Fate of Cincinnati parking lease now up to judge

Mar 15, 2013

A Hamilton County Judge could decide next week whether Cincinnati residents will have a chance to vote on the city's plan to lease most of its parking facilities to the Greater Cincinnati Port Authority.  

Judge Robert Winkler heard oral arguments Friday on the issue.  He issued a temporary restraining order last week preventing the city from signing the lease agreement.  

The residents who filed the lawsuit and city officials are at loggerheads over whether the lease plan is subject to referendum.

Curt Hartman was the lone attorney representing the residents.  

He said his situation reminded him of “David versus Goliath” since the city had four attorneys present.  He said that same analogy applies for his clients too.

“Where the plaintiffs are simply trying to exercise their rights, and their rights that they have reserved under the city charter to exercise referendum,” Hartman said.

Hartman said the city charter gives his clients the right to put the parking lease on the November ballot.

“To me it’s quite clear: the referendum powers are reserved to the people of the city on all questions,” Hartman said.  “There’s no exception language in there.  Instead the city makes the argument that this court has to insert the word ‘except emergency ordinances.’  The city charter does not link the right of the people to referendum on all ordinances with emergency ordinances.”

Hartman also said City Council didn't have enough affirmative votes when it approved the parking lease.  He argued it would takes six votes instead of the five the parking lease ordinance received.  

But the city argued that's not in the charter.  Attorney Terry Nestor said it takes a majority, or five votes, to approve the ordinance and then includes language about emergency ordinances.

“It said you can’t make law an emergency unless you have a super majority for the emergency section,” Nestor said.  “And there’s a separate roll call on the emergency.  This is important because it protects the public, and it allows the public to know how its elected officials voted.”

Nestor said voters do have an option.

“The city and its electors have a remedy for those who are upset at what city council did,” Nestor said.  “It’s coming up at the end of this year, and it used to happen every two years, and now it will be happening every four years.”

That's the chance to change the members of city council.  

The city wants to lease the parking facilities to generate revenue to stabilize the city budget and to jumpstart major economic development projects to grow the city's tax base.  

The city manager has said without revenue from the parking lease the city will be forced to layoff 344 city employees including police officers and firefighters.  He also said city services will be scaled back.

Attorney Hartman said he doesn’t believe that “gloom and doom” scenario.

Opponents fear such a plan will result in higher parking rates and is just a temporary fix to a longer-term budget problem.

The case is still likely to drag on even with a decision next week.  The losing side will likely appeal any ruling.