CINCINNATI - A 10-word email sent last week from the Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority's CEO is prompting new questions about whether information is being deliberately concealed from Cincinnati's elected leaders.
As a City Council member, political candidates and the news media began asking for an undisclosed memo from City Hall related to the city's parking lease, bureaucrats behind the scenes were emailing each other about how to delay its release.
The memo was highly critical of a controversial 30-year parking lease narrowly approved by City Council.
One of the people seeking the memo was City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld, who requested it July 10.
In an email sent the same day about Sittenfeld's request, Port Authority President and CEO Laura Brunner wrote, "Can we please wait? How does he know it exists?"
Brunner's email was part of an exchange with City Manager Milton Dohoney Jr.; Odis Jones, the city's trade and development director; and other staffers.
The memo was first revealed publicly July 14 by WCPO Digital. City administrators released a copy the following day, after it and an article appeared on WCPO's website.
"It's very troubling to me that the city administration or the Port Authority would ever willfully try to keep information from me, from any other council member, or from the public," Sittenfeld said.
"My job at City Hall is to represent the voice of citizens, so when they conceal important information from me, they're really keeping it from the public," he added. "A serious culture change is needed to restore trust and transparency."
Councilman Charlie Winburn was more blunt, calling the situation "a scheme of secrecy on the backs of taxpayers."
Brunner: 'Ill-Considered Reply'
Asked about the email Tuesday, Brunner apologized.
"I completely apologize to P.G. Sittenfeld and city elected officials for my ill-considered reply to an email sent to me by Odis Jones July 10 th," Brunner said.
"My intention was to gain understanding of the city's plan for public release of the document written by Walker Parking Consultants," Brunner added. "I just learned of it that day, and wanted the opportunity to share it with the Port Authority board of directors directly, rather than have them learn of it from a news report.
"It was a misguided attempt to coordinate timing of the release of this information, but instead it has caused hurt feelings, for which I am truly sorry," she said.
Read the email exchange ( http://goo.gl/gaMIW):
The Port Authority signed a lease with Cincinnati June 21 to assume management of city-owned parking lots, garages and meters. It has 75 days to finalize the deal's details or back out, if it chooses.
The memo was written by Walker Parking Consultants, which was hired by the city to review the lease. It remained unclear Tuesday how much money the city has paid the firm.
After a six-month review, Walker concluded operating expenses and management fees included in the lease are excessive. Further, it stated a contractor wanted to charge too much for technology upgrades.
Brunner and Dohoney have since said Walker was using outdated and faulty data in its review, adding that terms of the lease have "evolved" since that time.
Some Call To Pull Port Funding
The Port Authority was formed by Cincinnati City Council and Hamilton County commissioners, which allocate taxpayer dollars to help fund its budget.
Also, county commissioners and City Council appoint the Port Authority's board members.
Some lease critics want Hamilton County to pull its funding from the Port Authority.
Although county officials haven't responded to the request, at least one -- County Commissioner Todd Portune -- said the Port Authority is exceeding its mission by becoming involved with the parking lease.
"Repeatedly, over the last year and a half, the Port has either gotten too far afield from its mission and scope, or it has gravitated toward becoming an arm of economic development for the city without regard to its broader role on behalf of the county as a whole," Portune said.
"Never did we authorize, nor did we envision, that the Port would interject itself into politicized issues," he added. "Certainly it was never envisioned that the Port would work to advance issues that lacked the complete consensus of both the city and the county."
Even the lease's strongest supporters on City Council said Dohoney should have disclosed the memo earlier.
Asked if the memo should have been given to council, Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls said, "Yes and with a cover letter from the city administration stating why staff believed the memo to be in error."
"The Port has assembled teams of experts from Cincinnati's most respected firms," Qualls said. "If there are real problems, we will know at the end of the due diligence period."
Still, Qualls believes the lease will be improved before the Port Authority grants final approval.
Under the lease approved by City Council in March, the Port Authority will manage the city's parking meters, lots and garages. The Port, in turn, will hire Xerox Corp. and Denison Parking to oversee daily operations.
Cincinnati will receive an upfront payment of $92 million from the Port Authority once the lease is fully implemented.
Also, the city would get annual payments that would begin at $3 million and gradually increase over time.
Lease supporters have said the deal will give the city much-needed cash to quicken several development projects that will help expand the city's tax base.
Opponents, however, said the lease would cause rate increases and aggressive enforcement that might drive away customers from small businesses.