Morning y’all. I’m not going to comment on how cold it is this morning, because you probably already know. Instead, I’m just going to say I cannot feel my feet.
Anyway, what’s up today? Glad you asked.
One of the protesters arrested at a Nov. 25 rally in solidarity with Ferguson, Mo., pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct yesterday. Rhonda Shaw was one of the seven activists arrested on I-75 after protesters briefly made their way onto the highway. Shaw was the only one not eventually released on bond in the aftermath of the arrests. A judge removed a requirement that six other protesters who had already paid bail wear electronic monitoring devices, after which they were freed. All six still face disorderly conduct and inducing panic charges and will be in court this month. Shaw did not pay bail and was not released. Hamilton County Judge William Mallory dismissed another more serious charge of inducing panic in Shaw’s case. The disorderly conduct charge is a minor misdemeanor punishable by a fine.
The protest mirrored similar actions around the country over the lack of indictment of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown. The event drew more than 300 people and led to a long, winding march through downtown, Over-the-Rhine and the West End.
• Councilman Chris Seelbach took a moment to remember Kings Mills transgender teen Leelah Alcorn during yesterday’s City Council meeting, reading an emotional statement addressed to LGBT individuals who are struggling with feelings of isolation. Alcorn committed suicide Dec. 28.
“You can survive the pain,” Seelbach said after reading from Alcorn’s suicide note, which she posted on Tumblr. “You can survive the isolation. You can because you're exactly who you're supposed to be. You're the person God made you to be, and you have the strength to persevere. It will not be easy. It may not get better with every day, but you can do it — I know you can.”
• A couple days ago, I told you Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld appears to have started raising money for a shot at Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s seat in 2016. If that’s true, he’d better start his hustle. Portman already has almost $6 million in the bank for the race, according to a campaign email. He’s also touting endorsements from a number of high-up Republicans including Gov. John Kasich. It’s unclear if the early saber-rattling is meant to scare away possible far-right primary challengers or send a message to an eventual Democratic contender for his seat, but it’s clear Portman has a big advantage at this early juncture.
• Officials yesterday released the full-length security video showing the Cleveland police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, including the troubling aftermath of that shooting. The beginning of the video, which was released shortly after the incident, shows a Cleveland police cruiser rushing into the park where Rice was playing, which was across the street from his house. Officer Timothy Leohman jumps out of the passenger side of the cruiser and immediately shoots Rice, who a 911 caller said was brandishing a pistol that was “probably fake.” That much we already knew. But the extended video also shows two officers tackling and wrestling Tamir’s 14-year-old sister Tajai Rice, eventually forcefully hustling her to the police car. Meanwhile, no officers attempt to assist Rice, who is lying in the park bleeding to death. It takes nearly 15 minutes for officers to remove Rice from the scene on a stretcher. He later died at the hospital.
Loehman was fired from the Independence, Ohio police department in 2012 because he exhibited signs of being emotionally unstable and was subsequently passed over for jobs at a number of other departments before getting a job in Cleveland. Last month, the Department of Justice released an unrelated, year-long report slamming the Cleveland Police Department for its use of force and an apparent racial bias in its policing.
• Finally, a Columbus suburb is getting what can only be described as a monumental honor. The city of Westerville will soon be home to the tacocropolis, aka the capitol of crunch; in other words, the country’s most expensive Taco Bell location. Westerville officials call it a great redevelopment project, and the development company says they see the upscale Taco Bell as an investment.
“Westerville is a very discriminating city about what they want done and how they want it to look," Hadler Company President Stephen Breech said. "Sometimes you get subpar looks from a fast-food building — but this isn't that kind of a facility. It has a lot of brick on it and things like that."
The developer won’t divulge how much the project will cost, and Taco Bell will only confirm that it is the chain’s most expensive location, building-wise, in the country.
A lot of brick on it, indeed. I really hope the “things like that” he’s referring to are giant, gold plated monuments to the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, one of mankind’s greatest inventions.
A few words on this week’s cover story about Ohio’s changes to the General Educational Development (GED) test. The piece first appeared in the Cleveland Scene, and it's a great, well-researched read. We did some significant reporting to localize it for Cincinnati, not all of which made it into the final article.
The GED is something a lot of folks don’t really think much about, and I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about it before digging in for our reporting. But the test is a vital lifeline toward a better life for folks who for one reason or another never got a high school diploma.
Seven-hundred-forty-seven people took the test in Hamilton County in 2014. That's down from 2,388 in 2013.
As you’ll read in the cover story, new changes that took affect in 2014 have made it more difficult and expensive to take and pass the test and move on to a trade school, a community college or a better job. New standards require higher levels of interpretive abilities and background knowledge to pass the GED. What's more, students must practice for and take the test on a computer — a big challenge for some students struggling with poverty — and the base fee the state charges for taking the test has tripled.
I went to the East End Adult Education Center to find out more about how the test is getting harder and who is taking it. While I was there, I also learned a lot about what is at stake for folks trying to pass it. I’d like to introduce you to a few of them here. Even though all of their stories didn’t fit in the cover piece, I think they’re important to talk about.
DaniJo Doud, 32, was sitting with head tutor Marty Walsh and practicing for the test when I walked through the door of the center on Eastern Avenue.
Doud got pregnant when she was 16 and ended up repeating the 9th grade three times before dropping out of school. She later struggled with heroin addiction, though she can tell you the exact day she stopped using: May 28, 2012. Now, she’d like to go to a nearby community college to eventually become a drug counselor.
“I always thought I was dumb,” she told me, “but I’m not. I came here and started out on a fourth or fifth grade level. I’m now on a 12th grade level on everything. I’ll graduate this year, I’m sure of it. I want to do the work. I love coming here. I don’t miss a day.”
The center is one of just a few in Cincinnati that offer GED study and testing services. Others, including Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, also provide these services, though often to large classes instead of one on one.
The East End Adult Education Center runs on grants and doesn’t charge students. It even offers scholarships to some students who can’t afford some or all of Ohio’s GED test fee. Adele Craft, the center’s executive director, says nearly all of the people who come here to study are facing economic challenges, or have had life hurdles that kept them from completing high school. Some are refugees.
You’ll read more about Sy Ohur in the cover story. Ohur came to the United States from Sudan in 2004, when the country was gripped by a bloody civil war that killed several hundred thousand people. Ohur fled here knowing almost zero English; Craft said he and other refugees who came around that time didn’t even know the alphabet. Ohur is now an American citizen with strong English skills. He has passed two parts of the GED previously, but then the test was redesigned and he’s had to go back to square one.
In the next room, 17-year-old Chris was studying math with his tutor Mike, going over some equations that — full disclosure — I didn’t really understand. Chris has been coming for a year. At first, he was compelled to come by court order due to problems he was having with truancy. Attending Riverside High School just wasn’t working out for him, he said, though he admits part of the problem was he had a hard time getting up early enough.
“But then I started coming here and started wanting to learn,” he says. “The teachers at school, they tried to help me out, but it wasn’t getting through to me like here. They’ve showed me different angles, different ways to look at things. It’s helped me out a lot.”
Chris, who lives just down the road, shows up every day from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. He hopes to take the test soon. His immediate goal is to go to Cincinnati State and eventually transfer to a four-year college to become an architect.
The East End Adult Education Center, one of just a few in Cincinnati that provides test prep and allows students to take the actual GED onsite, sees about 100 students a year. About 20 pass the test each year. As Craft shows me the phone book-sized study guide students must contend with, she tells me passing the test is sometimes a multi-year effort.
That effort has been getting more difficult in Cincinnati and across the state. Craft said holding students to a higher standard and getting them prepared for college is a great goal and that the new test does that well. But she doesn’t like that people looking to better themselves have a harder road ahead of them.
“It’s just a lot, lot harder,” she said of the new test. “It’s going to take us a lot longer.”
Hey all! My colleague, CityBeat arts editor Jac Kern, just got engaged over the holiday and there’s champagne everywhere in the office right now. Congrats! Now I’m going to try to power through the distraction to bring you the news because I’m a soldier like that.
So the streetcar contingency budget, which is set aside for unforeseen complications and cost overruns, is healthier than previously thought, officials announced yesterday. Last month, streetcar Project Executive John Deatrick announced that the worst-case scenarios his office ran had the fund down to about $80,000 after everything was paid out. But after some political blowback, especially from streetcar foe Mayor John Cranley, Deatrick and company went back to the drawing board, reassessed costs and adjusted that figure. The new estimate is that the contingency fund has about $1.3 million left. What changed? Not much. Deatrick says the streetcar team renegotiated some contracts and scaled back a fence around the streetcar substation. That fence was set to be solid brick, but will now be partially steel. Some council members, including Chris Seelbach, expressed concerns that the project was being scaled back due to political pressure, but officials with the project say it will run the same distance with the same number of cars for the same amount of time and that it hasn’t been scaled back in any meaningful way.
• As the weather gets colder, demands on area homeless shelters are increasing, straining space available for those with nowhere else to go. While a funding increase council passed last month has given area shelters more money to work with, demand may outpace the increase.
"The demand for winter shelter has been greater than expected this winter," Strategies to End Homelessness President and CEO Kevin Finn said in a statement. "... Such increased and early demand could exhaust resources that we hope will last us through February."
• Local grilled cheese dynamo Tom + Chee is expanding, its founders report, with plans to open five new restaurants in Southern Texas, mostly in suburbs of Houston. The company has partnered with the Tunica-Biloxi tribe to bring the restaurants to the region. The new restaurants will join 13 others in Georgia, Nebraska, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee.
• Northern Kentucky residents who have been touched by the region’s heroin epidemic took their concerns to the Kentucky state capitol in Frankfurt yesterday. One-hundred-thirty Northern Kentuckians came to the rally asking for changes to state laws that could cut down the number of heroin overdose deaths. Among the policy changes advocates are asking for: repeal of a law that keeps Kentucky police from carrying anti-overdose drugs like Narcan. Police in Cincinnati and many other cities carry the drugs, which can mean the difference between life and death for overdose victims.
A new program in Kentucky will give state funds to three hospitals to provide Narcan kits to emergency overdose patients, including St. Elizabeth Healthcare in Fort Thomas. The hospital was chosen due to the high number of overdose victims it treats.
• It’s official. Rep. John Boehner, R-West Chester, has lived to fight another day as speaker of the house. Boehner held the most powerful perch in the House despite challenges from the far-right wing of the Republican party, who hold that he didn’t do enough to repeal Obamacare and cut the federal budget. Tea party-affiliated reps had a similar mutiny attempt last session, in 2013, when 12 voted against Boehner for speaker. This time, opposition doubled, as 24 conservative House members voted against him. Boehner still coasted to a win, but the drama highlights the continued fissures in the party. Even as it grows more powerful— the 246 seats Republicans hold in the House are the most they’ve had since the 1940s — it’s clear there’s little agreement about what should be done with that power. Perhaps in reflection of this mixed-up mindset, Boehner offered this lumpy, ill-formed bag of metaphors on the House floor after his win.
“So let’s stand tall and prove the skeptics wrong,” Boehner said. “May the fruits of our labors be ladders our children can use to climb to the stars.”
Fruit ladders to the stars, y’all.
Boehner was quick to deal out discipline to members who voted against him, having two Republicans who voted against him kicked off the House’s powerful rules committee, which sets the agenda for the House.
• One of the grand jurors in the Darren Wilson case is suing the St. Louis County prosecutor over what he says were misleading statements about the grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson. Prosecutor Robert McCullough presented evidence to the grand jury after the August shooting death of unarmed 18-year-old Mike Brown by Ferguson Police officer Wilson. The grand jury member accuses McCullough of misleading the public about the grand jury’s deliberations and is asking to be able to speak publicly about the case in his suit. The juror, who so far has remained anonymous, is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. Brown’s shooting along with other police shootings of unarmed black citizens have triggered civil unrest and activism around the country.
• Finally, this isn’t really news related but I have to share it anyway. Here are the ladies of Downton Abby, which just started a new season, playing Cards Against Humanity. Warning: it gets a lil raunchy. Also, you’re welcome.
Hey all. Hope your morning commute was safe and warm amidst the cold, nasty dusting of snow we got last night. I’m still glued to my space heater here at home, so I’ve yet to venture out into the grossness.
Here’s what’s up today:
It looks as if Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld is seriously checking out a run for U.S. Senate. Sources close to Sittenfeld told the Cincinnati Enquirer that the 30-year-old Democrat has begun raising money for a bid at Republican Sen. Rob Portman’s seat. It’s a big jump from councilman to senator, and Sittenfeld may have some more experienced competition for the nod as the Democratic candidate. Former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland has shown signs that he may be interested in running, as have former Ohio Congressional delegates Betty Sutton and Tim Ryan. However, Sittenfeld has laid some groundwork for a run, visiting all corners of the state in the past year on issues of taxes and the economy. He also has a number of Senate-themed website names on lockdown, including pgforsenate.com, sittenfeldforsenate.com, and surelysittenfeldsoundssenatorialsam.com (I made that last one up). He hasn’t made it official yet, and there’s no telling if he would stay in the race should someone more experienced like Strickland officially throw his hat in the ring. But party leaders like Hamilton County Democratic Party chair Tim Burke and Ohio Democratic Party head David Pepper say he could be a serious contender depending upon how things shake out ahead of 2016.
• Mount Auburn-based Christ Hospital is fighting a lawsuit claiming the health organization submitted $28 million in claims to Medicare that cannot be proven. The hospital claims the money was used to train doctors rotating into the hospital from other health organizations between 2007 and 2012, but former employee Glenda Overton says in her lawsuit that the claims the hospital filed were not documented in accordance with federal law. The lawsuit was originally filed in 2013, but federal judge Timothy Black just struck down the hospital’s request to dismiss the case Dec. 31. The hospital could be on the hook for more than $90 million in damages if a jury finds it is guilty of misrepresenting claims.
• One of Mayor John Cranley’s staff members made a pretty prestigious list this week. Daniel Rajaiah, Cranley’s director of external affairs and the head of the mayor’s immigration task force, appeared on Forbes magazine’s 30 under 30 list in policy and politics. Rajaiah has been at City Hall just over a year, but then, he hasn’t been out of college much longer than that. Rajaiah graduated from the University of Dayton in 2013. While at UD, he led the College Democrats of Ohio for a year. The magazine highlights his work on the immigration task force as well as his time at his college post, where he helped get 43,000 people registered to vote.
• Meet the new bosses, who look very much the same as the old bosses. As Congress prepares to start a new session today, let’s look at how representative our representatives are. Four out of five members of Congress are male, and four out of five are white. Women make up just 19 percent of the House of Representatives and 20 percent of the Senate, despite, you know, being half of the general population. Meanwhile, blacks make up just 10 percent of the House and a whole 2 percent of the Senate, despite representing 14 percent of the U.S. population. People of Hispanic origin make up just 8 percent of the House and 3 percent of the Senate. They account for 18 percent of the general population. Only three of Ohio’s 16 reps are women. Only two are black. The saddest part? What I just described to you is the most diverse Congress in history. America!
• Finally, remember how much of a fight it was to get a few miles of those streetcar tracks in the ground? I put forward this next bit of news only to demonstrate conclusively that we live in an entirely different dimension than some other parts of the country. Officials broke ground today on a high-speed rail project that could eventually shuttle people between Los Angeles and San Francisco at 220 mph. That means you could escape the hellish traffic hole that is the city of angels for the bay area, which is rapidly becoming one big Google campus, in just over two hours. Amazing. Sorry, LA and SF. I'm just kidding. I love you and your lack of below-freezing temperatures.
Morning all. Hope your weekend was great. Let’s get to the news.
About 300 people showed up Saturday outside Kings Mills High School for a candlelight vigil in remembrance of Leelah Alcorn, the Kings Mills transgender teen who took her own life last month. Many attendees were Alcorn’s friends and classmates, representatives from LGBT groups like the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network and trans-specific groups like the Heartland Trans Wellness Group. More than a dozen speakers addressed the crowd, including a number of trans people and their families. Their message: There is acceptance and support for people who identify as transgender or who feel they might be transgender.
“It really warms my heart seeing so many strangers and friends of Leelah coming out to support her,” said Abby Jones, who worked with Alcorn at Kings Island. Jones said Alcorn came out to her as transgender and shared the struggles she was having at home. Alcorn, born into a highly religious family, said in a suicide note shared to social media that she had trouble finding acceptance and help from her family, which sent her to religious counselors and tried therapies designed to convince Alcorn she was male.
• Heroin continues to be a huge issue in the Greater Cincinnati area, to the point where inmates are overdosing in jail. Local law enforcement and corrections officials are working to find out how inmates get the drugs while they’re behind bars. There have been a number of overdose incidents in Hamilton County jail, including two in the last 18 months, leading some to wonder whether guards are helping to smuggle the drug in. Officials say there’s no sign of that, and that inmates often smuggle the drug in by swallowing balloons filled with it before entering the jail or get it from visitors. In 2013, the county jail treated more than 9,000 heroin addicts. County jails in Northern Kentucky face similar levels of addicts and have also seen overdoses, a reflection of the swelling heroin epidemic happening outside the jails in the general population. Kentucky’s legislature will consider a number of often-contradictory bills in its upcoming session to address the problem. The bills seek to do everything from making treatment easier to attain for those arrested with the drug to increasing penalties for those caught with heroin without providing more funding for clinics and other treatment methods.
• Tomorrow, the U.S. House of Representatives will vote on who will lead one of the world's most powerful deliberative bodies. Currently, that honor goes to Rep. John Boehner, who has spent two terms as House Speaker. Boehner says he expects an easy reelection from his party, but some conservatives are dead set against him. Among those is Boehner’s neighbor to the south, Rep. Thomas Massie, who represents Northern Kentucky. Massie has signaled he won’t be supporting Boehner for the most powerful job in the House, though he isn’t revealing who he will vote for. Massie is a tea partier who has opposed Boehner in the past, though never quite so publicly. A few other tea party-affiliated Republicans in the House have also indicated they won’t be supporting Boehner and have said they’re searching for his replacement. It’s a sign that even if Boehner wins his job again (which he probably will) it won’t be easy going for him over the next two years.
• Will Kentucky religious organization Answers in Genesis sue the state over the fact it rescinded tax credits for a Noah’s Ark theme park based on Answers’ hiring practices? It could happen, supporters of the group say. The group has been building its park in Grant County and was originally awarded millions in tax credits by the state. However, those credits were withdrawn after questions arose about requirements by Answers that prospective employees fill out a testament of faith and other religiously oriented pre-employment materials. Opponents of the group say those materials violate equal employment rules and therefore make the Ark Park ineligible for public money. But supporters of the park say religious groups can be exempted from such rules.
• So, say you oversaw the loss of tons of peoples’ credit card and other personal data and basically had to quit your job or be fired. What happens next? If you’re retiring Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel, you get $47 million. That’s Steinhafel’s retirement package, and it’s raising big questions about income inequality. You see, normal Target employees (you know, the ones who didn’t screw up big time and let the company get hacked) have only paltry 401Ks to fall back on when they get too old to stock shelves or sell those little pizzas in the café area. Experts say Steinhafel’s huge package (sounds weird when you say it that way) exemplifies another element of the continued divide between corporate bigwigs and every day workers and that other CEOs get similarly lush goodbye checks. So, if you want to be a millionaire, just, you know, make sure your company gets hacked and push for that golden parachute when you’re on your way out.
Hey hey Cincinnati! I hope your New Years Eve was as good as mine. I stayed out way too late and had more fun than you should be allowed to have while wearing a suit at CityBeat's speakeasy party. But enough about partying. Let’s get down to business.
Carla Alcorn, who has been mostly silent since daughter Leelah Alcorn’s suicide Dec. 28, gave her first interview with media Wednesday. Speaking to CNN, Alcorn expressed deep grief at the loss of the 17-year-old transgender teen from Kings Mills, whose given name was Joshua and who said in a suicide note that she had felt “like a girl trapped in a boy’s body” since the age of 4. Leelah’s suicide has sparked a national conversation about societal attitudes toward gender as well as the high rate of depression and suicide attempts among transgender people. The elder Alcorn told CNN that she forbade Leelah from obtaining medical procedures to help her transition toward more female physical traits because it was against the family’s religion.
"We don't support that, religiously," Alcorn's mother told CNN in an emotional phone interview. "But we told him that we loved him unconditionally. We loved him no matter what. I loved my son. People need to know that I loved him. He was a good kid, a good boy."
Controversy has arisen over the way some news outlets, Alcorn’s family and her school have identified Alcorn, using the name Joshua and male pronouns to refer to her.
• On a more upbeat note, a local fashion icon got some big attention yesterday after Ohio State beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and clenched a spot at college football’s championship game. As OSU pulled ahead late in the game, ESPN showed a fan in the crowd rocking an Ohio Against the World shirt, a brand dreamed up by Cincinnatian Floyd Johnson. OATW has already gotten a lot of national attention, but screen grabs of the ESPN shot showed up on Twitter and promptly exploded, sending the phrase Ohio Against the World trending worldwide. Full disclosure: I’m a huge OATW fan and own a few of their shirts, one of which I’m wearing as I type, so this may not be unbiased reporting I’m doing here. I could not care less about football (sorry Buckeyes fans) but it’s awesome that great local talent is getting much-deserved recognition. Go get yourself one of those shirts! Just be sure you’re buying the real deal when you hop online to order one and not one of these. Yes, yes, I get it. That’s supposed to be OSU’s font. Still not into it.
• Just a heads up: new parking meter times and rates go into effect today. Parking in Over-the-Rhine goes from 50 cents to $1 today, and you’ll have to pay from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. in OTR and downtown. The boost will be used to help pay for streetcar operating costs. Don’t fret if you don’t have change, though. The new meters take credit cards.
• Tasha Thomas, the woman who was with John Crawford III in the Beavercreek Walmart where police shot him in August, died in a car accident yesterday. The accident occurred about 3 p.m. in downtown Dayton, authorities say. Thomas gained attention last month when a video tape was released showing Beavercreek police interrogating her harshly after the shooting. Crawford's shooting and other police killings of unarmed black citizens, including the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson Missouri, have ignited continuing protests across the country.
• Women in Ohio and Kentucky are pushing back against a new form of birth control called Essure offered by major drug company Bayer. Essure claims to be a form of easy, permanent birth control. Sounds great, right? The problem is, the device, which is implanted, has reportedly caused headaches, severe nausea and other symptoms in some women, perhaps due to the fact it contains nickel, which many are allergic to. Women suffering these symptoms claim they were not told about the device’s nickel content. Other women have reported that the device has caused internal damage when it shifted inside their bodies, or that scans by doctors have been unable to find the device after it has been implanted. A number of activists, including women in Ohio, have called for a ban on the product, starting wide-ranging social media campaigns and filing a lawsuit. But doctors and the FDA say they can’t demonstrate a link between the device and health problems. They say the device is safe to use and that problems associated with the implant are probably psychosomatic.
• The ongoing national argument over police tactics is having very real consequences within the nation’s largest police force. After a gunman ambushed and killed two officers Dec. 20, New York City police have decreased arrests 66 percent as part of a work slow down, the New York Post reports. The choke hold death of Eric Garner this summer and a subsequent grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer in that death has led to civil unrest in the city, and police have taken offense. The situation intensified when the gunman in Brooklyn murdered two officers last month. Since that incident, officers have protested by turning their backs to Mayor Bill deBlasio at public ceremonies for a perceived lack of support from the mayor. They’ve also instituted a slowdown on their policing and have announced they’ll only be arresting people when they have to — in part for safety reasons, and in part in protest. But think about that for just a minute. Shouldn’t police always approach and arrest people “only when they have to?” The New York Post reports that ticketing for incidents in the city has dropped 94 percent since the murder of the two officers. Arrests for drug offenses have dropped 82 percent. What are the rest of those arrests all about anyway?
Hey all! In a minute, I’m going to hit you with the list: the biggest, the most interesting and the most disturbing stories we covered this year on a daily or weekly basis. We’ve already given you our favorite news cover stories; those long-form pieces which we spent weeks or even months putting together. Now it’s time for the everyday stuff. But first, let me just throw a couple things your way that are making news on the last day of 2014.
Memorials are planned for Leelah Alcorn, the Kings Mills 17-year-old who committed suicide on I-71 Sunday after suffering with lengthy depression and isolation due to her transgender status. These memorials include a candlelight vigil in front of Kings High School Saturday from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
In other news, the city came to an agreement with unions over its pension obligations last night. The deal, which took 10 months of negotiations, including a nine-hour marathon talk session between the city, employees and retirees, is complicated, but here’s the upshot: The agreement will allow the city to stabilize the pension fund, to which it owes $862 million, by whittling down retiree health benefits over time while putting $200 million from the health care trust fund into the pension fund. The city will also make a $38 million payment into the system next year.
On to the list. It’s a bit absurd to do these end of the year lists, right? I mean, ongoing stories don’t conveniently bookend themselves on New Years Eve, but tend to linger on and on (see: streetcar fight). But we have to stop somewhere and brag about our coverage, and the day we run out of calendar seems as good as any. So here are some of the big stories we covered in 2014:
1. Police Shootings and Race: A Familiar Story
Cincinnati is no stranger to controversy surrounding police shootings. So the unrest around an August incident in Ferguson, Mo., where a police officer shot an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown felt very close to home. The incident sparked civil unrest in Ferguson and across the country. Just days before, a similar incident occurred in a Beavercreek Walmart, where police shot 22-year-old John Crawford while he was holding a pellet gun sold in the store.
We watched the Crawford case closely from the beginning. His shooting as well as a number of others around the country that came to light afterward were especially pertinent in Cincinnati, bringing back memories of the 2001 shooting of Timothy Thomas by police in Over-the-Rhine. We covered the parallels between 2001 and now, followed local reaction to the recent police shootings and delved deep into racial tensions in Beavercreek. New incidents of questionable use of force by police officers continue to emerge, suggest this story is far from over. We’ll be following it just as closely in 2015.
2. Icon Tax Debate
Two of Cincinnati’s favorite buildings need big help. But getting the money to renovate historic Music Hall and Union Terminal has been a political struggle. An initial proposal by business leaders would have levied a .25 percent sales tax increase over time to fund renovations on both buildings. But Republican Hamilton County commissioners Chris Monzel and Greg Hartmann balked at including Music Hall in that arrangement, opting instead to shorten the duration of the tax increase and only fix Union Terminal. That left supporters of OTR’s major landmark angry and triggered a campaign to unseat Hartmann in the November election, though that effort fizzled. Meanwhile, Music Hall may get the fixing up it needs after all: the building was awarded $20 million in tax credits in December that will go a long way toward needed renovations.
3. The Battle Over Cincinnati’s Last Abortion Clinic
After lawmakers passed restrictive new laws requiring clinics that provide abortions to have transfer agreements with area hospitals, and then turned around and barred state-funded hospitals from entering into those agreements, things looked bleak for the region’s two remaining clinics. The situation got even worse over the summer when the Ohio Department of Health revoked the license of one of those clinics, Women’s Med in Sharonville, after refusing to grant the clinic an exception to those new rules. The area’s last remaining abortion provider, the Elizabeth Campbell Surgical Center in Mount Auburn, got a similar warning from the state in November. The clinic had been waiting a year to hear back from the state about its request for a variance to the rules on the grounds that its doctors have individual admitting privileges with area hospitals. Planned Parenthood, which runs the clinic, sued the state, claiming Ohio’s laws are unconstitutional and present an undue burden to women seeking abortions. The state blinked, providing the clinic with a variance and keeping Cincinnati from becoming the largest metropolitan area in the country without direct access to abortion services.
4. Transit: Fights and Forward Movement
From ongoing streetcar drama to fights over bike lanes to efforts to bring better rail service to Cincinnati, how we get around got a lot of attention this year. In the spring, a battle flared up over Mayor John Cranley’s diversion of funds away from on-street bike lanes to bike paths, and further controversy arose over a new bike lane being built on Central Parkway. One business owner concerned about a few parking spots temporarily ground that project to a halt before the city agreed to spend thousands of extra dollars accommodating the parking concerns. There was some other progress on bike-related projects this year as paths on the city’s east side, including plans that could also someday include light rail, continued to take shape. Bickering about how the city will pay for the streetcar dominated the daily news, with new panics about the project’s yearly operating budget and construction contingency fund cropping up constantly. Meanwhile, in a project of a much larger scale, a group of advocates launched a campaign this year to get daily rail service going between Cincinnati and Chicago. Unlike the streetcar, that effort has been surprisingly bi-partisan. That level of agreement has been rare in transportation fights. But all the back and forth is good on one level — it means Cincinnatians are actively thinking about and engaged in conversations around transit alternatives.
5. Cincinnati’s Big Developments: Concerns and Questions
There’s no denying Cincinnati has had a huge year in terms of development. Over-the-Rhine continues to change at a rapid pace and other neighborhoods are quickly following suit in their own ways. But developers and the city administration that courts them are powerful folks, and it’s always good to ask questions when millions are getting thrown around like Monopoly money. We delved into concerns over Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation’s move into northern OTR, where the city awarded it decision-making power over a whole swath of neighborhood surrounding Findlay Market even as residents and the OTR Community Council expressed serious concerns about the deal. We talked to residents and businesses in Clifton Heights, where the city enacted zoning changes and tax deals for an out-of-town developer who will build a large, student-centered apartment complex despite protests from some long-time residents there. And we took a deep look into what the new I-71 interchange means for Avondale and Walnut Hills, both largely black communities whose members have historic reasons to distrust highway projects. Will development surrounding a new highway on and off ramp in these historically neglected and low-income neighborhoods lift up residents there, or will it bulldoze them? The questions around Cincinnati’s big-budget developments remain, and we’ll continue asking them in 2015.
6. Charter School Drama
2014 was the year things got weird at Ohio charter schools. VLT Academy in Cincinnati shut down after a long, messy fight by the school to secure a sponsor organization over protests from the Ohio Department of Education. A charter high school in Dayton, along with several others run by Chicago-based Horizon schools, came under scrutiny from federal authorities after former teachers made multiple reports of records forging and sexual misconduct. Overall, multiple studies, including a CityBeat review of state education data for Cincinnati charters, found that charters don’t seem to perform any better on the whole than public schools, and in many cases, perform worse. Meanwhile, charters are held to lower standards than public schools. All that begs the question: what are taxpayers getting for the diverted funds that pay for these often for-profit schools?
7. The Persistence of Poverty
We covered a number of issues surrounding poverty in Cincinnati, from former staffer German Lopez’s excellent cover story on the city’s poverty problem to more specific issues like affordable, subsidized housing, increases in homelessness in the city and a proposed hate crime law that would protect the homeless. There was also some good news, as Lower Price Hill, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods received free Wi-Fi so students and residents could connect to the outside world. As one of the city’s biggest, most complex challenges, Cincinnati’s high poverty rate works its way into a number of other issues such as sex trafficking, the heroin crisis and others, meaning we’re just getting started in our coverage. Expect much more in 2015.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Some other big stories we checked out this year include German Lopez’s great piece on efforts to legalize marijuana in Ohio and our coverage of the court battle over Ohio’s gay marriage ban. When you’re all bored and hungover tomorrow, peruse our coverage from the last year. Then hit me up with what you’d like to see in the new year. What’s important to you that Cincinnati media is neglecting? Find me at email@example.com and @nswartsell on Twitter.
Morning all. It’s a slow news day around here, and we’re waiting for tomorrow for our obligatory end-of-year top 10 news stories list. But there are still some interesting things happening around the city and beyond in the waning days of 2014.
Police officers from around the region gathered last night to pay respects to two officers killed by a gunman in New York City earlier this month. Police from Covington, Kenton County and Campbell County attended a rally at a memorial for fallen officers in Covington to remember New York City Police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were shot while sitting in their patrol car in Brooklyn. A few dozen members of the public also gathered for the event. Ramos and Liu’s shooter, who had earlier murdered his girlfriend in a Baltimore suburb, later killed himself. The incident has become a controversial moment in the nation’s tense struggle over police killings of unarmed people of color. Ramos and Liu’s shooter mentioned ongoing anger over the killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed man who died after an officer placed him in a choke hold. Activists decrying police violence have said the shootings of the officers are a tragedy and have called for peaceful protests.
• Cincinnati has gone all-in on a new highway interchange where I-71 passes through Walnut Hills and Avondale. But questions continue over whether that interchange will bring jobs and prosperity to some of the city’s poorest residents. It’s a tough question to answer because the project is fairly unique. Building a new highway on and off ramp in an already-built urban area is nearly unprecedented, and it’s tough to tell what will happen. That’s especially true since it’s unclear who will end up owning some of the 670 acres around the interchange officials say is blighted and in need of fresh development. City officials tout a study by the UC Economics Center that predicts the new interchange could create 7,000 jobs. But other studies of highway development projects say it can be exceedingly hard to tell what their impacts will be. The city has more than $25 million in the project, so stakes are high. They’re also high for residents of the neighborhood — as we reported this summer, Avondale has a 40 percent poverty rate and has historically found itself cut off from the rest of the city economically and geographically. What’s more, some residents will need to move to make way for the interchange. As the project continues toward its November 2016 completion date, questions keep swirling.
• State Rep. John Becker, a staunch conservative representing suburban Cincinnati, has been busy during his freshman term, according to a recent profile in the Columbus Dispatch. The former anti-abortion activist has authored tons of right wing legislation — 27 bills, in fact — and has courted a similarly prodigious amount of controversy. He’s been outspoken about police shootings of people of color, even commenting that he “wasn’t sure who the victim was” in the case of Mike Brown, an unarmed black man shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. He has suggested that similar shootings in Cleveland and Beavercreek involved drugs or “suicide by cop.” He’s also questioned why Planned Parenthood isn’t considered a hate group. That’s all charming stuff. Becker was reelected in November and will enjoy an increasingly conservative House — Republicans will hold 65 seats there next session. Up next on his agenda: abolishing the state’s income tax. Great!
• In national news, the Washington Post reports that House of Representatives Majority Whip Steve Scalise, a Republican from Louisiana, spoke at a white supremacist conference in 2002. The third most powerful member of the House appeared at a European-American Unity and Rights Organization convention in New Orleans hosted by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke when he was a state representative. Representatives for Scalise’s office say he was unaware of the group’s connections with the white power movement and was in the midst of a statewide campaign rallying support for lowering taxes and other conservative ideas.
“For anyone to suggest that I was involved with a group like that is insulting and ludicrous,” Scalise told the Times-Picayune as the story was breaking last night.
The revelation comes as Republicans look to make a new start with an expanded majority in the House and a newly minted majority in the Senate. Meanwhile, Democrats are pummeling Scalise over the revelations.
• Finally, if you’re not satisfied with Cincinnati’s New Year's Eve offerings (I can’t imagine why. There are about a million things to do) take heart: Whatever you get into is probably better than watching a giant nail drop in this Pennsylvania town. It's not even metal. It's wood. The, uh, nail dropping will commemorate a historic nail factory. Get wild.
A suicide note posted on Tumblr says Leelah Alcorn had trouble finding acceptance. The Kings Mills 17-year-old, whose given name was Joshua, identified as female. After her 16th birthday, she hoped to transition physically into what she felt was her actual gender. But her parents refused to grant her the necessary permission to undergo the medical procedures, according to a note published online the day after her suicide.
Alcorn died Sunday after being hit by a semi truck on southbound I-71 near the South Lebanon exit. The letter, which appears to have been queued to automatically post on the teen's Tumblr page on Monday, says Alcorn killed herself because she felt isolated and misunderstood due to the fact she identified as a female. The note’s signature includes the
name Leelah, and also the name “Josh” crossed out.
The Tumblr page friends say belonged to Alcorn features both suicide-themed posts and a number of more lighthearted updates, including the teen's art and numerous pictures of her dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing.
"If you are reading this, it means that I have committed suicide and obviously failed to delete this post from my queue. The life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender,” the note reads. “I feel like a girl trapped in a boy’s body, and I’ve felt that way ever since I was 4. I never knew there was a word for that feeling, nor was it possible for a boy to become a girl, so I never told anyone and I just continued to do traditionally 'boyish' things to try to fit in.”
The note recounts Alcorn’s struggle to find acceptance and help from family, who she says are devout Christians, and her peers. Her parents tried faith-based counseling, the note says, but that did little to ease her confusion and feelings of isolation. The note says that Alcorn hoped to begin transitioning physically (usually achieved through hormone treatments or surgery) at age 16, but fell into a deeper depression when her parents would not grant her permission to do so.
A second note auto-posted today offers apologies to specific people identified as Leelah's friends, as well as again lashing out at her parents.
Cincinnati City Councilman Chris Seelbach shared the original note on social media Monday and said it’s evidence that the region, and the country, need to extend better treatment to transgender people.
“While Cincinnati led the country this past year as the first city in the mid-west to include transgender inclusive health benefits and we have included gender identity or expression as a protected class for many years... the truth is... it is still extremely difficult to be a transgender young person in the country,” Seelbach said in a Facebook post. “We have to do better.”
The note's closing paragraphs plead for change.
“The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights,” the note ends. “Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year.”
According to the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey, more than 40 percent of transgender people in America attempt suicide at some point in their lives. A more recent study by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention found that the percentage spikes into the 60s for those without the support of family or peers.
The Ohio State Highway Patrol is investigating Alcorn’s death but has not returned a request for comment on the case.
The accident happened at about 2 a.m., according to police.
Originally, news media reported Alcorn's death as an accident and made no mention that she identified as female. Alcorn was a former student at Kings Mills High School who was well-liked by classmates, according to a release from the school. Alcorn was most recently enrolled in Ohio Virtual Academy, an online school.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with Joshua's family and friends at this tragic time,” a representative for Kings Local Schools told WCPO. A post on the district's website gives a number which students at the school and friends of Alcorn can call to reach grief counselors and details for Alcorn's funeral. Alcorn's parents have asked for privacy in a statement released through the school.
Alcorn’s mother, Carla Alcorn, posted a message mourning the teen’s death on her Facebook page Monday.
“My sweet 16 year old son, Joshua Ryan Alcorn went home to heaven this morning. He was out for an early morning walk and was hit by a truck. Thank you for the messages and kindness and concern you have sent our way. Please continue to keep us in your prayers.”
The message has caused
controversy on social media sites for refusing to
recognize Leelah Alcorn's preferred gender. Other responses on social media
criticized Kings Mills Local School District's similar handling of Alcorn's gender. Both Kings Mills
Local Schools' Twitter and Facebook accounts were down today.
Hello, Cincy. I hope your holidays were great and you got whatever you wanted during the gift-giving rituals for whatever you celebrate. I got socks and a dress shirt and I’m actually pretty hyped about them. Wait, does that mean I’m old now? Oh no.
Anyway, news. The saga of Tracie Hunter continues. It looks like the former Hamilton County Juvenile Court judge will get a reprieve from jail for now. The Ohio Supreme Court last week upheld her request for a stay on her six-month sentence until after an appeal of her felony conviction can be heard. Hunter was convicted of having unlawful interest in a public contract in October, one of eight felony counts the county brought against her. The jury hung on the other seven counts.
The charge that stuck is usually punished by a fine and probation. However, Hamilton County Judge Norbert Nadel sentenced Hunter to the jail term because of her stature as a judge, he said. Hunter’s supporters say she’s a victim of politics and that her aggressive attempts to reform the county’s juvenile justice system made some powerful enemies. Her critics say she broke the law by misusing court-issued credit cards, improperly handling court records and other infringements.
The case has been complex and contentious. Hunter’s attorney filed three motions for a new trial, all of which were denied by Nadel, and three jury members who initially voted to convict Hunter on the felony count later recanted their votes, though it was already too late by that point. Attorneys with the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, which is representing Hunter in the appeals process, say her appeal could take a year. Hunter supporters rallied Sunday in Bond Hill to show support for the suspended judge and call for changes to county’s juvenile justice system, which they say has huge racial disparities.
• So you might have heard about that building that fell down in
CityBeat’s neighborhood over the weekend. The vintage 1865 structure
near the corner of Court and Race that last held a box factory partially
collapsed for unknown reasons Saturday, scaring the crap out of nearby
residents and, just as tragically, blocking CityBeat editor Danny
Cross’s parking spot. There were no injuries, though two other cars that
were parked there at the time were heavily damaged. Nearby buildings
are structurally sound, engineers with the city have said.
• Another group protesting racial disparities held a vigil Saturday night in Washington Park in remembrance of those who have died at the hands of police across the country. The vigil drew about 30 people, who held candles and paid respects to Mike Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice and others who have died in incidents with police. The vigil was the latest in ongoing protests around police killings of unarmed black citizens, including now-infamous incidents in Ferguson, Mo., Beavercreek, Cleveland, New York City and others across the country. Grand juries have failed to indict the officers who shot or otherwise caused the deaths of unarmed citizens in many of these incidents, setting off large-scale incidents of civil unrest in cities across the country.
• Even as protests and a bitter national argument about race and police forces plays out, Americans are unusually united about one thing: Police should wear cameras. Eighty-six percent of respondents to a national survey indicated they support body cameras for officers, according to the Washington Post. A large majority of respondents also agreed that deaths caused by police should be investigated by independent prosecutors who have no ties with the departments they're investigating.
• If you’ve been following statewide politics this year (say, perhaps, by reading this blog right here), you know that one of the biggest political fault-lines in Ohio is the state’s implementation of the new federal Common Core public education standards. Supporters say it better teaches critical thinking skills and prepares students to be competitive in the global marketplace. But there are plenty of detractors across the political spectrum. Those on the right say the new standards amount to a federal takeover of local school districts and the state’s own standards. Those on the left hate that the new standards rely on standardized testing. Conservative lawmakers this year drafted bills to repeal the standards despite the fact that some prominent conservatives in the state, including Gov. John Kasich, support them. Those lawmakers, including Republican State Rep. Andy Thompson of Marietta, have recently signaled they’ll be at it again in the new year working to repeal the standards, and they appear to have a good deal of support in their quest. Check out this year-end rundown on Common Core by education news site State Impact for a deeper look at the drama over the standards.
• Finally, let’s talk about The Interview. First, the new Seth Rogen thing about assassinating North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was coming out as expected, on schedule and painfully similar to every other Seth Rogen movie. Then Sony got hacked and people thought it was the North Koreans and the movie was shelved because of some vague threats about violence at theaters that decided to show it. Now, as the argument about whether North Korea really even did the hacking rages on, Sony has decided to release the movie on a limited basis anyway at places like Clifton’s Esquire Theater.
The movie has done poorly in its initial release in the real world, grossing less than $2 million. However, it’s done much better online, where it’s racked up more than $15 million in rentals and sales for Sony, which spent more than $40 million to make the two-hour insult to humanity’s intelligence. The brisk online business is good for Sony but bad for the local man who spent $650 on tickets to the premier, hoping to cash in on a sold-out crowd hungry to see what all the fuss was about. The online release deflated this intrepid scalper's Christmas cash dreams. He’s asked the theater for a refund, but the Esquire has refused. There are so many things to shake our heads about in this story. I’ll leave you to ponder the state of our society.