Don't count your Fort Washington Way decks before they're built.
A lawsuit filed Feb. 4 could derail the Hamilton County Commissioners' Jan. 31 closed-door decision to provide $2 million of the $10 million needed to build pilings for the planned Fort Washington Way deck covers.
Although County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said in mid-January the county would not provide any of the $10 million, he and Commissioner Tom Neyer Jr. reversed course after holding an executive session on the issue at about noon on Jan. 31. Majority Reds owner Carl Lindner and other business leaders also provided $2 million, with the city of Cincinnati providing the other $6 million. The announcement came at a press conference just hours after the executive session.
The pilings are the first step in creating a three-block-long cover with a small park over Fort Washington Way, as outlined in The Banks, the plan to build a new riverfront neighborhood.
The problem is, the county might not have had the right to hold an executive session to talk about the pilings.
According to Ohio's Open Meetings Act, public bodies can hold private executive sessions to discuss:
· The purchase or sale of land;
· Certain personnel issues;
· Collective bargaining strategies;
· Security arrangements;
· An impending court action;
· Or issues that must be kept private by federal or state law.
Otherwise, public bodies must make their decisions during public meetings.
Although county commissioners didn't formally vote on the $2 million until Feb. 2, construction deadlines were pressuring the city to decide by Jan. 31 whether it would build the 750 pilings needed to support the planned decks.
Bedinghaus and Neyer held a press conference announcing the $2 million contribution about an hour before the city voted to build the pilings, rendering their vote two days later a formality. County Commissioner John Dowlin voted against the $2 million contribution at the Feb. 2 meeting.
Attorney Tim Mara, a long-time stadium sales tax opponent, filed a lawsuit to prevent the county from spending the $2 million because he believes it's not a proper use for stadium sales tax money. Mara also said the county commissioners violated the open meeting laws with their executive session on the issue.
Employees of the Ohio Attorney General's office can't comment on pending lawsuits or potential open meeting law violations. But Tim Smith, an attorney and a journalism professor at Kent State University, said the county commissioner's actions seemed like a violation of Ohio's public meeting laws.
If a judge agrees with Smith's opinion, the judge could void the $2 million payment, Smith said. That's the goal, Mara said.
Mara also said the Ohio Constitution prohibits the county from guaranteeing that at least 50,000 tickets will be sold per game for the Cincinnati Bengals' first two seasons at Paul Brown Stadium. A government cannot subsidize a private business if there's no public benefit from the subsidy, Mara said, which would be true for a housing project or other public improvement work.
The county has 28 days to respond to the lawsuit, which might then proceed to depositions, Mara said. Attempts to reach Neyer and Bedinghaus were unsuccessful.