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by Nick Swartsell 02.02.2015
Posted In: News at 11:13 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
death penalty

Morning News and Stuff

Cincinnati rents on the way up; anti-toll group tells Kasich, "stay out of Kentucky;" Ohio delays six executions until 2016

Good morning all. Here’s what’s up in the news today:

City Manager Harry Black today announced that Thomas B. Corey will be the head of the city’s recently created Department of Economic Inclusion. The department is charged with increasing the availability of city contracts for women and minority owned businesses in the city. Corey is another former Baltimore official tapped by Black to lead a city department here. He was most recently The City of Baltimore Law Department’s Chief Solicitor. He will start Feb. 9.

• Average rents are going up in Greater Cincinnati, according to a survey commissioned by real estate company CBRE Cincinnati. Some of that is due to pricey new apartments in hot parts of town — the average rent on a newly-constructed apartment is over $1,000 a month in Cincinnati. But part of it is also swelling demand across all income brackets for apartments, according to the survey. You could blame pesky Millennials and our aversion to homeownership, but it seems like demand for rental units is going up across the board.

While we’re talking about rent, as we’ve reported more than a few times, Cincinnati’s affordable housing supply is stretched to the limit. There’s currently a 5,000-person waiting list to get a Section 8 voucher for one of the 11,000 units that accept them in the region. This Cincinnati Enquirer story questions whether that’s in part because Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority’s inspection standards have gotten too strict. The number of units that have failed such inspections has risen over the past couple years as CMHA started enforcing more stringent requirements on landlords. Some of the violations seem trivial — mismatched paint, hinges that need replaced — but others detailed in the story are serious, including windows that don’t open and mold problems. The story quotes one woman who actually had to move out of her home, and it was due to mold in the house. The Enquirer teased this story over the weekend with the provocative headline “Which County Agency is Leaving Residents Homeless?” But affordable housing advocates and neighborhood boosters have actually cheered the new standards. The story doesn’t mention a big piece of context: the abysmal conditions at some Section 8 rental units over the past few years. While reporting for this story published over the summer, CityBeat ran across truly shocking municipal code violations at Section 8 properties in Price Hill, for instance. These included sewage in rental unit basements, tenants without heat and water, doors that didn’t open and other major violations.

• Anti-toll groups in Northern Kentucky are fired up about statements Gov. John Kasich made last week regarding the Brent Spence Bridge. Kasich suggested that opponents of a plan to build a new bridge along one of America’s busiest shipping routes have their “heads in the sand.” That didn’t sit too well with the bipartisan group of lawmakers, businessmen and others who have come together to oppose the possibility of tolls for a new bridge. The group started a strongly-worded online petition that more than 2,000 supporters have signed so far. Kasich's plan, offered with Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, would create tolls to help fund the $2.8 billion project, but would also give a 50 percent discount to daily commuters and work to keep the price as low as possible. Opponents say tolls are unacceptable and that the states should reach out to the federal government for money to fund a more modest bridge update.

"On Wednesday, Gov. Kasich stood at a press conference – in a building that once housed companies he personally recruited away from Kentucky – and insulted Northern Kentucky and our elected leaders," it says. "If he cannot control himself, he should stay out of Kentucky."

• Ohio Gov. John Kasich has proposed funding in his recent budget that would create a new community health program aimed at reducing the state’s infant mortality rate, which is among the worst in the nation. The plan would fund community organizations to connect women in low-income areas with prenatal medical care available through Medicaid. Cincinnati's infant mortality rate is especially bad; the city has the second-highest rate of infant death in the nation.

• Ohio has announced it will delay all six executions it had scheduled in 2015 as it searches for new sources for execution drugs. The announcement comes after the state halted its two-drug execution method last month due to questions about its efficacy. Last year, an execution carried out with the two-drug method took almost half an hour, and the inmate involved was heard gasping for breath.

• The United Steelworkers Union yesterday launched one of the largest national labor strikes in recent memory. USW, which is seeking higher wages and better safety measures, called for nearly 4,000 employees who work in several oil refineries across the country to abstain from work until new labor contracts are signed with several major oil companies, including Exxon Mobil Corp. and Chevron Corp. Experts say it could drive up gas prices as refinery capacity is limited. It’s the largest walkout since 1980, when USW held a three-month strike. News reports indicate that workers in other refineries may also join in the walkout.

by Nick Swartsell 01.30.2015
Posted In: News at 10:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

EMS asks for more money to fight heroin crisis; Kasich proposes eliminating business income tax; Gates says we should fear AI

Good morning! I’ll be brief in my news update this morning, since I’m also keeping an eye on today’s White House task force on 21st century policing taking place at the University of Cincinnati today and tomorrow. You can live stream the event here. Anyway, here are a few bits of news floating around today:

The director of Cincinnati’s emergency medical service is asking for more money to respond to the region’s ongoing heroin crisis, saying that the crisis is getting worse every month in the city. One of the big costs the city’s emergency responders are encountering is Narcan, a drug used to treat heroin overdoses. The drug is costly, and the number of overdoses keeps climbing. EMS District Chief Cedric Robinson says seven overdoses a day happen in Cincinnati and that the number is climbing. The city’s expenditures on Narcan have nearly tripled in the past year. In 2013, the city spent about $21,000 on the drug. In 2014, that jumped to $60,000.

• Will some parts of the Greater Cincinnati area fail new, more stringent federal air quality standards? It seems like a possibility. The region barely passed current air quality tests last year, and several counties, including Hamilton, Butler, Warren, Clermont and Campbell Counties, failed in 2013. Standards from the Environmental Protection Agency could get tougher by next fall, meaning that the region could be subject to new oversight from the agency. Hamilton County exceeded guidelines for ozone, one of the pollutants measured by the EPA, on only four days last year under the old standards. Under proposed new standards, it would have gone over the limit by more than 20. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club are cheering the new rules — they’ll be better for residents’ health, saving millions in healthcare costs. But businesses say the costs of compliance will be high. They’re lobbying against the new standards, of course.

• Now that he’s officially announced he’s running for U.S. Senate, Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld has started staffing up, tapping former Battleground Texas Democratic strategist Ramsey Reid as his campaign manager. Before his stint working to try and turn deeply Republican Texas purple, Reid was also a big part of President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign. He’s also working with two political strategy firms: a firm led by Obama campaign veterans called 270 Strategies; and Devine Mulvey Longabaugh, which helped him win his council seat. 

While Sittenfeld gears up for what may be a tough Democratic primary, his potential Republican opponent incumbent Sen. Rob Portman is also powering up his campaign. Portman has chosen high-profile Republican strategist Corry Bliss to manage his campaign. Bliss was last called in to turn around Kansas Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ last Senate campaign after he came under a strong primary challenge that threatened to unseat him.

• Gov. John Kasich has called for eliminating Ohio’s income tax for small businesses, a move that looks likely to bum out conservatives and progressives alike. The staunch conservatives in Ohio’s state House love the idea of cutting taxes, of course, but aren’t down with Kasich’s plan to, you know, actually pay for those tax cuts by increasing taxes on cigarettes and oil. They say that’s not a tax cut and that they want the state spending less money in general, even after the state’s budget has been slashed to the bone over the last few years. Progressives, on the other hand, say past income tax cuts have been deeply regressive. A 2013 cut paid for by boosting the state’s sales tax a quarter percent shifted the tax burden toward Ohio’s lowest earners, progressives say, and Kasich’s new proposal would further shift that burden. Under Kasich’s plan, almost all businesses run as sole proprietorships, or businesses owned by a single person who reports business profits as personal income, would not need to file state income tax. A business would be exempt from the income tax so long as its sales are under $2 million.

• Finally, if Bill Gates told you to be afraid of computers, would you listen? Gates revealed that he’s very worried about the potential threat artificial intelligence, or AI, could pose to humanity in coming decades. Gates revealed his concerns in response to a question he received during a Reddit "Ask me Anything" session. During his AMA, Gates also expressed optimism about the near future when it comes to computing. He envisions robots able to pick produce and do other mundane tasks flawlessly. It’s when the robots get smarter, he says, that we have to worry. His concern echoes that of other technology magnates like Tesla founder Elon Musk, who called AI “summoning the demon” at a symposium in October. I feel like I’m summoning the demon every time I open Microsoft Word, which is a nightmarishly vexing program, but that’s a whole other subject Gates should be addressing.

by Nick Swartsell 01.29.2015
Posted In: News at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)
sherrod brown

Why Not Sherrod Brown for Prez?

Staunch progressive seems a logical choice for Dem nominee but says he's not interested

If you’re a spectator of Democratic Party politics right about now, you’ve probably watched the 2016 presidential election sweepstakes unfolding with interest. Dems probably won’t get close to the huge stable of potential nominees the Republican Party is currently wrangling with, and Hillary Clinton seems to have the nomination locked up, so much so that she's not even started her campaign yet. But there are other viable candidates. Vice President Joe Biden is also, uh, bidin’ his time (sorry). And then there’s progressive firebrand Elizabeth Warren. She says she’s not running, but she’s got a vocal fan base who have continued to push her name into the conversation in a big way.

One question you may have asked yourself at this point: If Warren, why not Sen. Sherrod Brown? Or maybe, if you’re like some of the prominent progressive political operatives in this Washington Post story, that possibility hasn’t entered your mind. But as that story asks, why not?

Ohio’s senior senator has the deep progressive bonafides of Warren plus a heap more experience, an easy-going way about him and a high profile in the nation’s highest deliberative body. Plus, if we haven’t already said this (we have), Ohio’s so hot right now. Our other senator, Rob Portman, had been considered a potential candidate for the Republican nomination before he dropped out in December. Fellow GOPer Gov. John Kasich’s name has been floated a lot as well, though he’s been coy about his intentions. And there’s a good possibility all three political conventions will be converging on our vital swing state in 2016. A presidential candidate from Ohio could wrap the state up for either party.

So why not Brown? Is it the perception that Democrats are ready to elect the first female president after Barack Obama's history-making election? Is it Brown’s own reluctance, or outright refusal, actually, to play along? Is it the fact that he sounds like the Dark Knight when he talks? (The Post says Tom Waits. I consider either an asset.) Brown says he's focused on doing the job he has now, but they all say that, right?

“I don’t think you can do your job well in the Senate if you’re looking over your shoulder wanting to be president,” Brown tells the Post. Earlier in the article, he says, “I know you don’t believe this, but I don’t really think about it all that much.”

by Nick Swartsell 01.29.2015
Posted In: News at 10:59 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Developer's plans for northern OTR expand; Ohio congressman flips, now supports women's right to choose; why we love cars so dang much

Morning all. Here’s what’s happening around town today.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear would like to see the looming effort to replace the Brent Spence Bridge, currently estimated to cost $2.6 billion, trimmed by $300 million, they said yesterday in a news conference. That will be a tall order, Kentucky transportation officials say, but something they’ll work on. Kentucky Transportation Cabinet Secretary Mike Hancock says it’s hard to find immediate and obvious reductions to the project.

Part of the problem with cost-trimming is that the current bridge accommodates 160,000 cars a day, much more traffic than it was originally intended to carry. The solution engineers have in mind would mean building a bigger, wider bridge next to the Brent Spence. It would also mean highway-widening and interchange updates along an eight-mile stretch on both the Ohio and Kentucky sides of the bridge. Those highway changes account for 60 percent of the project’s costs. Officials say they will look at tightening the scope of the project and also finding ways to do what needs to be done for less money.

One lynchpin of the governors’ plan is that it will be partially funded by tolling, a controversial solution. Vocal opponents of tolls in Northern Kentucky, including many elected officials, have vowed to fight against tolling on the bridge, saying it will put a burden on businesses and workers. They say the project is unnecessarily large and that both states should approach the federal government in an attempt to get funding for a smaller, more modest project to replace the bridge.

• A local developer's vision for the area around Findlay Market in Over-the-Rhine has expanded. Model Group, which has already bought up a number of buildings in the area with plans to renovate them into office and commercial space, is making moves to purchase several more neighboring buildings on Race and West Elder streets. Model recently bought 101 W. Elder, 1812 Race St. and is in the final stages of purchasing 1818 Race St., all apartment buildings with first-floor retail space. It is also looking to purchase 1808 and 1810 Race St. soon. It is unclear if these buildings are currently occupied or represent affordable housing in the neighborhood. The expansion brings the developer’s first phase of development from $14 million to $19 million. The expansion creates a big increase in residential space — 35 units instead of 14 in the original first phase of the project, as well as 50,000 square feet of retail space instead of 40,000.

• An Ohio congressman and former pro-life advocate says he has changed his mind about abortion. Rep. Tim Ryan was one of just a few Democrats in the House who had opposed abortion, in part due to his Catholic faith. Over his 14-year career, Ryan has been an outspoken opponent of abortion but says his views have changed over time, writing in
an op-ed in the Akron Beacon Journal: “I have come to believe that we must trust women and families — not politicians — to make the best decision for their lives." Another factor in his change of heart may be that he’s eyeing Republican Rob Portman’s Senate seat in 2016.

• As we talked about a few days ago, it seems increasingly likely that Ohio voters will get to weigh in on a ballot initiative legalizing marijuana in November. But if you ask Attorney General Mike DeWine, that’s just dumb. DeWine called legalization “a stupid idea.” DeWine said something esoteric about the law being a teacher before basically telling folks at a Rotary Club meeting in Newark Tuesday that legalizing weed will have everyone and their mom smoking the stuff all the time because the law says they should, creating chaos in the streets, stunning increases in demand for Bonnaroo tickets and long lines for snack products (OK, he didn’t go that far, but you could tell he was thinking it).

Beyond that, DeWine did have some pretty fair points to make about a leading proposal by ResponsibleOhio, which has presented one of the ballot initiatives. That initiative would allow anyone over 21 who passes a background check to buy weed, but would limit the number of growers in Ohio to 10 and create a seven-member Marijuana Control Commission to oversee production and sale of the crop. Who chooses growers and the commission is unclear. Sound like a monopoly? Yeah. DeWine thinks so too, and actually made a pretty cogent point about that.

"Even if you think selling marijuana is a great idea, I don't know why anyone would think just giving a few people who are going to put the money up to pass it on the ballot is a good idea to let them have that monopoly," DeWine said.

So can we just legalize weed and have it all operate like every other large monopolistic business in the country instead of a state-anointed monopolistic business, like, say, our casinos? Stay tuned…

• As a bike commuter and die-hard pedestrian, this UrbanCincy opinion piece on how car-centric and bike/pedestrian/eyeball/everything-else unfriendly many Cincinnati-area Kroger stores are really resonates. With either updates, new stores needed or on the slate in Walnut Hills, Over-the-Rhine, Avondale and Corryville, it’s a good time to think about how our grocery stores should operate and who they’re designed to serve. This is an especially salient point in light of the problems many Cincinnatians have living in food deserts. UrbanCincy editor Randy Simes makes a great point in the piece about how other cities, namely Lexington, have gotten more urban-friendly, modern designs that serve motorists, cyclists and pedestrians equally well. Why not here?

• Finally, as we think about billion-dollar bridges and oceans of grocery store parking lots, I leave you with this: the Washington Post’s WonkBlog a couple days ago had a really interesting piece on the roots of America’s "love affair" with the automobile. Spoiler alert: It’s all been a big marketing campaign, the author says. Worth a read for the history of America’s car culture, highway system and shout out to Cincinnati’s pre-I-75 West End.

by Nick Swartsell 01.28.2015
Posted In: News at 11:04 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)
brent spence bridge

Morning News and Stuff

Greater Cincinnati employment rates up; group confronts Mayor Williams at Norwood Council meeting; Kochs plan big political spending spree

Hello Cincy. There’s a lot happening today, so let’s get it going.

Later today, Mayor John Cranley and the Economic Inclusion Advisory Council he appointed last year will present the results of a study on ways to make the city more inclusive for businesses owned by minorities and women. The EIAC has been tasked with finding ways to get more minority-owned businesses included in city contracts, and the board came up with 37 suggestions, including ordinances that make diversity a priority in the city when it comes to contracts it awards. Cincinnati, which awards a very small number of contracts to minority and women-owned businesses, has already tried twice to find ways to boost that number, but Cranley is confident the EIAC’s recommendations will make the city a “mecca” for minority-owned businesses.

• Here’s some (qualified) good news for Greater Cincinnati: Unemployment in the region has fallen to 4.1 percent, the lowest it’s been since 2001. Though the region lost 2,000 jobs in December, numbers are up overall from this time last year, as we’ve added more than 21,000 jobs in the last 12 months. The Greater Cincinnati area’s unemployment rate at that time was 6.1 percent. Cincinnati’s fairing better than Ohio and the nation on the jobs front. Ohio’s unemployment rate is 4.8 percent, and the country’s as a whole is 5.4 percent. All those numbers have been trending downward. But there’s a caveat to all that good news: Wages have remained stagnant. More folks may have jobs, but folks aren’t necessarily making more or enough money at those jobs.

• Are we getting closer to a replacement for the Brent Spence Bridge? Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear are expected to announce a plan for the bridge at a news conference in Covington later today. Here’s what they’re expected to put on the table: a 50/50 split on costs between the two states, tolls that cost as close to $1 as possible with a discount for frequent commuters and ideas to make the $2.6 billion project more affordable. Kentucky owns the bridge and gets final say in the plans. A bill seeking a public-private partnership for the replacement project will more than likely be introduced in the Kentucky state legislature this session, though what happens after that is unclear. Kasich and Beshear have been working together on rehabbing the bridge, a vital link in one of the nation’s busiest shipping routes, since 2011. But Beshear will leave office after this year due to term limits. Meanwhile, Northern Kentucky officials and lobbying groups are pushing against tolls on the bridge, fighting it out with other, pro-toll business groups.

• The proposed Wasson Way bike trail through the city’s east side could stretch all the way into Avondale, supporters of the project say. The trail, which has been one of Mayor Cranley’s top priorities, is slated to go from Bass Island Park near Mariemont into Cincinnati along an unused rail line mostly owned by Norfolk Southern. Original plans had the trail stopping at Xavier, but a new 1-mile extension would carry cyclists all the way into uptown, near big employers like the city’s hospitals and University of Cincinnati. There is still a long road ahead for the trail, including securing right of way on land the trail passes through and an argument about whether to leave room for a future light rail line. Costs for the project range from $7 million to $32 million depending on that and other considerations.

• A group angry over Norwood Mayor Thomas Williams’ letter decrying “race-baiting black leaders” spoke at a Norwood City Council meeting yesterday evening asking for an apology. At least 14 people spoke out against the mayor’s letter, which he posted on social media last month in solidarity with the city’s police department. Among those who packed council chambers were Norwood residents, members of Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, a group we talk about more in this story, and activist and Greater Cincinnati National Action Network President Bishop Bobby Hilton.

"It was stabbed right in the heart ,” Hilton said at the meeting, referring to the letter. “I humbly ask if you would please retract that statement and we'll stand with you in supporting your law enforcement."

• A coalition of teachers, parents and progressive organizations in Ohio has banded together to ask the state board of education not to renew the charters of 11 charter schools in the state run by Concept Schools, Inc., including the troubled Horizon Academy in Dayton. That school is being investigated after former teachers there reported attendance inflation, sexual harassment, racism and other issues last year. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is also investigating several schools in Ohio run by the Chicago-based Concept after reports of misuse of federal money and other violations. Concept denies any wrong doing.

• Hey, this is a fun tidbit. The Koch brothers, those modern American captains of industry who make billions of dollars a year, mostly in the energy sector, are planning on spending big cash in the 2016 election. That in and of itself isn’t news — the Kochs have been dumping obscene amounts of cash into local, state and federal elections for years, aided recently by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. But just how obscene the amount of cash could be in 2016 is noteworthy. The brothers’ political organization has set a goal of spending more than $889 million in the next presidential election cycle. That’s a lot. A whole lot. To illustrate how much, that amount is more than the $657 million the Republican National Committee and congressional campaign committees spent in 2012. Democrats spent even more, but not as much as the Kochs are planning to spend in 2016. Dumping that much cash into the election would more or less match the sky-high projected expenditures by Democrats and Republicans for the next presidential election. So basically, at least when it comes to political spending, we have a third party we didn’t vote for made up entirely of the Koch brothers and their rich donor cronies.  Awesome.

by Nick Swartsell 01.27.2015
Posted In: News at 10:05 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Someone has been shooting at Great American Tower; Cranley goes to Washington; a weird way to remember your ex on Valentine's Day

Hey all, let’s talk news.

This is a weird one. Someone or multiple someones fired shots at the Great American Tower downtown four times in the last week. The shooters have taken their potshots after business hours, when few people are in the building. There have been no injuries, though windows have been shattered. Police are a bit mystified by the shooting and are looking for a perpetrator. For now, employees will still be allowed in the building, though new security measures might be put in place by the building’s managers. While I’m not a huge fan of the tiara-ed building myself, there have to be better ways to register your distaste for a piece of architecture.

• Madisonville will receive $100 million in residential and commercial development in the coming year, which city officials say will provide a big economic boost to the East Side neighborhood. Mayor John Cranley touted the development yesterday at a Hamilton County Transportation Improvement District meeting. That board gave the go-ahead for an extension of Duck Creek Road past where it currently ends at Red Bank Road as part of the development. And there’s the rub: That part of the deal doesn’t sit well with members of the Madisonville Community Council, who are worried about possible traffic congestion caused by extending Duck Creek Road. The extension will cut close to John P. Parker Elementary School, and the council worries that it could limit the school’s enrollment. The council is looking for an explanation of why the road needs to be extended and some kind of compensation, perhaps in the form of scholarships that will help entice students to come to the school. RBM, a development group owned by nearby company Medpace, is planning the project. The company is working on details of the proposed development now.

• This weekend, the University of Cincinnati will host an 11-member task force appointed by President Barack Obama to investigate and hold conversations on policing in the 21st century. UC will host two of the task force's seven listening sessions Jan. 30 and 31. Other sessions have been held in Washington D.C., and two others will happen next month in Phoenix. The task force was created by a December executive order signed by Obama in the wake of controversy surrounding police use of force around the country.

• Mayor Cranley headed to Washington, D.C. last week to chat with federal officials about a number of issues, including Cincinnati’s bike trails, his Hand Up anti-poverty initiative and money to fix the crumbling Western Hills Viaduct. Cranley met with Department of Housing and Urban Development head Julian Castro, a fellow Democrat and the former mayor of San Antonio. He also met with officials at the Federal Highway Administration and joined up with other mayors from around the country to prod Congress to, well, do its job and actually pass some legislation this time around, specifically legislation that will help cities with development and infrastructure projects.

• Controversy over Norwood Mayor Thomas Williams’ letter decrying “racebaiting black leaders” continues. Activist group Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, which published a letter addressed to the mayor asking for an apology, has said it will be attending tonight’s Norwood City Council meeting, which is at 7:30 p.m., to ask for a response in person. Mayor Thomas has indicated to media that he is sticking by his letter, which was written to express support for the Norwood Police Department as questions around police use of force continue to be a big topic across the country.

• Promoters working to bring the 2016 Democratic National Convention to Columbus are feeling pretty good these days. Recently, Democrats announced they intend to hold the convention the week of July 25, which Columbus has indicated is its ideal time frame. Convention-goers will need to be housed in Ohio State University dorms, which fill up with students again in August. Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was in the city Sunday and yesterday on a tour to consider the city’s logistical ability to handle the huge event. Should Dems tap Columbus over contenders Philadelphia and Brooklyn, N.Y., Ohio will host three major political conventions in the next presidential election year, with the Republican National Convention in Cleveland and the NAACP convention here in Cincinnati in 2016.

• Finally, this national story is gross. And creepy. And kind of brilliant. The San Francisco Zoo is offering the chance to sponsor a Madagascar hissing cockroach or a big ole’ hairy scorpion in honor of your ex this Valentine’s Day.

"These invertebrates are aggressive, active and alarmingly nocturnal. Much like your low-life ex, they are usually found in and around low-elevation valleys where they dig elaborate burrows or 'caves,' " reads promotional material for the scorpion adoption. "Also just like you-know-who, when a suitable victim wanders by, the scorpion grabs the doomed creature with its pinchers and stings the prey ... Charming."

Whoa. Bitter much? For $50, you can adopt the scorpion for your ex, to whom the zoo will send a stuffed scorpion stinger and a certificate. A similar deal for the cockroach costs $25. Nothing says “I’m over you” like dropping $50 to say, “I’m over you.”

by Nick Swartsell 01.26.2015
Posted In: News at 10:40 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

CCV in a tizzy about sex again; Cincinnati Public Library opens Maker Space; will Ohio legalize weed?

Let’s just get right to it this morning.

It’s clear we as a society have lost our way. We’re so focused on the little things — pervasive poverty, military conflicts around the globe, our government’s inability to accomplish much of anything, etc. — that we’ve let a major atrocity slip right past us. But at least one local group has their priorities straight, and they’re not going to let someone get away with putting on a billboard three phonetic symbols representing the natural act of human procreation. That’s right, Citizens for Community Values is at it again as founder Phil Burress rails against a billboard on I-71 that reads “end boring sex” erected (oops, sorry) to advertise Jimmy Flynt Sexy Gifts, a new store in Sharonville owned by the brother of notorious porn mogul Larry Flynt. The store is only a couple miles from CCV’s headquarters, which is a pretty funny move. Jimmy Flynt says that’s because there’s big bucks in selling sexy stuff to suburban folks with some extra cash. Burress is outraged, however, that children riding with their parents on the interstate might see the word “sex.” Though really, you’d think CCV would be on board with a sentence that starts with the word “end” and ends with the word “sex.”

• Activists in Norwood have started a Change.org petition asking Mayor Thomas Williams to engage in a community forum around his racially charged comments on a Norwood Police Facebook page. The letter, signed simply “Norwood Citizens,” starts out by praising the department’s police officers and their work in the community, but condemns Williams’ statement made via social media in December. Those statements addressed to Norwood police pledged support for the department while decrying “race baiting black leaders and cowardly elected officials” over the ongoing protests around police shootings of unarmed black citizens. The online petition is the latest wrinkle in the drama around Williams’ statements, which led to calls for boycotts against Norwood and a response from black activists in the Greater Cincinnati area asking for an apology. Williams has subsequently told media that he stands by his statement.

• This is really cool: Today is the grand opening of the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library’s Maker Space, which will be open to patrons of the library. The space includes technology like vinyl printers and cutting machines to make vinyl signs, laser cutting machines, 3D printers, sewing machines, audiovisual equipment including DSLR cameras, a soundproof recording booth with microphones and monitors, so-called “digital creation stations” with suites of creative software and a ton of other great things to help fledgling creatives with their projects, including something called an “ostrich egg bot.” Sounds very cool. All equipment will be free for patrons to use, but there will be a charge for materials like vinyl or resins for the 3D printers.

• Cincinnati’s Port Authority is looking to kick-start a local neighborhood by purchasing and renovating 40 single family homes in Evanston. The neighborhood borders Xavier University, contains Walnut Hills High School and is the home of King Records’ historic studio. But like many urban neighborhoods near the city’s core, it has fallen on hard times in the past few decades and has been ravaged by disinvestment, high rates of poverty and dwindling prospects for jobs. The port authority hopes it can work similar changes to those that have transformed Over-the-Rhine, which has seen a marked increase in development over the last five years.

"This is the 3CDC model on a miniature scale," Kroger Vice President Lynn Marmer, who chairs the port's board of directors, told the Business Courier. 3CDC is responsible for much of the change happening in OTR. The port hopes to sell the homes at market rate to entice families to move to Evanston.

• So, is legal pot coming to Ohio? Voters may be able to decide in November. The group ResponsibleOhio, one of two looking to put an initiative on the ballot this year, released some details of its plan this week, though the exact legal language of the proposed bill is fuzzy. The group suggests that growers around the state would cultivate the sticky-icky and send it to one of five labs in Ohio for potency and safety testing. Those labs would then distribute it to medicinal marijuana clinics and retailers. Should voters approve the plan, Ohio would be the first state to go from an outright ban on marijuana to full legality.

• Many conservative lawmakers in Ohio love the idea of the state paying for students to attend private schools, but it seems Ohio residents are more lukewarm to the idea. Ohio offers more than 60,000 vouchers to students so they can use funds set aside for public school to attend the private school of their choice. However, only one third of those vouchers were used last year, according to data from the State Board of Education reported by the Enquirer Saturday. Despite this, there seems to be little movement to reconsider the state’s school choice system, which is a darling of conservatives like Gov. John Kasich.

• Finally, on the national level, there’s this story, which is crazy. A junior at Yale University says he was leaving a library on campus when a police officer pulled a gun on him unprovoked because he allegedly matched the description of a burglary suspect. The twist in the story is that the student’s father is Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who has written extensively about the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin and more generally about racial inequities in America’s justice system. Talk about getting the wrong person. Yale officials say they’re investigating the incident. The younger Blow says he remains shaken by the encounter, while his columnist father has penned a furious piece about the confrontation. 

by Nick Swartsell 01.23.2015
Posted In: News at 10:11 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Activists demand apology from Norwood mayor; Northside to get new venue, brewery; more than half of public school students are low-income

Hey hey! In the past, specifically around election time, I’ve admonished you about getting involved in the democratic process. Well, it’s time to do your civic duty once again by casting your ballot in CityBeat’s Best of Cincinnati reader survey.  Vote! Yes, it’s a long ballot, but don’t worry. You can skip some sections in case you don’t have an opinion on the best combination cupcake bakery/live music venue/dog grooming salon in the city.* But while you’re weighing in on the best burger in the city and the best place to hang while waiting for a table in OTR, consider casting a vote for best journalist, whether it be one of CityBeat’s great staffers or contributors, the top-notch reporters at other publications, or heck, yours truly. There are no electoral colleges or hanging chads in our process, so you’re basically mainlining democracy. America!

*Not a real category

On to news. Cincinnati City Council yesterday passed an ordinance adding homeless individuals to those protected by the city’s hate crimes law. The new ordinance could mean up to an extra 180 days in jail for those convicted of hate crimes against the homeless. Members of the Greater Cincinnati Coalition for the Homeless, who worked with Councilman Chris Seelbach on the legislation, say it’s a huge step forward for the city.

• Cincinnati activists who have organized a number of events around racial injustices in police killings of unarmed black citizens are asking for an apology from the mayor of Norwood. Yesterday, I told you about a letter Norwood Mayor Thomas Williams sent to the city’s police force decrying what he called “race-baiting black leaders.” Williams’ letter refers to those who have raised questions and protest around police officers who have killed unarmed blacks across the country.  Members of the group Black Lives Matter Cincinnati, who have organized marches, teach-ins and other events protesting the deaths of citizens like John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown and others, sent their own letter addressed to Williams today asking for a full apology for his remarks.

“We call upon Mayor Williams to publicly retract these comments and issue an immediate public apology,” the letter says. “Locally and nationwide, Black people are under assault by the negligent policymakers, inequitable school systems, broken windows policing, disproportionate conviction, sentencing and incarceration, and overall limited access to resources that are designed to maintain a high quality of life. Drawing attention to these realities is not ‘race baiting’ and attempting to silence the critique of Black leaders is a form of derailment that we will not tolerate.”

The letter highlights a 2013 excessive use of force lawsuit brought against the Norwood Police Department that led to a misdemeanor assault conviction of involved officer Robert Ward, who subsequently resigned. It also highlights a 2014 Civil Rights lawsuit filed against the department by Maurice Snow, who alleges he was wrongfully imprisoned by police there in a case of mistaken identity. The activist group who wrote the letter is asking for an apology by Jan. 26.

• Northside is about to get another entertainment venue, along with a brewery. A group of local musicians and developers calling themselves Urban Artifact have put their heads together to create a concept for the old St. Pius X church on Blue Rock Street that will feature two performances spaces, a full-service brewery and other attractions. The brewery will start up next month, with a goal of being open by April. Another interesting detail: Live performances at the space will be recorded and streamed from the space’s website. Originally, Urban Artifact wanted to launch its model in Over-the-Rhine, but the building on Jackson Street it sought needed extensive renovations that would have precluded a quick opening.

• In-person head counts of students in Ohio charter schools done by the Ohio Board of Education often contrast sharply with those schools’ reported enrollment figures, the OBE announced earlier this week. Half of the 30 schools where auditors did surprise counts had head counts “significantly lower” than reported enrollments, the board said. The privately run schools receive taxpayer dollars on a per-student basis, raising questions about whether the schools are cheating taxpayers. Of the 30 schools counted, more than half had discrepancies greater than 10 percent. Some were off by as much as 50 percent. One school in Youngstown that was supposed to have 95 students had zero in attendance on the day a headcount was taken.

“I’m really kind of speechless of everything that I found. It’s quite a morass,” Ohio Auditor Dave Yost said during a news conference in Columbus this week. Yost stressed that the findings were by no means comprehensive and that further investigation was being carried out.

• Speaking of schools, a new study released last week shows that for the first time, more than half of U.S. public school students are considered low income. Fifty-one percent of students at public schools qualified for reduced price or free meals in 2013. That eligibility, based on household income, is used to determine how many students in a school are low-income. In 1989, fewer than 32 percent of students in public schools met those criteria. In 2000, that ratio had risen to 38 percent. The Southern Education Foundation produced the report using data from the National Center for Education Statistics. The report says the data marks a “turning point” for public schools and shows the trend is spread across the country. Mississippi had the highest concentration of poor students in public schools with 71 percent. Concentrations were highest generally in the South. Kentucky’s public schools had 55 percent low-income students; Ohio’s had 39 percent.

• Finally, let’s take it back to local news for a zany incident: The old cliché is that you can’t fight City Hall, but apparently you can drive a truck into it. William Jackson was upset about difficulties he has been having in selling his business Beverage King and decided to take his concerns to the city, piloting his extended cab pick up right into the steps of City Hall while his dog sat in the passenger seat. Jackson then demanded to see Mayor John Cranley, who is in D.C. this week meeting with federal officials. Both Jackson and the dog were unhurt, though first responders said Jackson may need psychiatric attention. Jackson faces misdemeanor inducing panic charges as well as the more-serious count of inducing lyrics to a country song.

As always, you can find me on Twitter or via email at nswartsell@citybeat.com. Both of those are also great for sending me news tips or pitches offering 1,000 Twitter followers for just $10.

by Nick Swartsell 01.22.2015
Posted In: News at 08:45 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Sittenfeld makes Senate run official; Norwood mayor blasts "race baiting black leaders;" a week of meat

Hey all! The luxurious CityBeat HQ is getting an update on its swank factor at the moment (read: we’re getting new carpet) so I’m hanging out around the house today eating cookies and checking out the news. Here’s what I’ve got:

We told you about the rumors last week, and now it’s official: Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld is running for U.S. Senate. Sittenfeld is seeking the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Rob Portman in 2016. Portman’s looking for a second term and is gearing up with millions of dollars and an already established campaign machine to keep his seat. What’s more, Sittenfeld, 30, will need to navigate a primary season full of potential challengers, including former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland as well as U.S. Rep Tim Ryan and former Rep. Betty Sutton. But Sittenfeld thinks voters are ready for “a new generation of leaders” and says he’s the right guy for the job. Democrats think the seat may be vulnerable — Portman faces a likely primary challenge and has alienated some in his party by supporting same-sex marriage. They hope that increased voter turnout in the presidential election, which tends to skew Democratic, will put their candidate — perhaps Sittenfeld — over the top. 

•  Norwood Mayor Thomas Williams sent a recent letter to the city's police department blasting "race baiting black leaders and cowardly elected officials" and pledging seemingly unconditional support for the police force in the midst of racially charged questions around police use of force around the country after the police related deaths of unarmed black men and children such as Eric Garner, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice and others. Williams warns police in Norwood to be extra careful and stick together, telling them that, "God forbid, something controversial would happen, I WILL NOT ABANDON YOU." But what if something controversial happens because, god forbid, one of the officers messes up?

• The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has ruled the death of Brandon Carl, the worker killed in the I-75 off-ramp collapse, a preventable workplace accident. But officials say they still aren’t confident about what caused the collapse and that an investigation could take six months. The collapse happened in three phases over the course of a few seconds. The middle of the overpass, which was being demolished, fell last, sending heavy construction equipment toppling onto Carl and killing him.

• Cincinnati is in the top 10 cities in the country for bedbugs yet again, but before you pack everything you own into black plastic garbage bags and burn it all, there’s hope. The city fell two spots on the list to number seven, behind Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Columbus and Dallas. We’ve also fallen behind Cleveland this year, which officially makes us the second least bed-buggy big city in Ohio behind Dayton. Congrats Cincy! I still feel really itchy now, just slightly less so than last year when I read about the list.

• What does House Speaker John Boehner do after a long day sitting in the House making that Grinch face while the president is speechifying? (Note: Microsoft Word didn’t underline “speechifying,” meaning it’s officially a real word.) He goes home and watches golf reruns. Boehner revealed this lifestyle tip, along with his reactions to Obama’s Tuesday night State of the Union Address, in an interview with The Enquirer yesterday. He called many of Obama’s proposals, including the suggestion of two years of free community college education for some students, “ludicrous,” but did say he saw four areas where the GOP can work with the president. Those include fast tracking certain trade agreements with other countries, passing a new plan for funding the nation’s infrastructure, including highway funding, military intervention against terrorists and increasing the nation’s cybersecurity. Boehner also admitted he was a little rattled by the recent threat against his life by his old bartender, saying he would have never have ordered so many of those difficult-to-prepare mojitos if he knew the guy wanted to kill him and all.

• So I just want to alert you all to an upcoming holiday of sorts: Meat Week. It’s a national… err… thing… that happens every year from Jan. 25 to Feb. 1 where folks are encouraged (probably by some meat industry-related advocacy organization) to eat as much of the stuff as possible. It’s been going on since 2005, and one heroic soul in Cincinnati named Justin Tabas has taken it upon himself to organize a list of places from which to get said meat (mostly BBQ places like Eli’s and Walt’s). So yeah. Meet me at the meat places. Also, I apologize to all my wonderful vegetarian friends.

by Nick Swartsell 01.21.2015
Posted In: News at 11:12 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Morning News and Stuff

Hunter back in court; Cincy buildings could get landmark status; another year, another SOTU

Hello all. I hope you’re not too hung over this morning from playing State of the Union Address drinking games, and that you found something worthwhile in the speech to either applaud or decry on social media for an adequate number of likes/retweets/whathaveyous. I’ll get back to the speech in a moment, but first let’s talk about what’s going on around Cincy.

Cincinnati City Council could vote tomorrow on a plan to consolidate the Cincinnati Police Department’s investigations units and court properties at a single location in the West End. Under the plan, the city would buy the former Kaplan College building at 801 Linn Street and move the units there from the building on Broadway the departments currently share with the Hamilton County Board of Elections. Officials say the move will save the city money — it currently pays well over half a million dollars a month for space in the Broadway building. It may also be the last straw, however, for plans to move city and county crime investigation operations to a centralized site at the former Mercy Hospital building in Mount Airy. Those plans were to include the county’s critically-outdated crime lab and hinge on county commissioners finding millions of dollars to retrofit that building.

• Southbound I-75 near Hopple Street is open again after the old Hopple Street off ramp collapsed Monday evening. The collapse killed a construction worker and injured a semi-truck driver, shutting down the highway all day yesterday. Experts believe improper demolition procedures caused the collapse, though the full cause is still under investigation.

• Former Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter was in court again today as prosecutors sought to retry her on eight felony charges connected to her time as judge. Hamilton County Judge Patrick Dinkelacker today set Hunter’s retrial on those counts for June 1. Hunter was accused of forging documents, misusing a court credit card and other alleged misconduct. Hunter’s supporters say she’s a victim of politics. Hunter campaigned on a promise to reform the county’s juvenile justice system. Hunter was convicted last year on one felony count of having unlawful interest in a public contract. Hunter allegedly helped her brother, who was a juvenile court employee charged with striking an underage inmate, obtain documents illegally. Hunter has appealed that conviction, saying that some jurors changed their verdicts after the case was decided.

• Two iconic buildings in Cincinnati may be up for historic designation from the city. Council could vote tomorrow on designating as local landmarks the 1920s era Baldwin Piano Company Building on Gilbert Avenue in Walnut Hills and the Union Central Life Annex Building on Vine Street downtown. That building is a 1927 expansion to the iconic 4th and Vine Tower, often called PNC Tower, built in 1913. The Baldwin building was recently purchased by Neyer Properties, which is seeking state historic preservation tax credits as it moves toward developing luxury apartments in the building, an effort that historic designation could boost.

• Finally, about that State of the Union Address. It was long, 6,500 words long. And as State of the Union Addresses tend to do, it attracted a lot of think-pieces, moral outrage from the other side of the aisle and applause from fellow Democrats. It was also a great opportunity to see how much grey hair the commander in chief has accumulated since last year. But… what did the president actually say, beyond touting an improving economy and that moment where he bragged about winning two elections? And are any of his policy ideas remotely politically feasible with Republicans controlling both chambers of the legislative branch? Probably not. But here’s a handy list of all the policy proposals Obama put forward last night anyway.

Obama had already talked some about the big ones: a massive effort to extend two years of community college to American students, a move to require employers provide sick days and maternity leave for workers and another call to raise the minimum wage. Obama also touched ever-so-briefly on reforming the tax code to be friendlier to the middle class and tougher on corporations and financial institutions, preserving voting rights, demilitarizing the police and other hot-button issues. One particularly interesting proposal called for fast-tracking trade agreements with other countries through Congress, an idea that is unpopular with several progressive Democrats including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ohio’s Sen. Sherrod Brown. Brown shot back with a statement during the address comparing Obama’s idea to NAFTA, a controversial trade agreement with Mexico and Canada signed by President Bill Clinton that is often blamed for shipping American jobs to those countries. Brown suggested focusing on creating jobs in the U.S. first before rushing into more foreign trade agreements.

As I mentioned yesterday, Republicans began balking at the president’s suggestions well before the speech, and of course, shot back with plenty of rebuttals immediately afterward. The whole thing is a little like an argument between your family at Thanksgiving dinner while you sit at the kids table just trying to make it through to the pumpkin pie.