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Why Is Heimlich Stalling City-County Relations?

By Tony Cook · January 28th, 2004 · Burning Questions
Why won't Todd Portune's fellow Hamilton County Commissioners let him work on improving relations with the city of Cincinnati?

Portune's request to co-chair the City/County Steering Committee this year fell on deaf ears during the commissioners' Jan. 14 meeting. Commissioners Phil Heimlich and John Dowlin voted to keep Heimlich in that position for another year -- despite the fact that, as committee co-chair last year, Heimlich never met with city officials.

Portune, on the other hand, has touted the need for improved city-county relations since running four years ago.

"That committee hasn't met in the three years I've been here," he says. "There's been absolutely no effort taken by anybody to engage the city jointly. Frankly, with major city-county issues where we've made progress, it's only been done through my leadership and my initiative."

He cited his efforts during disagreements with the city over the Metropolitan Sewer District of Cincinnati and the location of a juvenile jail in Bond Hill.

"The initiative for progress in those areas came from me," Portune says.

He showed evidence of his sincerity Jan. 14, before the vote. While discussing a resolution on funding an expansion of the Cincinnati Convention Center, Portune wanted to add an amendment that guaranteed all revenue from naming rights go toward reducing taxpayer debt.

He suggested the board wait a week to vote on the resolution, so members of city council -- scheduled to vote on the same resolution later in the day -- wouldn't feel the county had tried to slip something in. Again his requests fell on deaf ears.

In a letter last week to federal officials, Portune also joined Mayor Charlie Luken to address concerns about terrorism.

If Portune is so anxious to work with the city, why does Heimlich insist on co-chairing the steering committee?

"In the past, that committee and others like it were often an opportunity for grandstanding and for getting into one silly battle after another," says Heimlich, who recounted his own negative experiences during his stint as a city councilman.

Granted, the steering committee has a scarred history. Attempted cooperation between the county and city over the Bengals stadium project in 1997 lapsed into bickering between a pro-Broadway Commons camp aligned with then-Mayor Roxanne Qualls and a pro-riverfront camp aligned with then-Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus.

In August 2000, county and city officials were at it again, this time concerning the Port Authority's role in The Banks, a proposed riverfront development.

As former Cincinnati City Council members, Portune and Heimlich have seen the city-county clash from both sides. But their attitudes about working with the city vastly differ.

"Back when I was at City Hall, people used public hearings all the time for political purposes," Heimlich says, failing to see any irony between that statement and his decision to block Portune's bid for co-chair. "The reason I didn't want to relinquish chairmanship is because, in an election year, I don't want anybody to start holding a lot of public hearings just to make campaign statements. I am not going to turn the whole process into some kind of campaign commercial."

Instead, Heimlich seems content to kill a potentially positive, even if previously unrealized, city-county committee.

"I'm not questioning anybody's motives," he says. "If Todd or anyone else has some legitimate issues that require a hearing of the City/County Steering Committee, I'm happy to do it."

That might seem a diplomatic gesture, but Heimlich's interest in the City/County Steering Committee seems to have a lot more to do with stalling than with steering. The inevitable result is county commissioners and city council members watching from their separate offices as new developments spring up in Northern Kentucky.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.


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