Soapdish: Cincinnati parks deserve better than Issue 22

Over the past month, Cincinnati citizens have experienced a remarkable rollercoaster of news events featuring the controversial Issue 22 parks tax (or “levy,” depending on which side of the issue you’re on). The news cycle could give one whiplash trying to keep up with the heated debate and steady stream of stories revolving around the tax — the personalities, the pratfalls, the scandals and the missteps.

Like a slow-motion car wreck, each day peeled back another layer of an odious onion (and another mixed metaphor), exposing a crumbling coalition in stark contrast to a diverse grassroots opposition that’s galvanized against the Cincinnati Charter amendment. Information has leaked out in drips and drabs, oddly befitting a proposal that seemed to have been crafted in secrecy.

But who’s against our beautiful parks? The ballot initiative certainly is a win/win, right? Who doesn’t want improved parks, expansive bike trails, glitzy new town squares and urban campgrounds?

How could anyone be against Issue 22?

The charter amendment provides for a 1-mill increase in real estate taxes ($35 for every $100,000 in appraised value) for capital improvements to new and existing parks. The list of capital projects would be recommended by the Mayor annually to the Park Board, which would be prohibited from adding projects to or deleting projects from the list without the Mayor’s approval.

The charter amendment would also prohibit City Council from ever reducing the Park Board’s current annual budget of $2.3 million. This would ensure that revenue from the new tax wouldn’t be used as justification to reduce funding given to the Park Board annually from the city’s general revenue.

Issue 22 has the support of a blue chip army of local corporations and the business community, not to mention legions of philanthropists who have historically assisted in making our parks system one of the very best in the country. It’s further supported by the well-heeled white-gloved matriarchs who have long supported our parks over time, as well as special interest groups organized around specific pork barrel park projects promised by Mayor John Cranley.

The charter amendment is opposed by a diverse coalition encompassing anti-tax tea party groups such as COAST, progressives such as Believe in Cincinnati, environmentalists such as the Audubon Society, the Greater Cincinnati Homeless Coalition and the independent Charter Party. While their complaints are many, opposition really boils down to a lack of community input throughout this process as well as concentrating far too much power in the Mayor’s office.

Cranley has floated a list of projects to be funded by the passage of Issue 22, but that list isn’t included in the ballot language we’ll be voting on next week. Once this amendment is added to the city charter — with no sunset provision, meaning this tax goes forever unless another ballot initiative is passed to kill it — good projects might be deleted by the Mayor and bad projects might be added. There is no mechanism for public input, and city council is largely bypassed by the process embedded in the charter amendment.

This sounds like a campaign that was hatched in a shadowy backroom by campaign consultants armed with donor lists and voting tabs from the last mayoral election doling out political favors and strategizing over voting blocs and pet projects.

I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it just doesn’t look good. The lack of transparency, shadowy backroom deals and absence of community input has manifested itself in many of the problems we’re now seeing.

Notwithstanding Cranley’s desire to give some “wins” to the “neighborhoods,” what works in Washington Park and Smale Riverfront Park does not necessarily work anywhere else in the city. Jamming a square park peg in a round hole, generously lubricated with our tax dollars, isn’t necessarily an ideal fit for anyone.

It’s easy to dismiss the opposition as simply Cranley bashers, but that just isn’t the case. Issue 22 isn’t a “Cranley Tax,” it’s a “Mayor Tax,” and it will live on in our city charter long after Cranley has departed from City Hall.

In the near future, Cincinnatians will be asked to pass tax levies for pre-school education and transit, leading some to wonder if the reason for the hastily concocted Issue 22 was driven by a desire to get out in front of those. This concern, in turn, leads to questions regarding the priorities of our city as a whole.

This vote really isn’t about John Cranley.

In fact, the person who’s really making it all about Cranley is the Mayor himself. His starring role in the television spots that have heavily saturated our airwaves feature a three-sport athlete played by the Mayor, moving seamlessly from football to basketball to baseball (organized activities that, ironically, will receive zero support from this new tax). He’s been out in front of the issue so much you would think it’s his legacy, and perhaps he believes it is.

Several weeks ago, at the local Democratic Party meeting, party members voted on whether to endorse Issue 22. Throughout the voting, Cranley inexplicably stood in back and scanned the room as we voted, duly noting the yeas and nays.

This was also the meeting where 95-year-old Cincinnati civil rights icon Marian Spencer, a former Vice Mayor and one-time supporter of Issue 22, spoke out against it. She noted that Cranley personally called her and told her she would regret it if she changed her mind and did not support Issue 22. She hung up on him.

Cranley disputes her version of the conversation and says he didn’t threaten her, but suffice to say calling Marian Spencer a liar is not an ideal political strategy.

The Issue 22 campaign has only gone downhill from there.

In a debate sponsored by The Enquirer at the Phoenix Club downtown, a packed house heard local attorney Don Mooney debate Green Umbrella “good guy” Brewster Rhoads on Issue 22. This was the debate that the Mayor backed out of because he refused to share the stage with his opponent and demanded that he be allowed to speak last. To his credit, Rhoads basically espoused the “Hey, who doesn’t want more money for our great parks?” line.

He was thrown off, however, by two significant body blows. First, the Park Board had given a $200,000 check from a private endowment to a newly created 501c4 PAC helmed by Cranley confidante and mentor Charlie Luken, a transaction of questionable legality. The Board came out several days later to say the money would be returned, although it’s unclear from election finance reports whether that refund has yet to occur.

The second body blow was when Rhoads, in defending Issue 22, offered up the old saw about “perfect being the enemy of the good,” at which point the moderator asked him, “What isn’t perfect about this proposal?” Caught off guard, he stammered a bit and then sheepishly acknowledged that the lack of public input is a problem.

The hits kept coming from there.

Last week, on social media, Councilman Chris Seelbach complained that the Cincinnati Parks Levy Facebook page has blocked everyone who’s posted a question or submitted a comment deemed critical of Issue 22. Are we really supposed to believe that citizen input will be a part of the funding process when the pro-tax group won't even answer questions or allow discussion on Facebook?

Then it was revealed that the “good government” Charter Party was voting to reconsider its previous neutral stance on Issue 22. Charter previously considered one of two positions — to oppose or to stay neutral (apparently an endorsement was never an option).

I spoke with several board members who, when word came of the organization’s reconsideration, received personal calls from Cranley lobbying them for their vote. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with that act, they were disturbed that Cranley actually knew how they’d previously voted.

Certain board members apparently requested that Charter’s reconsideration vote be anonymous in order to avoid any further leaks to the Mayor’s office. The new vote resulted in Charter’s official opposition to Issue 22.

Charter Committee President Colin Groth noted that the change in position was really more of a response to the new information that kept coming out about Issue 22: “As more and information came out about the levy, it was clear the Charter board felt the need to speak out about how this violates the principles of good government espoused by the Charter Party.”

While the Mayor likes to characterize the opposing position as “Orwellian,” methinks he doth protest too much.

Following Charter’s about-face, a bomb was dropped (conveniently) late last Friday alleging potentially improper cash and non-cash bonuses paid to Cincinnati Parks Director Willie Carden and longtime #2 Marijane Klug, echoing a previous ethics investigation of the two in 2013. This news raises entirely new issues involving the interplay of a public Parks Board and a private Parks Foundation, issues of transparency and the money being funneled between the two.

Meanwhile, after gathering some extensive journalistic steam in highlighting a number of these ethical irregularities, The Enquirer predictably came out with a tepid and highly nuanced “endorsement” of Issue 22, hedging that the “support comes with several asterisks” and alleging concern over the lack of transparency from the Park Board as well as the lack of public input. It was the paper’s most back-handed endorsement since The Enquirer endorsed John Cranley for Mayor in 2013 while also highlighting his dictatorial tendencies.

Unfortunately, however, we aren’t allowed to vote with an “asterisk” in the ballot box.

Here’s the rub, though. It’s not simply “YES ON ISSUE 22 AT ANY COSTS, DAMN THE CONSEQUENCES.”

We don’t have to prostrate ourselves at the altar of the almighty Issue 22 tax. It is possible to have good government. It is possible to improve our parks. And as Rhoads said, the proposal isn’t perfect. So why is that acceptable?

Parks are something that, in all levels of government, should have the most civic input, not the least. They’re one of our most egalitarian of public functions that everyone should enjoy equally, for the people and to be enjoyed by the people.

Issue 22 proponents seem to have entered into a Faustian bargain in order to get their desired pork barrel project in return, be it Wasson Way or rails-to-trails or a watered down Westwood Town Square traffic circulator.

I guess I’m still waiting for Cincinnati to grow up, to mature. Where we don’t simply accept everything — e.g. the Horseshoe Casino design; remember “Demand Better Cincinnati”? — just to salve our latent insecurities as a city.

We’re better than that, and — notwithstanding the enemy of the good — we should demand as close to perfection as we can get. Our parks and our citizens deserve it.
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Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.