Can a ballot issue define Cincinnati council election?
It is entirely possible that, this November, two immovable objects will collide on the ballot in Cincinnati.
There is, unless the appeals court intervenes, every likelihood that the referendum to repeal the parking lease passed by Cincinnati City Council will be on the ballot – opponents of the lease plan came up with thousands more signatures than they needed to qualify for the ballot.
And there is a Cincinnati City Council election, with all nine seats up for grabs.
And the council members who voted for the plan – Laure Quinlivan, Yvette Simpson, and Wendell Young – will be put in the position of having to defend their vote. So, too, will Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls, who is running for mayor, with her principal opposition coming from former council member John Cranley, a vociferous critic of the plan to lease parking meters and garages to private companies for a $92 million up-front payment to the city.
Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Robert Winkler issued a permanent injunction preventing the city from implementing the parking lease plan, which passed as an emergency ordinance. Ordinarily, under the city charter, ordinances that are passed under an emergency clause are not subject to referendum.
That gave the city its principal argument in its appeal to the First District Court of Appeals – that Winkler took away city council’s ability to pass any legislation under the emergency clause – even when they are responding to natural disasters and other crisis situations.
The opponents of the parking lease plan say, no, this ruling applies only to this particular ordinance.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court will hear oral arguments on the case Monday morning. It will probably take several weeks for the appeals court to render a decision, And, when it does, it is likely the losing side will run off to the Ohio Supreme Court for a final ruling.
All of this could take months.
In the meantime, city council is under pressure to fill a $35 million gap in the budget; and do it this month. City Manager Milton Dohoney has his plan, and it would involve laying off at least 344 city workers, including police and firefighters.
That is not an attractive alternative for council members running for re-election either.
The council members who supported the parking lease, then, are between the proverbial rock – the referendum – and a hard place – the budget-slashing.
No one knows, of course, what the result will be if the referendum is on the ballot. But there is every indication that it will pass. Witness the fact that a coalition of parking lease opponents – the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), the NAACP, many small business owners in downtown and in the neighborhoods – submitted over 19,000 signatures to place the issue on the ballot. Over 11,000 of them were the valid signatures of Cincinnati voters, and they only need 8,522 to make the ballot. And they did this in 30 days.
Imagine what they could do with six months to sell repeal to Cincinnati voters.
Pete Witte, a Price Hill business owner, can do more than imagine.
Witte is one of the Cincinnati citizens named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He is a community leader in Price Hill and the west side of town, and one of the founders, nearly a decade ago of POWR PAC, a political action committee made up of west side neighborhood leaders. In council elections in the last decade, it has raised tens of thousands to send out mail pieces to west side residents urging them to vote for POWR PAC’s endorsed council candidates – usually the most conservative candidates, Republican and Democratic, on the ballot.
POWR PAC, Witte told WVXU, is about re-invent itself as more of a city-wide organization.
“There is no doubt there will be the formation of a PAC,’’ Witte said. “But this time it will reach beyond the west side neighborhoods into places like Mount Washington, College Hill, Pleasant Ridge.”
And, Witte said, it will focus not only on the mayor’s race and the council election, but the referendum campaign as well.
In a field race like Cincinnati City Council, Witte said, it is hard for one candidate to attack others – he or she has to focus on getting name recognition and finishing in the top nine.
“But a PAC could make it clear to votes who was in favor of this parking lease deal and who was not,’’ Witte said. “And we will do that.”
Gene Beaupre, a political scientist and director of government relations at Xavier University, is a veteran of many a city council campaign. He said he can see how a concerted campaign aimed at council members – and a mayoral candidate – who supported the parking lease deal could be hurt by the presence of the ballot referendum.
“My gut says, yes, that could make a difference,’’ Beaupre said. “ I say that mainly because of the agitation of the electorate over this; and if there is sophisticated opposition out there carrying the message.”
It is too early to tell what impact a ballot referendum on the parking lease will have in a council campaign, or even if there will be one on the ballot.
But there are several incumbent council members – and one mayoral candidate – who are going to have to prepare their defense, sooner rather than later.