December 2, 2013: The Day Chaos Ruled City Hall

In what Nathaniel Livingston described as the most bizarre day at City Hall since now Mayor John Cranley (D) chaired over the Law & Public Safety Committee meeting shortly before the 2001 Race Riots broke out, City Council approved a confusing collection of 11 ordinances that will go for a final vote on Wednesday.

The confusion was due to a number of reasons. First, Mayor Cranley presided over the committee hearing, which does not normally take place as it is not the mayor’s role. Cranley then encouraged the committee to move forward with its proceedings before adopting any rules to govern the committee. Finally, Cranley then introduced 11 separate ordinances that had not been provided to the public or to the members of the committee, and instructed votes on each of them anyway.

Each of the 11 ordinances is slightly different, but each includes appropriations so that they cannot be challenged by referendum under state law. This goes against a campaign promise of Cranley and all incoming members of city council who stated over and over again that they respect the citizen’s right to referendum.

In the past, John Cranley, Amy Murray, Christopher Smitherman and Charlie Winburn have all talked about a “sacred” right to referendum, but appear to be opposed to one in this instance.

Each of the 11 ordinances squeaked by with a 5-4 majority – including Councilman Christopher Smitherman (I), who is currently being accused of having a conflict of interest that should prevent him from either voting or engaging in official discussion on the project. Here is what each of the ordinances would do, if passed on Wednesday:

  1. Item #201301490: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to construction and implementation of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation of the Cincinnati Streetcar System; and further REPEALING Ordinance No. 392-2013.
  2. Item #201301491: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its reimbursement agreement with Cincinnati Bell Telephone Company, LLC, related to construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain a financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  3. Item #201301492: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its reimbursement agreement with Time Warner Cable Midwest, LLC, related to construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  4. Item #201301493: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its reimbursement agreement with Level 3 Communications, LLC, related to construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  5. Item #201301494: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its contract with CAF USA, Inc. related to design and fabrication of streetcars for the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  6. Item #201301495: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its contract with LTK Consulting Services, Inc. related to construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  7. Item #201301496: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its contract with Messer/Prus/Delta Railroad JV related to construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  8. Item #201301497: SUSPENDING all spending and incurring of additional costs by the City of Cincinnati pursuant to its contract with Parson Brinkerhoff, Inc. related to construction of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in order to permit Cincinnati City Council to obtain an independent financial review of the total costs associated with continuation or suspension of the Cincinnati Streetcar System.
  9. Item #201301498: AUTHORIZING the City Manager to take all steps necessary and proper to suspend construction and implementation of the Cincinnati Streetcar System in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible, in the best interests of the public peace, health, safety and general welfare of the City of Cincinnati.
  10. Item #201301499: AUTHORIZING the City Manager to take all steps necessary and proper to negotiate the suspension of the Intergovernmental Agreement Between the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority and the City of Cincinnati related to the Cincinnati Streetcar System in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible, in the best interests of the public, peace, health, safety and general welfare of the City of Cincinnati.
  11. Item #201301500: AUTHORIZING the City Manager to take all steps necessary and proper to negotiate the suspension of the Cooperation Agreement for Relocation of Utilities between Duke Energy Ohio, Inc. and the City of Cincinnati in the most cost-effective and efficient manner possible, in the best interests of the public peace, health, safety and general welfare of the City of Cincinnati.

For reference, Ordinance No. 392-2013 repealed in the first item listed above is the ordinance that was passed by City Council last week requiring phase one of the project to be finished. The final kicker was a motion filed by Councilmembers Mann, Winburn, Smitherman, Flynn and Murray that stated:

Item #201301501: WE move that the City Manager immediately suspend all work related to the streetcar as permitted under existing contracts, and immediately begin an analysis of the costs of continuation versus cancellation.

This all took place a day after CAF, the firm manufacturing Cincinnati’s streetcar vehicles, stated that they have incurred great expenses for this project and intend to pursue full compensation for their work from the city.

Prus Construction has now also indicated that they will be greatly impacted by a decision to cancel the project and appear poised to file major lawsuits against the city.

In Wisconsin, Talgo just recently filed a second lawsuit for $65.9 million against the State of Wisconsin after it canceled its inter-city rail project. In addition to that, Talgo has already been awarded $40 million as a result of the state backing out of its contract. The total contract amount, meanwhile, was only worth $47.5 million.

At the same time as all of this unfolded, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) announced that they were freezing their $45 million investment, which they had signaled they would do and would move promptly to recoup all of their funds should Cincinnati move to pause or cancel the project, and were prepared to begin debt collection immediately on any money already spent. This news came with great concern for Councilmember P.G. Sittenfeld (D) who fears that the action from FTA may have negative impacts for the region’s bus system.

“I’m concerned about a path toward damaging the most basic of transportation needs,” Sittenfeld told the Business Courier on Monday. “I think this could eventually lead to harming bus service.”

What was also announced today during all the commotion was that the Haile Foundation offered to pay 100% of the costs for any study needed to study the finances of the project so that it could move forward. Had the new council accepted that offer, there would have been no need to appropriate funds with each of the 11 ordinances, thus eliminating the possibility of a citizen referendum.

The Haile U.S. Bank Foundation went on to say that canceling the project would cause the philanthropic organization “pause” and would force them to “reconsider whether the city can be a trusted partner.” The letter further stated that such reconsideration would affect their planned investments at Smale Riverfront Park, Music Hall, Findlay Market and other redevelopment projects.

Going against this offer to fund a financial study were Vice Mayor David Mann (D) and Councilmember Kevin Flynn (C) – both of whom campaigned on the promise to carefully consider the facts and figures associated with cancelling the project before making a decision. Insiders believe both will hold their line despite the flood of evidence suggesting a cancellation of the project would be a financial disaster for the City.

If one or the other were to switch their vote in light of this information on Wednesday, then the streetcar project would have a 5-4 majority on City Council and the matter would be settled. If they hold their line, it appears that a slew of lawsuits, potential referendums, injunctions and a potential recall election could all transpire over the course of 2014. Happy New Year!

The day ended after a nearly eight-hour council session that left many more confused than when they arrived. The standing room only crowd – where 68 of the 71 members of the public who spoke were in favor of the project – left dejected and feeling a bit hopeless facing a defiant mayor utilizing every trick to block any chance of a citizen referendum.

The thought is that should the project go to a referendum for a third time that it would win with voters for a third time. The prospects of huge and lengthy lawsuits, the loss of a $45 million federal investment, the destruction of the relationship with the federal government and private investors, and the fact that it is estimated it may only cost $400,000 more to just finish the project would not sit well with voters.

Already, Sittenfeld and The Enquirer have switched their stance on the matter and have encouraged the mayor and city council to finish the project.

The question now is whether the facts and figures presented to date will be enough to sway either David Mann [david.mann@cincinnati-oh.gov] or Kevin Flynn [kevin.flynn@cincinnati-oh.gov], or will the Cranley Administration have the courage to allow a direct referendum on the matter?

  • S.

    I say that Cincinnati needs to get a recall election up and running PRONTO. This is ridiculous. John Cranley is the worst thing to happen to Cincinnati since Mike Brown, and he’s only been in office for a week. GET THIS GUY OUT OF OFFICE!

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      For some perspective, it took the city six years to get to this point in the project. The project garnered the support of a super majority on council for many years and had the mayor championing it reelected. Plus, it won two referendums. After all that time, public discussion and community building, Cranley is attempting to undo it all in three days. Get ready for a long four years.

    • jasomm

      What does a one-issue mayor do after he accomplishes his one issue in 3 days? Move the Bengals to LA? finally replace Union Terminal with a badly needed parking lot?

    • ArcticSix

      He opposes the urban planning committee and, if I recall, form-based code. So likely he’ll go after some historic buildings next and replace them with vinyl boxes. Granted, he’ll probably get that done in a week, so we can look forward to the LA Bengals and the Union Terminal Memorial Parking Lot and Strip Mall soon.

    • John Yung

      He’s only been in office for 48 hours…

    • S.

      Touche.

  • Joe

    The streetcar has not been put to a referendum. Or if it has been put to a referendum, I mistakenly voted the wrong way because this blog was telling me that the referendum was not about the streetcar project, but about the city’s ability to pursue any rail transportation project (I believe mixed use streetcars are a waste of money, since they’re essentially the same as a bus. However, a light-rail project that actually goes places quickly could be valuable to the city).

    I think the closest thing the city has had to a referendum on the streetcar was the Qualls v Cranley election. Everyone I know voted based on their stance on the streetcar.

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      You are correct that Issues 9 and 48 would have not only stopped the streetcar, they would have banned investment in any form of rail transportation by the city. By the way, did you see our post from last week about how the streetcar tracks can be used by light rail trains? http://urbn.cc/p3q7

      I completely disagree that the mayoral election was a referendum on the streetcar. A lot of people were passionate about other issues, such as the parking lease; and the majority of voters were apparently not passionate about ANY of the relevant issues — or didn’t see a big enough difference between the two candidates — and did not show up to vote.

      Also, The Enquirer endorsed John Cranley despite the fact that they disagree with him on BOTH the streetcar and parking lease. So to them, this election was not about either of those two issues.

    • Joe

      Thanks for your response. I agree the election wasn’t completely about the streetcar, but I think the streetcar was definitely the issue that caused Cranley to go from an underdog to winning by a large margin. In general, I think the fact that there hadn’t been a clean referendum on the project earlier has had a poisonous and polarizing effect on Cincinnati’s politics. As stories hit of the cost increases the project became less and less popular. With the city going forward on an unpopular project, there was an opportunity for politicians to step in and rally the relatively broad-based public disapproval of the project. Cranley happened to be that person (along with several of the new council members). I’m not a huge fan of him, but I think he has a pretty clear mandate.

    • matimal

      There wasn’t a “broad-based public disapproval of the” streetcar line among Cincinnati voters. That isn’t true.

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Both Issue 9 in 2009 and Issue 48 in 2011 had overly broad language that would have impacted far more than the streetcar project, so we reported on it as such…so did all media outlets. At the same time, streetcar opponents had yard signs and marketing materials that were all aimed at the streetcar. Plus, it was the opponents who wrote the language for both referendums.

      As a result, voters were voting on the streetcar because it is the project the ballot language was aimed to kill and was the only project being advanced at the moment. At the same time though, voters needed to be aware that the overreaching language would have future consequences.

    • Eric Douglas

      Cranley won because the people that voted for him don’t like Mallory. Cranley making his campaign about the streetcar doesn’t mean he won solely because of it.

  • Eric Douglas

    After watching Cranley’s mentor, Mann, do his bidding, I don’t think there’s any reason to think he’s a potential swing vote.

    Flynn isn’t keeping up with what’s going on, he rambled on about what a bus ride used to cost and Cranley had to correct him on the last vote. I think when you’re confused, the tendency is to dig your heels in and that’s what Flynn’s doing despite what was based being an indefinite “pause”.

  • Mark Christol

    You sure you want to move back here, Randy?

  • Jules Michael Rosen

    Can someone explain the Smitherman’s conflict of interest, and has this been taken to the appropriate authorities at the state level to disqualify his vote?

    • http://travisestell.com/ Travis

      “The Cincinnati NAACP has been briefed that Jostin Concrete has joined the Mayor’s streetcar team. The owner of Jostin Concrete is the brother of Cincinnati NAACP President, Christopher Smitherman.”

      That quote was from a June 2009 NAACP press release, yet Smitherman claims that he just learned his brother’s company was involved in the project. http://naacpcincinnati.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=229&Itemid=1

      According to Kevin Osborne, Casey Coston has filed a request with the city solicitor to seek an advisory opinion from the Ohio Ethics Commission.

  • matimal

    Yes, let’s get to work on a recall election. 84% of registered voters didn’t vote for him.

  • matimal

    cranely must be ecstatic. The sense of power after years of failing to achieve that which his sense of entitlement always led him to believe was his birthright. It must be intoxicating! The ability to hurt people he doesn’t like. The ability to wreck democratic institutions and squander millions….just because he can! It’s a failed former former frat boy’s dream come true. he’ll show those people who thought he wouldn’t make anything of his life. he’ll wreck Cincinnati and show them how powerful he is! He won’t have to depend on his rich wife’s money anymore. OOOOHHHHHH THE POWER!!!!!!!

    • Adam Nelson

      best comment ever? maybe.

  • Mensch1351

    When a major foundation Like Haile US Bank states that reversal of the city’s mind on this project may “not make them a trusted partner in the future,” it seems to me that you sit up, you sit up REAL fast and take some note. The mayor’s intrench able stance on this smells as fishy as ludefisk left sitting in the sun for a week. Once again, what does HE know that the mayors of Atlanta, Kansas City, Portland, Denver, Charlotte and Dallas “don’t” know??? If he wants a 3rd class city — THIS is the way to get it!

  • AJ Malott

    Are we going to be able to continue to update these figures as the costs continue to roll in, and undoubtedly continue to increase because of the shutdown?

  • Robert Yoder

    I can remember the last time Cincinnati was making such bad decisions. They chased the Aquarium, Hofbrauhaus and a lot of other development to Northern Kentucky. Mayor Cranley keep it up, there are a lot of great development opportunities in Northern Kentucky!

    And NKY’s city governments will keep their commitments!

    And, to Mr. Avner the Haile foundation is always welcome on this side of the River!

    • http://www.UrbanCincy.com/ Randy A. Simes

      Don’t worry, the Haile/U.S. Bank Foundation has already announced that their next neighborhood for their independent businesses sign initiative will be in Covington next.

      We also already know that both Covington and Newport support the streetcar, and want it built in Nky.