Thursday, July 20, 2006

We've Moved and Improved

Please visit our new, more reader-friendly blog (at http://citybeat.wordpress.com) and add it to your bookmarks.

— Gregory Flannery

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Deadline for Banks Developer Shifted Again

For at least the third time during the past year, the deadline for selecting a developer to build The Banks project along Cincinnati’s downtown riverfront appears to have changed.

The long-stalled project involves building condominiums, offices and shops between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. It’s expected to cost about $800 million, which will include roughly $200 million in taxpayer money.

Although a high-powered advisory panel formed by Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials stated in late June that a developer would be selected in the next six to nine months, County Commissioner Pat DeWine said this week that the choice will be known sometime in August.

The timeline proposed by the advisory panel — known as The Banks Working Group — refers to how long it might take to get a finalized contract with the developer selected for the project, not the selection itself, DeWine said.

“I think there was some confusion about that,” DeWine said today. “The six to nine months is to go through the whole process to get a development agreement and work out the details.”

DeWine’s clarification comes just after it was publicly revealed that one of four development teams vying for the project, New York-based Rockefeller Group/Kimco, withdrew because of delays. That prompted the county commission’s sole Democrat, Todd Portune, to worry that one or more of the other applicants may also drop out.

DeWine calls those concerns unfounded: “The top two (choices ranked by county staffers) were ranked pretty closely together, so I imagine they will both stay interested.”

The top choices recommended by the staffers were Cincinnati-based Western-Southern Financial Group and Atlanta-based AIG Global Real Estate Investment Corp.

DeWine noted that selecting a finalist or finalists for building the project is listed as the third step in an 18-step process outlined by The Banks Working Group. It’s not until step 8, however, when Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County Commissioners give the final OK to the selection by formally approving a contract.

Most of the intervening months between the steps will involve negotiations to hammer out a deal. Any contract will include a “completion guarantee” by the developer because the project will be built in phases over a decade, the advisory panel said.

County efforts to jumpstart The Banks project began in June 2005, when commissioners unilaterally took control away from the regional Port Authority and began negotiating a deal with the Corporex Cos. and Vandercar Holdings, hoping to have a contract by December. The six-month negotiation period ended in failure, however, when Corporex withdrew citing financial concerns.

Following the withdrawal, commissioners set up an in-house group of county staffers and others to review applications from potential developers and make a selection by April 5. Amid criticism that Western-Southern’s team — led by big cash contributors to the campaign of County Commission President Phil Heimlich — appeared to be the front-runner, commissioners shifted course again. They created The Banks Working Group in conjunction with city officials to review the selection process and make its own recommendations.

On June 30, The Banks Working Group stated that if the existing applicants fail to impress the panel will their plans the selection process will be opened to other developers. That seemed to contradict previous statements by Heimlich, who wanted a developer picked this summer and hoped construction could begin late this year or in early 2007.

— Kevin Osborne

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Developer Loses Interest in The Banks

A development team vying to build The Banks project along Cincinnati’s riverfront quietly dropped out of the running last week, prompting at least one Hamilton County Commissioner to worry that the remaining contenders could follow.

The Rockefeller Group/Kimco announced its withdrawal in a July 11 letter to Bob Castellini, the Cincinnati Reds co-owner who heads an advisory panel reviewing developer applications. Copies of the letter also went to several local officials, including Mayor Mark Mallory and County Commission President Phil Heimlich, although neither has discussed the matter publicly.

New York-based Rockefeller/Kimco was among the four developers vetted by county staffers last winter. It ranked third, after a team led by Western-Southern Financial Group of Cincinnati and AIG Global Real Estate Investment Corp. of Atlanta. A team called the Partnership for Lasting Urban Growth, involving a Columbus developer and local labor unions, ranked fourth.

Since the ranking, city and county officials have formed The Banks Working Group, an advisory panel led by Castellini. The panel intends to ask for more information from the developers and draft policies guiding how the project should be built. Castellini recently said it would take six to nine months to make a final selection.

Rockefeller/Kimco’s short, two-paragraph letter doesn’t list a reason for its withdrawal, but the team previously stated to county officials that it didn’t want to start the selection process over from scratch.

Todd Portune, the sole Democrat on the three-member county commission, said “mixed signals” from his Republican colleagues about when and how a developer would be selected are confusing applicants and could cause them to lose interest. That would put the long-delayed Banks project, planned since 1999, even further behind schedule.

“I’m not surprised that someone would pull out in light of all that has happened,” Portune says. “(Rockefeller/Kimco’s) decision by itself doesn’t necessarily denote bad news. They would not be my choice based on what we’ve seen so far. If it portends a trend that developers are no longer interested, that would be a problem that someone needs to address.”

— Kevin Osborne

School Cuts Could Be Even Bigger

Although no firm estimate has yet been provided to the public, up to 18 proposed schools could be cut from the Cincinnati Public Schools’ massive reconstruction plan based on new enrollment projections.

As CityBeat reported July 12 in “Disappearing Schools”, the board of education is considering scaling back the $1 billion rebuilding plan, but couldn’t decide to what extent until board members agreed on what the school district’s enrollment would be by the plan’s completion in 2011.

The district's current plan calls for building 64 schools to accommodate 38,565 students. Superintendent Rosa Blackwell recently proposed changing it to 55 schools to accommodate 34,865 students based on updated enrollment estimates, but she didn’t identify which schools could be on the chopping block. Some board members, however, cited studies that enrollment might drop to 27,000 or lower.

After two weeks of heated debate, the board settled Monday night on an enrollment projection of 31,550 in the next five years. Some board members said that could require cutting up to nine additional schools beyond what Blackwell proposed.

Blackwell and her staff will now devise a plan on proposed cuts to submit to the board sometime later this summer.

Residents without school-age children or who lack any direct ties to Cincinnati Public Schools still likely will be affected by the district's fate. Concerns about the quality of education provided by the district consistently rank near the top in most surveys about why people move away from the city, and causes Cincinnati's tax base to shrink. Also, some studies indicate that dropout rates partially correlate to increased crime.

— Kevin Osborne

Monday, July 17, 2006

The Mystery of the Cincinnati Police study

Getting details about a confidential study done last year on officers’ attitudes and deployment issues within the Cincinnati Police Department — including who was given the study’s findings and when — is proving curiouser and curiouser.

City staffers finally released copies of a PowerPoint slide presentation outlining the study’s findings to the public June 21, one day after city council members got a copy and more than six months after the study was completed in December 2005.

The release followed a May 9 public records request by CityBeat for any documents related to the study that the city had in its possession. We were told at the time that no city staffer or elected official had anything fitting the bill.

But many of the study’s recommendations for improving the police department’s operations were included almost verbatim in Mayor Mark Mallory’s plan for fighting Cincinnati’s rising crime rate, announced in a much-publicized press conference Mallory held Jan. 19. None of the anti-crime initiatives that Mallory proposed during his mayoral campaign the previous summer, however, was included in the plan.

According to various city staffers, several people were given verbal presentations on the study’s findings and recommendations since it was completed Dec. 12, including Interim City Manager David Rager, Police Chief Thomas Streicher Jr., police supervisors and some council members.

The Cincinnati Business Committee (CBC), which outlined the findings, didn’t leave copies of the slides with any of the attendees, at the time, council members said.

A council majority is using one of the study’s findings to push for adding 100 new police officers to street patrol in the next few years, at a cost of up to $8 million annually.

Former Mayor Charlie Luken commissioned the $100,000-plus study in June 2005, designed as an independent assessment of the department. It was paid for using private money from the CBC and other business interests, a tactic that prevented the study from being classified as a public record under Ohio's open records law until someone at City Hall took possession of a copy.

Renowned police expert John Linder did the study, but it remains unclear if council has even seen the full report. Only PowerPoint printouts and results from a police survey were publicly released, and city staffers and the CBC each continually refer questions to the other about whether more study documents exist.

“Whatever City Hall has is all I know of,” said Laura Long, the CBC’s executive director, in a recent telephone interview. “We were just a conduit to get it funded.”

Asked if a slide presentation justified the more than $100,000 expense, Long replied, “John Linder and his team did a lot of work, like the interviews and a lot of physical work. … I know John worked closely with Chief Streicher.”

In a June 21 memo to council, Rager wrote, “Having recently received the set of slides, police department staff has begun the process of reviewing the intent of many of the recommendations. … it is likely that many of the recommendations can be incorporated into current initiatives generated from other studies and agreements.”

Rager’s memo states that police will make a presentation to council “in the next few weeks”; council returns from summer break Sept. 7.

Among the study’s findings, it recommends that Cincinnati Police should use a ComStat-style system to monitor crime trends and assess the performance of individual districts on an ongoing basis. In the past few years, when council members suggested police use ComStat, Streicher and supervisors insisted their own current system was sufficient.

In most cities using the system including New York, daily meetings are held with police captains and other supervisors to update crime hotspots, and benchmarks are developed to gauge police progress. Streicher is proposing weekly meetings with assistant chiefs, but not district commanders.

— Kevin Osborne

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Catching Up On The Banks

Anyone interested in an insider’s view about the status of The Banks project, Cincinnati’s proposed downtown development along the Ohio River, should tune into WVXU (91.7 FM) on Monday.

News Director Maryanne Zeleznik will interview three members of The Banks Working Group, the advisory panel created by Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials to quicken the pace of the long-delayed project. Panel members participating are Bob Castellini, Cincinnati Reds co-owner; local attorney Tom Gabelman; and Tim Riordan, a former city administrator and consultant.

Proposed in 1999, The Banks is envisioned as a mix of condominiums, offices and shops between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. The project has stalled over funding and jurisdictional issues, particularly who will pay for $68 million in parking garages needed to lift the development area above the flood plain. County sales tax revenues were supposed to pay for the garages but are far below initial projections.

About $200 million in taxpayer money is expected to be included in any financing plan for The Banks, which has an estimated price tag of more than $800 million.

Unlike many of her counterparts in commercial TV and radio, Zeleznik is known for providing context on local issues and asking in-depth questions. Her news special will air Monday at 9:20 a.m. and 7:20 p.m. on WVXU, and via a live streaming audio feed on www.wvxu.org.

-- Kevin Osborne

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Cleves Police Chief Indicted

As reported in the issue of CityBeat that hits newsstands today, Cleves Police Chief Mark Demeropolis was placed on unpaid administrative leave pending an investigation into “internal issues” by the Hamilton County Prosecutor’s Office. Late this afternoon, we found out why.

Demeropolis was indicted today on a series of criminal charges, including a Bureau of Motor Vehicles scam, according to County Prosecutor Joe Deters. Demeropolis, 42, was charged with three counts of tampering with records, two counts of forgery and one count of tampering with evidence involving two separate incidents.

A probe by the Ohio Organized Crime Investigation Commission concluded that several employees at the deputy registrar’s office on Colerain Avenue in Mount Airy issued license plate registrations to businesses, friends and family members, even though their vehicles failed the state-mandated E-Check test for emissions. In 2004 and 2005, Demeropolis licensed two personal vehicles at the office using fraudulent EPA codes. Demeropolis, a former BMV employee, knew how to manipulate and abuse the E-Check system, prosecutors said.

Also, three workers at the Mount Airy office — Aimee Wolfinbarger, Veronica Newell and Trecy Bates — were each indicted on two counts of tampering with records for issuing false license plates.

In a separate incident that occurred in May, Demeropolis allegedly instructed a Cleves police officer to shred information concerning a drunken driving arrest, prosecutors said. He then had the officer charge the suspect with reckless operation instead of driving under the influence.

Demeropolis faces up to 22 years in prison if convicted on all charges.

Check out writer Justine Reisinger’s article, “Police Chief Suspended,” in this week’s CityBeat for more information on the troubled police department and Demeropolis.

— Kevin Osborne

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

I Went to Death Row but Didn’t Even Get A Lousy T-Shirt

Why? No gift shop!

In order for CityBeat to obtain an interview with Death Row inmate James Mills, we had to make a special request to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections. After being asked the focus of the story, a reply came two days later: the interview was granted but only questions about the prisoner’s life and his case would be permitted — no questions about Death Row, the death penalty or his incarceration experience.

A few days later Jeff Gamso, the legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, informed CityBeat that the staff of the Ohio State Penitentiary is “still new” to housing Death Row inmates and is in the process of figuring out how to handle the rules and procedures. He said the restrictions on the interview were unconstitutional.

Gamso sent an e-mail to Assistant Warden Keith Fletcher. When Fletcher didn’t respond, Gamso went to the warden. What followed was a call to CityBeat from an irate Andrea Dean, who described herself as Fletcher’s boss. Her ire was the result of what she described as a threatening e-mail from Gamso challenging the restrictions on the interview.

Dean suggested that there had been a miscommunication and coordinated a three-way call with Fletcher, during which she explained the only question restrictions were on questions about prison policies and procedures, such as when guards change shifts.

On the day of the interview, Fletcher said CityBeat was receiving more leeway than other reporters, who were usually restricted to questions about an inmate’s case. As it turned out, the only thing Mills wouldn’t discuss was his case. But he was free to explain what his life is like as a prisoner on Death Row in Youngstown, Ohio.

— Margo Pierce

Dead Brother Walking

Having the state act in a manner that models the kind of behavior society deems acceptable is why many of those dealing with the loss of a loved one believe the death penalty creates barriers to healing the emotional and social wounds caused by murder. The negativity of taking a life makes it harder victim’s families to have a positive focus on their loved when the state repeatedly reminds them of the event by killing in their name.

David Gallagher, a local attorney and death penalty opponent, explains the implications of the death penalty on victims’ families by referring to Sam Reese Sheppard, the son of Dr. Samuel H. Shepard, who was convicted of killing his wife but later acquitted. Gallagher debunks the idea that anger and retaliation can lead to healing and peace frequently called “closure.”

“Sam speaks as the son of an innocent man on death row and a murder victim, his mother. When he talks about the victim’s families who become fixated on the death of the killer providing them some sense of closure, some sense of relief, (they) are left with a true sense of hollowness when that even happens.

“Once that death is gone, there’s nothing left to take that place any more. These people find they have permanently damaged or severed ties with family and close friends because they became almost consumed with the death of the killer. They talk about the wasted energy and hours and days spent on somebody that most of society would say should never have been the focus of their attention.”

Jay Clark, a Cincinnati attorney and teacher at UC, believes the death penalty defies the argument of justice for the victims by artificially elevating their importance to a point where other murder victims are deemed less valuable.

“Supporters will say it’s just another way to deny justice to the victim’s family. Bullshit,” he says. “In a death penalty case, you have to have the aggravating circumstance of a robbery, a murder or rape. Why is a victim’s life more valuable if he was being robbed than if he was shot randomly? In other non-capital crimes cases were the death penalty doesn’t apply, are those victims’ lives less valuable?”

The rhetorical question frequently posed by those who oppose the death penalty brings the point home in a way many never consider: What if that were your brother on death row?

Insert child, parent, aunt, cousin or anyone you love and you get the idea that just because someone else doesn’t value the life of your loved one doesn’t mean the value you have for him disappears.

— Margo Pierce