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April 28th, 2010 By | News | Posted In: City Council, Public Transit, Ethics, Urban Planning

Bortz and the Letter

As anyone who viewed The Enquirer’s Web site Tuesday night or read the newspaper this morning knows, Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Bortz received an advisory opinion from Ohio ethics officials last year indicating he shouldn’t participate in any decisions about the proposed streetcar project.

Although CityBeat asked Bortz last week about any potential conflicts of interest involving the project, he didn’t disclose the June 2009 letter from the Ohio Ethics Commission.

Instead, Bortz noted advice from the city solicitor and private attorneys who said he could participate in project decisions, as long as it didn’t involve the streetcar’s exact route.

In fact, Bortz has ignored the Ethics Commission’s advice and voted on funding matters connected to the $128 million project during the past year.

Today, Bortz told CityBeat he was under no obligation to publicly disclose the advisory opinion because he requested it as a private citizen, not as a councilman.

“I was advised by a number of attorneys, initially, that requesting an advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission was the best way to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s about my involvement in the streetcar project,” Bortz said.

Surprisingly, Bortz added, the opinion he received concluded he probably had a conflict and shouldn’t participate. Because several previous advisory opinions issued by the commission over the years on similar situations concluded otherwise, Bortz consulted with the private attorneys who had advised him he didn’t have a conflict.

Bortz hired attorneys from Graydon Head & Ritchey and Taft Stettinius & Hollister, two prominent downtown law firms.

“I requested it as a private citizen,” he said. “On the advice of my attorneys, they said I shouldn’t release it. It’s like releasing an accountant’s advice on your taxes.”

The Ethics Commission’s letter stated:

“(I)f the value of property in which you, your employer, your father or any of your father’s businesses has an interest (that) will increase or decrease as a result of the streetcar project, or if the property will otherwise definitely and directly benefit from the project, you are prohibited from deliberating about, voting on, or otherwise participating in, as a city council member, any matter involving the project, including general development and financing matters, and matters involving the specific routes for the streetcar. It appears from the facts that the streetcar project will render a definite and direct financial benefit to property in which your father has an interest.”

Bortz works for his father’s firm, Towne Properties, which develops and manages several residential and commercial real estate projects citywide, including apartments and condominiums within a few blocks of the tentative streetcar route.

Streetcar supporters, including Bortz, have touted the project’s economic spinoff effect, alleging it can spark redevelopment and increase property values within a three-block radius.

Asked today if he believed he misled CityBeat previously, Bortz said no. He wasn’t under any legal obligation to disclose the advisory opinion, he added.

“The Ohio Ethics Commission’s opinion seemed contradictory to their previous ones, and it didn’t seem helpful,” he said.

Generally, advisory opinions issued by the Ohio Ethics Commission have limited privilege. It’s not considered a public document when it’s given to the person who requested it. The status changes if someone asks the commission about any letter given to a specific person — an unusual Catch-22 situation that’s akin to shooting in the dark.

Also, advisory opinions aren’t binding; the Ethics Commission only will start an investigation and issue a formal ruling if someone files a complaint.

“There’s a difference between going to the Ohio Ethics Commission with a self-report and an investigation,” Bortz said. “This is just an opinion, which anybody can ask for.”

When CityBeat asked Bortz about potential conflicts last week, he cited previous Ethics Commission advisory opinions about similar situations that indicated a conflict existed only if the elected official held an ownership stake in the property, which Bortz doesn’t. He does, however, hold a 4 percent stake in Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouse on Walnut Street.

Bortz believes he’s being held to a different, stricter standard than other elected officials.

“For example, (Vice Mayor) Roxanne Qualls owns a condo a block from the proposed route. Does that mean she can’t vote on it, too? She’s a downtown Realtor,” he said. “(The opinion) was so flawed, so egregious, that anyone with a property interest anywhere in the city can’t vote on any type of infrastructure improvement.”

Asked if he would benefit financially if the streetcar system is built, Bortz replied, “I believe the city of Cincinnati will economically benefit from the streetcar, and I have a vested interest in the city, as do several thousand other people.”

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