Can Cincinnati’s Ground Breaking Collaborative Agreement Serve as a Model for Ferguson?

The events that have unfolded across America over recent months are strong reminders that there is much to do in terms of civil rights and equality, but they are events that are particularly moving for Cincinnatians who were the center of similar controversies in 2001.

Leading up to days of civil unrest in Cincinnati, and months of economic boycotts, 15 black men were killed over a six year period. In the last case before rioting, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas was shot and killed by officer Stephen Roach. It was later found that Thomas was unarmed, and Roach was eventually acquitted of negligent homicide charges.

The similarities between what happened in Cincinnati, and what is happening in Furgeson, Missouri, are striking. The protests and boycotts eventually led to the ground breaking Collaborative Agreement in 2002. The agreement called for outside monitoring by the Department of Justice, and enacted several sweeping reforms which are still followed today more than seven years after the Collaborative Agreement was designed to last.

“I think policing needs to change in America,” Cincinnati Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell recently told Bloomberg News in an eight-minute video report. “I think it needs to be different with a different focus. The relationship building that police officers have to do in those communities gives it a certain relationship collateral. People will allow you to make mistakes if they know you and trust you.”

The progress that has been made in Cincinnati is now being looked at as a potential national model for reforming community relations for police forces.

“One of the things that i was most afraid when we finished monitoring was could these reforms be sustained,” explained Saul Green, the monitor for Cincinnati Police Department from 2002 to 2007. “From everything I can tell there continues to be good interaction and good communication.”

While much progress has been made since April 7, 2001, those who pushed for the reforms then are continuing to make sure progress continues to be made.

“I do see some change, but we’re not utopia yet for African Americans and the police department yet,” explained Iris Roley of the Cincinnati Black United Front. “We’re not there yet, but I’m glad we started in 2001 and I’m glad of where we are today. I look forward to going to the Missouris and the Clevelands and New York, and talking with everyday people who care so that everyone is treated fairly…that everyone has an opportunity to fair and unbiased policing.”

Hamilton County Could Plant Four Trees For Every Assault Rifle Received Through DoD Program

The scenes on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri have caused national outrage not only for the racial tension over the killing of a young black man by the local police, but also due to the overtly militarized response to the rioting. The City of Ferguson did not get their military supplies by accident, instead they utilized a government program that sells local police forces these items at a discounted rate.

Beginning in 1997 the U.S. Department of Defense authorized the 1033 program, which allows local police forces to buy surplus military items. The intent of the program is to  help local law enforcement officials with counter-drug and later counter-terrorism efforts. Over 8,000 federal and state law enforcement agencies participate in the program, and, to date, over $5 billion worth of items have been distributed to local police departments across the country. This includes, but is not limited to, assault rifles, body armor and armored vehicles.

The folks over at NextCity developed an infographic that illustrates what some of these military items could buy in terms of urban infrastructure. It’s easy to see that some of the more expensive items could translate into huge improvements for local public infrastructure repairs and fixes.

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Hamilton County has also participated in the program. The available data covers the last ten years and has a few noteworthy items.

The largest find in the database is a 2006 transfer of 158 5.56mm rifles for $499 each. The rifles have a total value of $78,842. Additionally, Hamilton County received night vision equipment totaling at least $5,795.

Adding even more to the Hamilton County Sheriff’s arsenal, 23 7.62mm rifles, at $138 each, were received for a total of $3,174; and 62 more 5.56mm rifles were received in 2010 at $120 each for $7,440.

In total, the database shows that Hamilton County has obtained a total of 243 assault rifles for a value of $82,760; making it the largest transfer on the list.

While the total amount may not seem like a huge impact on municipal budgets,  it is easy to imagine what even this sum of money could be used for if it was spent on more peaceful projects to keep citizens safe, such as creating more bike lanes, fixing potholes, streetlights or installing stop signs.

One such example locally is that the amount of money spent to give Hamilton County assault rifles could have covered the cost to plant more than 200 street trees.

It is important to note, however, that not all the stuff the county is getting is weapons. Hamilton County has also received medical devices and supplies, clothing, furniture, and other non-combat related accessories from the program.

Republicans Sweep Through Mid-Term Elections, While Liberal Issues Pass With Voters

It was a predictably bad night for area Democrats as their party suffered strong defeats in virtually every race. Republicans retained state-level control by winning Ohio’s seats for Secretary of State, Attorney General, Auditor, Secretary of State and Governor.

John Kasich’s impressive gubernatorial win over Democratic challenger Ed FitzGerald has now put the Westerville Republican onto the shortlist of potential candidates to challenge Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. For a sense of how impressive Kasich’s victory was, the incumbent won all but two of Ohio’s 88 counties, including all major urban counties that are typically Democratic strongholds.

Other localized elections in the Cincinnati area were less significant due to the massive redistricting and gerrymandering that occurred in recent years to firmly solidify districts for Republicans.

Democrats and Republicans alike were able to celebrate, however, in the overwhelming passage of Issue 8. The campaign for the so-called Icon Tax got off to a rocky start when supporters felt burned following the removal of Music Hall from the tax against the recommendations of the Cultural Facilities Task Force. The approval of Issue 8 means that a quarter-cent sales tax will go into effect in Hamilton County in 2015 and stay in effect until 2020, providing an estimated $170 million to perform a $231 million renovation of Cincinnati’s historic Union Terminal building in Queensgate.

The big national news was the Republicans retaking control of the Senate. The news was perhaps punctuated by Mitch McConnell’s (R) surprisingly large margin of victory over Democratic challenger Alison Lundergan Grimes. The win now places McConnell – a 30-year Senate veteran – in position to assume one of the most powerful political seats in America as Senate Majority Leader.

During the campaign, both Grimes and McConnell campaigned heavily in Northern Kentucky. In contrast to the Bluegrass State’s other urban areas – Louisville and Lexington – Northern Kentucky voted strongly in favor of the Republican incumbent.

What is unclear as a result of this McConnell victory is the future of the $2.5 billion Brent Spence Bridge project. Both campaigns had focused on project when speaking to Northern Kentucky voters who have pushed back against the idea of using tolls to pay for the project in lieu of waiting for federal funding that has never come during McConnell’s tenure.

Back on the north side of the river, the peculiar race between Cecil Thomas (D) and Charlie Winburn (R) ended in the least dramatic way possible.

The strongly Democratic district was considered to potentially be up for grabs, but Thomas cruised to an easy victory over one of Cincinnati City Council’s two Republicans. This race was particularly intriguing due to the thought that a vacated Winburn seat on City Council would go to a special election in 2015 that would be heavily favored for Democrats, and thus allow for a significant power shift on the divided nine-member council.

In what is perhaps a nod of confidence from voters, Cincinnati Public Schools saw their levy renewal pass with a whopping 70% of the vote. CPS, the area’s largest school district, has now recorded a string of consecutive levy victories following years of significant improvement and national recognition.

For those of you who carry around a Pocket City Charter, a variety of changes to Cincinnati’s Charter through Issue 11, which proponents described generally as housecleaning items. These changes, however, are part of an ongoing effort to update the governing document. It is expected that more dramatic changes are forthcoming, but for now the 213-year-old Charter just got freshened up.

National Results With Local Implications
Going forward, two other issues that continue to move forward nationally, but have yet to come to a head locally include the legalization of marijuana and gay marriage.

Yesterday, voters in Washington D.C., Oregon and Alaska voted to legalize the use of marijuana, while voters in Florida voted against legalizing the use of marijuana for medical purposes. This means that six states have now legalized the recreational use of marijuana, while another 19 have legalized it for medicinal purposes.

Recent polls have shown an overwhelming majority of Ohio voters approve of the legalization of marijuana for medicinal purposes, but the matter has yet to come to a vote. Meanwhile in Kentucky, a SB 43 died when the Kentucky legislature adjourned in April of this year without taking further action on legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

While not a voting decision, a federal judge in Kansas yesterday also overturned that state’s ban on same-sex marriage. This comes at a time where judges across the nation are consistently ruling such bans unconstitutional. With this decision, same-sex couples now have the legal right to marry in 33 states, with decisions pending in Montana and South Carolina.

In both Ohio and Kentucky, judges have ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, but those rulings are currently being challenged and have moved on to higher courts. If the trend continues, as expected, both states will join the group of states where same-sex marriage is now legal.

The night was perhaps best summed up in a single tweet from FiveThirtyEight’s Ben Casselman who wrote, “So voters want a higher minimum wage, legal pot, abortion access and GOP representation. Ok then.”

Indeed.

Covington Estimates It Will Make $516,113 on Parking This Budget Cycle

While Cincinnati leaders would like to see their parking system generate more in revenue than it costs to operate and maintain it, that is not the reality. It is, however, the reality across the river in Covington.

A review of Covington’s recently approved 2014-2015 budget estimates the parking system will bring in approximately $1.6 million in revenue, while costing only $1.1 million for operations, maintenance and upgrades.

One of the largest chunks of Covington’s annual parking revenue, however, comes from lease payments which total about $491,000 – or nearly one-third of the city’s annual parking revenues.

Had Cincinnati followed through with its parking lease agreement, it too would have realized these benefits by offloading expenses and locking in fixed lease payments. Under Cincinnati’s parking lease, the city would have received anywhere from $3-4 million in annual payments from the concessionaire.

In order just to break even, the City of Cincinnati has and continues to defer needed maintenance and upgrades, while also depleting its parking fund.

Covington will also benefit from increased parking rates, which will net the city an additional $68,500 in the first year. Those changes include a 10-cent per hour increase for on-street parking meters, and a $2 per day increase at the RiverCenter Parking Garage.

In addition to on-street parking meters throughout downtown, Covington has 818 parking spaces in 16 surface lots and another 1,574 spaces in three different parking garages.

What Does Harry Black’s History Tell Us About His Capability of Managing City Hall?

Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley (D) announced Harry Black as his pick to fill the role of the city’s equivalent of a chief executive officer.

It has been widely reported that Black is the current finance director for the City of Baltimore, and that he had a tumultuous tenure while serving as the chief financial officer for the City of Richmond, VA. When selected for the Baltimore job, The Brew had the following to say regarding Black:

Baltimore’s new director…was introduced to the City Council as a green-eyeshades number cruncher well-versed in municipal bond transactions.

That dull description hardly fits with Black’s varied career and his sometimes volatile personality that included an attempt to evict the Richmond school board from its offices and frequent brawls with the Richmond City Council.

It has also been widely reported in the Baltimore and Richmond media that Black earned the nickname of being “the mayor’s bull dog” and “Baby Wilder” in reference to former Richmond mayor L. Douglas Wilder.

What makes this interesting is the explanation for all the turmoil in Richmond, by both Black himself and Mayor Cranley. They say it was due to tensions over the transition of the city from a city manager form of government, to a “strong mayor” system.

It should be seen as no coincidence that Black has been selected for the Cincinnati role after he had ramrodded through a new form of government in Richmond that is also being proposed in Cincinnati by a Cranley loyalist – Christopher Smitherman (R). If Black’s history, and Cranley’s style of governance, is any indication, one can assume Cincinnati’s transition from a city manager government to a strong mayor system may be just as tumultuous.

What adds further intrigue to the selection are Black’s other noteworthy leadership moments.

In 2007, then Richmond Mayor Douglas Wilder (D) asked for an outside audit of the city school board’s finances. When rebuffed by the school board, Wilder then forced the move and had Black conduct the operation. In order to do so, Black, as the city’s chief financial officer, withheld half of the board’s non-payroll funds and tried to evict them from their offices.

Such behavior and loyalty would come in handy for Mayor Cranley if he does in fact try to dismantle the Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority (SORTA), and shift its control into City Hall – something he has been calling for since his time on city council in the early 2000s.

Later on in his tenure at the City of Richmond, he was nominated to become to the city’s chief administrative officer, but was rejected by the city council, according to The Brew.

Then, in 2008, Black’s office was slammed by a KPMG audit that highlighted a slew of auditing inconsistencies and faults including outdated and unreconciled city financial accounts, improperly recorded account deposits, and more than $5 million in money that was not recorded at all in the city’s cash account as it should have been.

According to the Richmond Times Dispatch, “The memo said millions of dollars from different sources of city money either were not recorded or were accounted for in the wrong period. It also criticized city officials for poor record-keeping of financial transactions, noting that they couldn’t document spending on capital projects or the details of complex economic-development deals.”

At the time, Black attributed the failures of his office to the limited resources he received from the city council, and institutional problems that restricted his ability to hire and fire staff as he pleased.

Black says that he has since learned from his troubled career in Richmond, and that his subsequent experience in the private sector has bolstered his credentials. Unfortunately, there are also disputes regarding his past performance and experience.

In 2012, it was reported that Black’s resume appeared to be a bit overzealous in describing his private sector experience following his time in Richmond.

Harry E. Black claims to have supervised a $500-million construction program at an architectural consulting firm where, according to a federal administrative judge’s finding in 2006, he “was not a key employee” and “had no management authority.”

[…]

Looking at a joint venture by McKissack & McKissack and Global Commerce Solutions Inc. – a company founded by Black’s wife, Sheryl Black – Small Business Administration Judge Thomas B. Pender ruled on May 24, 2006 that “the preponderance of the evidence” showed that Harry Black had “no management authority when he worked for McKissack & McKissack” despite his title.

“Mr. Black is not a key employee of M&M [McKissack & McKissack] and has no ability or power to control M&M. He was originally hired by M&M as an independent consultant and his role as vice president was in name only,” the opinion, obtained by The Brew, said.

But it is what was uncovered by The Brew last October that raises potentially the biggest concern. At that time, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake (D) was moving forward with awarding a $185 million contract to Dynis LLC to replace 400,000 water meters throughout the city and county.

The problem was that Dynis had no experience in doing such work, and that an actually qualified contractor submitted a bid that was $100 million less, but not accepted. Perhaps predictably so, it was uncovered that Dynis had connections to one of the mayor’s top campaign donors, and would make a considerable profit off of the contract.

While the story was uncovered by Mark Reutter, who Mayor Cranley dismissed yesterday as a “silly blogger”, it eventually became front-page news and earned The Brew national acclaim for the work of its “bloggers” who previously had careers as investigative journalists for various newspapers.

While the story centered on Rawlings-Blake and the unethical process of awarding contracts by Baltimore’s Board of Estimates, Black’s position as the director of finance is tasked with working with the Board of Estimates on recommending and issuing contracts.

Outside of the water meter contract scandal, Black’s two-and-a-half-year tenure in Baltimore has been defined by his reduction of the city’s structural deficit and delivery of a 10-year fiscal plan. At the same time, however, he will be leaving the office amid ongoing criticisms about his department’s inability to issue accurate tax bills and maintain proper books for auditing.

Mayor Cranley appears to have used the national search for a new city manager to hand-pick a candidate that will be used to advance his own political agenda.

Black’s past shows a troubled public tenure, questionable private sector career, and paints a picture of a man who greatly desires power and authority, and dislikes those who get in his way.

While his accomplishments in improving minority contracts and reducing structural deficits in Richmond and Baltimore are laudable, his strong-headed and ruthless approach to governance should give Cincinnatians pause.