns that the parking plan is to be feared, that it will cause massive parking rate hikes and that it will be managed by a scary out-of-town company that won’t be held accountable by anyone in the city.
The streetcar has also been hampered by poor communication, and city officials have rarely been in front of the streetcar’s many problems, including years of delays and rising costs. The result: Instead of learning about possible hurdles and the reasons for them through social media, the public often learns about the problems with no justification through abruptly discovered memos and documents.
It’s not like city officials should have anything to hide with these projects. The city administration is right when it says the projects will help grow the economy and tax base.
Or, as Seelbach put it in his statements, “For too long, we’ve made decisions based on how we can compete with West Chester or how we can compete with Blue Ash, and I think the question’s really how can we compete with Indianapolis, with Louisville, with Columbus.”
The sense behind any plan doesn’t matter if the public doesn’t know about the idea and its justification to begin with.
CONTACT GERMAN LOPEZ: firstname.lastname@example.org or @germanrlopez