Metropolitan Sewer District
3:46 pm
Wed March 5, 2014

County to hire outside counsel in sewer district fight

Credit Tana Weingartner/WVXU

Hamilton County Commissioners are retaining outside legal counsel in their fight with the City of Cincinnati over the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD).

The city and county disagree over who gets to set policy for MSD - the county which owns it, or the city which operates it.

Commissioners voted 2-1 with lone Democrat Todd Portune dissenting.

"I'm not convinced that we need to go into court, go into litigation, and spend a lot of public money on lawyers at this point because I'm not convinced that we have exhausted the opportunities to a negotiated resolution that everybody can agree with," says Portune.

Commission President Chris Monzel says the county prosecutor's office hasn't yet said who it will hire or how much outside counsel will cost.

Some Cincinnati council members reacted to the county commission's decision Wednesday to take the MSD fight to federal court.  

Wendell Young said the county wants to do things the same old way when it comes to contracts and that doesn't work anymore.  Young said he believes the city will be successful in its arguments.

“I don’t believe the courts are going to have any problem understanding what is at stake here, or making a ruling that favors the citizens,” Young said.  “But we’re going to court for the noblest of reasons.  That is to empower as many people as possible, to enrich as many people as possible, and to do the work that we’ve been ordered to do in a very responsible way.”

But not everyone shares that opinion.  

“I think we’re going to lose,” said council member Kevin Flynn.  “But whether we would win or lose, the only people that are really going to win are the lawyers involved in the litigation.  What we should be looking for is a mutually acceptable solution.”

Such a solution has been elusive.  Vice Mayor David Mann and Council Member Amy Murray have been unsuccessful in negotiations with the county commissioners on a compromise.

Three council members also blocked an attempt to re-bid one MSD project without the responsible bidder provision.  That work must be completed by December 2015.  The city and county face fines if it is not done by that deadline.
 

Here's what WVXU reported in February:

The debate over who sets policy for the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati (MSD) is headed to a federal judge.

"We're beyond the negotiation phase," says Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann.

Hamilton County Commissioners and the City of Cincinnati are at odds over several city-instituted hiring procedures. The county says the hiring rules are illegal under Ohio Revised Code but the city argues it has home rule which trumps the O.R.C.

Commission President Chris Monzel says the county offered a compromise a few weeks ago but it was refused by the city. "Thus," he says, "we have decided to move forward."

Cincinnati council member Chris Seelbach says he's very disappointed by the county's decision.

"We have bent over backwards," says Seelbach. "We've been willing to compromise from day one.  We've compromised two feet; they've been unwilling to give an inch. So it's very disappointing that they've just given up."

The county will ask a federal court to decide whether it or the city gets to set policy for MSD.

Monzel stops short of saying the county is suing the city. He says this is a "dispute resolution process" laid out under the federal consent decree mandating the multi-billion dollar sewer upgrades.

The county owns the sewer district but it is operated by the city under a 1968 agreement. Commissioner Chris Monzel calls the agreement, "dysfunctional at best."

MSD is mandated by a federal consent decree to reduce sewer overflows into local waterways to protect the environment.  The various construction projects are planned for several years and have a price tag of more than $3 billion.