In the heated debate over budget cuts at City Hall, several groups are alleging Cincinnati City Councilman Jeff Berding is “two-faced” and told various individuals during his 2009 campaign that he would end his support for the proposed streetcar project.
This week the groups began distributing copies of the flyer, entitled “Not One More Cent,” detailing their allegation at City Council's budget hearings and in other venues. That prompted Berding's attorney to send a letter to the groups demanding they stop making the claim, or they will face a lawsuit for making “false and defamatory statements.”
Among the groups behind the flyer are the Coalition Opposed to the Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), the NAACP's local chapter, the police and firefighters' unions, Westwood Concern and the Homeless Coalition.
The flyer states, “Councilmember Jeff Berding was the fifth vote in favor of this foolish waste of tax dollars. However, when he ran for re-election in 2009, Councilmember Berding made repeated promises to oppose this project and the waste of money that it brings.”
Referring to a recent council decision earmarking $128 million for the streetcar project, the flyer continues, “With his preliminary vote, Councilmember Jeff Berding broke that promise.”
The flyer then lists Berding's e-mail address and telephone number to his council office, and urges people to write and call him to oppose allocating any further money toward the project. It also includes a detachable “postcard” that they can mail to him.
A day after the groups distributed the flyers, an attorney from the Taft Stettnius & Hollister law firm sent letters and e-mails to the leaders of each, demanding they stop future distribution. The powerful downtown law firm also represents Berding's employer, the Cincinnati Bengals.
The Dec. 8 letter, written by Taft attorney Aaron Herzig, states, “We demand that you immediately cease and desist publishing, or otherwise distributing in any way, any statements that Mr. Berding promised to oppose the streetcar project or changed his position with regard to the streetcar project.”
Herzig then cites several articles and editorials from The Enquirer that mention Berding's support for the project, as well as entries posted on CityBeat's politics blog.
“Although he is a fiscal conservative and a strong supporter of the police and fire services, Mr. Berding has been clear that he believes the city can support both those services while simultaneously enhancing economic development through the streetcar project.”
It adds, “We also demand that you publicly retract your false statements and publicly apologize to Mr. Berding for the damage you have caused him.”
The letter then imposes a deadline of 5 p.m. today for the retraction.
It didn't take nearly that long for a reply.
In a response written at 5:33 p.m. Wednesday by attorney Chris Finney, a COAST leader, he states the group won't stop distributing the flyers.
“The flyer, e-mails and blog post will remain in circulation by COAST and its volunteers as an exercise of their rights of free speech under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution about both a public issue and a public figure.”
Finney's response then alleges Berding is guilty of “two-faced posturing” on the issue, and that he can summon witnesses who will testify that Berding told them he would withdraw his support.
“While you may be able to point to instances in which Mr. Berding expressed support for the streetcar in 2009, there are numerous witnesses who will attest that Mr. Berding made promises contrary to those during the election campaign,” Finney's letter states.
“This, of course, shows the two-faced nature of his posturing on the issue, the very thrust of the flyer,” it continues. “COAST thoroughly investigated those claims before the flyer was published and firmly stands behind the same.”
The letter then refers to Berding's role in 1996 as campaign manager to raise Hamilton County's sales tax to build new stadiums for the Bengals and Reds. In the years since, sales-tax revenues have fallen far short of campaign promises, and county officials are faced with cutting back services and laying off employees to help pay construction debt on the stadiums.
“Cincinnati and Hamilton County has endured lie after lie from Mr. Berding, first on the stadium tax, and now on the streetcar and I am sure there are dozens of examples in-between,” Finney's letter states.
“These serial misrepresentations are bankrupting our fair city and county and oppressing the taxpayers,” it continues. “When one gets in-between rapacious politicians and greedy contractors, legal threats usually follow shortly behind … again, this is a free country. If Mr. Berding can't stand the heat, he should get out of the kitchen.”
City officials have given preliminary approval to build a proposed streetcar system from downtown, through Over-the-Rhine, and on to Corryville. The cost to construct the system originally was $128 million, although updated figures suggest it will be closer to $143 million.
Much of the money to build the system is derived from state and federal transportation grants, and city officials have agreed to issue $64 million in bonds to help finance construction.
Because of a $62 million deficit at City Hall, council is scrambling to make cuts for the 2011-12 period. Among the proposals, the city manager has recommended that council lay off 144 firefighters and 131 police officers, which has angered the police and fire unions.
Supporters, however, noted that the streetcar money comes from the city's capital projects budget, not its general fund for operations, and is allocated for later years. Even if the project was canceled, the city still would have to make $62 million in cuts now to avoid a shortfall, they added.